14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him."
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
Having kids with selective hearing is probably not a new scenario to anyone who is a parent, with the possible exception of my own parents (because I never had such a problem). A similar situation has, I'm sure been played out in homes all across the world. I was getting ready to leave for an appointment and my oldest son asked if he could play on his playstation 2 while I was gone. I told him that he could but to make sure that he cleaned up his room and emptied the garbage cans in the house before I got back. Yet somehow, and this might be shocking, when I got home, there he was playing a football game and there the clothes on his floor still were, and sure enough, there were the trash cans still full and sitting there right where they were when I left. How could this be? How could it be that he had heard the part where I said he could play his video games, but missed the parts about cleaning up? The answer, selective hearing. Humans (and this may be a disease that particularly hits the male portions of the human race) have a tendency to hear the parts that we want to hear, embracing them, and conveniently forgetting or just not hearing the parts that we don't like. Sadly, our youngest son seems to have also been born with this potent condition.
Just as surely as humans are prone to selective hearing, we seem also to be susceptible to selective reading. This is especially true of the Bible where people will read verses or passages that they like and simply ignore the ones that they don't. So people latch on to passages that talk about being blessed but ignore when Jesus said that his followers "will have trouble" (John 16:33). Or they cling to Jeremiah 29:11 as a life verse when it says that God has great plans to prosper, but conveniently ignore that within the context of that passage, God is promising His people that they will go into exile and experience difficult times, but that this is all part of His overall plan to bring about the Messiah. John 3 is no exception to the selective reading process. John 3:16 is, perhaps, the most famous verse in our world today and it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful and encouraging passages in the Bible, yet it is part of a larger context. Loving John 3:16 is fine, but it can also be misleading and even dangerous if we don't keep it in context with the rest of this passage. It is still a wonderful promise for those who would believe in the life of Christ, but it also comes with the stern consequences that come with those who do not accept the life of Christ. One cannot be separated from the other without a big misunderstanding of what John is saying.
Jesus combines the imagery of two primary Old Testament passages to demonstrate that he is the one that Nicodemus was searching for. He is the promised Messiah, God's new thing through whom he would fix the problem of sin in the world. The first allusion is to Numbers 21:9 where Moses lifted up an image of a bronze serpent on a cross so that those who would look to it would be saved and not killed. In the same way, he says, the Son of Man must be lifted up. The terminology of the Son of Man comes primarily from Daniel 7:13. The Son of Man was the enigmatic figure in Daniel 7 that was lifted up into the presence of the Ancient of Days and exalted and vindicated as the one with supreme authority over the earth. Jesus, then applies this clearly Messianic title and passage to himself. His point is that only those who recognize him as God's Messiah and look to him for salvation will be saved from death and receive eternal life, which was the life of the age to come as opposed to life in the present age. Eternal life, then, wasn't just something in the future, but was something to be embraced and realized in the present age through the life of the Son of Man.
Surely this salvation is not limited to a certain few or elect individuals but is available to whoever believes. The 64 million dollar question, though, is to whoever believes in what? John (who has almost imperceptibly slipped into his own commentary beginning in verse 16) certainly does not mean mere mental assent to the fact that Jesus existed and was the Messiah of some sort. He means much more than that. In the ancient world true belief in something meant action, and believing in someone meant that you believed in their way of life, that is was correct, and were willing to follow. This tells us that John means that whoever believes in the life of Christ and will take the action to die themselves, will have the eternal life that comes only to those who have crucified their old selves and entered into the life of Christ.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him. You see, Jesus did not come to stand before men, judge them, and cast them into eternal darkness, even though that is often how he is viewed. They were already in darkness. Men don't need to reject Jesus to enter into darkness. God sent Jesus so through him, meaning those who would enter into his life, people would be saved. John has just effectively further explained Jesus' contention that humans must be born again and from above in order to be a part of the kingdom of God. John says that that is absolutely true, and that this birth comes only through him and his life.
The fact that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, teaches us an important truth and distinction when it comes to salvation. We tend to think that people that reject Jesus will go to hell. In fact, that leads many sincere people to become troubled and wonder how that can be, especially for those who may have never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus. What abut them? Although we certainly cannot address that topic in full here, we do see an important truth that John has laid out for us. Those who do not believe in the life of Christ and choose not to enter into it are condemned already. Their condemnation is not a result of rejecting Christ. For Christ is not the issue of condemnation. Rejecting God through sin, and standing in rebellion to him by consistently doing our own will rather than his, is what separates us from God and puts us in a state of condemnation as those who have rebelled against the image of God for which we were made to be. Jesus is the door to salvation, the life of reconciliation, not the source of condemnation. That means that each person who has sinned (and that is, of course, all humans) is already condemned. Jesus is the rescue and those who have not believed in the name (a term that was nearly synonymous with "life") of God's one and only Son will remain in their state of condemnation and rebellion against God.
The final verdict is clear. The true Light has come into the world, but because people loved darkness instead of light, they reject the light and close their eyes until it goes away and they can return to their comfortable existence within the murky darkness. This is because their deeds were evil. It is common in our modern society to begin to feel sorry for those in rebellion against God as though the state they are in is not their fault (that is not to imply that people cause everything evil that might happen to them, of course) as though they are just victims. John, though, says that those who reject the life of Christ do so because they hate the light and will not come into it because they fear that their deeds will be exposed. This means that rejection of God's ways is a decision that every human being has made. Judgment and condemnation are already the fate of every human being. Jesus is not the condemning factor, he is the saving gate. Those who enter into his life will be saved from the judgment that they have already deserved and earned.
Those who really want to find the truth and follow God's ways will find that truth, or as John puts it those who live by the truth, will come into the light. This is basically what Paul says in Romans chs. 1-3 where he says that those who respond humbly to the light of creation (ch. 1) and to the light of conscience (ch. 2) will seek out, be given, and respond humbly to the light of Jesus Christ (ch. 3). People who truly want the lights to come on so that they can see and find the truth rather than continuing to stumble around in the dark, will embrace the light when it comes to them. Those who truly want that truth will not fear the gaze of God for they know that when God looks at those who have entered into the light, He will see Christ, for we have been hidden in Christ when we died to self and took up his life of (Col. 3:3). The light is only a fearful thing, after all, for those who don't desire the truth.
Those who do not yet have the light of Christ are, says John, still in the darkness. Do you know anyone who is in the dark, stumbling around looking frantically for the truth but just cannot seem to find it? Jesus called to be the light of the world, faithfully reflecting the light of Christ to the world. If that is true, then what is the vocation of Christians when we encounter darkness? Are you truly a light shining brightly in the darkness or do you cover the light so that it doesn't shock or offend anyone? Sudden light coming into the darkness can be blinding for a minute, but it is the only way that people will eventually be able to see the truth.