For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:17
On this Christmas Eve, let’s go together now into glad hyper-focus on why we are here at all. Let’s do that by asking, Why is John 3:17 here at all? After John 3:16, what more needs to be said? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son – there is Christmas – that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Why doesn’t John end his gospel right there? Why doesn’t the whole Bible end there? What more needs to be said? This: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That deserves to be said and believed and enjoyed.
Here’s why. We deeply believe that God is out to condemn us. I don’t care what you say. You can tell me – and I hope you do tell me – that God is not in attack-mode toward you. I hope you can look honestly at your sins and failures and believe that, because of Jesus, God is not against you but for you. I hope you have the audacity to believe that. But I also know about you what is true of me. Our hearts deeply feel, underneath our beliefs, down at the deepest substratum of our thoughts, down at the level of intuition and unconscious, unchosen feeling – something way down deep inside still whispers to our anxieties that God isn’t really satisfied, and at any moment the hammer might fall.
That’s why John 3:17 is in the Bible. That’s the follow-up that John 3:16 needed. The love of God for the undeserving is so total that, when we let our defenses down and open up to Jesus – that’s what “whoever believes” means – God removes all condemnation, every accusation against us, for Jesus’ sake. And every one of us needs a non-accused place to stand, if we’re going to stop dying and start thriving. So God makes himself clear, here in verse 17, with a not-this but-that statement. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved and non-accused and accepted and rejoiced over, through Jesus.
And that is the gift God has for every one of us on tonight. God invites you now to dare to believe that he is so not condemning you that he is rejoicing over you through Jesus. God wants you to celebrate and feast and rest and rejoice because our hearts are wrong, and the gospel is right, and it’s Christmas Eve.
Let’s think it through briefly in four steps. One, what John 3:17 is saying. Two, how this creates a problem for God. Three, how God solves his problem. Four, how we gain from what God has done.
What John 3:17 is saying
Do you see that “the world” appears three times in verse 17? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That’s the world we live in – the world of Newton, Connecticut, and fiscal cliffs, and brilliant communications technology broadcasting utter stupidity and vulgarity 24/7. It’s also the world of nice people like us doing inexcusable things we know are wrong but we still do them, and not doing beautiful things we know are right but we just don’t have the time, and then wondering why nothing much changes, and sometimes even blaming God himself. That is our world, a world gone mad. And it is not the heart of God to condemn that world.
He sees the world for what it is. And his moral verdict is clear. Verse 19: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.” Our deepest problem is not what we hate but what we love. We love the wrong things: “People loved the darkness.” But God loves the right things. God’s heart is not to condemn but to save, though we deserve condemnation.
Do you see how that creates a problem for God? It’s not a problem for us. But it sure is a problem for God.
How that creates a problem for God
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Bible shouldn’t say that. By rights, it should say, “God did not send his Son into the world to save the world, but to condemn the world through him.” After all, this is God’s world. We’re not owners; we’re tenants. We’ve living on his property, breathing his air, eating his food. We’re all on welfare in God’s cosmic economy. So why didn’t God rid his world of all of us this afternoon? Is it just a matter of time, and we should all be living in dread, or are we living in another environment entirely, one so merciful we can hardly believe it?
The problem God created for himself by his love is this. Where is the condemnation? Where is the moral reckoning? That is a weighty question. If you’ve ever been sinned against, and all of us have, you understand the power of that question. Where is the condemnation? Is God’s conscience awake? If wrong exists, and if we’re the ones perpetrating the wrong, and if God did not send his Son to condemn us wrongdoers but to save us, where is God’s justice? When you think about it, Christmas is a problem. How can Christmas be moral? How can God give us his only Son and not condemn us, and still be fair to himself?
How God solves the problem
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There’s something here about God waiting to surprise us. Deep in the being of God, justice and mercy are one. The Bible says that, at the cross, “God presented Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice” (Romans 3:25-26). When Jesus died on the cross, God was presenting the satisfaction of his own holy wrath. Human evil was punished – in Jesus. It’s the cross-work of Jesus that unleashes God’s saving love into an evil world today, without compromising his standards at all. The love of God does not negotiate with us. The love of God does not meet us in the middle. The love of God fully satisfied the wrath of God. And that is why we can perceive God now in a whole new way. We have something to say to our deepest anxieties. We can tell them, on the authority of the gospel, to shut up. If we have given our hearts to Jesus, God is no longer our condemner, no longer our attacker. The all-holy God above is now and forever will be our Friend and Ally. We can banish from our minds all dark thoughts of God. We can relax and celebrate and get excited about the future.
How you can gain from what God has done
If John 3:17 is true, and it is, then don’t you see? God has no objection to saving you. You don’t have to talk him into it. He’s trying to talk you into it. You’re the holdout. God is ready. Here is what he wants. Verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” That’s your part, that’s the blank you fill in – you believe in, that is, you bank your future on, the non-condemning smile of God in Jesus, because that’s who God is.
Some of us have been nibbling at the edges of this for years but holding back because of those guilty anxieties deep within. If tonight you’ve seen how God really feels, will you become definite about him right now? Will you leave hesitancy behind and close with Christ on this Christmas Eve? God is open to you right now. Will you open up to him?
Others of us are all in. Now, all God wants you to do is enjoy being non-accused and freed from all condemnation. All he wants you to do on this Christmas Eve is celebrate, “for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”