Jesus answered and said to him,”You are the teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things! Amen, amen, I tell you that we are speaking about something we do know, and are giving evidence of something we have seen; and you do not accept our evidence.If you don’t believe when I tell you earthly things, how can you believe when I tell you heavenly things? No one has gone up into heaven except the one who came down from heaven, namely the Humane Ruler. Just as Moses raised up the snake in the desert, in the same way the Humane Ruler must be raised up, so that all who put their trust in him may have the life of the New World.”
“For this is how God loved the world: he gave up the only son he had fathered, so that all who who put their trust in him should not be destroyed, but have the life of the New World. For God did not send his son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be rescued through him.The person who trusts in him is not judged but the person who does not trust is judged already, because he has not put his trust in the name of the only son God fathered. And this is the judgement: the light has come into the world and human beings loved the darkness rather than the light, because their actions were evil. All evildoers hate the light and do not approach the light in case their actions should be exposed. But those who do the truth approach the light, so that it may be evident that their actions have been performed in God.”
This very famous passage presents the reader with a puzzle: if Jesus is speaking, who is designated by the “we” in his second sentence? Many scholars have suggested that this is the voice of the Assembly of Jesus of which the author is a leader, and who identify their mission with that of Jesus. Given the doctrinal nature of what is said, that may very well be the case. I however prefer what will seem a bit outrageous and far-fetched: I think Jesus is speaking on behalf of God. He and his father are the true witnesses of their own mission to rescue the world. As we shall see the issue of “witnesses” recurrs in this gospel and is resolved by the witness the son gives of the Father and the Father of the son.This notion of divine self-witness suits the rest of this passage, and especially the identification of the Humane Ruler as the one who has come from heaven and will return there. It is always good to remember that the author’s “spatial theology” is not to be taken literally.
But what is the point of the comparison with Moses’ bronze snake? Scholars are agreed that a) it is a spatial image of Jesus being raised on a cross (before he is raised from death); and b) that the healing effect of the bronze snake is an inage of the healing brought by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Just so, but this ignores an important aspect of the Moses story: in it, the healing thing is identical with the evil thing; both are snakes.The subtle implication of the Moses’ story is that the people have behaved like snakes and are therefore bitten by snakes. The bronze snake is raised up to remind people of what they are doing to each other, so that they may turn away from it and be healed. In the same way, the author presents the crucified Humane Ruler as a sign of the evil from which human beings must turn, towards God’s healing. Those who put their trust in the crucified Humane Ruler are raised with him into the life of the New World. This last phrase is my translation of the Greek “zoe aionion”, literally the “life of the aeons” usually translated “eternal or everlasting” life. I prefer to keep the reference to the Jewish and Christian belief in the “age to come”, the good age. The author of this gospel has a distinctive view of the “age to come” which he develops over the course of his story. At present, the raising of the Ruler and the New World in which he rules are only hints, but they are in this passage sharply characterised over against more traditional notions of his rule.
His presence in the world, and his being “raised” through suffering to heaven, are acts of God’s love rather than his judgement; indeed they are the content of God’s love, which is not primarily an emotion, but the act of giving up his son for the sake of the world. His presence in the world is God’s persuasion of human beings to trust the light of his truth rather than the comfortable darkness in which their evil can be concealed. The choice however remains with humanity; people can choose to approach the light in Jesus, or to hide from it. Those who try to live by justice and goodness will choose the light which is the source of justice and goodness.Those who desire injustice and evil will be afraid of the light and choose the darkness. This, according to the author, is the judgement: in the face of God’s love in Jesus people judge themselves by the choices they make.
These verses are so familiar that it is difficult to appreciate what a radical view of God’s rescuing love they articulate.
There is no sense in which the author presents Jesus as God’s plan B: He is the creative wisdom of God made flesh, the purpose of creation made real in a human animal. Although he is in the world, he is not of the world and continues always to dwell in God, who loves him as a son but has given him up to the world and for the world. The pain of giving him up is the measure of God’s love for the world.
There is no condemnation in this love; people condemn themsleves if they choose darkness rather than light; unreality rather than truth. God’s love in Jesus is promiscuously offered, freely to all. But it is also utterly specific; it is offered IN JESUS. Those who practically reject Jesus are choosing darkness and in danger of missing the life of the New World. I say “practically” meaning a rejection of Jesus in mindset and behaviour rather than stated belief. Theologians can get complicated about the choice of darkness, but if human beings are capable of knowing those who desire good and those who desire evil, we shouldn’t think God is stupider than we are. Irenaeus, the first theologian, pointed out that God’s love means he will not compel obedience from the unwilling: “He will leave them in the darkness they have chosen.” There will always be people who have nothing but scorn for the creative wisdom, the lamb of God, and the humane ruler. They may imagine they are the realists of the world, unconvinced by spurious moralities. In fact, according to this gospel they are self -deceived and living in unreality. Those who trust in Jesus, the Humane Ruler, are able to act according to reality, in the biblical expression they “do the truth”. The Greek word “aletheia” usually
translated “truth” means UNconcealment, the revelation of what has been hidden by the darkness of evil. . The person who puts her trust in Jesus is able to act realistically, that is, in accordance with the way things are.This one of the gifts of God’s rescue.