‘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]
Can I make a confession? For years John 3:16, one of the most famous and the most treasured verses in the Bible, was one that I cared little for. Perhaps, like a hit record which is overplayed can go from being loved to loathed, I was over familiar with it having seen it once too many times plastered across some footballer’s vest, revealed as part of some goal scoring celebration. But, of course, I was wrong to feel this way. It truly is a remarkable verse, one that, when one thinks about it one that is truly shocking, one that only a fool could possibly imagine they could have become over familiar with.
Consider this. If, as a stranger, I ran up to you and gave you my best wishes and hoped that you would have a really good day, how would you feel? You’d probably think it was a bit odd, perhaps not unwelcome but certainly it’d be somewhat unexpected.
But what if, when I ran up to you, you were being a bit of a vandal and setting my car on fire? How would you feel if, despite your actions, I told you not to worry, that I’d pay the cost to buy myself a new car and then I continued to insist on offering you my best wishes and my hope that you would have a really good day?
Now what if, in addition to all that, I pulled out my chequebook and wrote you a cheque for £100 million pounds. How would you feel now?
And then imagine that you learnt that I had had to sell my most treasured possession, a castle I owned up in the Scottish highlands, in order to make the funds available, and that I was now, as a consequence, living on the streets. Now how would you feel?
And finally what if you learnt that I was the King of England?
That would be a remarkable thing to have occurred. A shocking thing even. But it would be nothing compared to what we read of God’s loves for us in John 3:16. Here’s why..
Firstly John 3:16 teaches us that God loves the world.
Now we should not take that for granted. There is no particular reason why God should love the world – it’s not that the world has done anything particularly nice for God, something that he really appreciates and which has earned his love. Even so, God loves the world.
That in itself is remarkable.
But it’s more amazing than that. Because this verse also teaches us that God loves a world that will, if he doesn’t act as a result of his love, perish. And why would it perish – because of the judgement that God will inflict on the world because of its sinfulness. John 3:16 tells us however, that God loves the world despite it behaving in a way that he hates!
And that really is amazing!
But it’s even more amazing than that. God loves this world, a world that behaves in a way that he hates, in such a way that, not only does he secure, for those who believe, salvation from eternal punishment, but also goes on to lavish them with great blessing. That is, he gives them eternal life.
What an amazing blessing!
But it gets even more amazing still. God loves this world, a world that behaves in a way that he hates, and changes the fate of those who believe from eternal punishment to eternal life, all at great personal cost to himself. He sends his only son, Jesus on a mission which is purposefully planned to end with his death, nailed and lifted up on a Roman cross so that we might look to him and be saved.
And let’s not forget who it is who is doing all this – none other than Almighty God
So you see, John 3:16 is a remarkable verse, a wonderful summary of the gospel. But before we leave it there it’s worth pointing out that the ‘so’ in ‘God so loved the world’ should not be understood to mean ‘how very much’ God loves the world. Though God does ‘sooooo’ love the world, the meaning here is God loves the world ‘like so’.
And this is where the dividing up into sections of our modern Bibles, whilst generally helpful, is less so. Because John 3:16 is here referring back to the previous verses, to John 3:14-15. There Jesus is explaining how, just as back in Numbers 21, Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that any who had been bitten by a snake could look at it and be saved from death, so too Jesus, the Son of Man, would also be lifted up. He would be lifted up on the cross and, as a result, whoever looks to him would also be saved from death.
This is the way God loved the world. He loved it like so, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
There are those who teach, even within supposedly evangelical circles, that Jesus did not die a substitutionary death on our behalf. They even go so far as to suggest that were God to have laid on Jesus the punishment we deserved, he would have been guilty of ‘cosmic child abuse’. They suggest that Jesus’ death is merely a demonstration of his love for us. But it’s more than just that. As we frequently sing, ‘… on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’. Jesus’ death satisfied God’s need for justice. God is a God of justice and if he is to be just our sin must be punished, either by Jesus bearing it on our behalf or, alternatively, by our having to bear it ourselves.
Jesus death is not just a demonstration of God’s love – it is in itself an act of love, one that achieves our salvation. our rescue. If I’m walking along the river with my wife and I turn to her and say ‘Darling, I love you so much and because I want to show you how much I love you I’m going to throw myself into the river’ – and then promptly proceed to do just that and drown, I am what is commonly known as an idiot! If however, as we walk along the riverbank she falls in and begins to drown, and I jump into rescue her but, in so doing, lose my own life, then I have acted out of love. I will have done a good thing though no where near as great a thing as the son of God who, of infinitely greater worth than I, died for those who were only deserving of death.
Lastly one other mistake we must be careful not to make is to say something foolish like you can tell how much God thinks we are worth on account of how much he was prepared to sacrifice to save us. God certainly values us, he loves us as his children, but he doesn’t love us because of our merits, rather, he loves us because he loves us. He loves us to make us lovely, to make us worthy objects of the love he already has for us unworthy though we are. To say that Jesus died for us because we were worth dying for is to talk, as Luther would have said, like a ‘theologian of glory’ and would be tantamount to a denial of grace. We should think like one of Luther’s ‘theologians of the cross’ and see how God paid there, not the market price for our salvation but rather a ludicrously high price for us, not because we are so wonderful but because he is so gracious, not because we are so lovely, but because he is so loving. To say that he paid what we are worth would be the equivalent of some gangster bragging of his worth on account of the high value of the reward that was being offered for his capture. Rather than indicative of his worth, that price would reflect the seriousness of his crimes. And so it is with the crucifixion of Jesus, that was the price that was required to save us, so great is our sinfulness.
And that is why John 3:16 is such a famous verse, one that is rightly treasured by so many and one with which we can not possibly become over familiar. Because it truly is amazing, that God really did so love the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.