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God So Loved

Maybe no verse in the Bible is as well-known as John 3:16. If you are new or unfamiliar to the Christian faith, or aren’t real familiar with the Bible, John 3:16 might be the one verse even people who don’t know much about the Bible would be able to quote. It gets a lot of play.

I have been preaching for 35 years. And I don’t think I have ever preached on John 3:16. Can you believe it? If so, I couldn’t find it in my backlog. I had to write a whole new sermon this morning.

John 3:16 adorns this stained-glass window right beside the pulpit.

For those who are thinking, ‘Hey Phil, you skipped the window with Psalm 23 and Jesus as the Good Shepherd,” you’re right. I am skipping it because Luana Uluave will be here in two Sundays to preach on that window. I preached on Jesus as the Good Shepherd in our “I AM” series, and I preached on Psalm 23 last year. I thought it would be good for you to hear another preacher speak to that. I have nothing new to say about it all.

The committee that decided what each window would contain decided John 3:16 was good enough to make the cut. Notice that in the window to my right there are the words of John 3:16 but there is no image. Did the church run out of funds? Maybe people figured since you can’t really see it you don’t need an image?

If you were a stained-glass artist, what picture would you create to put here? Let’s dig into the verse and maybe it will stir your mind.

John 3:16 is either part of or a follow up to Jesus’ nighttime conversation with Nicodemus. I say “either” because the way the Bible was first written and in the earliest, ancient, handwritten, brittle copies we have there are no paragraphs or quotation marks. What we have in our English Bibles is tremendously cleaned up. The only way to figure if something is a quote in a conversation is the context. Translators have to make a call whether to make v.16 part of Jesus’ words or not. Some translators believe John 3:16 is Jesus continuing to speak to Nicodemus. Some think it is John the Gospel writer’s words as a follow up to Jesus’ conversation. Just a little insight into John 3:16.

Nicodemus was a leader of the Pharisees. He was important, respected, and had influence. Pharisees were extremely devout to the point of being quite legalistic. It says Nicodemus came to night to speak with Jesus. Did Nicodemus not want anyone to know he was meeting with Jesus?

It seems Nicodemus is impressed with Jesus. He has heard him teach. He has seen him do amazing signs. He believes that a person can only say and do what Jesus does if God is with that person.

Nicodemus was keeping all the rules to make it into the kingdom of God. But Jesus says that unless one is born again that person cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus wants to know how a person can possibly go into his mother’s womb and come out again? But when Jesus speaks of being “born again” he is speaking spiritually, not physically. Some things are of the flesh – physical. Some things are of the Spirit – spiritual.

There is another realm, another part of life, other realities than just what we experience physically. We can feel these things but not necessarily see them. That is why Jesus says,

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Because to be born again is to be born of the Spirit of the living God.

Being born again is when the Spirit of God touches your life and its like you are new. You’ve been changed. You’ve become a child of God. It may not be dramatic, but you are much more a tune to your heavenly Father. It doesn’t mean you never yell a swear word, or get greedy with your stuff, or pout, or offend people or other things that you know God doesn’t want in your life. But, like an infant, over time, growth and change comes. Like an infant develops so we develop in faith and knowledge of God. When you are born again you grow toward God not away from him.

Nicodemus doesn’t get it and Jesus questions how he as a faith leader can still not get it. He said that the Son of Man came from heaven and Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Jesus was referring to an event in the book of Numbers where Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole amidst a swarm of serpents that were biting and bringing death to many of those in Israel. Everyone who looked at the bronze serpent was spared death. Jesus compares his own death on the cross to the uplifted serpent.

Just like Moses lifted up that serpent so Jesus will be lifted up, and everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. And that is when we come to John 3:16. Again, maybe it is Jesus continuing to speak, or maybe, now, John the writer is speaking.

Let’s carefully and slowly go through each word of this classic verse.

It begins “For God” That connects what is going to be said to what was just said. Jesus being lifted up is because God so loved the world.

“So loved.” Not just loved but so loved. When someone says, “I love you so much” that is more than just “I love you.” “So” is a word of extent. It certainly means “so much” but can also mean “in this way,” or “in this manner.” God loved the world in this way. That little word magnifies the love of God.

What does God love? “The world.” Nicodemus thought God just loved the chosen people of God. Not Samaritans. Not tax collectors. Not those who didn’t measure up religiously. But it says God so loved the world.

The world is a lot of territory. That’s a lot of people.

That little word “so” “tells us of the width of the love of God. It was the world that God so loved.” Not just a nation. Not just the good people. God doesn’t just love the people who love him. No, he loves the world. God loves those who are hard to love, and those who are unlovely. God loves the lonely and those who have no one else to love them. God loves the person who is in church every Sunday and the person who never even gives God a thought. He loves the person who trust in Jesus Christ and the person who thinks all that stuff about Jesus is bunk.[1]

Remember the Apostle Paul writes that he is going to preach the gospel to both Jews and Greeks, and even barbarians.[2] Why? Because God even loves barbarians. You and I don’t. I can’t stand mean, vicious, violent bullies. But God’s heart is so much bigger than anyone elses.

