John 3:16, Part One

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books. 

“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” (John 3:16).
For a very long time, certain people have been trying to get Jesus off the cross. 
Specifically, they’ve tried to make the case that Jesus was never on the cross in the first place.
During the first few centuries after the resurrection, as the early church spread around the Mediterranean world, advocates of Docetism declared that Jesus was just a phantasm.  Docetism – from the Greek verb dokeo, which means “to seem” or “to appear” – taught that Jesus only seemed or appeared to be a human being.  According to this view, he was like one of the “skinwalkers” who populate the Navaho spiritual universe – a shape-shifter who could morph into any shape, human or animal, at will.  Whatever was hanging on the cross was not human.  It was an illusion.   
As N.T. Wright and Michael Bird point out in their massive volume The New Testament in Its World, other ancient teachers opted for an “escape” scenario.
According to this view, the physical body of Jesus did indeed suffer crucifixion.  But just before the nails went through his hands and feet, his divine self, known as “the Christ,” was snatched away to safety. 
People in the Roman world were already acquainted with this idea.  The poet Ovid had floated the notion that just before Julius Caesar was assassinated, the goddess Vesta seized his true inner self and “raised it to the heavens.”  So who or what did Brutus, Cassius, and their fellow conspirators end up stabbing?  Ovid suggested it was merely Caesar’s shadowy self.  The point seems to be that the Roman gods were so impressed with Caesar that they constructed an escape hatch for him at the last possible moment.
Is that what Jesus’ Father did on Good Friday?
Then there’s the “trading places” theory.  A teacher named Basilides proposed that when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross on the way to Golgotha, Jesus deftly pulled off a switcheroo.  He transfigured himself to look like Simon, and transformed Simon’s appearance into his own.  So the innocent man from Cyrene died a horrific death, while Jesus “stood by, laughing at them.”  This picture did nothing to endear people to Jesus’ sense of fair play. 
The same idea emerges in a third century document called The Apocalypse of Peter, where the “real Jesus,” hiding in a cave with Peter, points to the poor, dumb sucker who looks a whole lot like him and is now dying in his place on the cross.
Islam, which has a high regard for Jesus, has long cherished Docetic views concerning his identity.  Jesus only appeared to die.  Allah would not allow him to actually suffer.  According to Sura 4:157-8 of the Qu’ran, “they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them.” 
Some imams have suggested that someone did indeed suffer and die on the cross.  It was Judas Iscariot, who was transfigured into Jesus’ appearance, while “the real Jesus” was already on his way to Allah’s side in heaven. 
Why all these efforts to keep Jesus off the cross?
The answer is that teachers and preachers and theologians were trying to spare Jesus from shame.   
The ancient world was largely a shame and honor culture.  Suffering pain was bad.  But suffering humiliation was far worse – a stain that might attach to one’s reputation and family forever. 
It is impossible to overstate the shame associated with crucifixion.  It was so gruesome that Roman law forbade it as a punishment except for slaves and traitors.  You may have seen hundreds of depictions of Jesus on the cross, but no one really knows what crucifixion looked like.  That’s because we know of no artistic renderings of Jesus’ death until 300 years after it happened. 
For many thoughtful people in the ancient world, it was impossible to imagine that a divine figure could suffer pain and disgrace – a slave’s death.  So it was crucial to get Jesus off the cross.
But that’s exactly where the New Testament leaves him. 
Today we arrive at the verse that launched our entire Lenten series.  For followers of Jesus, John 3:16 is arguably the most beloved sentence in all of Scripture.  It seems to summarize the entire Gospel of John, half of which is devoted to just one week of Jesus’ life – the seven days that include Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and finally his resurrection. 
It’s ironic that in most of the scenarios designed to rescue Jesus from shame and disgrace, someone else has to die in his place
John 3:16 says just the opposite.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”
Jesus isn’t beamed up to heaven at the last moment.  He isn’t spared the worst kind of suffering the Romans could invent.
The very, very, very good news is that we can confidently approach the throne of grace because the Real Jesus really died.
For you and for me.