Historical Cultural Context
Bumper stickers and personalized license plates inscribed “John 3:16” are a common sight on highways across the United States. One can only wonder if the contemporary Christian who proudly broadcasts this heart-warming message (“For God so loved the world ...”) realizes that it reflects only one phase in the life, loves, and hates of the first-century Johannine community.
John’s Gospel expresses both a positive and negative attitude toward the “world.” The positive attitude is clear in today’s passage and elsewhere in the Gospel (Jn 1:29; Jn 4:42; Jn 6:33, 51; Jn 10:36; Jn 12:47; Jn 17:21). Jesus is actually glad to “come into the world” (Jn 6:32; Jn 11:27). He is the “light of this world” (Jn 8:12; Jn 9:5; Jn 12:46) who willingly became human and pitched his tent among us (Jn 1:14).
The negative attitude is actually more common. The world refused to receive Jesus (Jn 1:9-10) and is basically at odds with him (Jn 16:20; Jn 17:14, 16; Jn 18:36) and his Spirit (Jn 14:17; Jn 16:8-11). In fact, the world positively hates Jesus and his followers (Jn 7:7; Jn 15:18-19; Jn 16:20).
In response, Jesus determines to judge the world (Jn 9:39; Jn 12:31) because the sons of darkness live in it (Jn 12:35-36). He prosecutes the world as its judge (Jn 8:21-29). Later, the Paraclete will carry on the formal trial and convict the world of false righteousness, false judgment, and submission to the devil (Jn 16:8-11).
How are we to understand the mixture of these positive and negative attitudes and the coexistence of strong love and deep-rooted hatred in John’s community long after Jesus departed this world? From a historical perspective, scholars acknowledge that John’s community went through stages of development.
In its earliest stage (mid 50s), this community saw the world as a good place but in need of reform. It needed and deserved evangelization. For the most part, Mediterranean Judean believers in Jesus attracted other Mediterranean Judeans to believe in Jesus.
At a slightly later stage (late 80s), some Judean audiences began to turn a deaf ear to the preaching and soon took measures to eject fellow believers in Jesus from the synagogues. This shocking experience stimulated the development of the negative attitude toward the “world.”
In John’s Gospel, chapters 5-12 indicate that the resistant and unbelieving “world” involves “some hostile and disbelieving Judeans.” But chapters 14-17 reflect the period after the break between early Christians and the synagogue. At the same time, some of the Gentiles who joined the community began to disbelieve its claims. They were also included in this negative perception of “the world.”
The Ways of an Antisocial Group
A cultural perspective sheds even additional light on our Johannine ancestors in the faith. The shock of “excommunication” transformed John’s community into an “antisocial group.” This technical term describes a group that sets itself up in a society as a conscious alternative to the larger society.
Social scientists observe that this posture is always transitional (even if the transition takes a couple of hundred years). This group’s use of the word “the world” (seventy-nine times in John compared to nine times in Matthew and three times each in Luke and Mark) is a clear indicator of the “us” versus “them” mentality.
Such peculiar use of language characterizes all antisocial groups. This strategy sharply separates the group from larger society but binds the group members into tight-knit relationships among themselves and with their founder. John uses a wide variety of synonyms to encourage and express this bonding: believing in Jesus; following him; abiding in him; loving him; keeping his word; etc.
As the Johannine scholar Raymond Brown notes; such activity can persuade believers to retreat from “the world” into their warm cocoon of life or inspire them to go forth and evangelize “the world.” He criticizes the former as a “fortress mentality” but warns that the latter is a “naive” view. All believers must come to grips with disagreement and rejection and devise constructive rather than self-defeating responses to both.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University