The Love of God in Christ | John 3:16-21
Today we look at what is probably the best-known verse in the entire Bible. John 3:16, and we’ll be looking at verses 16-21. It’s likely the best-known verse, but I also think it is probably the most misunderstood verse in the entire Bible.
Loveis, easily, the best-known attribute of God, yes? Most people who believe in God, generally, would call him a loving God. And yet, I think most don’t fully understandGod’s love. Today, when people speak of God’s love, often they mean a kind of love that somehow negates his justice, and his wrath. If God is loving, then surely he wouldn’t judge. I like how Greg Gilbert puts it. He puts this common understanding of God’s love like this:
You know the best thing about God, though? He doesn’t judge me. Ever, for anything. Oh sure, I know that deep down he wishes I’d be better—more loving, less selfish, and all that—but he’s realistic. He knows I’m human and nobody’s perfect. And I’m totally sure he’s fine with that. Besides, forgiving people is his job. It’s what he does. After all, he’s love, right? And I like to think of love as “never judging, only forgiving.” That’s the God I know. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That’s how most people understand God’s love. God loves, and therefore he doesn’t judge. Unfortunately, that is not the God of the Bible. It’s very easy, as a modern church, to so emphasize God’s all-encompassing love for every person on the planet, that we forget to emphasize why anyone needs to be believe in Jesus and be born again! If God loves everyone, then we must all be good to go. But, God’s love for the world, as in for everyone—this love which is very real—does not cancel out his justice and his wrath. God is not just a grandfather-type who is so permissive and tolerant that he just passes over our sin and accepts us for who we are. That’s not what it means for our God to be a loving God.
Does God love the world, as in every person? Yes. He does. But, he loves the world in a specific way, and that’s where we get to John 3:16-21. I’m going to ask JP Williams to come and read this text for us. Listen closely to John’s words, here, because in them we will see the realityof God’s love. What is this love? Again, John 3:16-21. JP, take it away.
16 “For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Thank you, JP. Four Realities of God’s love:
- God loves us not because we’re so lovable, but because God is so loving.
This is a huge misunderstanding about God’s love for the world! But it’s right there in the beginning of verse 16: “For God so loved the world…” That “so” is there to show us the intensity of God’s love for the world! “God so loved the world.” It does not say, “For the world was SO great that God loved it!” It does not say that! God does not love the world because the world is so great. It’s actually quite the opposite. This verse, which is so popular, is often taken completely out of context with the verses right around it. Not only is the world undeserving of God’s love, it’s actually deserving of God’s judgment! Look at verses 19 & 20 again:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
It’s obvious right there that God doesn’t love the world because the world is so lovable. Their works were evil, which is why we loved the darkness because we didn’t want our evil works to be exposed. We can all relate to this: we make a bad choice, and we want to keep it to ourselves because it’s embarassing or shameful. It’s the same thing with sin. And because of our love for the darkness, judgment has come. So, clearly, God’s love does not nullify his justice.
This is a lot different than the doctrine of self-esteem that we hear in our culture. Yes, it is true that God created us in his image, and that does make us very important to him. We were made in God’s image, unlike any other creature on the planet, BUT we have marred that image! No, you are NOT perfect just the way you are. Parents, I encourage you not to tell your children this! To love your children like God loves us would sound more like this: “You’re not perfect just the way you are, but I love you anyway.” Your sin is very real, but I love you and am your father nonetheless. That’s not only true, but also can help lead them in understanding their need for a Savior one day.
Remember: we weren’t lovable. Remember that God loved us not because we are just so great, but because his love is just so great. Don’t look to yourself to find the reason for God’s love, because that will only bring disappointment, and it will only make you questionGod’s love because the more you look to yourself for the reason for God’s love, the more you will doubt that there’s enough in you to love! Don’t find your hope in how lovable you are; find your hope in how loving our God is. Seeing how undeserving we are of God’s love; understanding, as Heb. 10:31 puts it, that “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Seeing what we deserve versus what we receive from God, magnifies God’s love that much more, doesn’t it? To get even more specific with God’s love, here’s the 2ndreality of God’s Love:
- The chief display of God’s love was in sending His Son to save us.
I want us to notice very clearly the rest of verse 16: “God so loved the world…that he gave His only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say that God so loved the world that he helped us all have more comfortable lives, or more happy lives, or that he so loved the world that he just let us do what we wanted to do and loved and forgave us anyway. No, the biggest way that God’s love for the world manifested itself was in sending Jesus to save us.
God gave His only Son. Only emphasizes not only that God had no other Son, but more broadly that there is no other like Him at all! He’s irreplaceable! He’s unique! Not only is He unique in His relationship to the Father, but He’s unique in his relationship to us. It is only in Christ that we can find all the love we will ever want or need. It’s only in Christ, no one else, that we find true joy and true freedom though we are guilty and are deserving of judgment! This is why we’re going to sing all four verses of “In Christ Alone” to close today. Might be the most Jesus, Gospel-centered song there is. God’s love is not diminished when we focus in on his love shown to us in Christ. God’s love is MAGNIFIED when we focus in on his love shown to us in Christ.
In fact, this is why the modern notion of God’s love is so lacking and weak! The idea of God’s love negating or nullifying his justice and wrath. The idea that God’s love somehow overshadows or pushes his justice to the margin—if that were true, then there would have been no need for Jesus to be born a man and die on the cross for our sin! Jesus had to die, he had to be lifted up on the cross. We saw this explicitly last week. Look at verses 14-15:
And 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.
This isn’t that we see God’s love for us because he loves us even though we killed his son. In other words, it’s not just that Jesus died so that God could show us how much he loves us by forgiving us for killing Jesus. No! God sent his son to die, to be lifted up, and pay the penalty for our sin. He had to die because God is a just God. And God is loving in that he placed his wrath, that you and I deserved, upon his Son Jesus instead of on us. Do you see how this magnifies God’s love for us? He gave His only Son, the only one acceptable to God as a sacrifice, and the only One given by God himself. There is no other. This is the chief display of God’s love. And it is huge.
That’s why, as a church, we will always be gospel-driven, gospel-centered, because in the gospel, Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see the greatest display of love in the history of the world. That’s why we may not sing about or talk as often about how God merely provides solutions to everyday problems, or how God can make your day today better. Why do we focus in on the cross? BECAUSE the Cross is why there are half a million churches in the US alone! Something inconceivable has happened: God gave His only Son, why? “So that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Now, for those of you who have Christians for some time, maybe this sounds somewhat elementary, or even something we can just assume. But listen, you realize it doesn’t take much to lose the gospel. Some say all it takes is one or two generations: 1 generation believes the gospel, the next assumesit, and then the next denies it. To be completely honest, I think we’re there. I think this generation of Christians is, perhaps, the generation to deny it altogether, inside the church!
The terminology of “salvation” and “saved” is under attack. Even though it’s used everywhere in the gospel of John and throughout the New Testament. So why do people not want to use the word “saved”? Because to be savedwe have to be saved fromsomething. What are we saved from? God’s judgment! And people don’t like talking about God’s judgment. Again, many think that for God to be loving, he must let go of his justice. That’s not the case, though. In fact, his justice is exactly why Jesus came.
God sent Jesus to save the world from his judgment. Clear as can be here: After finishing verse 16, John goes on in verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Again, this magnifies the love of God. It reveals the weight of his love.
Think about it: The fact that God senthis son reveal the authority of Jesus. God has commissioned him, and his purpose for being sent is not just a purpose determined and set by Jesus, the one being sent—but by the sender, God himself! That kind of authority, for Jesus’ first coming, was not to judge the world, though he would have had every right to do just that! Jesus’ first coming was to save the world, to provide an atonement, a sacrifice for sins that would wash clean every man and woman that would believe in him.
That is what Jesus being born a man was about. Now, Jesus’ secondcoming has a completely different purpose, and that purpose is in fact to judge. We see that just two chapters later, chapter 5 verses 27 thru 29:
And God has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
So, his second coming has quite a different purpose than his first. He came the first time to save the world, not to condemn, but there is a time in the future in which he will come to judge the world. So, what do we do to be saved? He came to save the world. He lived a life we couldn’t live, and died a death he didn’t deserve, and rose from the dead to bring us life. So what must we do? The 3rd reality of God’s love:
- Belief in Jesus brings life.
The answer to the question, “What must we do to be saved?” is as clear as can be here. Verse 16: “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And then verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Now, of course, there must be clarification here, as to what it means to believe. The very first week that we started the book of John, May 6th, we talked a lot about this, that true biblical belief in Jesus is not like believing in a fact. Jesus Christ is Lord, just as Donald Trump is president. That’s not what this belief is. That’s not what faithis. Belief and faith can be used interchangeably. “Faith,” as it’s used nowadays, is also very different from the biblical understanding of faith. Biblical faith in God is not some broad “willing” something into being: “I have faith that I’m going to score this touchdown. I believe, John 3:16 baby!!” That’s not what John 3:16’s about.
Biblical faith is exercised specifically in Jesus Christ, namely, his work in paying for our sin. Biblical faith is trusting in what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection. And this is where repentance comes in. You’re turning from no longer trusting in yourself, to now trusting in Christ alone to save you and bring you into a right relationship with God. That’s the meaning of repentance and faith.
Trusting in Jesus, placing your faith and hope in Him, it changes everything. This right relationship with God is why we are no longer people who need to be ashamed of what we do! We’re not afraid of the light, we’re not afraid of things coming out about our past and even our present struggles, because we’ve been saved! We have love the light, because all our sin and shame has been dealt with! There’s reason to hide. In fact, now, we love the light! That’s what verse 21 says: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” There’s no longer any shame, because of what Christ has done, and also because now we’re living for the Lord instead of for ourselves.
God sent his son in order to save the world, that by believing in him, we are saved. And why did God do all of this? What is this entire passage grounded in? God’s love. The 4threality of God’s love:
- God loves the world, and he especially loves his adopted children.
The intensity of God’s love is seen especially against the backdrop of our sin and rebellion. The fact that God would provide a way for sinners like you and me to be reconciled to himself, when we were so rebellious and selfish that we weren’t even able to seek after God ourselves. We weren’t even able to think correctly and see and treat God for who He is. And yet God loves us.
He loves the world, with a providential love over everything and everyone he’s made. He loves the world, in that he takes what Don Carson calls a “salvific stance” toward his fallen world. And, even more special and more directed is his love for his own children, those who believe in His Son Jesus. You can’t read the gospel of John, chapter 17 for example with Jesus praying for those that the Father had given him—you can’t read it and not see a special, even more magnified love that God has for you and for me, those who believe in Jesus. The problem is, we have this tendency to do one of two things. We either can’t believe that God really love us, with who we are and what we’ve done. Or, quite the opposite, we think we’re deserving of God’s love. Both of these tendencies are seen in a particular story from my mom’s past.
My mother has quite the life story. I’ve shared some of her story before, and she shares it very openly in an autobiography she wrote. When she was nine years old, her mother was murdered. To this day, it’s technically an unsolved case. There were three scenarios the police at the time thought were plausible, including the possibility that her 14-year-old older brother had done it. He had some issues with mental instability.
To say the least, my mother, at the age of 9, was thrown into a world that was not exactly kind to her. After her mom was murdered, she had four different step-moms, a few of whom were abusive in every way. In the community, she was preyed upon because her situation made her an easy target. She even eventually lost her older brother in yet another uncertain and mysterious death.
My mother’s mother, before she was murdered, was apparently a very Godly woman who took her children to the church every time it was open. She would ask what they learned about in Sunday School, and she’d always have Sunday lunch with family and often with church guests. So this was a big part of my mother’s life before she lost her mother. But, there’s one incident in her life in which we can see both tendencies. “God can’t love me because of who I am,” & then, also, “Well of course God loves me.”
Three years after her mom died, she decided to go to church for the first time since all this happened. She woke up one Sunday, at 12 years old, and just knew she needed to be in church. She needed to connect with God and God’s people. So she got all dressed up, and walked, by herself, to church. When she got there, they welcomed her into the front door, and even welcomed her into Sunday School. Everything seemed to be going fine, until she filled out an information card.
As soon as they could see her name, Carole Netzel, their attitude toward her changed drastically. The Netzels were known as “that”family. So, suddenly they wanted nothing to do with her. She sat alone, and no one talked to her. In the worship time, during the greeting, a sweet older lady turned to give my mom a handshake, when suddenly her daughter grabbed her hand and whispered, “That’s Carole Netzel, don’t touch her.” Or something to that effect.
At some point in the service, my mom couldn’t stand it anymore; she up and left, and she cried the whole way home. 12 years old, church on her own, dressed up knowing she needed to be there. She certainly did not experience God’s love in that church that morning. Because of her experiences, my mom probably thought there was no way God could love her. The church people wouldn’t even shake her hand. And on the other side of it, I’m guessing these church folk who treated her like this thought of themselves as deserving of God’s love, coming from reputable families.
Ultimately, church, God’s love is seen at the Cross. Whichever tendency you have, look to the Cross. If you hear that God loves you, and struggle with doubting whether he could really love you, look to the Cross. There is no doubt: He loves you. And if you struggle with the opposite—you hear that God loves you, and you think, “Well, of course he does, I deserve it”—look to the Cross. If we deserved God’s love, Jesus never would have had to die such an ugly death on our behalf. Either way, look to the Cross, and you will see the greatest and clearest display of God’s love for you.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
other sermons in this series