John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." That great sentence has been called by someone "everybody's text." What he meant by that phrase is that this one sentence is able to gather up so much of the heart of the news of Christ that makes it "gospel" or "good news," that this is everybody's text. This is one verse in all the Bible that almost everyone knows.
Our familiarity with this text should not cause us to overlook the fact that what it teaches is profound. Our problem with John 3:16 is not that we know it so well we don't need to learn any more about it. Our problem is that sometimes our familiarity has caused us to take its truths for granted. That is what the evil one does to us with things that are really important in our lives. Did you know that our enemy makes us so familiar with our family members at times that we take for granted those we love most? Did you know that our enemy causes us to just assume that somebody owes us air to breathe and food to eat and water to drink and rest to refresh us that we may not remember to thank God for such wonderful blessings? And did you know that our enemy is able to take a verse like John 3:16 and at every phrase of it lay a stumbling block to make it difficult for us to use what this wonderful teaching says?
Take a look at "everybody's text" with us this morning and what it says about God and our relationship to him. I want to just take it a phrase at a time.
Let's start with the "For" at the beginning of the verse. It is not just an incidental word in this great statement. The "for" at the beginning of John 3:16 says that this statement is about to explain what has just been said, and it actually refers us back to verses 14 and 15. Verse 14says "as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." In other words, verse 16 takes us back in our thinking really to an interesting episode in Old Testament history which is described in Numbers, chapter 21. Moses was leading the children of Israel through the awful wilderness toward the promised land for which they hoped, but they, being human beings like the rest of us, had the habit of murmuring and complaining and griping about everything that was there along the way. And there had been so many episodes of this that this time, rather than just listening, God sent fiery serpents in the camp among the people, serpents which bit many of the people and some of them died. Moses, in alarm, interceded for them by praying to God to relieve them. As the people repented, God said, "Alright, Moses, here's what I want you to do. I want you to fashion a serpent out of brass and then I want you to raise that serpent up on a standard or on a pole in the middle of the camp. And then, whoever there is among the children of Israel who will go and look upon that serpent that you have raised up, I will heal him." It was a way of causing the people to understand that sin had to be judged and they were dependent upon God for deliverance from the consequences of their sinfulness.
Notice carefully that that story was not just saying, "Well, as long as anybody in Israel believes that God can stop this death that is invading their camp, then they will be delivered." No, the people were required to actually believe to the point that they were willing to go and to behold or to look upon that serpent that had been raised up. It was a way of saying, "When God provides deliverance from the results or the consequences of our sins, when God provides healing for the needs brought on by sin and death, then you and I are expected then to believe to the point that we are willing to go do what God told us to do."
The second phrase in this verse is "God so loved," "For God so loved." The one who is the living God, the one who is referred to as the Most High, the Holy God of heaven was not merely indifferent to the plight of the world. He was not merely somebody who coldly created us and sent us off on our own and then said, "You folks deal with your own troubles." He is not someone who didn't care whether we were helped or not helped, or whether we perished or didn't perish. God took an interest, an active interest in the world. He loved. Sometimes we develop the idea that God has to be persuaded to care or that God, the Father, was intent on judging us, but Jesus came to spare us from that. This says, "God loved." That is, he was not merely moved by his own personal interests, but by ours, that he was not merely someone who operated by sheer emotion, but that he was intent on seeking our best interests.
That is an important point because it describes something to us about what love really is. Notice that God loved at a time when his love was not being returned. Romans 5 has the apostle Paul saying that God loved us even while we were yet sinners, that God loved us while we were weak and ungodly, and that God loved us while we were his enemies. This passage has Jesus explaining that God so loved. He loved so that he did something. It was motivated by his concern, by his loving care, by his dedication to watch out for what we really need.
"For God so loved" and then the third phrase is "the world." "The world" suggests the object of God's love, of course. It stresses to us that God is concerned for all people. You and I know that the phrase "the world" is used sometimes for the earth, the physical world around us. "The world" is used sometimes to the moral and social world around us which leaves God out. For example, John, the same writer, describes in I John 2 how we are not to love the world nor the things in the world. But this passage says that "God so loved the world." Obviously, he is not just talking here about created earth, nor is he talking about the devil's realm, but he is talking about humanity, mankind. God so loved everybody everywhere that he did something.
