Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 3.14-21
4th Sunday in Lent - Year B

Other texts: 

John 3:14-21 should not be studied separately from vv. 1-13. They are all part of one scene within the gospel. In spite of this, the text is divided up three different ways in the RCL with portions of John 3:1-21 assigned to four different festivals.

One way these verses are connected is the double "We know," uttered by Zachaeus in v. 2 and by Jesus in v. 11. The first person plural, "we," indicates that both are representing groups -- perhaps the distinction between Jewish and Christian leaders, perhaps the subtle difference between thinking that Jesus is just a "teacher who has come from God" or that Jesus is the one who has "descended from heaven," who will be "lifted up," and through believing him one has eternal life -- the difference between Jesus as a human teacher or the divine savior.


Just has there are intended double meanings for "anothen" = "from above" or "again" (vv. 3, 7), and for "pneuma" = "wind" or "spirit" (vv. 5-6, 8) so there is with "hypsoo" = "lift up" or "exalt" (v. 14). We need to hold both meanings together simultaneously.

Using the analogy from Numbers 21:9 about solutions to a problem, we have this scheme:




Numbers 21:9

serpent on pole

serpents on the ground

John 3:14-15

human on a pole

humans on the ground?

If the solution in Numbers was a snake raised up on a pole -- because the problem was poisonous serpents on the ground; so in John if the solution is a human (the Word made flesh) on a pole, the problem must be the humans on the ground. Our problem is that we are human, so a human-being had to be lifted up on the pole (and Christ's divinity makes the effect last for eternity), so that we might look at him and live -- as the ancient Israelites look to the serpent on the pole and were cured from their poisonous bites.

Lucy once said to Charlie Brown, "Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?" "You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!"

Charlie asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?"

Lucy answers, "I don't pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble!"

The symbol of Jesus on a pole indicates that the problem with us is us -- and that Jesus is the solution. However, another conversation between Lucy and Charlie Brown indicates another part of the problem/solution.

Lucy speaks, "You know what the whole trouble with you is, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie answers, "No, and I don't want to know! Leave me alone!" He walks away.

Lucy shouts after him, "The whole trouble with you is you won't listen to what the whole trouble with you is!"

The solution begins with listening. If "you" are the problem, "you" can't be the solution. The solution has to come from outside yourself.


Often, rather than admitting, "I am the problem," we are more likely to confess that a few bad deeds are the problem: "I've lied, so I'd better stop lying." "I stole a comic book and I'd better stop doing that." "I was driving to fast and I'll try to keep my speed down." Whenever the problem is defined as doing something bad, the solution is simply to stop doing that bad deed -- or start doing good deeds. Salvation becomes nothing more than doing good things and avoiding the bad. Such a solution doesn't need Jesus -- or Jesus simply becomes a model of doing the right things. This watered-down, cheap salvation comes about when we don't see that we are the problem. The problem is not the things we do; but that we are us -- sinful human beings.

In Numbers, we aren't told if the poisonous serpents disappear, only that God provided a way for those who had been bitten by the serpents to live.

By analogy, Jesus being lifted up/exalted on a cross, doesn't take away our human sinfulness, but through him God provides a way for those "bitten" by sin to live eternally.


A unique contrast is presented in these verses:

practicing ("prasso" present tense) evil ("phaugos")

doing ("poieo" present tense) the truth ("aletheia")

The same two verbs are used in 5:29: "...those who have  done  ["poieo"] good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have  done  ["prasso"] evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." Here their objects are "good" and "evil" (same word as in 3:20), which are more likely contrasts than "evil" and "truth".

The word for "evil" ("phaulos") is fairly rare in the NT (6 occurrences -- twice in John -- 3 times it is contrasted with "agathos" = "good" Jo 5:29; Ro 9:11; 2C 5:10). My classical Greek lexicon it has these meanings, which might suggest many other types of things we shouldn't be "practicing":

1. a. light, easy, slight, trifling
    b. trivial, paltry, petty, sorry, bad

2. a. of persons: low in rank, mean, common; the vulgar, the uneducated
    b. of outward appearance: ugly, mean-looking
    c. careless, thoughtless

BDAG gives the meanings:

  1. pert. to being low-grade or morally substandard, base
  2. pert. to being relatively inferior in quality, ordinary


Many years ago, Mike Yaconelli, wrote an article called "The Tyranny of Trivia" in The Wittenburg Door, Number 82/DECEMBER 1984 JANUARY 1985. Could his insights be part of our "practicing the evil"?

There is something wrong with the organized church. You know it. I know it. We all see that something is wrong -- drastically wrong. Just one semi-close look at the organized church -- with its waning influence, its corruption, and its cultural impotence -- tells us that something has gone awry. But, the question is, what has gone awry? What is wrong? 

