John 3.17-21

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.

These verses speak of two fairly well understood Christian concepts. The first is that Jesus came into the world in order to save people from sin and death. It is a deep irony that the one of the “tools” used for bringing deliverance from sin was the sinful act of crucifying the innocent Jesus. The Romans wielded the power of the crucifixion but they wielded it without malice. Theirs was not a hate crime; it was an apathy crime. Jesus ended up dead, in any case. (This example brings to mind my skepticism about “hate crimes”. If someone is trying to kill me I’m not overly concerned about their motivation. My assumption is that it is twisted, otherwise he wouldn’t resort to killing in the first place. I’m much more interested in how I feel about it. To be clear, I am opposed.) For the Romans, the murder of Jesus was the sin of expediency. It was the sin of keeping the peace at the expense of justice. Earthly governments are permitted and even approved by God, but their purpose is fundamentally to provide for the fair treatment of the people within their domains. A government that fails to do this is an unfit government. The crucifixion of Jesus stands to remind governments to carefully perform the work to which they have been called. Do not imagine it will go well with the man who “solved” his problems by washing his hands.

But the Romans were not the primary cause of Jesus’ crucifixion. They failed to bear responsibility that was theirs. In contrast, the Jewish religious leaders seized responsibility that was not theirs to take. They chose specifically to murder, acting in clear contradiction to the commands of God, while pretending they were acting in service of God. 

Why did God choose to employ the wickedness of men to accomplish his work of salvation? Once again I am asking a question I am sure I cannot fathom the answer to. The designs of God run deep. But there is something in this we can recognize. God is much more powerful than humans. We cannot fight him. And he is a lot smarter than humans; we cannot outsmart him. The wicked, with the coaching of Satan, imagined they could defeat God by murdering his Son. They did not understand that he was playing a completely different “game” than the one they were playing. They won a game in three dimensions that God was playing in four. They rid themselves of Jesus, only to have the Holy Spirit unleashed on the earth. 

We all are frustrated when we see injustice working against us, or when we see it working against others who have our sympathy. We all are frustrated with pain and suffering. We see these things as reasons to distrust God. But God illustrates through the crucifixion that he despises injustice and suffering, just as we do, and that he is not letting injustice or suffering have their way. He will use them, he is using them to bring about his good purposes. He has also made it plain to us that he prefers holiness. God brings about his good purposes through our acts of wisdom and love, preferably. With these actions he is delighted. 

It’s worthwhile to look at how John looks narrowly at the consequences of sin. He doesn’t speak of punishment, per se, which we will look at in a moment. What he says is that people wrapped up in their own sins will not come into the light. It is as if they have lived in caves all their lives and when someone comes to open a way for them to come out into the sunshine and enjoy the flowers & trees & singing of the birds, they hang back, clinging to the clammy dark. This clinging to darkness suggests an avoidance of truth, as light is typically associated with truth. They are unwilling to expose themselves to the truth. And it suggests that they wish to remain estranged from God himself, as he is the source of all truth. As John describes it here, the punishment of the wicked is that God allows them to possess exactly what they want to possess, according to the limits of their own power. 

More broadly understood, that is, within the context of New Testament teachings, John tells us that whoever does not believe in Jesus stands condemned. All people suffer from “original sin” and are under the curse of death because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. The meaning of this is not that the children(we) are paying for the sins of our ancestors but that we are fundamentally of the same inclination. The test that Adam and Eve failed is a test that all of us would have failed. In fact, we are continually failing similar tests, we continually choose wickedness, sometimes with devastating impact, more often in petty, repetitive ways that destroy like erosion.  

This is what John means when he says that people love the darkness rather than the light. The Apostle Paul spoke at length on the subject: The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1.18-32).

The reality of life on earth is that it ends in death. I don’t think anyone is happy with the fact, though I’ve read many who try to stoically embrace it with oxymoronic statements such as, “That’s life.” This cavalier attitude about death, this fatalism, this acceptance of the inevitability of death has lead to what society is today: a culture of death. “There’s nothing we can do about death so, therefore, nothing can be done.” But God says, “There’s nothing you can do about death, but you’re forgetting about me. Fatal mistake. I can do everything about death. I proved from the beginning that I can bring life out of lifelessness (something that completely baffles human science), and I have proved that I can grant life to one who has died. I am the Lord of life. You prefer to live. Here’s the good news: I also prefer that you live.” 

I’m reminded of a portion out of the book, Watership Down, by Richard Adams, in which a small party of rabbits sets off to find a safe place for a new warren. Along the way they encounter a warren of well-fed domesticated rabbits. The domesticated rabbits are aware that periodically one of their company disappears, never to be seen again. They are aware that this phenomenon is somehow related to their living arrangement, but, for the sake of their comforts, they practice a kind of intellectual suppression. Social policy requires skirting the subject. Certain words have been made taboo. Our travelers sniff out the incongruities and dangers fairly quickly. They resolve to move on and attempt to persuade others to join them. There are a few “converts” but most cling to their physical comforts and their comfortable delusions.

For John, willful blindness is the result of clinging to evil behavior. “I cannot see Christ because, if I did, I know there is so much I love that I would have to leave behind.” When you walk in the downtown areas of big cities you will occasionally come across a homeless hoarder. This person will be bent over, dirty, missing teeth, wearing ten layers of gray clothes, and clutching two shopping carts of…junk. She will not seek the relative comfort of a shelter for fear of another homeless person stealing her “treasures”. You will make a wide birth, not because she seems threatening, but because getting close is an extreme challenge to the olfactory senses. So pathetic. And yet, the paranoia, the self-absorption, and the clinging to trinkets is fundamentally quite normal.

John contrasts this human degeneracy with what happens to those who turn to Christ in faith. Jesus is about truth and goodness and love. To follow him is to embrace his understanding of what it means to live a valuable life. When you live life without committing evil there is nothing for you to be ashamed about. You can live freely. 

It is true, of course, that none of us are without sin. But if we live humbly before God and man, we live with an openness to correction. Correction is never pleasant, but if it leads to greater holiness and goodness, even correction can be welcomed. For the Christian the objective is not to appear to be good, but to be good. The Christian wants to be like Christ—free and living faithfully in all her relationships.