God so loved the world
For God so loved the world. The most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. — John 3:16 (ESV)
God so loved the world
Most people, even those who have never set foot in a church, have heard this verse, have seen in written on poster board at ball games, and can possibly even quote it. It is going to be the verse we talk about in a few moments. God so loved the world.
But did you know there are other important 3:16 verses in the Bible? In fact, while the chapter and verse numbers are not inspired and not in the original, coincidentally, there just happen to be some very powerful verses throughout the New Testament with this same chapter and verse, and we are going to spend this month looking at them together.
For today, we’re going to focus on John 3:16 and its meaning for us today. But before we get too deep into it, we need to learn about Nicodemus, because the story starts with him.
Nicodemus was at the top of the pyramid of Israelite society. He has been sifted and tested and voted on and scrutinized. He has a resume as long as your arm. He is powerful, knowledgeable—an extraordinary man in a culture devoted to God. In his day if you asked an Israelite, ‘Is Nicodemus going to heaven?’ he’d likely respond, ‘If Nicodemus isn’t going to heaven, nobody’s going to heaven.’ He is a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin. He is scrupulous in his obedience to Law, blameless in the sight of men.
But Nicodemus comes to Jesus experiencing a conflict of emotions and religious tradition that he is trying to address – there appears to be a spiritual tug of war going on within him. And as we read his account you might be surprised to discover how God honors his searching process. Maybe Nicodemus represents you today, as you search to determine who Jesus is and what your response should be to him. Perhaps you can identify with the spiritual conflict that he’s experiencing.
There are three important truths that we can learn today that I think will help you on your search:
1. GOD INVITES OUR QUESTIONS
There is nothing wrong with approaching God with our questions about faith, salvation, the Bible, or anything else. God respects the fact that we’ve come to Him for answers. Nicodemus came to Jesus with humility seeking an answer in his search:
This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”— John 3:2 (ESV)
Jesus doesn’t rebuke Nicodemus, treat him like he’s an imbecile, get impatient with him, or do anything that would turn him away. Jesus welcomed Nicodemus, but he cut directly to the heart of the issue. He doesn’t waste time on casual conversation – “How about those (insert local sports team)?” Or “Nice weather we’re having.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”— John 3:3 (ESV)
That seems like a strange response to Nicodemus’ statement, but Jesus knew his heart and knew exactly what kind of questions Nicodemus had on his mind. And so Jesus answers accordingly, knowing the needs of his heart.
The same is true for us – God is not shocked by our approach or our questions. Maybe you’re here today and for whatever reason you don’t even believe that there is a God – maybe you’re skeptical about the whole thing and think that Christianity is, “a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people” as the Governor of Minnesota once said. While I completely disagree with that point of view, I can acknowledge you as a person with honest questions with a right to be answered.
I would also ask you a question today: If you’re skeptical about God, what can it hurt to look more into the evidence for His existence, and even deeper, for the love that He has for you? God welcomes your questions, but be ready for Him to give you the answers you need.
2. GOD EXPECTS OUR RESPONSE
Doing nothing is a response. That’s very different from what Nicodemus was doing. Nicodemus was gathering information to make an informed decision.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’— John 3:5–7 (ESV)
To be born again involves the giving up of every attempt to become righteous by anything that we can do for ourselves. It is the willing acceptance of God’s gift of grace.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”— John 3:9 (ESV)
He is trying to figure out the literal translation – What work can I do? Jesus explains that he’s talking about a spiritual rebirth not a physical one, then He adds.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. 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.” — John 3:16–18 (ESV)
God didn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. But if you refuse to accept his gift of salvation you’re condemned already.
Once a little girl was talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.
The little girl stated that a whale swallowed Jonah. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.
The little girl said, “When I get to heaven I’ll ask Jonah.” The teacher asked, “What if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you ask him.”[end of illustration.]
The fact is that Hell isn’t a laughing matter, and the thought that people go there is cause for concern. Based upon what the Bible says, people put themselves in a place of punishment, not God, because they refuse to respond to Him.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. — 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)
It isn’t God’s will for anyone to go to hell, but God doesn’t impose His will upon us – He has created us as free moral agents, respecting our right to choose for Him or against Him, but His desire is that we would accept His free offer of salvation.
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?— Ezekiel 18:23 (ESV)
Those who refuse to respond to God’s offer are responding – they are making a choice to be separated from God for eternity. God doesn’t send anyone to hell, rather people choose hell over God. God allows people to pursue their selfish desires rather than a relationship with Him, and this is the net result.
But on the other hand, God has offered eternal life to anyone who will simply bow down to His Son, Jesus Christ, and accept Him as Lord. Through the Cross and Resurrection events God has made it possible for each and every one of us to come into a relationship with Him and spend eternity with Him. He didn’t send Jesus on a mission of condemnation, but of liberation. Jesus came to elicit a response from us – and the question that God wants us to answer is, “What will you do with Jesus Christ?” Will you accept Him or reject Him?
3. GOD DEMANDS A LIFECHANGE
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. — John 3:5 (ESV)
Being born of water most likely refers to Christian baptism although there are some other possibilities. And if this is the case we’d have to say that it is easy to be born of the water – dunked in the baptistery or hot tub – but it is another thing to be born of the spirit. God wants to invade our lives and affect every choice and every action that we take.
It’s been my observation that lots of people have found our church to be a very comfortable place to practice some semblance of spirituality while not really having to make a whole lot of changes in their life, and that disturbs me. We come to Jesus at night and no one is the wiser that we have taken out “spiritual fire insurance.” But we haven’t been reborn – we’re not a new creation.
God wants to give us new eyes and a new heart to comprehend what it means to be a member of new family, a child of God living in joyful obedience to God’s will.
“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. 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.”— John 3:19–21 (ESV) God so loved the world.
Do you love the light or love the secrets of the darkness? The new birth isn’t some experience added to our old way of thinking or acting. We have too much of this in churches – people living no differently from those who aren’t Christ followers – kind of just going through the motions. Maybe we’re even doing the right things, trying to behave right. But at the center of our existence, at the very core of who we are, we’re unmoved and unchanged.
If you’re the same ugly, hateful, angry person you were five years ago, then you haven’t been allowing God’s Spirit to change you. God wants you to be born again, not have a facelift.
Fully devoted followers of Jesus, those who are born again, are called to live in the light. But for some, the heart of who we are remains unchanged.
That phrase “born again” that Jesus uses signifies that we have a chance to start over, with a new life – that’s what Jesus is saying. We’re talking about a new beginning, a fresh start – That’s what God offers us. And yet we often choose to live the old life with a few new twists. God offers us so much more. God so loved the world.
There’s no end to the encounter in John 3 – We don’t know what Nicodemus did. But we do learn from this that Jesus gives us the right to go away – to seriously consider and be born again, or to push him to the back of our minds and one of these days get around to settling the issue, or to reject him as being oppressive, and selective, and condemning. Are you really happy with a makeover when you could have a whole new body?
Oprah Winfrey interviewed Billy Graham on television. Oprah told him that in her childhood home, she used to watch him preach on a little black and white TV while sitting on a linoleum floor.
She asked him if he got nervous before facing a crowd. He replied, “No, I don’t get nervous before crowds, but I did today before I was going to meet with you.”
When the interview ended, she told the audience, “You don’t often see this on my show, but we’re going to pray.” Then she asked Billy to close in prayer. The camera panned the studio audience as they bowed their heads and closed their eyes.
Oprah sang the first line from the song that is his hallmark, “Just as I am, without one plea.” Though off- key, her voice was full of emotion and almost cracked. When Billy stood up after the show, instead of hugging her guest, Oprah’s usual custom, she went over and just nestled against him. Billy wrapped his arm around her and pulled her under his shoulder. She stood in his fatherly embrace with a look of sheer contentment.
Billy represented God in that moment, but the real God is here right now. And He wants nothing more than to embrace us in our search – will you let Him today? God so loved the world that He gave His son to die for our sins.