Salvation and Judgement, John 3:16-21


Download Audio

Download Text

Distinct but Inseparable Series, No. 8

“Salvation and Judgment”

John 3:16-21

September 30, 2018

The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

 

In these morning sermons we are considering matched pairs of biblical truth, each a separate and emphatic teaching of the Word of God but one that must be held in unity with the other. Think of some of the pairs we have considered so far: law and gospel, justification and sanctification, faith and works, and clarity and mystery. Each is a distinct emphasis in the Bible, but each needs the other to maintain its integrity. This morning our pair is salvation and judgment and our text is perhaps the most famous text in the Bible.

 

Text Comment

 

There can be no absolute certainty, first century Greek had no quotation marks, but it appears that the Lord’s own words end with v. 15 and v. 16 begins John’s comment on what has just been said. The writer of the Gospel, having recorded some of the Lord’s own words concerning the new birth and the Lord’s death for our salvation, added some summary reflections of his own on the same subject. The “For” with which v. 16 begins, connects John’s summary with what the Lord had just said.

 

v.16     “So loved the world” This would have been a new thought for a typical Jew of that day. That God loved Israel he would not have doubted. But it was not thought that God loved the world, or that he loved men from every nation and language. No one has been able to find a statement in Jewish materials from the period that speaks of God loving the whole world of men.

 

v.17     This kind of statement, about the mission of the Son of God in the world, is common in the Gospels. E.g. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The world was condemned before Jesus got here. He came into the world to save it, not to condemn it.

 

Now this text sets side by side to two very distinct realities: salvation and judgment, eternal life and perishing, salvation and condemnation. Together they define the single alternative: men must perish unless they are saved. Remember, everywhere in the Bible “to perish” is not to cease to exist, but to exist under punishment, to experience a living death, to suffer punishment, or as John later says here in v. 36, “the wrath of God remains on him.” Death is never extinction in the Bible; it is always a condition of existence. The unbelieving, while they live in this world, are said to be dead in their transgression and sins. Christ came that we might have life; in other words, we who are alive in the physical sense need life! Men and women are alive, but they are dead. If, however, they come to believe in Jesus Christ these dead men and women find Life! You see how the terms are used to describe two different kinds of existence.

 

The obvious point here, the assumption underlying everything is that there is this single alternative: life or death, heaven or hell, happiness forever or eternal woe. True enough, the Bible has much to say about both futures, but people often fail to appreciate the sophistication and the figurative nature of the Bible’s teaching. Hell exists as a caricature in many minds, bodies writing in endless torment and so on. This is a failure to appreciate the Bible’s imaginative and emotive way of describing eternal realities. In the same way heaven seems uninviting to people because they imagine it to be sitting on a cloud playing a harp! The English novelist Somerset Maugham ventured his opinion that heaven “is apt to be dull.” What a mistake by a man of letters who should have known better, should have understood what the Bible was doing with the imagery that it employed.

 

In fact, the Bible makes clear that each unbelieving human being will get exactly what he or she deserves, nothing more and nothing less. Some will be beaten with many stripes, Jesus said, and some with few. And heaven will be nothing other than human life in its fullness and richness; life as we have loved it here but to a far greater degree and without the sorrow, frustration, failure, and shame that has so often marked our lives here. But that there is such punishment in the world to come and that there is such an eternal life is not only the Bible’s clear and emphatic teaching, it is the presupposition of everything the Bible has to say about salvation. The incarnation of God the Son, his suffering and death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, all of that was made necessary by the fact that unless God should intervene to save sinners, they must all suffer punishment in the world to come.

 

The simple fact is and has always been that if this juxtaposition of the two destinies is lost, whether positively denied or simply largely ignored, both doctrines lose their meaning. The fact is one will not believe in heaven, not really, if he does not believe in hell. No one will anticipate heaven who does not believe in hell. No one will order his life with respect to the coming blessing of the world to come who does not believe in hell. As one observer put it:

 

“The kind-hearted humanitarians decided to improve on Christianity. The thought of hell offended their sensibilities. They closed it, and to their surprise the gate of heaven closed also with a melancholy bang.” [H. McNeile Dixon cited in V. Grounds, “The Final State of the World,” JETS 24/3 (1981) 215]

 

In his magnificent book about hell, so full of rich insight and convincing argument, the great Dutch preacher and theologian Klaas Schilder said a similar thing in a still more arresting way.

 

“Poor men! God has placed Zion, the high mountain, and Gehenna, the deep valley, close by each other in an eloquent symbol. [Schilder is referring to the fact that the hill Zion, upon which Solomon built the temple and so which became a metaphor for heaven, the presence of God being concentrated there, directly overlooks the valley of Ge-hinnom, which valley, because it was a refuse dump and because Manasseh performed child sacrifice there, became a metaphor for hell.] But men have for the umpteenth time separated what God had placed together. They no longer hear what Ge-hinnom, what Gehenna says. Poor men!” [Wat is de Hel? 32; my translation]

 

The two destinies belong together; they sit side by side in the Bible. Well John is not setting out to make that point, but it is perfectly clear that his entire argument assumes the reality of that single alternative, that the one, God’s gracious salvation, depends on the other, divine judgment.

 

I don’t suppose there would be much debate if I were to suggest that John 3:16 is the best-known and best-loved verse in the Bible. Many unbelievers and, alas, even some Christians, like Matthew 7:1 better and use it more often – “Do not judge or you too will be judged!” – but most of them couldn’t tell you the reference. But multitudes know John 3:16. Even those who couldn’t quote the verse, recognize the reference. They see it on placards at sporting events. They see it on billboards and painted on the side of barns. If they frequent In-N-Out Burger restaurants, they may see John 3:16 printed on the underside of the paper cups. And they see it in churches. The church in which I was raised had John 3:16 in gold script on the front wall of the sanctuary behind the pulpit.