He loves Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and atheists. God so loved the world.

He so loved it that he “gave.” God is a giving God. He gives love. He gives life. He gives grace. He gives forgiveness. He gives second, and third, and fourth chances. He gives spiritual blessings, material blessings, emotional blessings.

God so loved the world that he gave “his one and only Son.” The Greek word John used means “unique.” Jesus is the unique Son of God. Yes, you and I are sons and daughters of God. That is by adoption. But Jesus was God’s one and only Son by nature. He was with the Father from the beginning. He is one with the Father.

And God sent his one and only Son into this sinful, broken, violent world that has gone off the tracks, and he did it out of his love. In I John it says,

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” I John 4:9-10

God didn’t start to love us because he felt sorry for the state of the good world he had created and was ruined by people’s sin. His love was before the world was created. Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” He loved us and still loves us even when we do wicked things that are opposed to him.

Now, don’t confuse God’s love with his approval. To love and approve are two different things. We love our children even when they do things we don’t approve of. God doesn’t approve of the wrong we do. But he knew how to hate what we had made, and to love what he had made.

He made us in his own image. He created us “very good.” In our choosing to go against the ways of God, we made a mess, of ourselves and this world. But it could not dampen his love.

Everything up until these words in John 3:16 is about what God does. Now our response. “Whoever believes.” Whoever. Every single individual. The door is open to anyone and everyone. Maybe you don’t think God really loves you. Maybe you think you were disqualified long ago. Maybe you think you have done something that means God’s love can’t come to you. Nicodemus thought being religious enough would mean God loves him. Jesus said that wasn’t how it worked.

“Whoever believes in him.” Belief. To believe is to trust. Our trust is directed to Jesus – who he is and what he says – and it rests there. We believe Christ’s death and resurrection is enough. We believe that what he does for us is what we need to be right with God. Belief is not merely saying, “Oh, yes I believe there is a God.” This belief is investing our life. It is not just believing with your mind but believing with your heart. And it is open to whoever. Anyone.

“Will not perish.” We will die in this life. John 3:16 is talking about what comes after this life, the life with God.

“But have eternal life.” There is life after this life. We either go to life with God – where all pain, crying, death and problems are gone. Or we go on to eternal death – where we are apart from God’s love, peace, and goodness. Do you know the acronym YOLO? It stands for You Only Live Once. Nope. Not in the gospel. No, we live twice. For those who accept God’s love for them in Jesus Christ the second time is forever and better than anything we can imagine in this life.

Someone outlined John 3:16 this way:

God The greatest subject ever

So The greatest extent ever

Loved The greatest affection ever

The world The greatest object ever

That He gave His One-and-Only Son The greatest gift ever

So that whoever The greatest opportunity ever

Believes in him The greatest commitment ever

Should not perish The greatest rescue ever

But have eternal life The greatest promise ever[3]

And while John 3:16 is gold, let’s not forget John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Get rid of this picture of God looking down on the world, wagging his finger, keeping track of our wrongs, crossing us off his list. In Jesus Christ, God is saving the world, not condemning it. He has done everything he possible could to bring us to himself.

If any condemnation is going on it is within ourselves. The only ones who are condemned are those who say “no” to God’s love offered freely to everyone in Jesus Christ. If I offer you a million dollars and you refuse to take it, don’t say I cheated you. The only ones who will be condemned are those who choose not to put their trust in Christ.

John 3:16. It’s a life-giving verse. It kind of sums up the gospel. It is the heart of the Christian message: from the heart of God who “so loved us” to the heart of every individual who needs him so much.

In some ways this window sums up the entire Christian message more than any of the other eight windows in this place. So what would you put in the window? A globe? A cross? A heart? You?

What if we put a mirror there. Not so I can see myself preach every Sunday although that would certainly fortify my vanity. But when we look at that window and we read that verse we see ourselves. It is us who God so loves, and for whom he sent his one and only Son.

During World War II Fort Hancock off the New Jersey coast was a military training center. A man who lived in the area was eager to bring the good news of Christ to the thousands of young men stationed there. The military authorities would not permit him to enter in person.

Not to be denied, he asked a firm that specialized in novelties to make several thousand mirrors about three inches in diameter. On the back of each mirror he had printed the word of John 3:16. Beneath this verse he put this: “If you want to see who it is that God loves, look on the other side.” As each soldier looked at himself he saw the person whom God loved.

The deepest, greatest, most enduring, solid love in existence is from God. And it is for you.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, thank you for your love. We have seen it in Jesus Christ, your only Son. Thank you for giving him. Thank you for not condemning us though we have been in the wrong. Thank you for saving us and preparing for us a life that will never end in your love, your light, your presence. Amen.

[1] William Barclay, John, p. 138 [2] Romans 1:14 [3] From Dale Bruner’s Commentary on John, p.201

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