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John 3:16 vs. the Greatest Commandment

Part 3 of the series, What Makes a Christian?

This is Part 3 of a 5-Part Series: What Makes A Christian?
Read Part 1 Here
Read Part 2 Here
Read Part 4 Here

I can go into any number of churches this weekend hear them “preach salvation.” What does this mean? Believe this-or-that and you’ll be guaranteed an afterlife in Heaven. In many churches across Christendom, this is probably the most common theme in a Sunday morning sermon, Bible study or prayer gathering of any kind, especially in the Evangelical world.

I can understand why people are preoccupied with their own fate–but in the words of Brian McLaren, when did Christianity become an “earth evacuation plan”?

There are a lot of assumptions that go into this kind of theology. It’s quite a loaded statement, actually! We assume that the point of religion is to secure an afterlife–an afterlife that is either questionable or not available to us otherwise–and that the key to navigating this properly is to have the right beliefs.

Before you think I am picking on Evangelicals, a similar thing happens in Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. The Creed is rolled out about halfway through liturgy with a litany of “I believe this” and “I believe that.”

When did belief trump action? What about simply doing what God tells us to do and trusting our fate in that?

Jesus seems to say it’s not what you think but rather who you are that matters:

Jesus is very clear that the fundamental commandment is to love God and neighbor and that our witness of this will be the very mark of our Christian identity (John 13:34-35), that our closeness to the Kingdom (Mark 12:28-34) and participation in eternity (Luke 10:25-37) are contingent on it and that all other rules and parameters can be understood only in light of it (Matthew 22:34-40).

An incredible trickery happened somewhere in the history of Christianity. Early Christians were known as “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2). Christianity was a holistic practice that impacted all areas of their lives. Somewhere this got truncated, and Christianity started looking more and more like a detached mental exercise.

I suspect I know why: Actions are difficult. Beliefs are easy. Changing one’s lifestyle is just about the hardest thing to do. Ask anyone who has struggled with an addiction or has tried to lose weight or change any habit.

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3:1

Like the vagabond poetic soul Qoheleth writes above, all things fit in God’s Kingdom.

All words from Scripture fit, too.

I believe our task is to figure out how to order and prioritize them. We can end up with entirely different understandings of what it means to be a Christian–not by outright denying or contradicting anything in Scripture–but rather by choosing what to prioritize and reordering everything else in light of it.

A lot of churches start out with John 3:16 as their starting point. Catholics and many mainline Protestants start off with their doctrinal beliefs as expressed by the Creed. In this series, I explore the centrality of the Greatest Commandment to the faith–putting the commandment to love God and love one another as first and then reordering everything else in light of that. You may end up with a different theology, and frankly a whole different church this way!

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

There is no other verse more widely shared as the end all, be all of Christianity. This is the ultra-succinct, Cliff Notes version of Christianity. You’ll see John 3:16 signs at sporting events, on automobiles and shirts. It’s just everywhere. It’s like Christians are saying: If all you hear from Scripture is one thing, make sure you hear John 3:16.

What’s curious is that Jesus gave very different advice. When asked directly, He said follow the Greatest Commandment: Love God and neighbor abundantly. He didn’t say “believe.” He said, “do.”

What’s gotten us into this whole mess is our understanding of the word “belief.” Scholars say that the modern American mind has been thoroughly influenced by the ultra-literalist approach to English Law that was in vogue several centuries ago. Words were stripped of their literary and artistic allusions and taken in the most basic, face value way.

I don’t see any suggestions in Scripture to read it that way, but each of us brings his or her own interpretive lens whenever we read anything. There is a whole science called Hermeneutics devoted to understanding this phenomenon.

So when Scripture says that our duty is to “believe” in Jesus, we interpret that to mean the intellectual assent to the idea of Jesus as God and Christ. It’s right there on the page, that’s what the word “belief” means, right?

If elsewhere in Scripture it says we are saved “in the name of Jesus,” we apply the same interpretive lens: We end up confident that if we profess the name of Jesus as the God we adhere to, then our duties toward our salvation are fulfilled. We have to say “Jesus” and not “Mohammed” or “Buddha” or “Krishna.”

It’s no wonder that many denominations in Christianity have violently split due to their vociferous disagreements over theological matters. When your entire stake in eternity hinges on getting the right theological concepts in order with the right nomenclature, it is no small wonder this has become such a high anxiety scenario!


In The Name Of . . .

Imagine if I were to say I am living my life “in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Let’s be honest–that would probably sound pretty awkward at first listen, because nobody talks like that. But with a moment of reflection, you would probably think this sounds like an old fashioned, perhaps overly poetic way of saying that I try to emulate the values and lifestyle of MLK.

In other words, I am trying to live in the tradition of MLK. I don’t think anyone would assume that this has anything to do with renaming buildings or streets or that the name itself has some magical significance. Even if there were a change in nomenclature somewhere along the line, it would only be because of what that name represents, rather than some inherent quality of the name itself.

If I say I am trying to live, “in the name of MLK,” you would expect me to lead a movement for civil rights or practice nonviolent resistance to structures of injustice. You can’t really separate the name of MLK from those activities, because those activities are why you know the name of MLK in the first place.

The name of MLK. only has meaning because of who he was–and who he was is not a static entity–it is a reflection of how he lived and what he said and stood for. Who he was as a noun only makes sense in light of who he was as a verb.

In other words, if we are going to be saved by the “name” of Jesus, let’s not be so literalistic to think uttering the name itself is the only condition. “The name of Jesus” is shorthand for all that Jesus has said and done–His teachings and model of life.

This makes perfect sense when you hold it up to Jesus’ statement of inheriting eternal life from Luke’s passage (Luke 10:25-37). Inheriting eternal life is about being merciful, just as Jesus showed us by being merciful Himself. In other words, helping our injured neighbor by the side of the road IS proclaiming “the name of Jesus.”

In Biblical times, your name was tied to your inheritance. If your name is “Smith,” that was not just some random combination of letters to make a sound. It was rather your connection to the legacy of the Smith family–their lands, their reputation, their culture. If you conquer some new territories “in the name of Smith,” you are not just assigning the unique combination of letters and sounds to this land. You are invoking the legacy and reputation of the people known as “Smith.”

If you’re going to be saved “in the name of Jesus,” it’s because you are living into the Greatest Commandment.

With a literalistic eye, it looks like Scripture is contradicting itself. In some passage, it says that we are saved by a profession of belief. In other passages, we are saved by love and good deeds. I’m here to say that those are not in conflict at all.

Scripture is not divided up between a theology of belief and a theology of action–it is a combined, holistic expression.

John 3:16 is a beautiful verse, understood this way–that God’s act of sharing Jesus with us comes out of love, and that all who participate in that love through loving both God and one another follow in the Way of Jesus, which is the Way of eternity–to love Jesus so much that you imitate Him and follow His Way. To believe in His message so much that you follow it.


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