This universal aspect of God's concern and his love and his dedication to seeking the hearts of people should impress us because it has everything to do with the mission of those who return God's love. If God so loved the world, then so must his children. Our mission from Jesus is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Our mission toward each other in a local church is for us to love each other as the Lord has loved us. That means, then, that this verse is a mainspring of the heartbeat of a congregation of people who are God's children and who have been impressed by this verse.
"For God so loved the world" and the next phrase is "that he gave." Such is the nature of how love behaves, isn't it? God has always been the giver. James said that he is the giver of every good and perfect gift. Paul said at Mars Hill in Athens that God gives us life and breath and all things. In Acts 14 Paul taught that God gives us rains and fruitful seasons to fill our hearts with gladness. So there is nothing that we have that is not an expression of God's giving. But there is also nothing that we have that compares with what this verse says God gave.
"God so loved that he gave." Real love does that. Frank Cox wrote one time, "Love might have been spoken by an angel or written in golden letters in the sky. But that would not have cost anything, and for that reason would not convey the message. The language of love is best understood in terms of sacrifice." So, as we are about to see, the supreme sacrifice was made. We all need to notice very carefully and thoughtfully that this verse does not say "God so loved that he took." We live in a world where, unfortunately, love is being defined as what you take from somebody else. And when you have taken everything that you wanted from someone else, the world will say, "I don't love anymore." "God so loved that he gave" at great costs to himself.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." Isn't that amazing? Any of us who have children and who think about if we were having to make sacrifices, what kind of order would we go in? We can only image what it would be like to come down to this. There is an old story that Harold Hazelip recounts in one of his little books about a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. And since the two children shared the same blood type, the boy was the perfect donor. So the doctor asked him, "Johnny, will you give your blood to Mary?" Little Johnny hesitated and his lower lip began to tremble a little and then with a brave smile he said to the doctor, "Sure, for my sister." Both of them were wheeled into the hospital room, the story goes, and the nurses prepared for the transfusion. Johnny looked over and smiled at his little sister until the nurse put the needle into his arm. He stared as his blood began to flow through that tube. When the procedure was almost over, Johnny asked the physician, "Doctor, when do I die?" And it was only then that the doctor realized why Johnny had hesitated to start with and why his lip trembled when he agreed to give the blood. Johnny thought that giving blood to his sister meant giving up his life! And yet he was willing to do even that. God has done that and more by giving his only begotten Son for a world that didn't deserve it and often doesn't appreciate it.
There is a question that comes up sometime as to the identity of Jesus based on this passage. The term "only begotten Son" (translated "only son" here in the ESV) is made up of two words. The first one means "only or alone" and the second one "race or stock." It means "only one of a kind." It is a word that is actually used nine times in the New Testament, five of those of Jesus.
The deity of Jesus is impressed on us by this passage. He is God's only Son, he is the only one in heaven or earth or anywhere else like Him. His deity is so emphasized throughout the scriptures by prophets, by the voice of the Father himself, and by the works of Jesus and the claims of Jesus, what the angels said and what the disciples said, there is no question what the Bible is saying. God gave his only, his one and only, his only begotten Son for us.
"God so loved that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him." Here is where a great deal of the discussion about John 3:16 is centered. The "whoever" should be so obvious that it is not even ever in question. But did you know that it is? There are many, many people who believe that God decided in heaven at some point in the past who would be saved and who would be lost, and that he ordered that, and that then he sent Jesus to die only for those who would be saved. That is not what this passage is teaching. He died for the world. He paid the ransom for all, according to I Tim. 2:6. And the invitation of the New Testament is "whoever will let him come and take the water of life freely." That invitation is open. The gift of God is offered to anyone who will take it.
