For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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 3:16-17
Today we come today to the most famous verse in all the Bible, followed up by a lesser known but equally amazing verse. Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Bible in miniature.” But nothing about it is small:
For God – the greatest Lover
So loved – the greatest generosity
The world – the greatest tragedy
That he gave – the greatest sacrifice
His only Son – the greatest gift
That whoever – the greatest openness
Believes – the greatest simplicity
In him – the greatest attraction
Should not perish – the greatest rescue
But – the greatest difference
Have – the greatest treasure
Eternal life – the greatest experience.
There are two ways to miss out on all that. One way is to think, “Of course, God loves me. He ought to. I’m doing my part. Is he doing his? Look at what a mess the world is.” That way of thinking will drive us into the ditch on one side of the road. Another way to miss out is to think, “God can’t love me. He must despise me. I’m so disappointed in myself. What must God think?” That’s the ditch on the other side of the road. Both pride and despair block out the love of God. But there is a breakthrough point. That’s what these verses point us toward. Let’s go there – right now.
Verse 16 is about the love of God. Verse 17 is about the mission of God. Both help us see God in a new way and open up.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son
This is the first time in John’s gospel that we find the word “love.” This gospel uses the word “love” about 57 times, more than twice as much as any other New Testament book – except for John’s first letter. John knew where to find the love of God.
I want you to see how surprising this verse is. We don’t believe it as much as we think we do. In her book The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson writes,
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.
Cynicism is the cultural air we breathe, and we are all poisoned by it. Don’t assume you believe John 3:16. Examine whether you believe it. I want to help you do that today.
We should be shocked by this verse. Confidence in the love of God for the undeserving is amazing. What other philosophy or outlook has given us anything like John 3:16? Think of the ancient world. Here is an English translation of the myths of ancient Canaan, translated by Michael David Coogan of Harvard Divinity School. These ancient myths go all the way back to the time of Moses and beyond. The big hero in these stories is Baal, the god of energy and life, including sexual energy, because ultimate reality was believed to be inherent in the powers of nature. Do you see the problem with that outlook? If ultimate reality is nature itself, then we have no way to distinguish between love and cruelty. If ultimate reality is equated with nature, which, as Tennyson put it, is “red in tooth and claw,” who’s to say that predatory relationships are wrong? In these Baal myths, there is nothing remotely like John 3:16. An Old Testament prophet saw the point. He said, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression?” (Micah 7:18). That rare kind of love – that’s what we need. There is a reason why Baal isn’t worshiped any more. He had nothing of forgiveness, only appetite. Every predatory, life-depleting relational pattern is a manifestation of Baal today.
Let’s fast forward from the ancient world to the modern world. William Edgar has a great essay on how modern societies act out their deepest beliefs – not what our modern societies say they believe but what they really believe. For example, the French Revolution of 1789, with its bloody guillotine, was one of the defining moments of the modern age:
We have here . . . a case of secular atonement. One of the central rituals within the drama of the French Revolution was meant to achieve expiation. It was important to be cleansed from the past . . . . The Guillotine was the centerpiece of the revolutionary drama. . . . a counterfeit for Calvary.
Even in the modern world, we will come up with our own grotesque rituals of blood atonement, if all we believe in is ourselves. No forgiveness, only appetite. Edgar goes on to say that the lynchings of African-Americans in the American South were another form of blood atonement, as racist white people transferred their self-hatred onto a sacrificial victim to pay for their own shame. Our dramas of self-salvation leave no room for anything like John 3:16.
The only alternative to our ancient predatory instincts and our modern rituals cruelties is right here: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Let’s get out of our minds the false idea that God is a cranky, ill-humored deity, but then nice Jesus somehow persuaded not-nice God to cut us some slack. No! Our redemption started in the heart of God: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
Why did God so love us that he gave us his best gift? Because, the Bible says, God is love. The Bible never says God is wrath. He’s capable of wrath, but his core being is love. But we have to provoke him to wrath. But we don’t have to prod him into loving us. He is love. Love flows out of him. This is who God is. This is the SuperPerson who created and governs this universe. Do we realize who we’re involved with? Have we swallowed John 3:16 whole? Why not now?
The greatness of God’s love is measured by this: “For God so loved the world.” God doesn’t love just virtuous people. God doesn’t love just people who belong to a favored group or caste or elite. God loves the whole world. And John’s point is not how big the world is but how bad the world is. Verse 19, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.” We do terrible things in the darkness, and then we deny it. But God sees everything. And that place of darkness and hypocrisy is the world God so loved. Yes, we’re all nice people here this morning. The thing is, we’re nice, evil people, whom God so loved.
