The Most Neglected Verse

This started as last week’s Friday Facts, but then got to the point where an independent treatment seemed more fitting.

Now one could argue that the most neglected verse in the Bible lies somewhere midway through Chronicles or at the beginning of Jude, but for my money, those verses fall into the “undiscovered” category. To be neglected, a verse needs to be obviously located. And so, my vote for most neglected verse falls at the end of John 3. In fact, it comes two verses after perhaps the most cited verse in Bible, John 3.16. The verse I have in mind is John 3.18: But then again, its siblings 3.19, 3.20, and 3.21 probably have just as much right to the title. And I’d hate to contribute to the problem by leaving them out. So perhaps I’ll revise and say this: John 3.18-21 are the most neglected verses in the entire Bible, and since they’re so neglected, I’ll cite them here for reference:

18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

Then again, as I think about it, perhaps neglected isn’t the right word. As a point of fact, the thought for this post sprang to mind at the curious decision of the Revised Common Lectionary to assign John 3.1-17 as the gospel for the second Sunday in Lent. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in of itself is not a strange choice. The strange choice comes in cutting off Jesus’ sermon four verses early. Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that Jesus hadn’t yet finished when he said “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Once the truncated nature of the selection comes to light, the question becomes, why? While, I have no special revelation as to the inner workings of the RCL committee, my guess is that the reason isn’t the 18 verse cap that they’ve put on Gospel readings. At face value, the clipping of the text comes at too theologically rich a point to assume it came about arbitrarily.

By removing the final four verses of Jesus’ sermon, the RCL removes all references in the text to judgement and to darkness of the world. The framers of the RCL have “improved” Jesus’ sermon by making sure that it ends on an upbeat note, on a verse that everyone knows and loves.

The irony of their choice is that as it stands, the text for the second Sunday in Lent is a perfect example of John 3.18: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” To “love darkness” and to hate the light is to prefer not to see human weakness and sin. To hate the light is to refuse to see the monstrosity that is unbelief. To hate the light is to interrupt Jesus before he can speak the truth about you!

We need John 3.18. We need John 3.18 because refusing to hear it is refusing to acknowledge the evil and the terror of this world. If we cannot face up to the terrors that we cause for one another, we are like Nicodemus, who could not understand earthly things, and like Nicodemus, we will never understand heavenly things.

We need John 3.18 because it shines the light on us and reveals the absurdity of the human situation. To be an unbelieving human is as absurd as to be a light hidden under a basket or unsalty salt. And as we read earlier this year in Matthew, by all rights, unsalty people should simply be thrown out on the path to be trampled upon. Instead, God so loved the world that He sent His only son to save those unsalty, unbelieving absurdities that we call human beings.

We live in a topsy-turvy world, a world where unbelief seems more natural than belief, a world full of lamps hidden under bushel baskets, and so we need these four neglected verses. We need them because we need the light that shows our weaknesses, the light that shows our flaws, the light that shows that our only hope lies in hearing the words of a crucified Messiah. Sometimes those words are not what we want to hear. But they are always what we need.