16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
Translation: And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the son of man to be lifted up so that all the ones trusting in him might have life eternal, for, in this way, God loved the cosmos, so that he gave the only-begotten son so that all the ones trusting in him might not be lost but might have life eternal.
For God did not send the son into the cosmos in order to judge the cosmos but so that the cosmos might be saved through him. The ones trusting in him are not judged, but the ones not trusting already have been judged because they have not trusted into the name of the only-begotten son of God.
But this is the judgment: that the light has come into the cosmos and the people loved the darkness more than the light for their works were evil. For all the ones doing evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their works might not be exposed. But the ones doing the truth come to the light so that their works might be revealed that in God it is being done.
Background and situation: The fourth gospel compares Jesus being "lifted up" to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21: 4-9). Where the serpent in the wilderness brings life," the son of man's "lifting up" will go the serpent one better and bring "life eternal."
The lection is the major portion of the dialog with Nicodemus (3: 1-21), a pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a Greek name, probably Naqdimon in Hebrew. "Nicodemus" means "peoples' victory."
As a pharisee, Nicodemus would have been in the minority faction. In the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was dominated by Sadducees. (About two-thirds of the Sanhedrin was Sadducee and one-third pharisee.)
At the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, however, the pharisees were the only major faction left. The Sadducees were no more, having fallen with the Temple in AD 70.
Confronting the dark side: Christians generally associate serpents with evil, probably because of our primordial fear of snakes and because the serpent beguiled Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
In many cultures, however, the serpent is not a personification of evil, but rather a symbol of immortality or the main concerns of the unconscious. If you're dreaming, let's say, and a serpent appears with something to say, it is thought to be a message from your unconscious about a concern that needs to be addressed in your life.
In the Numbers passage, the Lord God instructs Moses to place a serpent on a pole. The very nemesis of the people, the one that had been afflicting them, is to be "placed" and "looked upon." This, in turn, brings "life."
This is an encouragement to confront the "dark side." Look at that very thing which causes you pain. Comprehend the "shadow" side of reality. Healing comes when the "shadow" is recognized, acknowledged, and integrated into the whole of one's personality. As Carl Jung put it, "One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making darkness conscious."
Conversely, failure to confront the "shadow" results in a one-dimensional personality that is cut off from its unconscious energy and clueless about its own motivations and desires. Confronting the "shadow" is a difficult psychological manuever, but one that is necessary in order to add depth to the personality and harness the unconscious in the service of healthy development of the ego. This is how engaging the "shadow" serves the cause of healing.
Likewise, the serpent of Moses, an agent of illness, when "looked" upon becomes an agent of healing. This perspective is represented in Greek religion as well. The rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, is a snake entwined around a staff, still the symbol of medicine today.
The serpent as a symbol of healing also appears in the apocryphal literature of the early church (Acts of John). In the story of the Chalice of St. John, the apostle was condemned to die by drinking poison from the chalice. Just before he drank, the poison left the chalice in the form of a snake, and St. John was able to drink safely.
"Lifting up" in the fourth gospel: In the Numbers passage, both the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament say that Moses "placed" the serpent on the pole. The fourth gospel deliberately changes this to "lifted up." This text is the first of three "lifted up" passages In the fourth gospel. (The others are 8: 28, and 12: 32.)
Where the synoptics prefer a three-fold passion prediction where Jesus will "undergo great suffering and be killed," the fourth gospel prefers a three-fold "lifting up." The synoptics accent the suffering of Jesus. The fourth gospel emphasizes the healing aspect of the crucifixion of Jesus, the purpose of which is to "draw all" to him (12:32).
The reason for all of this is because of God's great love for "the universe"--kosmou, the entire created order. This is not a general attitude or feeling of God, but rather love expressed and done in a certain and particular way; "God so loved" means that God loved in a certain way--(houto, in this manner).
That certain way is that he "gave the only-begotten son" to be "lifted up" on the cross for the salvation of the world. This is how God loves the world. This action of love by God will be later contrasted with the evil acts of those who "loved the darkness more than the light" (3:19).
God did not send the son to judge (krinei) the world. The basic sense of krinei is to separate or distinguish--to "judge" in the sense of critiquing or drawing comparisons, both favorable and unfavorable. It is not, in other words, necessarily a condemning action, but more a discerning one. (As Brian Stoffregan notes, if the fourth gospel had meant "judging" as "condemnation," it likely would have used a different word, katakrino.)
In sending Jesus, the whole purpose of God was to "save" the cosmos (3:17). Jesus was not sent for the purpose of judging or condemning, but rather to bring healing and life. (Its use in 3:17 is the only time sozo--"save"--appears in the fourth gospel.)
Son of man: The phrase "son of man" or "human one"--ho huios tou anthropou--appears 69 times in the synoptics, 14 times in the fourth gospel, once in Acts, and twice in Revelation. It appears not at all in the epistles of Paul. The expression has its most direct root in the "son of man" figure of Daniel (7:13ff.) The Hebrew phrase upon which it is based, the phrase likely uttered by Jesus, is bar nasha.
Psychologically, "son of man" or "human one" can be seen as an archetype, i.e. a typical and universal pattern. The "human one"--the bar nasha--would mean the one immersed in the total experience of the legendary human being. It represents our complete humanity, and that within us which leads us toward ego maturity.
Themes of light and dark: Consistent with the themes of light and darkness in chapter one, the fourth gospel again says "that the light has come into the cosmos and the people loved the darkness more than the light." How can he say this? Because "their works were evil."
Contrast these "evil works" of those not trusting in Jesus with God's "work" of "love" for the entire cosmos in verse 16. In the midst of all the talk about peoples' love for the darkness, it is well to keep in mind God's unconditional act of love.
The "light" and "darkness" of the fourth gospel are not meant literally, but rather as spiritual truths. "Light" is associated with joy and good, "darkness" with misery and evil. In contrast to God's love for the cosmos, human beings "love" darkness and evil. The Greek word here, translated as "evil," is ponerou; that is, evil as a principle, and one that is active in the world.
The reason human beings "love" darkness and evil is because we do not want our deeds to be known--"For all the ones doing evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their works might not be exposed." We do not want to our actions to be "brought to light" because we don't want our complicity in evil to be known.
Nevertheless, "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world (1:9)." Evil will be exposed as well as our complicity in it. All this, however, is in the service of life. The one who judges us is also the one who loves us the most, whose desire is not death but life, and whose good "work" is that of loving the world.