here). The Young Adults Bible study group I lead is reading the gospel of John this year, and I have been having my own adventures in New Testament Greek as I prepare for our meetings and reread this so-very-rich gospel. On my new ipad I have access now to the Greek text and a Greek-English study dictionary- and just enough New Testament Greek to be able to follow up on my literary instincts when I wonder "what was that word in the original." (I've basically had a semester of seminary level NT Greek -- a few years back -- see my post about that here).
There are a lot of important "key" words in the gospel of John -- including many that have become almost jargon for readers of the Bible and church people -- light and darkness, believing, being born again, seeing the light or not. Staying with some of these words (and I may come back to this in future blog posts -stay tuned) has helped me as I reread this gospel deeply and prayerfully, letting it "speak" to me imaginatively, and paying attention to the words. All of this is opening new doors for me.
A good example is the word "believe" --which has become kind of a slogan in fundamentalist circles "John 3:16" gets held up on signs at football games as a kind of inside code or rallying cry for evangelicals and it IS, arguably, the heart of the gospel. But what does it mean. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." That "whosoever believeth" has too often been an entry into the perilous territory of "well, what happens to those who don't believe, or what happen to me if I stop believing -- and does that mean if I don't agree with you I'm going to hell. And how can anyone believe any of this" and . . . well, you know. It's a rabbit hole.
But looking at the words more closely gets us to a very different, freer, understanding -- supporting what Sam Lloyd, former dean of Washington National Cathedral, has called "a generous and open-hearted Christian faith." Here's how this passage speaks to me, paying attention to the words. To me the heart of this is the love part -- God loved the world the Greek verb there, "agapein" is about the kind of love that knits together families and communities (not so much a sacrificial, costly love that creates an obligation for us, though that's in the mix -- but "agape" is about passionate, faithful relationship, a love that reaches out and awakens our willing response and knits us together, creating community and mutuality). So this is a God who wants to connect with us -- to be in relationship with the world - and Jesus, the "Son," -- especially in this gospel -- is all about that relationship. He keeps inviting people to "come and see" for themselves. (See for example John 1:39 - more on this perhaps in a later post).
The word "believe," as in the King James "whosoever believeth," has tripped us up in fights about who is a "Bible believing Christian" and who isn't. But if you look at the way the word is used throughout John it really seems to a disposition of the heart quite different from "belief" in a set of propositions. The Greek verb "pisteuo", translated "I believe" really means
something closer to "I have faith in", "I trust" -- related to the
adjective "pistis" meaning faithful, loyal. It's about a human
relationship, not about assent to propositions.
So when I say I "believe" in the gospel, it's not about insisting that this or that event actually happened, historically, exactly and verifiably as described, or even about fussing over what Jesus did or did not "actually say." (Actually John 3:16 is one of the passages where scholars disagree about whether these are meant to be the words of Jesus or an commentary by the evangelist -- but either way, they invite us into the good news if we want to pay attention). Rather, it's about setting my heart to the truth that the stories point to. When I come to something I stumble over on the literal level, rather than dispute about what's factual, I try to pay attention to what's true. I ask "what is this saying to me?" what else is here? why were we given this passage, this story? This is a way of reading Scripture that takes the Bible very seriously, without taking it literally. Indeed, to take the gospel of John literally, i.e., according to the "letter" of the King James version, as many fundamentalist traditions have done, is to miss a lot of the wisdom in this gospel. In John, Jesus is all about inviting people to "come and see" for themselves -- to be in relationship with him, to walk alongside him, really, to imagine God as a human being who desires to be in a good and right relationship with us. So I like better the versions that translate "to believe" so that it's "come to believe" or "come to have faith in" or even "come to know". It's about experiencing a God who is engaged with our humanity and desires our transformation. Reading the text of John with that in mind opens a lot of new doors.
Every translation of course is an interpretation, but here's my translation/interpretation/testimony about John 3:16, with my very elementary Greek and my experience of this gospel fully in play. "The God of Scripture is a God who is so passionately engaged with the world, who so loves us, God's chidlren and creatures, that God became one of us, fully sharing our whole human experience warts and all, so that in the process of coming to know Him, we might know what fullness of life really is, beginning now." The more I read and reread this gospel, the more I come to see that it's about growing into relationship with God, in and through this life, and about an eternal life that is not in some far away place, but beginning here and now. And the more I read the more my own faith is deepened -- and this is what "coming to believe" is all about.
The lens I'm bringing here is consistent with contemporary thinkers who say that Jesus is a "Wisdom teacher" -- (see for example Cynthia Bourgeault's The Wisdom Jesus) -- that is, his teaching invites a response of the heart and a transformation of life, more than an assent to propositions. The more I "get" this, the more excited I become about what I am learning, re-reading this gospel.