Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we need to “smudge” ourselves with “the hard complexities of the world.” Jean Bethke Elshtain reminds us that Bonhoeffer wrestled with “the problem of dirty hands.” She wrote:
This morning I am drawn to the popular 3:16 verse of John’s Gospel:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Mostly, we read John 3:16 without much contemplation or connection to where the verse sits in John’s narrative. We simply wretch it out of its place and attach it to those sinners outside the church. This is a Billy Graham verse to move the crowds of the unsaved to a personal decision for Jesus. The words of John 3:16 are the content of a Christian evangelistic tract to make it easier for us to “witness” to total strangers, asking, “Are you going to heaven or to hell?” John, the apostle condemned to die in a vat of boiling oil and when he would not die, banished to a desert island because of the testimony of Jesus (Rev 1:9)—this John--however, did not record these words for “the sinner,” but for the church to get their hands a little dirty.
John 3:16 is hinged on an Old Testament story (John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:4-9) where the people of Israel had complained about God’s provisions and rebelled against the original windy Spirit who led them into a dangerous place, and, then, how God sent poisonous snakes to kill off the rebels. (How dare he; God is love—no, he is also messy and holy and like that windy Spirit that does whatever it wants.) Snakes. It’s now more of a dangerous place to which the Israelites had gotten themselves into. And they wanted out. The only way: cry for help and repent. The only means: Live with the snakes, but trust a bronze snake statute to cure the poisonous bite. Just look at the raised symbol made of bronze and you will be saved.
This is the connection of John 3:16, the place where, amid the rebellion, we find our own way home, our own salvation as a church. John 3:16 reminds the complaining insiders (here at church) that God saves sinners—even those rebellious, stiff-necked, outsiders, for it is “whosoever” believes (and that can be scary, even dangerous for a church). There goes that windy Spirit again, blowing down and on wherever it so desires. We can’t choose the “whosoever.” But our own—our own church’s—rebellion against God is often seen in our refusal to identify with the messy places God’s Spirit chooses to blow us. For, we see in the next chapter (John 4) that the windy Spirit blows Jesus right into dirty territory, filled with outsiders, to talk specifically to a whoring, half-breed Samaritan woman (the truly marginalized of Jesus’ day). That windy Spirit, with the news of God’s love, has the habit of showing up in all the wrong places. If we truly believe what John 3:16 says, we will accept that that windy Spirit might put us in places where are hands might just have to get dirty, with and among some very messy "whosoever."
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.