How did he prove his love? He asked nothing of us. He gave us his only Son, the Delight of his heart. God has given us a lot more. He’s given us a gorgeous creation to live in, bodies with self-healing powers, minds that can figure things out, relationships that make life rich, and so on. But all these earthly gifts of God come and go. If we base our confidence in God’s love on our health or our safety or any other gift tied to the moment, we’ll never be sure of God. So God revealed his love with such finality that we can know for keeps: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” God did not loan his Son; he gave him. And he gave him up at the cross. John Flavel, the pastor of centuries ago, described Jesus like this:
Christ infinitely transcends the most excellent of created beings. Whatever loveliness is found in them, it is not without a distasteful tang. The fairest pictures must have their shadows. The rarest and most brilliant gems must have dark backgrounds to set off their beauty. The best creature is but a bittersweet at best. If there is something pleasing, there is also something distasteful. If a person has every excellence to delight us, yet there is also some natural corruption intermixed with it to put us off. But it is not so in our altogether lovely Christ. His excellencies are pure and unmixed. He is a sea of sweetness, without one drop of gall.
There’s nothing about Jesus we need to filter out. We can receive him with abandoned openness. And Jesus is the commitment God has made to our tragic world. The Bible says, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9) – that is, at cost to him, and not to us.
Here is our part:
that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life
We weren’t created to perish. We were created to live and thrive and flourish forever. It’s what we long for. But we are very perishable, very vulnerable. And what’s worse, we deserve it. We know we should be kind, but we’ve all been predatory. We know we should be just, but we’ve all been selfish and cruel. Above all else, we should love God and live for him and have a blast doing so. But we’ve turned a beautiful thing into an ugly thing in our own eyes. We’ve all blamed God, as if he were our problem. We deserve to perish.
What does it look like for us to “perish”? That is hell. But how do we see hell starting even in this life? In 1969 Samuel Beckett, in the Theater of the Absurd, wrote a play entitled “Breath.” The whole play lasts about thirty-five seconds. There are no actors. The curtains part to reveal a pile of garbage on stage. The only sound is a human cry, followed by silence, followed by a whimper as the lights fade out. End of play, end of story, end of life. That is perishing—a lifetime leaving behind a trail of worn out clothes, old computers, lost opportunities, a funeral, and the death of everyone who wept at your funeral, and you don’t matter ever again, except when you stand before God in eternity, where you will answer for rejecting his love and wasting your life. Hell is for people who could have had the love of God but held back. The Bible says, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). That is perishing. C. S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
But Jesus lived the perfect life we’ve failed to live and died the guilty death we deserve to die, clearing the way for God to lavish his love forever on people who don’t love God but who need to be loved by God. All God asks of us, all we can do, is open up and receive him: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
That word “believe” – that’s our way back into the love of God. We can’t deserve him. But we can have him by believing in him. What then does the word “believe” mean? That is the most crucial question in your life today. What does it mean to believe in Jesus as God’s only Son?
The apostle John never uses the noun “faith.” He only uses the verb “believe.” And he uses it in a new way. Never before in Greek literature did anyone use the word “believe” the way John does. Our English Bible says “whoever believes in him.” But a literal translation is “whoever believes into him.” That’s how we get out of our pride and despair – by opening up so that our defenses go down and we get into him. Maybe you believe in Jesus the wrong way. I googled “believe in” and found out I can believe in Ohio, I can believe in young people, and I can believe in UFO’s. Obviously, John means something more. He tells us in different ways here in his Gospel:
His own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed into his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:11-12). Believing is receiving.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes into me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Believing is coming.
Believing into Jesus = receiving him = coming to him. It’s our hearts turning and moving toward Jesus. This new mentality pushes aside the barriers of aloofness and detachment and guardedness and suspicion. This new mentality replaces that with simple openness of heart, and the love of God flows in. But if you still feel uneasy, if you fear you can’t believe in that way, or you fear that if you tried you couldn’t keep it up, let me ask you this. What if God helped you? What if God added his power? If you’d like him to, he will. Is there any reason not to accept that?
Believing John 3:16 will lift you up and get you involved in God’s mission in the world today. That’s why verse 17 is here. It’s about the mission of God.
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
Can we all admit it? Being saved is embarrassing. Who wants to be saved? We all want to say, “I’ve got this. I can handle it.” Fortunately, that doesn’t stop God.
When I was in high school, one Saturday I was with friends down at San Clemente. We were out in the surf having a great time. The break was pretty far out from shore. But we were strong. We were fifteen. We could handle it. At one point I looked back toward the shore and here were two lifeguards swimming out toward us. I asked one of them as he got close, “Who are you going to rescue?” He said, “You.” And he grabbed me around my chest and swam back in with me and dragged me up on the shore. I was humiliated – rescued right there in front of all my friends. What happened? It was obvious to the life guards, as it wasn’t obvious to us, that the current was slowly taking us out to sea. We wouldn’t have realized it, until we were too far out and too exhausted to swim back. So they came and got us.
Jesus did not come into this world to let us sink on our own and then gloat. He came to rescue us. Our pride only highlights the grace of his mission. It’s proud people who don’t need to be saved that he’s pursuing today.
If you accept John 3:16, now he is calling you to join him in the mission of John 3:17. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21) – not to condemn people, not to corner them or pressure them but to make it easier for them to believe in Jesus. That’s our mission – to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond.