READ : John 3:16-17
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 sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
John 3:16-17 rsv
It was a new idea that dawned on people in the first century: God loves the world. The idea of God, of course, was not new. The people of Israel had worshiped for centuries the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They knew Him as the Creator and sustainer of all things, the holy Lord, the Covenant-keeper. And they were familiar with the idea of God loving Israel, His chosen people. But no passage is known in which any Jewish writer before the first century ever taught that God loved the world. That’s a distinctively Christian idea – that God’s love and kindness is wide enough to embrace all mankind. It’s not confined to a certain national group or to some spiritual elite. It’s a love that proceeds from who God is, from the fact that God is love.
What does it mean to say God “loved the world”? The apostle John doesn’t mean that God has an especial affection for this planet, this blue and white ball floating in space. And surely God doesn’t love all that goes on in the world, its murders and infidelities, its wars and tragedies. No, the good news is that God loves human beings. In all their estrangement and confusion, all their sin and brokenness, all their rebellion and despair, God loves people.
That’s the best news ever, isn’t it? Think of what it means to know that the One who spoke all the galaxies into being, who upholds and orders this vast universe, has a heart of concern for earth-dwellers, tiny, frail, mortal creatures like us! It’s a wonder it’s not in the headlines every day: “God loves this world!” It’s strange that we don’t marvel at it every time we walk down the street or watch people in a subway or on a beach. God loves these people: this one, that one, that one. Isn’t that something?
Now we’re going to discover what is even more remarkable: how much God loves the world. Did you ever see a little child trying to describe the size of something vast? “How big is it?” you ask her. She stretches out her little hands as far as she can and says, “So big!” That is, as large as she can stretch, reach, or imagine. How great God’s love? Listen. It’s the most familiar, beloved verse in all the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” How much did God love? So much that He gave.
Do the tenses of the verbs here confuse you a little bit? It’s not loves. It’s loved. It’s not gives. It’s gave. In other words, we’re not reading about a general attitude of kindness and compassion on God’s part. We’re learning about a specific act, something that expresses and demonstrates the love of God, something that happened in space and time here on the earth.
God so loved that He gave. His love led Him to bestow a gift upon us, the best gift He had to give. God so loved the world that He gave His Son, His only Son, for us.
God gave Him in a two-fold way. He gave His Son by sending Him into the world in the miracle that happened on the first Christmas. Down from the glory to a stable on earth, God sent Him, the well-beloved One, heaven’s best.
God gave His Son also when He offered Him up to die, when He provided Him for us as a Savior by having Him bear our sins and sorrows. God not only gave Jesus. He gave Him up to die on our behalf. He sent Him as a sacrifice for us.
What makes that so astonishing is our complete unworthiness of such a gift. The apostle Paul sings about it, “Why, one will hardly die,” he writes, “for a righteous man, though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8). When we were rebellious, when we were estranged, when we were lost and undeserving,” God gave. That’s the measure of His love. That’s how big it is.
Notice that the death of Jesus is here said to show us not only the love of the Son, Jesus, but also that of the Father. Everything Jesus did and suffered, and supremely His sin-bearing death, testifies to God’s love. It was God who provided the Savior. It was God who laid on Him the iniquity of us all, as the prophet says. It was God who made this rare and costly gift.
Remember when Abraham was about to offer up his son Isaac? When the old patriarch had raised his arm to slay the son he loved more than his own life, God stopped him. God pointed out a ram that had been caught in the thicket nearby. The ram became a substitute sacrifice. Abraham didn’t have to do that utterly heart-breaking thing in slaying His Son (see Gen. 22). But when Jesus was about to die on Golgotha, there was no intervention. God didn’t spare His Son, but gave Him up for us all.
When we begin to think about that, God offering His only Son to die for the sins of the world, we wonder why such a costly gift, such a terrible price was required. John says it was so that the people in this world “might not perish.” Ponder how much is assumed by that. God looks on this apparently as a perishing world, not only because the sun will one day cool, its fires burn out, this planet freeze in the blackness of space. Or, given a different scenario, the sun will vastly expand and become a supernova, burning the earth to a crisp. No, not only that. The people in the world are perishing. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. All have suppressed the light they had and turned their faces away. All because of their disobedience and rebellion stand under the judgment of a holy God. All without exception are thus at the risk of perishing, dying the death of which physical mortality is a grim sign. All are on the way to final banishment from the presence of God.
That’s why such a radical intervention of God was needed. That’s why the gift of all gifts was bestowed, the supreme sacrifice made. There was no other way in which people could be rescued from perishing, no other way in which they could be spared the condemnation we all deserve. Rescue, deliverance was on God’s mind and heart when in love He gave His Son. He wanted us back, wanted to save us from our sins.
But that’s only a part of it. Salvation is more than an escape. It’s also a restoration. It’s not only sparing us from death; it means giving us true life. Jesus said that about His ministry, didn’t He? “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Eternal life means not only a life that will never end. It means specifically the life of the coming age, a new kind of life, life in fellowship with God, the life for which He destined us.
We often hear the phrase in our time, “the quality of life.” We’re all conscious that there’s more to living than bare existence, than mere survival. People say at times they’re “really living” when a dimension of joy, zest and fulfillment is added to their daily experience. The gospel is saying that the fullest life we know here is only a glimpse and foretaste of the life which is life indeed. Real life begins, we begin to savor it, as Jesus put it, “when we know . . . the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (John 17:3), when we are, that is, born again into God’s family.
That two-fold purpose to deliver and renew us is expressed again in the next verse, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” It’s not Jesus coming and dying that condemns us. That’s not why He came. We’re condemned already. That venture of the Lord into human experience is not for the purpose of judging or punishing us but making us completely whole, restoring in us the lost, marred image of God, making us all that we’re meant to be. That is absolutely central to the mission of Jesus. He came to save us and to give us eternal life.
So we see the fact, the amazing fact of God’s love for us, the astonishing measure of it in that He gave His Son and its purpose, that we should be rescued from perishing and brought into the joy of life eternal. Now there’s one more thing I want you to see in this matchless verse. It’s a word about your response, and mine. It’s a message about how we avail ourselves of this unspeakable gift. Listen again, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The “whoever” here indicates that the offer is as wide as the world. No one from any background, race, nation, class, condition is excluded. Anyone who believes in Jesus has this true life – right now.
Do you know what it means to believe in someone? It means at least this, that you trust that person’s word, right? To believe in Jesus means to accept as true the things He says. When Jesus says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9), you take Him at His word, that He is the full and final revelation of God. When He says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), you believe the affirmation that in Jesus God Himself has come to us. And when He says, “I am the way . . . no one can come to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6), you receive the truth of that, that He is the one Savior. So to believe in Jesus involves knowing what He said, knowing the claims of the gospel and accepting them as true, taking the Lord at His word.
Yet even that doesn’t say it all. Believing in a person is always more than an intellectual thing, more than accepting the truth of certain statements. Always included is an element of trust and commitment. Believing in Jesus means believing in His promises, in what He will do. Suppose you’re critically ill and a surgical procedure is required to save your life. Your doctor has performed this kind of operation many times, with a remarkable record of success. You may say to him that you believe he’s a good doctor and that he’s well able to perform this life-saving surgery for you. But the sign that you trust him as a doctor is finally the fact that you commit yourself to his care. You believe in his good will toward you. You trust in his knowledge and skill and so you submit to the surgery. In a very real sense, you are putting your life in that doctor’s hands.
Faith in Jesus Christ is something like that. You believe that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. You believe that He died for you and rose again and that this represents an amazing gift of God’s love. Faith then becomes real and personal for you when you entrust yourself to Jesus, when you turn over your life to Him. You commit yourself to His saving power. You welcome His present lordship over your life.
Have you done that yet? Or are you still on the way? Have you told the Great Physician that you’re willing for Him to take your case? And are you relying on Him completely to do for you what you can’t do for yourself? If you are, if you will this day believe in Jesus as the heaven-sent Savior, or if you have trusted Him already, I have news for you. I’ve been sent and commissioned by the Lord to tell you that you will never perish. You have eternal life. Thanks be to God!
Prayer: Thank You, God, that You loved the world so much as to give Your only Son. May that great good news come home to every heart today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.