Today’s reading is John 3:1-21 (NABRE):
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be amazed that I told you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, “How can this happen?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not understand this? 11 Amen, amen, I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony. 12 If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. 21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
In my senior year of high school, my AP English teacher assigned a project called “60 Second Hamlet.” With the class having finished Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the assignment required each student to condense the play into approximately thirty-five lines. What I thought would be an easy assignment soon turned into a near all-nighter as I found myself basically re-reading the entire play. The challenge was in knowing which lines to include and exclude while still maintaining the play’s original essence.
What does 60 Second Hamlet have to do with today’s passage from the Gospel of John? Today’s passage is the first discourse (John 3:11-15) by Jesus to appear in the Gospel. Jesus’ dialogue with the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, is followed by a monologue in which Jesus informs Nicodemus that “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This first discourse is then followed by a short reflection (John 3:16-21) by John, the Gospel’s author. The beginning of this reflection is perhaps one of the most-quoted verses in the entire Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). In reading today’s passage, I am reminded of the 60 Second Hamlet assignment, because I am certain that, if I were assigned to compile a “60 Second Bible,” I would definitely include John 3:16 as one of my thirty-five verses. In fact, I would venture to say that nearly every Christian would include this verse in his “60 Second Bible.”
What makes John 3:16 so central to the Bible message, particularly that of the New Testament, and to Christianity more generally? For one thing, the verse gives us an idea of what authentic, unconditional love is. I will never be capable of loving as authentically and unconditionally as God loves each of us, but John 3:16 provides me with some sense of the type of love that I should be striving to show each day of my life. Second, the verse reminds us that it is a belief in Jesus as the Son of God that allows us eternal life in Heaven when our earthly lives come to an end. Putting these two ideas together gives us an outcome to look forward to (eternal life), a means by which to achieve this outcome (belief in Jesus as the Son of God), and a way to demonstrate this means (showing authentic and unconditional love just as Jesus did).
How can we further reflect on the elegance of John 3:16 this Lent? For myself, I will copy down this verse and display it somewhere that I am sure to see it multiple times each day. Through a more constant exposure to this single verse, I hope to simplify what I, as a Christian, believe. I hope to simplify how I communicate my Christian beliefs to others. If you are curious about the Christian faith and ask me to tell you one thing about it, I would undoubtedly quote John 3:16. If you could know only one thing about the beliefs of Christianity it ought to be that “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16). While I know that I would struggle in compiling a 60 Second Bible, as I did in compiling a 60 Second Hamlet, I also know that I would be unwavering in my decision to include John 3:16.
Marina Spinelli ’18 is a Junior in Eliot House studying Human Evolutionary Biology.