June 30, 2013
Some things in this world should strike us with amazement and maybe even shock. When you look up at the dark sky from 7,000 feet elevation in Flagstaff, you should stand in awe of the Creator who spoke and billions of galaxies with trillions of stars came into existence (Ps. 33:6, 9).
Although there are thousands of visitors from all over the world at the Grand Canyon, a week ago last night, Marla and I were the only people camping at Point Sublime on the North Rim. As we drank in the scenery and watched the full moon rise, we were awed at God’s handiwork in that amazing place.
But not everyone is amazed by the beauty of God’s creation. Years ago in California, some people from our church were going to Yosemite for the first time. We had been there many times and had spent hours drinking in the grandeur of that place. So we raved to them about what they would see. Later, we asked them about their trip and the wife said, “We drove into the valley, stayed an hour or so, saw everything, and left.” We were stunned!
Later I read about an old ranger in his eighties who had spent most of his life in Yosemite. On one occasion a citified woman saw him in uniform, breezed up, and asked, “Sir, if you only had one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” He thought about that question for a few seconds and replied, “Ma’am, if I only had one hour to see Yosemite, I think I’d go sit on that rock over there and cry!” Even though he had spent his lifetime there, he was still awed by the spectacular beauty of that place.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but it also can breed boredom. That means that when we come to a verse like John 3:16, which has been called the most familiar verse in the Bible, we who have known this verse from childhood are in danger of going, “That’s nice. Ho hum!” Or, as Americans who have been steeped in self-esteem, when we hear that God so loved us that He sent His only Son to die for our sins, we think, “Yes, thanks for reminding me of how lovable I am.”
We think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of God, so we lose the shock that God who is absolutely holy would love sinners like us enough to send His only Son to die to redeem us. We forget Paul’s wonder (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul never lost the shock of God’s love in Christ (Gal. 2:20; 1 Tim. 1:15). Neither should we.
There is debate about exactly where Jesus’ words to Nicodemus end and John’s comments begin. Probably, verses 16-21 are John’s comments about Jesus’ words that end at verse 15. In 3:16, the cross seems to be in the past (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 228). Jesus often refers to Himself as the Son of Man (3:15), but never as God’s “only begotten Son,” which is John’s way of referring to Jesus. Also, Jesus does not normally refer to God as “God,” but rather as “the Father” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 203). But even if these are John’s words, they are nonetheless inspired by the Holy Spirit. He is explaining why God sent His only Son to this world:
God’s shocking love for this sinful world is so great that He gave His unique Son so that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.
My prayer for this message is that if you have never responded to God’s shocking love, the Holy Spirit would jolt you with it and bring you to faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life. And, if you have known and believed this verse since childhood, my prayer is that God would bring the wonder of His shocking love to you in such a way that you would renew your first love for the Lord Jesus.
“For God so loved the Jews” would not have been shocking to a Jew. The Jews knew that they were God’s chosen people and that He had set His special love on them (Deut. 7:6-8; 10:14-15; Mal. 1:2-3). So there was nothing new or shocking to the Jews about the fact that God loved the Jews.
“For God so loved sinful Jews” might have been a bit more of a stretch, but if a religious Jew thought about it, he might concede the point. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so that the sinning Jews who had been bitten by the fiery serpents could look to it and live. So, even though the self-righteous Pharisees thought that they were above common sinners (John 9:34), they might have agreed that God loved even sinful Jews.
But, “God so loved the world” was just plain shocking! By world, John’s Jewish readers would have immediately thought, Gentiles. Also, John often uses the word to refer to sinful people who were hostile toward Christ and eventually crucified Him (1:10; 7:7; 14:17; 15:18-19; 16:8, 20, 33; 17:6, 9, 14, 25; 1 John 5:19). John wants us to understand that God’s love goes beyond the Jews to Gentiles from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). And, His love extends even to those who are His committed enemies (Matt. 5:43-45; Rom. 5:6-8, 10).
But this raises a difficult theological issue: If God loves even His enemies, why didn’t He choose to save everyone? This conundrum has caused people to go in two erroneous directions, as I understand it. Some have said that since God hates the wicked (Ps. 5:5; 11:5), world in John 3:16 must be limited to the elect. If God loves the wicked, then it seems reasonable that He would have chosen to save them. So these Calvinistic brethren try to explain world as the elect from all over the world. But they deny God’s love for all sinners.
On the other hand, some take John 3:16 to mean that God loves every single human being in exactly the same way. These Arminian brethren deny that God could have a special love for some whom He chose for salvation. They say that salvation depends on the will of man, not on the will of God. Thus they err by denying or dodging the many texts that speak of God’s sovereign election.