The means of doing so then becomes a crucially important question. There are many who argue that the believing of I John 3:16 means all you have to do is to mentally accept the historical fact that God gave his Son. That does not do honor to the meaning of the Bible word for believing. This word means to accept the truth. It means to be willing to rely upon or depend upon that truth to the point that you are willing to submit to God and to obey his will. If you will think through this for a moment, you will see the truth of what we are saying here. In the first place, those who suggest that all you need to do is mentally agree betray their own real thinking by what they then will say you need to do to respond to the gospel. For example, have you ever heard "just accept Jesus in your heart as your personal savior?" There must be more to believing then than just saying "I believe it." Have you ever heard "pray this prayer after me?" There must be more to believing than just believing, even in the minds of folks who take this approach.
Notice in the second place in this same passage that earlier in verse 5, Jesus has said to Nicodemus, "I say to you unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." Is that different from believing in Him or is it the same? In verse 36 of this same chapter, you will notice that it says "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." Notice very carefully that it is one thing to believe in the Son and that its opposite is not merely disbelieving, but not obeying. Friends, there is not a conflict between believing God and obeying what God says. They go together. They necessarily go together.
No one would argue that since a passage like 2 Peter 3:9 says that it is not God's will that any should perish but that all should come to repentance, that therefore since it only mentioned repentance, believing is not required. They so obviously go together. Why then would we come to believing and want to think that repenting, or confessing Jesus, or being baptized into him was somehow in opposition to that? Believing means to be so convinced that God gave his Son, that you are willing to rely on that for your hope, and in that willingness you obey what the Lord says to come into Christ.
"For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish." One reason that the whole verse is taken for granted is that we don't really convince ourselves that perishing is a reality. It doesn't mean just to be annihilated or not to exist. It means, instead, to be ruined and marred and lost. When the prodigal son was in the far country, he said "I perish here with hunger." Luke 15:17. To his daddy he was lost, Luke 15, verse 24. Perishing is being lost. In Paul's second letter to the Thessalonian church, he says in chapter 1 and verse 9, something that applies to this discussion. Of those who have ignored God, who have chosen opposition to him, it says "they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." There is first the utter sense of ruin and desolation and there is second absence or separation from the presence of the Lord. That is what lostness is.
This passage says in verses 17 and following that Jesus didn't come to condemn but to save. That means that he came to a world that was already lost. It makes the point that many are judged though because they have loved darkness rather than light and they wouldn't come to the light because their deeds are evil. To Jesus a person shows himself and judges himself by a preference for evil and wrongdoing and darkness over light.
C.S. Lewis wrote a little book that he called "The Great Divorce" in which he described a bus load of spirits who made an imaginary journey from heaven to hell. They would be allowed to make that transition, according to the decree in that book, of course, if they would lay aside every single one of those things for which they ended up in hell to start with. In other words, they would be in heaven if they would just realize that they had to lay aside what took them to lostness to start with. And in Lewis' book, it turned out that not a single one of them was willing to lay aside the wrong." And Lewis explained, "If we insist on keeping hell, we shall not see heaven. If we accept heaven, we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of hell." And then Lewis concluded that in the end there would be only two classes of people - those who say to God "thy will be done" and those to whom God must say with tears in his eyes, "thy will be done."
Then the Lord concludes the statement "that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." Eternal life is viewed in the gospel of John as the abundant life beginning here and now, John 10:10. Eternal life is said by Jesus himself to be "knowing the Father," John 17:3. That means that this journey begins as we are forgiven of all our sins, and continues as we grow to become more and more in the image of Jesus, is finally completed when we are at home with the Lord. There we find rest, of course, there we enter the joys of our Lord, there we come to the glory that God has for his children.
Years ago, a Puritan writer named Brooks said that being in possession of eternal life means merely to have God as your God. He explained that it is as if God says to us "you shall have as true an interest in all my attributes for your good as they are mine for my own glory. You shall have my grace to pardon you, and my power shall be yours to protect you, and my wisdom shall be yours to direct you, and my goodness shall be yours to relieve you, and my mercy shall be yours to supply you, and my glory shall be yours to crown you."
At every phrase in this great statement, there is something to bless everybody. It is a profound summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ. God has loved us enough to pay the price to make it possible for us to be his.
If you this morning desire to come into his presence, then turn to Christ in belief, identify yourself fully with what he did for you when he died and was buried and was raised up again. Live for him on a journey toward the full possession of the eternal life God has provided for us. If we can help you in some way in doing that, won't you come this very day while we stand and sing together?