I think I know. 

The problem with the church is not corruption. It is not institutionalism. No, the problem is far more serious than something like the minister running away with the organist. The problem is pettiness. Blatant pettiness. 

Visit any local church board meeting, and you will be immediately shocked by the sheer abundance of pettiness. The flower committee chairman has decided to quit because someone didn't check with her before they put flowers on the altar last Sunday. The Chairman of the Board is angry because a meeting was held without his knowledge. One of the elders is upset with the youth director because the youth director wants to take the church youth group to a secular Rock concert. The Woman's Kitchen committee is up in arms because, at the last youth group meeting (which has mushroomed from 15 kids to 90 kids in six months), the kids took some sugar from the kitchen. The janitor is threatening to quit because the youth group played a game on the grass over the weekend, and now the lawn needs extra work. 

I can understand each and every one of the gripes mentioned above. I also understand that the same general argument is always made for each one of these gripes:

If you don't have order, you have chaos. It sounds like a little thing, but if everyone was allowed to do "____," think what that would mean.

Ah, yes, think what it would mean. What would it mean? Probably nothing. And yet, in every church in this country, boards, ministers, and church members -- in the name of "what would this mean?" -- are running around trying to answer that very question. In other words, churches are so preoccupied with the petty, they can't spend the time required to do what does matter. So, I would like to say what people in church leadership are apparently having a difficult time saying today: There is no excuse for pettiness in the Church. Pettiness should have no place at all in any church for any reason. 

Petty people are ugly people. They are people who have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn't matter. The result is that the rest of us are immobilized by their obsession with the insignificant. It is time to rid the church of pettiness. It is time the Church refused to be victimized by petty people. It is time the Church stopped ignoring pettiness. It is time the Church quit pretending that pettiness doesn't matter. 

Pettiness is a cancer that has been allowed to go undetected; a molehill that has been allowed to become a mountain. Pettiness has become a serious disease in the Church of Jesus Christ -- a disease which continues to result in terminal cases of discord, disruption, and destruction. Petty people are dangerous people because they appear to be only a nuisance instead of what they really are -- a health hazard. 

The most basic result of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives is our deliverance from the sin of pettiness. It really is true that, in Jesus, we are freed from the bondage of the insignificant and let loose from the tyranny of the trivial.

Could "pettiness" fall under the definition of phaulos -- something of low-grade, inferior in quality?

Whatever phaulos means, it is contrasted with aletheia, "truth".


What is "doing the truth?" In our text, it means coming to the light, letting one's deeds be exposed by the light, letting the source of one's deeds be known (God or self?).

Perhaps in contrast to the classical meaning of "phaulos" and Yaconelli's article, "aletheia" could refer to things that are "truly" important.

The "truth" about humanity is that we are sinners -- which is more than just committing sins. I've heard the difference described as sin is the virus that permeates our being which results in different symptoms of sins.

When I worked as a chaplain at an alcoholic hospital, I would go through the 12-steps of AA with the clients. The steps begin with admitting the truth about oneself -- to stop living a lie. I am powerless over alcohol (or narcotics or overeating or sin). Part of the truth seeking is admitting, "I am an alcoholic." The problem is not just the act of drinking too much, but who one is. In this hospital, the "cure" was more than just getting clients to stop drinking or drugging. The therapy also involved exposing and dealing with other character defects and attitudes that contributed to the drinking or drugging. Some drink because that is their way of dealing with guilt or depression or worries, etc. Situations that lead to those feelings will still be present when they stop drinking. Part of their therapy is to learn new ways of dealing with those situations and feelings. Part of the "cure" is helping clients change their perceptions about themselves -- could that be called a "conversion"?

Truth ("aletheia") is a common word in John.

Often "truth" is related to word(s), which leads to the next section.


The verb "pisteuo" = "to believe, to trust" occurs seven times in 3:1-21. Five of those are present tense (vv. 12, 15, 16, 18, 18); once is future (v. 12), and once is perfect (v. 18), which implies a past action that continues into the present.

In Greek, the present tense denotes continual action, e.g., "keep on believing," "continue to believe." Believing is not like a hoop that one jumps through and gets to the other side; but more like entering a long journey through a tunnel.

Believing is related to one's relationship to what has been said (see 3:12). We can either believe that the words are true or not believe them -- in essence calling the speaker a liar.

