After World War II, an American chaplain called on a German general who would eventually be hanged for war crimes, and he found him reading the Bible that he had been given. The general asked him to thank the American people for him for this reason: “I know from this book that God can love a sinner like me.”
This shows how shockingly different of the love of God is from the love of any human being. God loves sinners. And his love is something that each one of us stands in need of, despite who we are, what we have done. This love is found in the often repeated and often little understood verses of John 3:16-8.
For instance, there was once an elderly woman whom I visited in the hospital. She was in intensive care, and I started and based my witness for the brief time that I could on John 3:16. When she heard me say the words of John 3:16 as tenderly and lovingly as I could, she said how much she loved the words of John 3:16 since she had heard the words in church since she had been a little girl. But in a few moments she started to become offended as I started to explain what the words of that verse actually mean. She had often heard the words but never really understood them, and they shocked her out of her religious complacency, from her trust in her church attendance, to see her real need of faith in Jesus Christ alone was her Savior.
In the same way the love of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ often shocks religious people today also out of their comfort and complacency in their religiosity. These words have often been just a kind of meaningless mantra to too many over the years, and these same words have often been used and repeated because to some they are comforting and familiar and because, for some people who have been raised in a religious environment, they elicit an emotional buzz. But these words explain very briefly the gospel of God, and in a way that shocks us when we realize what is really being said.
These words are part of the same shocking deluge of saving truth that came to the Jewish religious leader Nicodemus on the night that he sought out a personal interview with Jesus Christ. These words are the third of a series of shocking, unsettling statements that Jesus gave him during the course of their conversation. The first shocking statement was that he and the other religious leaders didn’t recognize what God was doing right in front of them, that they needed to be born again to see what was really going on in himself and his ministry, that it was not just another teaching but the kingdom of God invading this earth. And then the second shocking statement was that the claim that Jesus possessed heavenly knowledge as the Son of Man who came from heaven and that eternal life came through faith in himself. And then the third jolt came to Nicodemus that that God loved all the sinful people of this world, and that Jesus himself was the ultimate expression of his love.
So here’s what John 3:16-18 says: “For God so loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him would not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world that he might judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Everyone who trusts in him is not under judgment; but the person who does not believe has already been judged, because that person has not trusted in the name of the one and only Son of God.”
Other versions here.
Jesus Christ himself is the ultimate gift of God’s love. The certainty that God loves sinful people is there in his free choice to give his only and only Son for a world that had rejected him and which now lay in sin and death. The demonstration of his love is the gift of his dearest and best to be the most costly solution to the problem of sin and guilt of this world of mankind.
The love of God was the only reason that he gave Jesus to the world for the salvation of men and women. There was nothing to motivate his love except his own decision to love the people who had been made in his image and who had become his enemies through surrender to sin. His choice to love is seen in the beginning of verse 16: “For God so loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him would not perish but have eternal life. ”
One of the significant questions with this passage is whether these verses are really Jesus speaking, as a continuation of what he had already been saying since verse , or whether the apostle has inserted his own words here, as an explanatory aside statement. Certainly the apostle did include these kinds of personal and explanatory statements in the gospel, especially toward the end. Indeed, many translations and commentators treat verses 16-21 as something that the apostle inserted here, and it’s not indefensible to take that position. I think, though, that these verses are the words of Jesus himself to Nicodemus, since everything in these verses is consistent with what Jesus said in other places in the gospel of John, and his statements on the Son of God and Son of Man are perfectly in line with what he would say later in the gospel in 5:19-29.
Then, to pick up where in the conversation with Nicodemus these verses appear, and thus the preceding context of these verses, it’s towards the beginning of the ministry of Jesus in what is now almost entirely the nation of Israel and then the Roman held territories of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and the Decapolis. Jesus has come on the scene after the ministry of John the Baptist (not the John who is the author of this gospel) began to make some waves among the Jewish people with his prophetic calls to personal religious reform, repentance and baptism. Jesus himself has been baptized, and John the Baptist has endorsed him publicly and privately as the Messiah he said had already arrived. Jesus has already performed several miracles of note and has stepped on some toes by driving some commercial traffic outside the bounds of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Nicodemus, one of the Jewish religious leaders, has come to Jesus at night in secret to talk with him, and Jesus has already dropped the bombshell on him that his religious birth and lifestyle is not enough, that he must be ‘born again.’ And then, if that were not enough, Jesus added a shocking claim to be the Son of Man that had been predicted in Daniel 7. But Jesus did not stop there; he added the claim to be the Son who was promised by the prophet Isaiah to the house of David and the whole nation of Israel.
So this statement about God giving his Son is definitely an allusion by Jesus to Isaiah 9:6 ( “. . . for unto us a Son is given . . .”). Jesus then expanded the meaning of this verse as he applied it to himself and explained it. He expanded it to say that he – the Son of God — had not been given just to Israel but through Israel to the entire race of fallen humanity. So with this statement he moved from his earlier claim to be the Son of Man of Daniel 9:13-14 to his claim to be the Son of God promised in Isaiah 9:6 – the Son who would be God himself. He was in fact making the claim to be the Messiah promised to the house of David, and he was expanding the meaning of what it would mean to be the Messiah. It was the claim to be more than an earthly king from the line of David; rather, he, as the Messiah, would be unique among all mankind, that he would be the one and only Son, or, as the Greek means, literally the one of a kind Son.
This is something that I think that the modern evangelical church needs to make certain that it is communicating a clear understanding of what this word and the word means in the context of the verse. This is especially necessary in light of the deep misunderstanding that much of Islam has about what Christians believe about the Sonship of Jesus and the virgin birth as well. What is clear in this word is that this is an assertion of the uniqueness of the Sonship of Jesus himself. The continued use of the word ‘only begotten’ has led to a persistent and unnecessary misunderstanding among Muslims about what Christians believe about the Sonship of Jesus. There has been a persistent misunderstanding that Christian belief in the Sonship of Jesus means that God had physical sex with Mary the mother of Jesus. Rather, the word translated ‘only begotten’ means that the Sonship of Jesus was unique and from all eternity – from before the birth in Nazareth, the Person who was born as Jesus of Nazareth was already completely and eternally the Son of God, and the incarnation of Jesus through the conception in the womb of Mary was a special creation by the Holy Spirit that was accomplished without any kind of sexuality accomplished or implied.
So then, this is a reference to the unique nature that he had as God the Son, but speaking in the human nature of Jesus of Nazareth. This is still a shocking statement of his identity. It was later echoed in John 5:19-29 in the context of the resurrection to eternal life and the resurrection to eternal death. It tells us of how completely and utterly God has loved us, in that his dearest and best was the one who came into our world to provide it for us.
How does God demonstrate his love for us? The demonstration of the love of God to each and every one of us is Jesus Christ himself. His love is not something that we can measure by our personal circumstances or by our personal pride and egotism and sense of our own worth but by the gift of his Son. His Son came not to a few supposedly worthy individuals, but to the world of humanity deep in sin, and he came from a love that was not motived by anything connected to our performance, attractiveness or worthiness, but by his own free choice to love. His love for us has come not in words or feelings or in lavish and luxurious gifts to pamper and spoil us, but rather in the shocking act to give his Son to live and die for all of us and for each of us. And this gift of the Son the demonstration that no matter what others have done to us, how lovingly or unlovingly others have treated us, we can be certain of the love of God for each and every one of us, no matter how others may regard us, and that this love has been there for us from all eternity, for every moment of our lives.
There was once that the evangelist R.A. Torrey was staying with a family and he heard his host say to his daughter: “Now, Stella, if you are a good girl, God will love you, but if you are a bad girl, God won’t love you.”
Torrey mentioned that what was said was simply and plainly nonsense, because the Bible clearly says that God loves sinners. He went on to mention a time he was walking on Waterloo Rd in London, England on a Sunday morning, and he was encountering drunken men and women left and right. As he went on, he found two young men throwing what looked like a bundle of rags into a cart. He then saw it was a woman 50 years old and passed out drunk, and he was about to turn away in disgust when the thought came to him: “God loves this woman. God loves this woman just as he loves you. She is a poor, sin-soaked outcast, and you are a preacher, but God loves that woman just as much as he loves you.”
Out of love God sent Jesus to bring salvation instead of judgment, and his mission was not what was expected by the people of his time. He came not to be a political deliverer, but something much, much more; his mission was to save people from the final consequences of their sins, and so he came not as a Judge but as a Savior. This is what verse 17 says: “For God did not send the Son into the world that he might judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
If we read this as the continuation of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, this statement stands as the Son’s declaration of his mission as Messiah, the kind of Messiah that he was to be, in the will of the Father. If it is the declaration of the apostle, the meaning remains the same, that the Messiah, Jesus, he came as the Savior, not as the Judge. This contradicted a popular Jewish view then that the Messiah was coming only to judge the Gentile world. As usual, Jesus was setting straight the ideas that people had at his time and telling how it really was with his mission as the Messiah. This is rather Jesus coming to say how he was given to be the Savior of the entire world of mankind, and that he came not just for the chosen, for the religious people like Nicodemus, but for all people everywhere.
Because God loves the world, the Son of God came not for some people but for all people, for the whole human race. He came for the people overseas that we may regard as pagans, certainly, but also for the people whom you know, your relatives, friends and acquaintances, as well as you yourself. Christ came to be the Savior of those whom you like and dislike, those whom you approve of and those whom you disapprove of, those whom you disagree with and those whom you agree with. And Christ came to be your Savior, but now and forever. And no one else can be your Savior, not even yourself, with all your good deeds and with whatever high estimate you may have of yourself. And no one else, not even you, can be anyone else’s Savior, but Jesus only is the Savior that God has sent into our world.
There’s a story about a South American company that found that it could not operate the fine printing press it had purchased from a US company. So the company wired the US manufacturer to send a representative to come and fix it. A young man showed up, and they had some some skepticism about him being the right person, and so they wired back, “Your man is too young. Send a more experienced person.”
The reply of the was: “He made the machine. Let him fix it!” The person that they had sent was the designer and the maker of the machine that he had come to fix. And so Christ, our maker and designer, is the right one to save the man or woman lost in sin and guilt.
So we can know from the coming of Jesus that God loves us as we are. We can know tht he loves the people of our world despite our sins. We can know that he has chosen to love us, to send his Son to save us. We can know that he loves us as we are, but he also knows our deepest need and that he was never going to be satisfied that we should remain where we were, where we are, under the guilt of our sins, the danger of eternal death. So he sent his Son as the ultimate demonstration of his love, and so in Christ he has done all that can and will do for our salvation, so that there is no other way than Jesus Christ, than what he has done for us. And then, because, God’s gift of love, his salvation in Christ, is a gift, it must be received. This is how we accept the gift: the exercise of trust in Christ alone for salvation, and on the other hand, the refusal of the gift is rather the departure into unbelief for condemnation.
The response to Jesus Christ determines the eternal destinies of the people in our world. Our final destiny is dependent on our faith in or refusal of Jesus Christ as our only Savior. The response to Jesus is the eternal issue for every human life, and that is the choice of eternal life or eternal death.
Eternal life comes to those who place their trust in Jesus Christ alone as Savior; the acceptance of the gift of salvation, eternal life, is by faith in him alone. This is the way to salvation from condemnation for sin, for a new beginning with God, of eternal life through being born again by the Spirit of God through faith in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. This is where the statement of faith in Jesus meaning eternal life continues in the first part of verse 18: “Everyone who trusts in him is not under judgment.”
These are the statement of the consequence of faith in Jesus Christ. Again if we can see this as the continuation of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, this is the salvation that comes by faith in Jesus as defined by Jesus himself, and he brought Nicodemus with these statements back to the point he had already made in v. 15, that of faith in himself. This conversation shows the personal concern for someone for whom he would die, and how he was seeking to make it utterly clear to him how he would find eternal life and his entrance into the kingdom of God.
So, from the Word of God, there is set forth the same way into the kingdom of God for both the outwardly sinful and the respectably religious. This is the same step that is necessary for anyone to have eternal life. It is the genuine faith that turns our mental assent to some facts from the Bible from an idle sentiment to a genuine conviction and trust in Christ. So there will be that need for each one of us, to have that conviction, personal decision to trust Christ, and that will result also in a personal concern for others that will result in prayer and witness, because only through faith in Christ will anyone ever find salvation from their sins. This comes back to the simple definition of saving faith from J. Gresham Machen: “Faith is the acceptance of a gift at the hands of Christ.”
Even so, many try to make it more complicated than it is. There was once a woman who came to an evangelist who said that she could not understand how to be saved. So he asked, “Mrs. Franklin, how long have you been Mrs. Franklin?”
“Why, ever since I was married,” she replied.
“And how did you become Mrs. Franklin?” he asked further
“When the minister said, ‘Wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband?’ I just said, ‘Yes.’”
“Didn’t you say, ‘I hope so,’ or ‘I’ll try to’?’ asked the evangelist.
“No,” she replied. “I said, ‘I will.’”
“God is asking you if you will receive his Son. What will you say to that?”
Judgment, then, is the only thing left for those who refuse Jesus Christ as their Savior. The penalty of eternal death is the only alternative for those who reject God’s way of salvation, and the ultimate tragedy in the universe is that of those who refuse Christ and choose hell. Then, in the remaining part of verse 18, the statement inside verse 16 “ . . . should not perish . . .” is further explained: “ but the person who does not believe has already been judged, because that person has not trusted in the name of the one and only Son of God.”.
Again, if we consider this a continuation of the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus, this would be Jesus’s plain description to Nicodemus of the consequences of refusing his salvation: perishing under the condemnation of sin. He would be explaining for him the condemnation for the choice of sin while God’s salvation was available, in fact, sitting in front of him, and the refusal of all that God in his love has given. While it is no great compliment to God to choose him over hell, the greatest insult to his love in his Son is to refuse all that he has done, to choose hell over eternal life through his Son.
This tells us that people need to know the consequences of unbelief honestly and compassionately, as Jesus himself explained it. It is necessary for them to know that there is no other way of salvation besides faith in Jesus Christ alone, and that the refusal of Christ is the refusal of the love of God, and the choice of hell, the final exhibition of arrogant pride and rebellion against God. If this is made clear, the result is that people go to hell of their own choice over the gift of God’s salvation in his Son made available to them. The refusal of the love of God despite all that God has done is like the story of the father who had a son who was devoted to gambling and drinking. He had already seen his wife and the mother of his son die with a broken heart. He went on and pleaded with the son to spend one night at home with him, but he decided that he was going to go out anyway. Then the old man said, “My boy, you are killing me, just as you have killed your mother. These hairs are growing whiter, and you are sending me too to the grave. If you are determined to go to ruin, you must go over this old body tonight. I cannot resist you. You are stronger than I, but if you go out, you must go out over this old body.”
The eternal consequences in the choice or refusal of salvation are the dread alternatives of heaven or hell. So because of the eternal consequences, there remains that need to wake up both the respectably religious but not born again as well as the complacently sinful and blatantly and defiantly sinful. Jesus Christ did not come to straighten out for us those whom we cannot control – like the misguided woman who once asked me to baptize her sons so that they would obey her — but to save you, you and me, from eternal condemnation. While Christ can and will save people from the sins that offend us, we cannot see that as the only reason for others to come to Christ. He is necessary for each and every one, to be received by faith as Savior, lest they spend eternity apart from God perishing under the condemnation for their sins.
PERHAPS THE CRY OF YOUR HEART HAS BEEN FOR SOMEONE TO LOVE YOU AS YOU ARE. PERHAPS NO HUMAN BEING, NOT YOUR HUSBAND OR WIFE, YOUR CHILDREN OR YOUR FRIENDS, HAVE EVER SATISFIED THAT LONGING. PERHAPS YOU HAVE BEEN TRYING TO GRAB THAT KIND OF LOVE BY DECEIT, MANIPULATION OR DEMANDS. BUT SOMEONE YOU CANNOT DECEIVE OR MANIPULATE HAS ALREADY CHOSEN TO LOVE YOU. SOMEONE HAS ALREADY PROVEN HIS LOVE FOR YOU BEYOND ANY TESTS YOU CAN DEVISE OR IMPOSE. SO YOU ARE LEFT WITH WHETHER YOU WILL ACCEPT OR REFUSE THE PERFECT LOVE OF A PERFECT GOD IN HIS SON JESUS CHRIST. SO YOU ARE LEFT WITH NO ONE ELSE BUT YOURSELF TO BLAME IF YOU WALK AWAY FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN JESUS CHRIST. BUT GOD CONTINUES TO CALL YOU TO COME TO HIM, TO PUT YOUR FAITH IN HIS SON. SO THEN, REPENT AND TURN AWAY FROM YOUR SIN TOWARD HIS LOVE AND FORGIVENESS, AND PUT YOUR FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST TO RECEIVE THE GIFT OF ETERNAL LIFE IN HIS SON, AND THEN LIVE IN THE LOVE OF GOD BY FOLLOWING HIS SON DAILY IN CONTINUED FAITH AND OBEDIENCE.
If you have never before accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior: understand that God loves you, but you will never experience his love for you until you come to Christ by faith. Do not wait to make yourself acceptable to God, or keep on postponing it while your heart keeps on getting harder and harder toward God and his salvation in his Son. Rather decide now that you are finished with the ways of sin, with selfishly trying to manage your own life for your own pleasure and satisfaction. Choose a new direction with God, to turn from your sins, and choose to come to Christ in faith, make that conscious decision of faith in him. Then you will have your sins entirely forgiven forever, you will become a new person by being born again of the Holy Spirit, and you will become a son or daughter of God himself, as God himself receives you into his family through Jesus Christ
If you can remember definitely having come to Christ and having received his salvation – but do not assume presumptuously that you have if you have not, if you have just gone through the motions to appease someone else, to escape the pressure – to pretend is literally to play with fire – have you really appreciated all that God has done for you in Christ, the way that he has loved you? Have you been living like those with no hope in Christ, still trying to trap, deceive, manipulate and demand what you call love from others around you, simply for your own selfish satisfaction? Go straight to God. Ask his forgiveness for your failure to appreciate the love which he has already given you through his Son; thank him for all that you have in Christ; and ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit and the knowledge of his love, to be a witness to his love to those around you. From the security of his love, go to those around you, serve them in his love, show them your love in word and deed, from the joy of knowing the love of God for yourself.