For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. —John 3:16
Martin Luther called this verse “the Bible in miniature.” It’s the most famous verse in the Bible, and for good reason. Everything about it is magnificent:
So great a Lover – For God;
So great a love – for God so loved;
So great a need – for God so loved the world;
So great a gift – that he gave his only Son;
So great a misery – should not perish;
So great a benefit – but have eternal life.
And so simple a requirement: whoever believes in him.
My goal today, for believers, is that our hearts would beat with the heart of God, and, for unbelievers, that you would reconsider Jesus Christ and close the deal with him today. Let’s enjoy this verse, taking it in three steps.
One, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” God loves not just us but the whole world. The love of God is not limited to one national group or a spiritual elite or a moral majority. He loves the world, and that includes you. He even loves the people you hate.
Why doesn’t God hate us all? What is there in this world that God should love? Nothing. Why then does God love us? Because he is love. The love of God comes from God. It’s just who he is. Theologians call this the aseity of God. If you took high school Latin, here’s how it works. The little word a, which means “from,” then the word se, which means “himself,” plus an English ending “ity.” The aseity of God means that the from-himself-ity of God. That is, God is all God needs to be God and to succeed as God. He doesn’t need us. God-ness just flows out of him. So when we ask why God loves us, where that love comes from, the only final answer is, God is simply the kind of person who loves people he has the right to hate. The love of God is not like our love. Our loves have to be repaired and maintained and lubricated every 3000 miles. But love pours out of the mighty heart of God. It’s why that little word “so” is in there. In a way, that’s the most important word in the verse. “For God so loved,” as only God can.
What’s more, his love is not a vague benevolence. His love didn’t theorize. His love didn’t stay at home. He didn’t even stand just off at a distance and hold his nose. He drew near, all the way. He made his love concrete and costly by giving the gift of his only Son, the unique One, the worthy One. When the Bible says God gave his only Son, it’s another way of saying God gave his other Self. God gave God to us. What more could he give? Who can measure such love? Are we even qualified to critique it, or are we better positioned just to receive it? And if we think we’re too low to receive it, the truth is, we’re too low to refuse it.
The love of God was not sentimental. God gave his only Son into the arms of a teenage girl who had to learn fast how to care for a baby. God gave his only Son to work in a carpenter’s shop with demanding customers and daily deadlines. God gave his only Son to endure the negative scrutiny of Pharisees for whom nothing was ever good enough. God gave his only Son to hunger and thirst and poverty and the lash and the crown of thorns and the nails and the spear. God gave his only Son not to a hero’s death but a criminal’s death of shame. God gave his only Son so extremely that on that cross Jesus screamed, “Why have you forsaken me?” God gave his only Son to be a curse for us, that we might escape his curse. And God gave his only Son not with self-pity or bitterness or even regret but with love. It was not a grudging gift. It was not a manipulative gift. It was an honest sacrifice of love, and we can reject it. But who would want to?
2000 years ago God gave us his only Son, and God has not withdrawn the gift. God has never said to us, “You’ve gone too far. I take it back.” For God, not because of who we are but because of who he is, so loved the world that he gave his only Son. And he can become yours today. At the cross, God so removed every barrier that Christ can be yours freely. Nothing is freer than a gift, and nothing is more striking than a costly gift, and nothing is more insensitive than rejecting such a gift, and nothing seals a friendship like accepting such a gift with a glad heart, and nothing is more worth receiving than the best gift Almighty God in heaven could come up with – and he had a lot of time in eternity past to think about it. So if we reject Jesus, we are rejecting God completely. We can receive all of his gifts in creation and thank him for every single one; but if we reject Christ, then, for God, that’s a deal-breaker, because the only Son is God himself. God has shown us that he loves us by coming down within our reach. What are we going to do about it?
One thing that might hold us back today is a kind of cynicism that doubts everything. And there is so much fraudulence in this world. We have to keep our eyes open. But the gospel tells us two things. One, the gospel agrees that this world will break our hearts. Two, the gospel reveals a deeper truth – the love of God in Christ. So we have to guard our hearts. But we can’t close our hearts. In her book The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson shows us how we often think:
When a good man or woman stumbles, we say, “I knew it all along,” and when a bad one has a gracious moment, we sneer at the hypocrisy. It is as if there is nothing to mourn or admire, only a hidden narrative now and then apparent through the false, surface narrative. And the hidden narrative, because it is ugly and sinister, is therefore true.
So much in this world makes cynicism understandable – except for one thing. Jesus of Nazareth. He is the fatal weakness in the feeling that we have no hope for love beyond ourselves. An old hymn tells us what will outlast everything:
Here is love, vast as the ocean, lovingkindness as the flood,
When the Prince of Life, our Ransom, shed for us his precious blood….
On the mount of crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers, poured incessant from above,
And heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.
