Historical Cultural Context
The World’s Darkness
One familiar sign waved by spectators at sports events in hopes that television cameras will transmit their message is: “John 3:16.” A favorite of many Christians, this verse states: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Context of the Gospel
Torn from its context (the entire Gospel of John and the Johannine community), this verse presents a heartwarming thought. The fuller literary context, as reported in today’s reading, darkens the picture: “people loved darkness rather than light” (Jn 3:19).
For John, the term “world” carries a negative meaning.
The world is at odds with Jesus (Jn 16:20; 17:14, 16; 18:36) and with his Spirit (14:17; 16:8-11). Worse, it hates Jesus and those who believe in and follow after him (Jn 7:7; 15:18-19; 16:20). That the inhabitants of the world preferred darkness to light earns them the name “children of darkness” (Jn 12:35-36). For this reason, Jesus refuses to pray for the world; instead, he defeats the world (Jn 16:33).
Contemporary Christians, like those who wave the “John 3:16” signs at sporting events, ought to heed the caution of the eminent Johannine scholar Raymond Brown, against the naiveté that this passage sometimes engenders. The world is not exclusively neutral, nor is it patiently awaiting good news. There are many who are actively hostile to Jesus, to Christianity and its message. Encountering the disbelief of the “world” was a shocking experience for the Johannine Christians. This knowledge should help their contemporary descendants to be forewarned and forearmed.
Context of John 3
Today’s verses are selected from a more extensive discussion that Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “ruler” or “religious authority” among the Judeans of the house of Israel.
He was attracted to Jesus, but approaching him at night suggests that Nicodemus was trying to hide his interest (Jn 3:2). Anyone at all familiar with the nosey Mediterranean world where privacy is practically nonexistent can sympathize with Nicodemus’ strategy to protect his reputation, his honor. Once ruined or lost, a reputation or honor cannot be regained.
But the discussion reported and interpreted by John runs in a circle because of Nicodemus’ apparent failure to understand Jesus’ use of a Greek word with two meanings: “again” and “from above” (Jn 3:3-9). Nicodemus typifies many who came to Jesus but had difficulty understanding him at first. Some never understood him (see Jn 2:23-25).
To his credit, though, Nicodemus seems to have pondered and perhaps even pursued his interest in Jesus further, no doubt in discussion with others in typically Mediterranean, group-centered fashion. Later in the Gospel (Jn 7:37-44), Jesus’ statements in the Temple prompt a divided response in his audience. Some believe in him, and others want to arrest him.
The chief priests and Pharisees are disappointed and taunt and insult the Temple police for not arresting Jesus. At this moment, Nicodemus exposes himself to shame by defending Jesus’ right to a hearing (Jn 7:50-51). Shame is not long in coming: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” ask his fellow Pharisees derisively. Nicodemus the night visitor has now gone one step further, to daytime defender of Jesus, at least indirectly.
The final appearance of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel makes his spiritual journey appear to be complete. When Jesus dies, Nicodemus comes forward publicly with myrrh and aloes to anoint the body. He joins Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus who feared the Judeans, and both of them see to the burial of Jesus’ corpse (Jn 19:38-42).
This final appearance of Nicodemus illustrates John 3:14: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” and John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Lent is an opportune time to redirect one’s path to Jesus.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University