December 22, 2019
Just a couple weeks ago, YouVersion released the most “popular verse” of 2019. You likely know YouVersion – you may have it on your phone, as do I. It’s an app you can use to read the Bible wherever you are, get a verse of the day, look up verses in one of 2000 versions in 1350 languages. There are currently over 400 million users of YouVersion worldwide. Anyway, the most popular verse for this year, determined by the number of times it was accessed, shared, or highlighted, was Philippians 4:6, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
You can go back for several years – both on YouVersion and another popular app called Bible Gateway. They’ll even list the top ten verses, and it varies from year to year, and app to app. But always near the top is John 3:16. If you don’t see it on your Bible app, you see it at various sporting events – in the end zones, behind backstops or basketball goals. The thought in positioning the verse before a national audience, I suppose, is people can become Christians by reading John 3:16.
We all know the verse. It’s one of the first we ever memorized – arguably the most well-known verse in the Bible. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Google John 3:16, and you’ll get 121 million hits. The In-n-Out Burger chain prints the reference on the bottom of all their cups and French Fry wrappers. Martin Luther called it “the gospel in miniature.”
I would suggest further it is the essence of Christmas, with one significant difference. We buy gifts for people we love or even like, who we think deserve the gifts – sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, etc. After all, the song says, Santa keeps a list, checking it twice, going to find out whose naughty or nice. Sit on one of the ubiquitous Santa’s laps, and he will invariably ask, have you been good this year? And we determine who is on which list and buy accordingly. If you’re good, our children are led to believe, you receive nice gifts. If not, well, not.
But I am suggesting this Christmas verse of John 3:16, in its context, says God gave when we did not deserve it. It’s not like we made God’s good list and got good stuff. The opposite is actually true – we made His bad list, and He loved us, anyway. Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent – love – and love is seen in no greater way than John 3:16, especially when seen in its context. When wrenched from that context – it declares God’s great love without the undeserved nature of it. I could say it like this – it gives the gift, without the need. It gives the pardon without the guilty verdict. It actually profanes the gift – as if we get it, because we somehow deserve it. You see, God gave His Son on Christmas, but here’s the question, why? Why did we need Him? When you’re buying gifts – don’t you try to figure out what the person for whom you’re buying wants, or needs? Why did we need the first Christmas gift?
Further, again, did we earn the gift? Is it because we were good, and like Santa’s list, we made the good list, and not the naughty list? The truth is, if we got what we deserved, it would a bag of coal, to fuel the fires of hell. You see, Christmas has been hijacked to make it the giving of gifts to those who deserve them. The true meaning of Christmas is the opposite. I can’t help but think Screwtape is quite pleased with Wormwood’s success with subverting Christmas.
Again, John 3:16 has a context. That’s why it’s 3:16 – it implies at least two chapters and 15 verses before it and some 20 verses after it. And it’s actually found in the context of a book with 21 chapters. It comes on the heels of a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus – that’s why John 3:16 begins with the word, For. That sets the very important, indispensable context – a conversation where Jesus declared Nicodemus’ need to be born again. Yes, Nicodemus, even you, a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, the teacher of Israel – even you need to be born again. Why? Verses 18 and following – because Nicodemus and in fact every person who has ever lived or will live has a need for the gift of John 3:16 – the gift of God’s Son because of His unrequited love. Here’s the truth: we are already judged – that is, already condemned. We’ve all broken God’s law and stand in need of a Savior. Enter Jesus and John 3:16. Let’s read the verses we’re going to look at this morning, keeping the essential context in mind. John 3:16-21.
I’ve only preached John 3:16 once before. I’ve used it, but only preached it once in it’s necessary context. And it is consistent with the rest of Scripture: God does love the world, and that love stands in stark contrast to its dark background. You see, the world has a great need – it stands condemned. Therefore, because of His love, God sent His Son, His one and only unique Son, on Christmas, to redeem the world. He gave His Son, ultimately on the cross, so that through His death and resurrection and our subsequent faith, we could be born again and have eternal life. That’s an incredible gift. Let me give you the outline:
- The Remedy for the World (16-17)
- The World’s Need for the Remedy (18-21)
Now, if you have a red letter edition Bible, the verses we just read are likely printed in red ink. As you may know, the letters in red in the New Testament are theoretically the words of Jesus. You see, there were no quotation marks when John wrote his gospel, and he didn’t switch to a red pen, either. Therefore, all those red letters are just good guesses. And so, it is guessed, Jesus said these things at the end of his conversation with Nicodemus. While that’s possible, most today believe these verses are actually a commentary by John on Jesus’ conversation. In other words, most today believe they shouldn’t be in red. I tend to think that’s correct.
Having said that, it gives me the opportunity to remind us of something very important. This is the word of God – every word in it. We believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture as originally written. Meaning, God inspired every word without error when John and Paul and Peter and the other 35 or so authors wrote. Every word, inspired just as God wanted. That means, the red letters are no more important than the rest of the Bible – it is all God’s Word. We have a tendency to pay a little more attention to those red letters, and I suppose there’s no harm, as long as we realize, it’s all important. So even when I talked about the most popular verse of 2019, it’s only one verse of over 31,000 really good verses.
So again, what we have here, I believe, are John’s thoughts on what Jesus said to Nicodemus. Jesus has just told Nicodemus (St. Nick) that all must be born again if they want to see the Kingdom of God – Jew, Gentile, man, woman, teacher, learner, ruler, follower, blue collar, white collar, American, Middle Eastern, Asian, African – it does not matter. Everyone must look to the Son and believe as He was lifted up from the earth, on a cross.
Now, why did God send His Son on that first Christmas? Look at verses 16 and 17 as we see the remedy for our sinful, condemned position. For God so loved the world. That tells us why God did what He did. Remember, the word forkicks us back to verses 14 and 15 – “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” For so, God loved the world.
Now, the word so in verse 16 doesn’t speak of degree, but of manner. The word is used many times in John’s gospel, and never means degree – it always refers to manner. Which means, we don’t read it this way, “For God loved the world so much that He gave His Son” – that’s degree. Rather, we read it this way, “For so God loved the world – in this manner God loved the world: He gave His Son.” I know it’s a minor difference, and there are no great theological differences that result – but it’s important because it’s what the author meant when he wrote it. This is how we know God loved the world – He gave His Son to be lifted up.
That is an amazing, incomprehensible truth. It’s really indescribable (which is why Paul, later speaking of this truth in II Corinthians 9, said, “thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.” This Wednesday, you’ll open gifts, and some will be really cool. But you’ll be able to say, I got the Iphone 11, or the Frozen 2 movie – and that’s all you’ll need to describe it. Even if you get a gift from Neiman Marcus’ Christmas catalog, you’ll still be able to describe it in a sentence or two. But God’s gift to us on the first Christmas? Indescribable. I’ll make a feeble attempt to help us plumb some of the depths of these indescribable truths. I can’t use adjectives big enough to proclaim this. There is much we need to see.
For so, in this way, God loved the world. Stop right there. Kosmos is the word for world. Of its almost 200 uses in the New Testament, it’s almost always used in connection with the sinful condition of the world – the evil world system. Listen, we’re not talking about the planet earth here. God did not love the planet – this is not a biblical basis for love your mother earth.
Rather, John tells us, God loved this sinful world. Which means God’s love for the world is to be admired not because the world is so big, but because the world is so bad. That is a truth we could camp on for awhile. We could start with the word, love. It’s the word agape, which speaks of a self-sacrificing kind of love. That’s true for sure, because this love caused God to give His only begotten Son.
Now, for us, love is found in the loveliness of the object loved. We love a movie because it was interesting, kept our attention, full of action or adventure, love and romance. We love a meal because it’s good. Again, for most of us, that’s why we buy the special gifts for the special ones at Christmas. They are loved. We love something because there’s something loveable about it. The truth is, if we’re honest, for most of us, our love is conditional. For example, when we fall in love and eventually marry someone, it’s because we find something loveable about the other person. There’s something that causes us to say, “Will you marry me?” and something that causes us to reply, “Yes.” I mean, let’s be honest – not many of us found the most unattractive, most unlovable, most undesirable person on the planet and said, will you be my bride?
But there is a sense in which that is exactly what God did. He sent His Son to die for and receive a bride from among the most undesirable of His creation. God loved the world. That’s amazing. He would have been perfectly just and holy and reasonable and right to send the whole of us straight to hell, which is what we deserved. But He loved us. Can you explain that? If you don’t hear anything else today – hear that – God loves you.
Paul says it’s indescribable. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. We were by nature objects of His wrath, but God made us alive in Christ because of His great love for us. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons and daughters. God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Here’s a good one – Titus 3:4-5:
“But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness [not on the basis of our loveliness], but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”
The idea of redemption is paying a price for a slave – to buy us back to be His bride. A bride price was paid, if you will, and the price was high. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. The Greek word monogenes means one and only, unique. God gave all He had to give – His only, unique Son – there was no other to give. Romans 8 says it this way, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all.” Indescribable gift.
Notice this: God loved the world. Meaning, His love for humankind is without distinction. It’s not race or ethnic or gender or even nationality specific. God’s grace was not for a specific people group – it is for all who believe. Even the Abrahamic Covenant, given to the father of the Jewish nation, made this clear – through you, Abraham, all the families of the earth will be blessed. His love and consequent grace are not race or national origin specific. They are not age or gender specific. They are not even sinner specific – as if He loves some sinners, and not others. Get that, He loves sinners, and desires to save them. Look at verse 17, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
His purpose was to save us. Notice – Jesus was not sent to judge the world. Now, at first glance, that seems a little confusing, because there are verses which indicate Jesus will judge the world. For example, in John 5:22, Jesus says, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son.” In 9:39, Jesus clearly says, “For judgment I came into this world,…” So which is it?