So how do we resolve this tension? D. A. Carson wrote a helpful little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God [Crossway]. He explains (pp. 16-21) that the Bible speaks of the love of God in at least five distinguishable ways. (1) There is the peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31). (2) There is God’s providential love over all that He has made (Gen. 1; Matt. 6). (3) There is God’s salvific stance toward His fallen world (John 3:16; Ezek. 33:11). (4) There is God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward His elect (Deut. 7:7-8; 10:14-15; Mal. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:4-5; 5:25). (5) There is God’s conditional love toward His own people, based on their obedience (John 14:21; 15:10; Jude 21; Exod. 20:6; Ps. 103:9-11, 13, 17-18).
Carson argues (pp. 74-77) that if you take any one of these aspects of God’s love and try to force all the other biblical references into that one mold, you will sacrifice sound exegesis of those texts. He concludes (p. 77, italics his):
I argue, then, that both Arminians and Calvinists should rightly affirm that Christ died for all, in the sense that Christ’s death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love (in the third sense…). Further, all Christians ought also to confess that, in a slightly different sense, Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone, in line with the way the Bible speaks of God’s special selecting love for the elect (in the fourth sense…).
John MacArthur argues in the same fashion in The Love of God ([Word], pp. 12-20). He points out (p. 15) that as humans, love and hate toward the same person are not mutually exclusive: “We often speak of people who have love-hate relationships. There is no reason to deny that in an infinitely purer and more noble sense, God’s hatred toward the wicked is accompanied by a sincere, compassionate love for them as well.” In an endnote (p. 228) he clarifies, “What I am saying is this: God in a real and sincere sense hates the wicked because of their sin; yet in a real and sincere sense He also has compassion, pity, patience, and true affection for them because of His own loving nature.”
In practical terms, this means that we can tell unbelievers that God loves them so much that He sent His only Son to die for their sins, if they will repent and believe in Christ. At the same time we should warn them that if they do not believe in Christ, they are under God’s righteous judgment and wrath (John 3:18, 36), which will be finalized for all eternity if they die in unbelief. And, since we know that none are able to repent and believe in Christ unless God grants it (John 6:44, 65; Acts 11:18), we should be praying as we proclaim the gospel that He would be merciful in opening their blind eyes and imparting new life to them so that they can repent and believe.
In other words, we can and must offer the gospel freely to all sinners. It’s shocking, but true, that God loves even the worst of sinners so much that He sent His unique Son to make provision for their salvation. But at the same time that we tell sinners this good news, we must also tell them the bad news:
Consider two things here:
God did not send His unique or only (better translations than, “only begotten”) Son into the world so that He could just teach us about how to live rightly. Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross to teach us morality. God sent His only Son to die because that was the only way that He could uphold His holiness and justice and at the same time forgive sinners.
Sometimes people ask, “Why can’t God just forgive us apart from the death of Christ? When someone wrongs me, I just forgive him. Why can’t God do that, too?” The answer is, because God is absolutely holy and just. If He brushed away sin without demanding that the just penalty be paid, it would compromise God’s very nature. He would cease to be God!
Although the analogy breaks down, it would be like a human judge who told a drug addict who murdered your mother so that he could get enough money for his next fix, “The court forgives you. Try not to do that again.” You would be outraged at the miscarriage of justice. The judge’s action would render human responsibility meaningless. That judge would not be just.
And so to uphold His holiness and His justice, and also to uphold the dignity of human responsibility, God must judge all sin. But because of His great love, He sent His only Son, who is eternal God in sinless human flesh, to bear the penalty that we deserve. In that way, as Paul put it (Rom. 3:26), God can “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Many years ago, I conducted a funeral for a man from my church in California. On the brochure that the funeral home prints for such occasions was John 3:16, cited as follows: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” But they left out some crucial words: “shall not perish but have eternal life”! I don’t know whether the family or the funeral home was responsible for the omission, but I didn’t let it go. I pointed out during the service that while God has provided forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe in Jesus, the verse also warns that all who do not believe in Jesus will perish.
God doesn’t save the world by His love. The text does not say, “God so loved the world that He overlooked our sin.” Rather, He so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for our sins. But His love does not eradicate the reality of hell. If Jesus’ words are true, hell is real and it is awful (Mark 9:47-48). As 3:18 states, the one who does not believe in the Son of God is under condemnation. As 3:36 states, “the wrath of God abides on him.” So contrary to a well-known book, God’s love does not win over His justice. Those who do not believe in Jesus will perish.
