This entry was posted on Monday, March 16th, 2015 at 12:24 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
That the World Might Be Saved
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 15, 2015
Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
John 3:17 is one of my favorite Bible passages. It reads, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This is the Jesus I believe in and the one whom I love. This is the loving Jesus, the saving Jesus, the Jesus who dedicated His whole life to serving and saving humanity.
Unfortunately, just before this lovely verse is one that has caused much harm and misunderstanding in the history of Christianity. That verse is the infamous John 3:16. Conservative Christians who know little about the Bible seem to know this one verse well and have committed it to memory and heart. That one verse reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Conservative Christians—and there are a lot of them—take this to mean that Jesus saves. Not only that. They take this verse to mean that only Jesus saves. They take this verse to say that every other religion in the world is false and their followers will be damned for not believing in Jesus. I’m not kidding. This is what they truly believe. This idea is patently false.
I can give you a couple examples I’ve run into to show just how prevalent this erroneous belief is. When I was seeking a minister to do an internship with before ordination, I approached a Lutheran minister in Florida. This minister gave me serious consideration—even to the extent of looking up the Swedenborgian Church online. He had printed up several pages from it and even highlighted some lines. One line he particularly drew my attention to was one that said we believe that everyone of every faith can be saved. This line was highlighted in yellow. He pointed to it and exclaimed passionately, “I can’t accept that!” For him, Jesus bore the sins of humanity on the cross. And you are saved only if you have faith in Jesus. And just recently in my trip to Urbana University in Ohio, I ran into this issue again. After I had talked to a world religions class about Swedenborg and Hinduism, a student approached me and the teacher when class ended. He said that this practice of accepting different religions was a sign that the “one world religion” foretold in the book of Revelation. This class was promoting that one world religion by showing tolerance to other religions than Christianity. Then the student said he was offended. He thought that only Christianity saved and that he could prove it from the Bible. These are only two of many encounters I have had with conservative Christians who cling to that one passage, John 3:16.
Reason alone tells us that this idea is false. Can it be that the billions of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists are all damned because they don’t believe in Jesus? The God I know and worship could never be that narrow, heartless, and cruel. The God I know and worship came into the world, “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
John’s Gospel explains just how Jesus saves the world. And that explanation is open to all the world’s religions. John tells us that Jesus is the light. People who hate the light turn away from it because their deeds are evil. While people who love the light turn to it because their deeds are wrought in God..
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God (John 3:19-21).
This statement could have been lifted from almost any sacred text from the world’s religions. These categories of light and darkness are used in almost every religion in the world, in fact, probably every one. It even finds its way into the mythology of the Star Wars movies where warriors of the light battle the dark side of The Force.
So this is why and how Jesus saves—because He brings the light to humanity. And students of the world’s religions know that Jesus isn’t the only revealer to bring light to humanity. Notice, too, that this passage speaks of judgment. It begins with the words, “And this is the judgment . . . .” See, too, that the judgment is self-judgment. Jesus doesn’t cast people away. It is people who turn themselves away from the light—“Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light” (3:20). People who love the truth come to the light—“But he who does what is true comes to the light that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (3:21). So the judgment is self-judgment. People either come to the light or turn from the light of their own accord. Swedenborg completely agrees with this idea–heaven or hell are chosen. It is a person’s own choice whether he or she wants to live in heaven’s light or hell’s darkness.
That is how we are to understand the condemnation mentioned in verse 18, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” The salvation here described is not a matter of accepting Jesus as a person’s savior in one ecstatic moment during a religious frenzy. And the condemnation is not because a person hasn’t accepted Jesus as one’s personal savior in one ecstatic moment of religious frenzy. How shallow Christianity would be if that were the case!
The issue here is stated plainly. Those who do evil turn from the light (3:20). And those who do good turn toward the light that it may be clearly be seen that their deeds have been wrought in God (3:21). How clearly this is stated! It isn’t a matter of believing in Jesus at all! It is a matter of godly deeds or evil deeds. This passage states plainly that faith alone doesn’t save. Deeds that are wrought in God are what save and cause a person to turn to the light.
That is how I understand this problematic passage. And this is why I am Christian and also open to the world’s religions.
Likewise, our passage from Numbers requires careful reading. In it, the Israelites complain about the worthless food they have to eat in the desert. By way of punishment, God sends them fiery snakes and many Israelites get bitten and die. If we read this story as written, God looks angry and punishing. But this church teaches that the Bible is written in appearances. These appearances are not actually true. The appearances are how God appeared to people when the Bible was written. And some of the Bible stories are 4,000 years old. People who lived back then saw God in a fearful, childlike way. God can look like an angry parent, or a furious warlord—personalities that primitive peoples knew. We understand God differently today. We see God as loving and doing only what is good to humans. The story that makes God look like He is punishing is an appearance. I have quoted Swedenborg on this a few Sundays ago. But as it is so critical to understanding the Bible, I would like to quote him again on this issue.
In many places in the Word anger, wrath, and vengeance are attributed to God and He is said to punish, . . . [but] the genuine truth . . . is, that God is Love itself, Mercy itself, and Good itself, and such a Being cannot be angry, wrathful, or vengeful. These things are attributed to God in the Word, because such is the appearance. These are appearances of truth (TCR 256).
This is the loving, saving God I know, believe in, and worship. And, in fact, in this story, when the Israelites repent, God sends them a means of healing. So this story is actually about sin, repentance, and divine forgiveness.
In both our Old Testament reading and our New Testament reading, God is seen as a Being who is in relationship with humanity. In the Old Testament reading, God listens to the Israelites and sends them healing when they turn toward God. And in our New Testament reading, we have a God who actually comes to earth to save us. As one of my theology teachers said, “God plays ball with you.” And coming to humanity in order to save us from ourselves is the best ball game we can play with God. This God, Jesus Christ, is the loving God I worship and adore, and He loves me, loves us more than we can imagine.
Lord, you have told us that you came not to judge the world, but to save it. We pray this morning that you enter our hearts and minds with your saving love and wisdom. You came to bring light to the earth. And you continue to bring light to the world. Enlighten our minds, we pray, this morning and each day. Enkindle in our hearts the flame of your holy love. Inspire our footsteps to walk in the path of your righteousness. And give us to perform deeds wrought in God.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.