If you were to ask most church members the most well-known verse in the Bible, they would immediately respond “John 3:16.” A high percentage of them could surely quote it, as well:
For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but should have eternal life.
If you were to then ask them what this verse is about, many would use the word “saved” in their answer: “It’s about getting saved!” Saved from what? “Why, from hell, of course!”
Here’s a thought: what happens if you use a different helping verb? Could this verse be about “becoming saved” instead? And what does “saved” really mean, anyway? In this week’s Reflection on the Lections, let’s take a look at the use of the word “saved” in the New Testament, and see if it can inform our study of John 3.
The word usually translated “saved” is sozo in the Greek, from a root word soz meaning “safe.” If you look up the meaning of sozo in most reference works, you’ll see an entry such as this:
- To save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
- To save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health
- To preserve one who is in danger of destruction, to save or rescue
The problem is that most of us, when we hear the word “rescue” or “save,” think of plucking someone out of the way of danger. In other words, we think of a moment-in-time event. And in some cases, that is exactly the right way to think about it.
But are there not other ways to think about this? Even rescues sometimes take a long time. And what of that second meaning above: “to make well, heal, restore to health.” Is every healing instantaneous? Or can it involve a process?
It is time we expand our idea of “saved” and “salvation” to include more than a one-time purchase of fire insurance. If the life God intends for us only begins when we die, then is this life just a cruel waiting room in some eternal bus station?
For some time, whenever I hear the word “saved” used in a Biblical context, I substitute “made whole” in my mind and see what that does to the verse. Let’s try it here:
For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be made whole.
I don’t know about you, but that puts a whole new spin on the work of Christ in the world. The salvation of God isn’t just about some eternal destination; it is about changing our very lives right now. “Being saved” can be a point in time, certainly — but it had better also be a continual move into wholeness and health.
Here’s a neat tool — the Blue Letter Bible. It’s an online Strong’s, where you can see all the places a word is used throughout the Bible. Here is the first page for sozo, which is used 118 times in the New Testament. Scan all those verses and you’ll see the breadth of the word, and how often it is used to mean “healed” or “made whole.”
When Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, Jesus’s first words were about the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom isn’t some future event or state, because Jesus said the Kingdom is here now. Doesn’t that mean, then, that the eternal life of John 3:16 is also here, now? Let’s expand our understanding of “salvation” to include “being made whole,” and let’s expand the timeline to begin right here, right now.
This is one of a series called “Reflections on the Lections,” which posts each Wednesday and discusses one of the passages for that Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. When I have enough of them, I’ll post an index. This one is for Year B, Pentecost + 1, Trinity Sunday.