Believing results in 

Not believing results in 


Although the NRSV uses the word "condemn" in vv. 17-18, the basic meaning of the Greek "krino" is "to separate, divide." Then it came to mean: "to pick out, choose, decide;" then "to judge" (both favorable and negatively -- i.e., "to critique"). From that, it can mean "to judge negatively" -- i.e., "to condemn." However, there is a word, katakrino, that clearly means "to judge negatively," or "to condemn".

There is a "separation," but it is created by believing or not believing. I think this may be similar to the process of removing inactive members. The congregation council is given the task of moving "active" members to an "inactive" list. However, is it really the council who does this, or the member who is inactive? The council, as I look at it, is simply being honest. The truth is, those members have "separated" themselves from the "congregation" (lit. "those who have gathered together") by their actions of not gathering together with them. They make themselves inactive. The council just states the obvious. This same idea is in the Greek word, ekklesia, for "church" or "assembly". It referred only to those who had assembled. Those who stayed home or went somewhere else were not part of the ekklesia.

Although I don't think that it is as true as it used to be, over 20 years ago a group of pastors had a conversation about church with four young adults (early 20's) who were going through alcohol rehab. Every one of these young adults had experienced the church as a place of judgment. They felt the judgment through looks and/or comments that indicated that others didn't like the length of their hair or the style of clothing they were wearing. Congregations can be very judgmental institutions -- which according to this text, is not Jesus' job -- nor should it be ours. (Paul does talk about judging other church members, but that's a different text and situation.)


The contrast of "krino" = "to judge / to condemn" in v. 17 is "sozo" = "to save". The basic meaning of "sozo" is "to rescue from danger and to restore to a former state of safety and well being" [Louw & Nida]. What is the danger that is facing the "kosmos" (see comments below on "kosmos")? From what is Jesus saving the "kosmos". It could mean that Jesus rescues us from the coming judgment. It could mean that he rescues us from the punishment that we would deserve from that judgment.

Says one: "Ouch! One of those poisonous serpents just bit me."

Says a judger: "How could you be so stupid to let one of those serpents bite you?"

Says a savior: "Let me help you look at the bronze serpent on the pole."


John 3:15 is the first time "eternal life" is used in the gospel. Every time the phrase is used in John, it is with a present tense verb -- usually "have". It is something believers have now, and perhaps should be translated "unending life". It begins now and lasts forever. Just what is "eternal life"? O'Day in the New Interpreter's Bible writes:

"Eternal life" is one of the dominant metaphors in the Fourth Gospel to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus (e.g., 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 17:4). To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (cf. 1:13). "Eternal" does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God. To speak of the newness available to the believer as "eternal life" shifts eschatological expectations to the present. Eternal life is not something held in abeyance until the believer's future, but begins in the believer's present [p. 552].

THE WORLD ("kosmos")

This word in John often refers to the "people associated with a world system and estranged from God" (Louw & Nida).

And yet it is the "world" that God loves (3:16) 

I think that Paul says much the same thing when he writes: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Ro 5:8).

The truth is

  1. we are sinners, estranged from God
  2. we are loved by God
  3. Christ died for us = was lifted up on a pole
  4. those who believe, have eternal life
  5. those who don't believe, have separated themselves from this life

Three years ago the theme for the Lutheran World Federation's Assembly was: "Making Christ Known: For the Healing of the World." I choose John 3:16-17 as the gospel text for our synod's opening worship because of the phrase: "so that the world might be saved through him." Sozo, besides being translated "to save," is often translated "to heal," (Mt 9:22; Mk 5:23 28; 3:4; 6:56; 10:52; Lk 8:36, 48; 17:19). We could translate that phrase: "so that the world might be healed through him." With that image, we might talk about what sicknesses are afflicting the world.

While there is some profit in reading John 3:16 individually, i.e., "For God so loved me ...," there is also a danger in this. We might consider ourselves the privileged people, and others as God's enemies. Douglas John Hall in the chapter, "Why Church?" in the book, Why Christian? talks about the necessity of the church for its "necessary" mission to the world. He writes:

Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions (some would claim that Judaism is one of them) that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledging bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is "sent out" (that is what the word apostle means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being because of love for ... the world.

That is a very important thing to remember when it comes to asking about "the others." the object of God's love, according to biblical faith, is not first of all the church; it is the world: "God so loved the cosmos ..." (John 3:16, not accidentally, I think, that is the single best known verse of the newer testament). The church is only a means to the end, not the end as such. The end -- the goal that this faith envisages -- is the "salvation" of the world (using "salvation" in the way we spoke of it earlier, that is, God wants to make the world whole, to fulfill its promise, to "mend" its torn and tattered life). [pp. 138-139]

If "God so loved the world" is about me, it's about me in relationship to the world that is loved. How will I as a child of this God, relate to the world -- its people, its resources, etc.?

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901