The cross draws a distinct line. There are two and only two alternatives: either you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior from judgment and have eternal life or you do not believe in Him and you perish. God’s great love does not override or negate His perfect holiness and justice. So the message is both comforting for those who believe, but disturbing for those who do not want to come to the light because they love their sin (John 3:19-20).
This means that when we share the gospel, we should not focus on all of the present benefits to the neglect of the eternal consequences. Yes, Jesus can give you peace and joy. Yes, He can give you a happy marriage. Yes, the Bible gives many helpful principles for successful living. But many unbelievers are content, have happy marriages, and are successful in life—but they’re going to perish! The main reason Jesus came to this earth was to die on the cross to rescue sinners from God’s eternal judgment. God’s love does not negate His righteous judgment.
So, God’s love for this sinful world is shocking. He would be perfectly just and righteous to condemn us all to hell, because we all have sinned. But He didn’t do that. At great cost, He sent His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserve. But there is one other crucial fact in our text:
Both verse 16 and verse 18 make it clear that the crucial issue on our part is to believe in Jesus. Those who believe have eternal life; those who do not believe are currently under God’s condemnation and ultimately will perish. Consider four things:
John 3:17: “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” This purpose reflects God’s shocking love. We could not fault Him if He had sent His Son to clean house on this wicked world. In fact, when He comes again, He will do just that (Rev. 19:11, 15): “In righteousness He judges and wages war…. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” But in His first coming, He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
But, in John 9:39, Jesus says, “For judgment I came into this world ….” How do we reconcile that with John 3:17? The Gospels make it clear that Jesus’ presence always drew a line that divided people (Matt. 10:34-37). As the Light, Jesus’ purpose was not to cast shadows, but to bring light. But the presence of the light inevitably casts shadows. Also, as Carson points out (The Gospel According to John, p. 207), Jesus didn’t come into a neutral world in order to save some and condemn others. He came into a lost world to save some. Not all will be saved (3:18-21). But God’s purpose in sending His Son was to bring salvation to all who will believe.
“Perish” does not mean that they will be annihilated or cease to exist. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus says that some “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” If eternal life lasts forever, then so does eternal punishment. Jesus referred to it as the place where “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). If you ask whether the fire is literal or figurative, my reply is that it doesn’t matter—you don’t want to find out personally! Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus makes it clear that hell is a place of awful torment (Luke 16:23-24).
J. C. Ryle comments on John 3:18 (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:163): “Nothing is so provoking and offensive to God as to refuse the glorious salvation He has provided at so mighty a cost, by the death of His only begotten Son. Nothing is so suicidal on the part of man as to turn away from the only remedy which can heal his soul.”
Eternal life does not only mean life without end, although that is one part of it. It refers to entering into a personal relationship with the living God and His Son (John 17:3): “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life with God in heaven will be perfect life, without any of the consequences of sin. It will be “abundant life” (John 10:10). It will be “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forever” in God’s presence (Ps. 16:10). It begins the moment you believe in Jesus, but it gets infinitely better when you go to be with Him. So the final matter to be clear on is: What does it mean to believe in Jesus?
Believing in “the name of the only begotten Son of God” (3:18) means believing in all that He is and all that He came to do. Thus, believing in Jesus requires understanding who He is (the unique Son of God) and what He came to do through His death and resurrection. Based on that knowledge (which we get from the Bible), believing in Jesus means to entrust your eternal destiny to all that He did in dying for your sins on the cross. It means that you cease trusting in your own goodness or good deeds as the way into heaven. Rather, you trust entirely in Jesus and His shed blood.
A helpful illustration that I’ve used before is that of the famous tightrope walker, Blondin. Perhaps you can relate to this story in light of Nik Wallenda’s walking across the Grand Canyon on a cable last week. Blondin would walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He did it blindfolded! He did it on stilts! Once he carried his manager across on his shoulders. After they got safely to the other side and the applause died down, he turned to a man in the crowd and said, “Sir, do you believe that I could do that with you?”
The man was about the same build as the manager who had gone across on Blondin’s shoulders, so he shrugged, “Yes, I believe that you could do it.” Blondin said, “Fine, hop on!” The man quickly replied, “No way!” He “believed” intellectually, but he wasn’t willing to commit his life to Blondin.
In the same way, many say that they believe in Jesus, but they have not committed their eternal destiny to what He did for them on the cross. Some want to try to help Him out by adding their good deeds to Jesus’ shed blood. But that’s like telling Blondin that you want to help him out by holding his hand as you walk behind him! It doesn’t work! Faith that brings eternal life responds to God’s shocking love by entrusting yourself totally to what Jesus did for you when He died on the cross.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation