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
We’ve been thinking about the Immanuel Playbook. When an NFL player is traded from the Cowboys to the Vikings, he learns a new playbook. That’s what we’ve been doing. The plays that will move the ball down the field are these:
We see ourselves as handmade by God for witness We’re a gospel-spreading community The Bible as good news from cover to cover Prayer that asks God for the great things only he can do Confessing our sins to one another and praying for each other Revival, the Holy Spirit pouring out the presence of Jesus A gospel culture where no one is shamed but everyone has room to grow Words from our mouths that heal and breathe life into people Freedom to be yourself, even as you’re considerate of others Not cultural Christianity but being born again of the Holy Spirit Using our money to display the generosity of Christ.
That’s eleven plays in our playbook, plus one more today. And every play is essential. Could you be happy with a church where Christians don’t witness, they don’t live in community, they treat the Bible as bad news, they don’t pray, they don’t confess their sins, they have no passion for revival, they pick on each other, they speak against each other, they regiment each other, they don’t believe in being born again and they budget their money with a “me-first” approach? God has called us to his life-giving ways. Let’s run the Coach’s plays, and let’s do it with all our hearts! My high school coach used to say, “Even if you don’t run the play well, if you give it your all, okay.” We’re not the world’s greatest Christians. But we can give it our all.
One more play today. It’s the best one of all. What is the gospel? It’s the good news that God loves evil people – and he loves them intensely. The key word in John 3:16 is the little word “so.” That’s a word of intensity. God so loved the world. That’s the good news of the Bible. Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Bible in miniature.” But everything about it is massive:
So great a Lover – For God;
So great a love – for God so loved;
So great an evil – 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.
But maybe by now we don’t feel the magnitude of John 3:16. Maybe by the time it comes through the multiple filters of bad sermons and the world’s denials and the devil’s whispers the voltage is so powered down that it sounds like this: “For God sort of liked the world that he gave a dash of religion, that whoever makes a decent effort should not screw up totally but have a moderately pleasant life.” Everyone on the face of the earth today needs to hear John 3:16 with all its original, startling power. Let’s think it through as we prepare for Communion today.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…”
He didn’t limit his love to the Jewish nation or to any spiritual elite. He embraced the world, and not a pretty world. In verse 19 John says, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their works were evil.” God loves you and me not because he discovers in us any reason for that love but because God is love. And his love is not a vague, sentimental benevolence. He proved his love in the gift of his Son. Jesus Christ is God’s gift to us. He is the gift. There are no gifts of God apart from Jesus. There is no love apart from Jesus. We measure all other loves by this standard: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” That is love. God has shown us that he loves us through the historical person named Jesus of Nazareth. And God gave him to us. He didn’t loan him. He didn’t merely display him. God committed himself by giving us his only Son. The Bible says, “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).
This is the good news. It’s the deeper, larger, more lasting truth behind all the other truths that get up in our faces and wear us down. Your life is all about the love of God in Jesus Christ. God gave him to you. What is this gift worth? Jesus lived a perfect life to fulfill human destiny, and he died a guilty death to atone for human sin. Then he was raised to life immortal, and now offers himself to you as the everlasting life you long for. Your deepest desires find their full satisfaction in him and in him only. And that changes how we see everything else.
There are two ways to look at this universe we’re stuck in. One is to see it as sinister, mocking our desires. The other way is to see it as exploding with love, inviting our trust. If the first is true, we should rage at everything, especially the positive things. If the second is true, we can never despair, no matter what happens, because God is for us.
Marilynne Robinson articulates how many people feel today in her book The Death of Adam:
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.
We’re swimming every day in the ocean of that cynicism. We embrace it ourselves, because we’ve been hurt and we don’t want to be taken advantage of again. But that way of thinking will keep us from God, if we apply it to him. If we don’t trust man, that’s understandable. But what if our sense of injury darkens our perception of God? What will that do to us? What options does that close off? Have we thought that through? Here are at least six ways you and I will change if we see God as a dark, forbidding person whose nature it is to bind us, deny us, refuse us and break our hearts:
We will see everything else with a darkened eye, because that dark God made everything else.
We will not fear hell, because what hell could be worse than a God like that?
We will not desire heaven, because why would we want to spend eternity with Someone like that?
We will have no taste for the Bible, prayer, church and witnessing, because it we do these things at all they will be only squeezed out of us very unwillingly.
We will raise our children, even if with a dash of Christianity, not to live all-out for the Lord, because we love our kids too much to consign them to such misery, however “right” it may be.
We will use our time, emotions, skills, money and opportunities to assemble around us a comfortable, safe, zero-risk, wealthy little world of personal selfishness, as so many try to do, and we will waste our lives and come to the end with nothing eternal to show for this earthly journey and we will head into eternity empty-handed, empty-hearted, unprepared, terrified, bitter and miserable.
If God is not love, then nothing is worth living for. But cynicism isn’t true to what’s actually out there. Cynicism is lying to us. What’s true and real is the love of God. We are surrounded every day with a love pressing in toward us, asking us to trust him and give him access to our hearts because he wants to heal us. That’s why he gave us Jesus – out of love for us. Love is bending over us, listening to us, caring for us, forgiving us, providing for us, preparing a place for us in eternity. Looking at the cross, the poet helped us see what God did there for us:
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.
The hidden narrative of our lives is not disappointment, emptiness, mockery. The truth of our existence is God’s love poured out on a guilty world. Let’s believe it with all our hearts.
“…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…”
I’m thankful for the word “whoever.” Anyone can enter into the love of God in this simple way: “whoever believes in him.” What does it mean to believe in him? Whatever John means by “believe in him,” it’s the only essential, the single requirement, for eternal life. God will not require something more later on. You can be who you are, as long as you believe in him. It’s all God wants. We don’t have to prove anything to God. We don’t have to make the grade. We only have to believe. What then does it mean for you and me to “believe in him”?
John uses this verb “believe” 98 times in his gospel. The noun “faith” never appears in John’s gospel. He speaks only of active “believing.” And the way he uses this verb appears nowhere in Greek literature prior to the New Testament. John created a new way to describe how we related to God. Let me put it literally. John does not say we should “believe in” Jesus, though our Bibles have to put it that way to make good English. John actually says we have to “believe into” Jesus. That’s how he puts it here in John 3:16 – “whoever believes into him.” Real Christianity is not just believing in Jesus but believing into Jesus. For example, “To all who received him, who believed into his name, God gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Believing into Jesus is receiving him rather than passing him by. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes into me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Believing into Jesus is coming to him for satisfaction, rather than go somewhere else. Real faith is leaving our cynicism behind and entering into Jesus Christ as the very atmosphere in which we see ourselves. His love redefines everything about us and changes us. That is John’s last point.
“…should not perish but have eternal life.”
What lies behind that word “perish”? Jesus uses that word in John 6:27 for food that gets old and rotten and spoiled. James uses the same word for a beautiful flower fading away (James 1:11). “Perish” is what we don’t want to happen to us. “Perish” is waste, destruction, hellfire and wrath infinite, just, appropriate, blazing forever and ever with no escape, no ease, no softening ever, ever, ever. But God loves people destined to perish. And in his love he gave his only Son. At the cross 2000 years ago, God’s justice was satisfied. Now he is freely offering you the life you long for. You may or may not have an ideal marriage. But if you have Christ, you’re not going to hell any more. That is the love of God, and that is your own ultimate happiness. Will you follow your own desires? When God says that his love and your longings come together as one in Christ, will you believe him? Will you forsake your cynicism and open your eyes to the love of God in Christ? Will you believe your way right into him?
God wants you to step over the line today from withholding yourself, guarding yourself, keeping your options open, to a clear and definite Yes to his love in Christ. Will you do that? As you see the love of God with new openness, this is what you should do. Embrace Christ. Whatever you need to let go of, embrace Christ. Stop believing in him. Go deeper. Start believing into him. If you will, God promises you eternal life.