The explanation is this: Jesus came the first time to seek and save the lost. He did not come to judge or condemn the world – in fact, we’ll see in a moment, the world already stands condemned. The very fact of salvation for all who believe implies judgment for those who do not. And so, He will pass judgment and consequent condemnation on some in the future. But, His first coming was to give His life a ransom for many, that they might be saved.
Might be saved. We should not think salvation is universal in that everyone is saved because Jesus came. Everyone can celebrate Christmas, but the truth of Christmas alone does not save. No, we need to believe and trust the truth of Easter – that Jesus died and rose again, that we might be saved. Verses 18-21 make that clear as we move to our second point – the Need for the Remedy. There is a need – John 3:16 alone isn’t enough.
These verses are John’s commentary – John’s way of saying what Jesus meant – you must be born again. You must believe Jesus is who He said He was, and He did what He came to do – namely, be lifted up on the cross so that all who believe in Him can have eternal life.
I saved the last part of the famous John 3:16 for now, “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” To believe is to have eternal life, and to not believe is to remain in your already condemned state and to perish. Notice, there is no third option. There is no reincarnation, no second chances – eternal life with Christ or perish.
To have eternal life is to know God through His Son and be in relationship with Him such that you experience the blessings that flow from that relationship, both now and in the life to come. Conversely, to perish is to not know God and not experience His blessings – both now and in the life to come. It means God’s wrath remains on you and therefore you experience that wrath for eternity.
I find it interesting that many today try so hard not to offend people with the gospel – this perishing thing is so negative. We see these kinds of man on the street interviews where people are asked things like, “What do you think about Christians?” or, “Christians think you need to be saved – do you feel lost?” And when the man or woman on the street rails against Christians, saying things like, “I’m really offended when someone tries to convert me” or, “I’m really offended when they tell me I’m a sinner, those hypocrites,” or, “I don’t feel lost,” or “I was born right the first time.”
The result then has been to remove the offense of the gospel. Let’s not tell them they’re sinners. Let’s just give them John 3:16 without context – let’s just tell them God loved them so much He sent His Son for them. My question is why? To die for them. Why? To be in relationship with them. Fine, but why did Jesus have to die to be in relationship?
Because we stand condemned. And it is true, the world, people don’t generally like that part of the message. We shouldn’t expect the world to like that – to think our message wonderful. Paul said the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. They dragged Paul out of the city, stoned him and left Him for dead. Jesus said, if they hated me, they will hate you also. They crucified Him. If you had done a man-on-the-street interview back then, I doubt they’d have many favorable things to say about Jesus and Paul. To tell them is to offend them – it’s why the gospel is called the rock of offense. We’re not trying to win a popularity contest. But we are telling them, because we love them. It’s interesting so many think of Christians as bigots, as judgmental, as even hateful. That’s not true – we share because we love them. To not share the remedy for their sinful condition is the true definition of hate.
The point is – there is the remedy, John 3:16 – but there is also the need for the remedy – if you don’t believe in the name of the one and only Son, you’ll remain condemned in your sin, unforgiven, and you will perish. Offensive? Yes, it is. True? Yes it is. To perish means to be cast into eternal, conscious torment. It means eternal separation from God with His wrath remaining upon you. It means to pay for your own sin forever. Because you’ve broken God’s law – and you are condemned. And please notice – everyone is condemned, and the only remedy is to believe in Jesus. We see the exclusivity of Christ – the absolute necessity of believing in Him. There is no other way.
Therefore, verses 18-21, you must believe. John brings out the importance of faith. Yes, it is true that God loved the world and gave His Son for the world, but that does not automatically bring salvation. No one is saved without believing. No one is saved even by believing in Christmas – Santa or even the baby Jesus. And the sad fact is, many don’t – even when presented with the wonderful good news of the gospel. Why? Verse 19 – This is the judgment, that the Light [that’s Jesus] has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. Immersed in their wrongdoing, they have no wish to be disturbed – they like it there. They refuse to be shaken out of their comfortable sinfulness. And that is the root cause of their condemnation – evil deeds, which they love. There is a sense in which they condemn themselves.
You see, it comes down to a choice – a choice of remaining in moral darkness with your evil deeds which you love, or choosing to come into the Light, where you turn from your sin. Given the choice, many choose their sin. Broad is the road that leads to destruction, because they like their sin. And as a result, verse 20 – they hate the Light. That is, they hate Jesus.
And we know that to be true. No name so polarizes a room full of people than the name of Jesus. Those who know Him as their Savior love Him – those who don’t, who have chosen their sin, hate Him. Because His light exposes their deeds for what they are.
Verse 21 – but the one who practices the truth – as opposed to the darkness of evil deeds – comes into the Light. He or she has no fear their deeds will be seen – for they are true and good. Make no mistake about it – this is not a works salvation – that by doing good deeds they come into the light. Rather, the Light exposes their good deeds as having been done by God through them.
The point as we close this morning is this: God loves you – He demonstrated that by giving His Son to die for you. The free offer of the gospel of salvation is broad enough to include everyone – even the worst of sinners. But, it is narrow enough to include only those who believe in Christ and what He has done, and excludes all those who reject Him. It is a great Christmas gift.