“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 HCSB)
Perhaps the most well known verse in all the scriptures. Perhaps the verse is so well known that it has lost its impact and meaning to us. Let’s come back to one of the greatest summaries of God’s love in the scriptures and take a fresh look.
John 3 has recorded a discussion between Jesus and a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus. Nicodemus has come to Jesus with an incomplete belief. He believes that Jesus has come from God because of the signs that he performs. But this belief was insufficient because it did not lead to life transformation, called “new birth,” “born from above,” “born of water and the Spirit”, and “born again.” Nicodemus wants to know how this new birth can occur. The answer is that God has made it possible. God has sent Jesus to the earth to deliver the people. Jesus presents a parallel to the sinful problem in the wilderness. While Israel was in the wilderness the people began to complain against God. Venomous snakes were sent as a consequence for their sins and the people were dying from the snake bites. The people acknowledge their sin and cry out to Moses and God for help. God instructs Moses to place a bronze snake on a pole so that whoever looks to the bronze snake for help would be healed from the venomous bite. Jesus says that just as the serpent was lifted up for the healing of the people, so also Jesus would be lifted up for the healing of the people. The reason for this lifting up of Jesus is explained in this famous text, John 3:16.
For God Loved The World In This Way
Once again we come across a double meaning in John’s gospel. This verse is often understood only in terms of the intensity of God’s love. “God so loved the world” is used to describe how much God loved. God’s love was so deep for the entire creation. But the intensity of God’s love is described in the rest of the verse as we read about what God did. A few translations like the HCSB give an alternate translation to help us understand what is being declared. “For God love the world in this way.” It is not merely a declaration of the intensity of God’s love but also the manner of God’s love. The greater point is Jesus telling us that this is way God loved the world. This is the way we see the love of God. What we are reading is the demonstration of God’s love. God made eternal life available because of his love for his creation. God loves humanity. It should truly be a shocking thought. How can it be possible for the infinite, all-powerful, holy God to love finite, weak, and sinful humanity? How can God love rebellious, sinful people? When the people of Israel were in the wilderness complaining about their journey, complaining about the food they are eating, complaining about Moses’ leadership, and complaining about everything else along the way, the people were deserving of judgment and punishment. The people were even saying that God had brought them out into the desert to die. They are sinning, and not just sinning, but compounding their sins. They are not trusting in God. They are not believing in God. They are not surrendering their will to God. They are not acting like God’s transformed people, but like worldly, selfish dolts. God loves this wicked world. We have to get the heart of God for the world into our hearts. This is amazing love that we have difficulty understanding. Paul tried to draw us closer to understanding this love.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us (Ephesians 2:4 ESV)
…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17–19 ESV)
It is great love with which God has loved us. Paul says that you need to know the love of Christ that cannot be known. There is no boundary to God’s love it is so amazing, so great, and so unfathomable.
We are the ones who are to give to God. He is God. We are the ones with the debt and we are the ones who owe God. Yet we read such amazing words again. God gave. God sacrificed. In the face of the rebellion of the world, God gave. While people are sinning, God is giving a means for salvation. Again, consider the wilderness. God did not need to give those complaining Israelites anything. They were worthy of judgment because they were complaining, rebelling, and rejecting the Lord. Yet God gave to the people a means for salvation. We are in no different situation. Why should God do anything toward us at all? What should God give toward rebellious, complaining, wicked sinners like us? He certainly should not offer us love and grace! No one deserves what God has done. For God to look at his corrupted, wicked, and detestable creation and still love is staggering. God gave his Son, a promise that he had made hundreds of years before the Son’s arrival to earth.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6 ESV)
A son is given to us. God gave his one and only Son. We have seen this description of the Son back in the first chapter of John’s gospel. Remember that the point is not to suggest physical birthing or lineage. It is also means to be “one of a kind” and “unique.” This is the one of a kind, unique Son because he is divine. The divine Son comes to the earth and dies for the people.
Everyone Who Believes In Him
It is important not to rip this verse out of its context. Nicodemus has belief (2:24; 3:2) but Jesus still says that Nicodemus will not see the kingdom of God. Belief is not merely acknowledgement of Jesus. Belief is not a confession that Jesus came from God. Nicodemus makes that confession. Belief is not witnessing Jesus’ miracles. Belief is not accepting that Jesus is an important person. New birth is the fruit of true belief. Radical life transformation is the fruit of saving faith. Belief must be in Christ but that does not mean knowing who Jesus is. John started this section in John 2:23 that many were believing in Jesus but Jesus was not entrusting himself to them because their belief was incomplete and insufficient. There is to be life transformation to be joined to Christ. This is what Jesus means by belief in him.
Consider that there is no middle ground. A person either has life-changing belief or it is unbelief. If your belief in Jesus is not enough to cause you to leave everything, sacrifice everything, and be transformed by the Lord, then it is not belief but unbelief. True belief will always lead to transformation. Therefore Jesus lays down an important condition. Not everyone is going to be saved. Not everyone is going to see the kingdom of God. Not everyone is going to have eternal life. Only those who believe will have eternal life. Not everyone will receive this amazing gift of love. Many want to have simple belief in Jesus but are unwilling to experience the life transformation that Jesus depicts.
Notice the reality check that Jesus gives. It is easy to miss in these glorious statements about God’s love for the world. Jesus says that “everyone who believes in him will not perish.” This means that without Jesus we will all perish. Perishing is our certain destiny. Just as all were going to die in the wilderness because of the venom in their bodies from the snake bites, so we are all going to die spiritually because of the venom of sin coursing through our veins. All will perish except those who believe in him. This is why God sent his Son — so that people would not have to perish. We live in a time when people think there is no judgment. People think that God is love and that there can’t be a judgment. Listen to what Jesus is saying. God is love, and that is why he sent his Son. We are perishing. We have venom in our bodies. Sin is killing us in this desert. It is not a matter of God because God has provided the remedy to our perishing: life-transforming belief. God wails over the necessity of judgment upon his own people and the world and has made arrangements so that punishment can be avoided. Listen to what God speaks to Israel.
“If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself. (Ezekiel 18:10–13 ESV)
Notice God’s question: can a person who is wicked live? No, he cannot live because of all the abominations that he has done. He must die. His actions bear witness to his death. But that does not mean that this is the desire of God. Listen to the rest of the message from God.
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23 ESV)
God does not want us to perish but to turn from our wicked ways and find life. We are perishing in our sins because of what we have done. Our actions bear witness to our deserving of death. We are under wrath because of our actions. We have violated the holy laws of God. Apart from God’s love for the world no one would be or could be saved. But whoever truly believes in Jesus experiences the new birth (3:3,5), has eternal life (3:15-16), and is saved (3:17).
Therefore, how can Jesus not be our treasure? How can Jesus not mean everything to us? Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44 ESV) He is our treasure. He is our everything. A superficial coming to Jesus does not result in salvation. He must be our everything and in this a new birth occurs. Life transformation will take place when Jesus becomes our life treasure. We must see what God has done for us. The reason we sin is because we have other treasures than him. The people in the wilderness had other treasures than God. They wanted comfort. They want particular food. They wanted things to be easy. They wanted God to serve them. They did not want to give their lives completely to the Lord, to love him and obey him. What treasure do you have that is keeping your from having Jesus has your treasure? What is preventing you from the new birth in Christ that will bring you to eternal life? We are all perishing. This is the reality. We are dead in our sins. It is over for us. But God loved the world in this way: he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.