Over the holidays I’ve been thinking about John 3:16 and its implications for humanity so I thought I’d write a bit about it before getting back to Hebrews. The text is probably the most familiar of any other texts in Scripture. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Because of its familiarity we tend to overlook the power and promise of this amazing verse. The verse begins with “for” which refers us back to verses 12-15:
12 “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The context is centered round Nicodemus coming to see Jesus in order to confirm that Jesus was someone very special and who had a great message for Israel. Jesus reads Nicodemus’ heart and reveals the true meaning of the gospel to him. Nicodemus, being a high Jewish official, is totally confused by Jesus and his message so Jesus explains.
He equates to Nicodemus a story that he would be very familiar with about the snakes biting the people during the Exodus journey and how anyone who looked up at the pole with the bronze snake suspended upon it was healed. (See Numbers 21:8-9)
Nicodemus would have known immediately this was a symbol of salvation but now Jesus is telling him that the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up as a sacrifice that those who “believe in Him may have eternal life.”
And just in case Nicodemus is still not getting the implication of the story Jesus comes right out and pronounces, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Have you ever wondered what it means “God so loved the world?” Jesus didn’t die in order that God could love us, instead Jesus died for our sins because the Father already loves us. The Bible is the story of a searching Father seeking His lost children. In the garden God calls out, “Adam where are you?” and He asks Cain “where is your brother?”
The whole point of Ezekiel is that God travels with His people into captivity and doesn’t leave them godless in a foreign country. (Just in case you ever wondered what the wheel within the wheel is about, it is about God going with His people and that was a whole new concept.) The story of the Prodigal Son, the lost sheep, the lost coins are also about God seeking us.
Notice who it is that God loves; it is the whole world. This is a mind blower when we realize that men like Nicodemus, and way too many modern day Christians, think God only loves them. For Nicodemus, the idea that God loved gentiles was over-the-top and for many of us the idea that God could love anyone who is not of our denomination or way of thinking is also radical.
Now if we take it a step further, God even loves those who are not Christians and He loves agnostics and atheists. God even loves ISIS members. It doesn’t mean that all these people are saved but it does mean that God weeps over each of their refusals to allow Him to love them and accept them and forgive them.
So, how does God love the world? He gave His only Son. Now this is not talking about being a son literally as if somehow Jesus was the offspring of God. It is talking about Jesus from a theological point of view based in New Testament theology where the term is found over forty times. The Son was the Messiah who came to earth in the form of man (fully God and fully man) and gave His life for us that we might have harmony with the Father. The sin problem that kept us separated from the Holy God was removed through Jesus sacrifice at Calvary.
Now here is the kicker, God gave His only Son so that, “everyone who believes in Him may not perish.” The heart of the Gospel is really clear. We are saved by grace alone, by Christ alone through faith alone. Anything added to that is not the gospel. There is no such thing as you are saved by grace—but… Anything we add to the gospel takes away from the amazing grace of God and throws salvation into the works camp. This would have stunned Nicodemus and tore him to the core as he was brought up and taught that a works based religion had merit.
No it does not—a thousand times no!
Salvation is for everyone who believes. The whole world is loved but only those who believe are saved. Look – if we can’t accept this text alone but have to add to it then we just don’t get the gospel and we sure don’t understand it. Our Christian walk is important but it is not what saves us and has no part in saving us. It is grace that saved wretches as us.
And for everyone who believes, we have eternal life. Eternal life means exactly what it says—we live forever. Now we might have one important question to ask about this text and that is, “what does it mean to believe?”
To believe is to trust Jesus. Do you believe that God loves you, died for the forgiveness of your sins and offers you eternal life? In other words do you have faith in Jesus words as spoken in John 3:16? Do you believe that God loves you unconditionally and with every sinew of His heart? (God is Spirit but you know what I mean)
Do you believe that you are absolutely not worthy of such amazing grace but accept that it is offered to you in spite of your sinfulness? Do you trust God to lead you in the good times and the bad? Let me ask one last question. Even if you are not sure about the questions I just asked do you still long for them to be true for you? If you do you, understand grace.
No one understands grace that thinks they deserve it or have earned it. It is only when we come to the point that we recognize how messed up, sinful, and rebellious we really are that we understand the power of grace. Ruth was reading me an article off the Internet this morning by a man who was talking about how “true Christianity” is about having the strength to keep all the laws, even all the instructions on the Sermon on the Mount. He didn’t see that Jesus died for us because we don’t and can’t keep the laws. If we could do all that then we don’t need a redeemer. This gentleman is spending his life trying to please God through obedience to a series of laws that only point out his failures.
I love John 3:16. Maybe every Christian should have this text tattooed on their heart; after all it is the essence of the New Covenant.