Jesus opens up a truth we never could have believed without him, but with him we cannot not believe. It’s this. This whole world exists not as a spectacle of emptiness and mockery. We are here to receive and proclaim God’s redeeming love poured out on a guilty, dying world. And he is calling us today to believe that.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The real story is that big, that beautiful. Are you looking for God’s love where he has located it? God has given us his love in Jesus. He is not out to give you a perfect life, as you define that. He is out to love you, as he defines that. God is saying to you today, “No earthly experience can satisfy you. Your heart is infinitely greater than all this world. Only I can love you to your heart’s content. And I have come near through Jesus to free you from every false hope that’s breaking your heart. I have come near to lift you into a love from beyond this world. Do not turn away. Take another look. The universe you live in is not cold, dark, blank, empty space. It is a continual explosion of my glory. And I’ve made the message simple, so that anyone can get inside it. Jesus of Nazareth is the way. When I gave him to you so long ago, you crucified him. But my love made your crime into your redemption. You meant to get rid of me. I meant to get rid of your desire to get of me. So I raised him from the dead, he’s moving through the world today in power, and I’m offering him to you right now. You cannot defeat my love. You can only accept or reject my love. I have gotten your attention today for one purpose – to call you to receive Christ.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.
Two, “. . . that whoever believes in him.” I love that word “whoever.” Anyone can find himself there. There is no limit built into the word “whoever.” You don’t have to be smart enough or good enough. You only have to believe in him: “whoever believes in him.” That’s all God wants from you. The verse does not say, “whoever keeps his law” but “whoever believes in him.”
What then does that mean? God will not change the ground rules and require anything more later on. Believe in him – that’s all. We don’t have to prove anything to God. If we think we can, we disqualify ourselves. We only have to believe. What then does that mean? What does it mean for you and me to “believe in him”?
John uses this verb “believe” 98 times in his gospel. He never uses the noun “faith” but only the active verb “believe.” And he invented a new way of talking about it. The way John’s gospel describes the mentality of faith – it doesn’t appear in Greek literature prior to the New Testament. Here it is. John does not literally say we should “believe in” Jesus, though our Bibles have to put it that way to make good English. But John literally says we have to “believe into” Jesus: “whoever believes into him.” We get traction for newness of life when we get beyond believing in Jesus and discover what it means to believe into Jesus. For example, in John 1:12 believing into Jesus is the same as receiving him. You can “believe in Jesus,” so to speak, without receiving him. But receiving him personally will change you. It gets you into Jesus. In John 6:35 believing into Jesus is like coming to him to satisfy the hunger and thirst you feel inside. You can “believe in Jesus” while you go on trying to satisfy your heart with degraded things. But God is calling you into Jesus as your heart’s new environment of all-satisfying love.
Believing into Jesus happens when two things come together. First, you say Yes to the truth of the gospel. You believe the good news that Christ died on the cross, to pay the debts you’ve run up with God. You agree with God’s bailout plan, and you wouldn’t want it any other way, because God is glorified when his love pays your expense. That’s the first thing. You believe the gospel and admire how God did it.
Secondly, you personalize the gospel to yourself. Your heart bows down before your crucified Savior and you say to him, “I not only believe you save sinners, I want you to save me, because I’m a desperate sinner, only you are Savior enough for me, and I bow down before you.” So you believe the gospel, and then you seal the deal personally with Christ. That is believing into Jesus. Is that so difficult? I’ve done it. It has to be simple. Won’t you do it too? Why not right now? Here is what’s at stake:
Three, “. . . should not perish but have eternal life.” When you believe into Jesus, God hits the delete button on his record of your sins. You will not perish. God starts to save you from the habits and emotions and thoughts that have held you back all your life. You will not perish. God makes sure that his Word starts soaking into your heart at the deepest level, you start changing in a wonderful way. You will not perish. He starts to prepare a place for you in heaven. You will not perish. You may feel very guilty today, or you may feel guilty that you don’t feel more guilty before God. Your heart may be broken, or your heart may be broken that it isn’t more broken. You might be thinking, “I’d like to, but I couldn’t keep it up. I’m too weak.” But here is his promise to weak people who believe their way into him: “You will not perish. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling right now, if you will look away from yourself and look to Christ and believe into him, you will not perish. He will not allow it. He has advertised himself as the only Savior, and he will prove it. No matter what else might happen to you in this crazy world, he will keep his promise and you will not perish. How can you lose eternal life? How can your sin undo the work of God, when the work of God is to undo your sin? You cannot lose Christ, because Christ takes eternal possession of everyone who believes into him. The only way you can be saved is to be saved forever, because it’s about eternal life. If you receive Christ with the empty hands of faith, then as long as the risen Christ will live you will live, and live to the hilt. Will you receive him today? Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).
Here’s what God wants you to do. God wants you to step over the line from withholding yourself, guarding yourself, keeping your options open, to a deep personal Yes to his love in Christ. Will you do that? If today you see the love of God with new admiration and desire, embrace Christ. Whatever you need to let go of, embrace Christ. Stop believing in him and start believing into him. Trust him that much. If you will, God promises you eternal life. What is your answer to him today?