 

Christians love the verse for its assertion that the salvation of men flows from the loving heart of God and for its perfectly clear, straightforward articulation of the summons of the gospel: believe in Jesus and you will live forever. Live! Live with a capital L! But, left there, we are in danger of reading John 3:16 and even believing its great statement in a merely sentimental way. When I say sentimental, I mean, thinking about something in the way we would like to be true, not the way that is true, in a trivial rather than a serious way. For the fact is, this great verse is brimming with thunder and lightning. There may be wonderful sweetness in it, surely there is, but there is power behind it. And all of this is demonstrated beyond question in the five verses that follow and explain and develop the thought of John 3:16. If you follow the thought from v. 16 to v. 21 you will see it is all connected. The fact of God “sending his Son” is repeated in v. 17. The necessity of men and women “believing in him” is taken up in v. 18. “Perishing” is taken up in v. 17. And so on. Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Bible in miniature.” And he was right. But he was right only because there is a great deal more in this verse than many see at first glance. There is the triune nature of God here – the Father sending his son, for example – but there are other things here that I want to point out this morning. Let me show you what I mean.

 

First, there is in the verse a radically negative judgment pronounced on the world. The word “world” is used in different ways in the Bible and in the Gospel of John. For example, it can mean the entire created order. John used the word in that sense in 1:10 where he says that Christ made the world, or in 21:24-25 where he says that the world is a big place that can hold a lot of books! The term can also refer to the nations, the human community. Jesus, you remember, said that he would not return, and the end of the age would not appear until the gospel had been preached in all the world (Mark 14:19), which is to say, to all the nations, all the peoples of the world.

 

But, ordinarily in John, “world” means “fallen humanity and its ways, [apart from and] alienated from God and his truth.” [Wells, God in the Wasteland, 37] “World” is, therefore, the community of men and nations insofar as it is in rebellion against God. “The world hates me…” the Lord says in John 7:7. The world cannot accept the Lord because it does not see him or know him. (14:17) The Devil is the prince of this world. (14:30) Christ’s disciples do not belong to the world. (15:19) The Lord said in his great prayer in John 17:9, “I pray for [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” And many other texts like that! As J.I. Packer puts it, “[world] is simply a synonym for bad men everywhere.” [God’s Words, 65]

One commentator sums up the meaning of the word “world” this way:

 

“Therefore, when John tells us that God loves the world (3:16), far from being an endorsement of the world, it is a testimony to the character of God. God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad.” [Carson, 123]

 

The great Benjamin Warfield said the same thing in his more magisterial manner.

 

“The world is just the synonym of all that is evil and noisome and disgusting. There is nothing in it that can attract God’s love… the point of [the word’s] employment [in John 3:16] is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it.” [Biblical Studies, 514ff.]

 

You see, in John, the “world” in this sense contains no believers. Those who come to believe in Jesus, the Lord himself will say later, are no longer of the world, they have been chosen “out of the world” (15:19). If Jesus is the Savior of the world, well, then obviously the world needs to be saved. And that is the explicit teaching of the next verse. Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, the world is condemned. And that point is confirmed in the verses that follow. The world that God loved and sent his Son to save is rotten. To say that God loved “the world” is akin to saying what Paul says in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And to what Paul says two verses later: “When we were God’s enemies we were reconciled to him by the death of his Son.”

 

Indeed, the world is so wicked, so much God’s enemy, so contrary to God and to what is pleasing to God, that John elsewhere forbids Christians to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15-17). There is no contradiction here. God loves the world with a selfless, sacrificial, love. He loves the world in order to redeem it, to save it, to transform it, to make it good. When Christians are forbidden to love the world, they are forbidden to love it in the sense of accepting it as it is, participating in its way of life, wanting to part of it. We are not forbidden to love the world in the sense of hoping for and working for its salvation.

 

So, God can love what is wicked, what is disgusting, what is repellent, what is offensive and what is otherwise condemned. Think of the judgment that God pronounces on Moab in Jeremiah 48: 26ff, one of those oracles of judgment like so many others in the prophets, “Let Moab wallow in her own vomit; let her be an object of ridicule… In Moab I will put an end to those who make offerings on high places and burn incense to their gods…. Moab will be destroyed as a nation because she defied the Lord.” But, in the same text we read the Lord saying, “Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out…. So, my heart laments for Moab like a flute…”

 

Well, so here in John 3:16. God so loved the world…that community of men and nations in rebellion against him, living in every manner of way that offends his holiness and his goodness. He loved that world!

 

Second, there is in John 3:16 a radical antithesis posed between believers and unbelievers, between those who receive and confess Jesus as Lord and those who do not.

 

There are two and only two kinds of people in the world: those who believe in Jesus and those who do not. According to the Bible, all other distinctions between human beings, those distinctions that for one reason or another seem to mean so much to us, are comparatively inconsequential. In 3:16, those who believe live forever and those who do not will perish.

 

But it is not only their destinies that differ. There is an absolute antithesis between their lives in the here and now. In v. 18, the one who does not believe is already condemned, he is condemned now! He has the wrath of God on him now. The believer, on the other hand, already has eternal life coursing through him or through his or her veins. Unbelievers, now in this world, love darkness and hate the light, because their deeds are evil. In loving darkness, they are loving themselves, in hating the light they are hating the opposite of themselves.

 

Strong language, indeed! You know very well how unbelievers would react to such a characterization of themselves or to the suggestion that only Christians love the light. Tell your unbelieving friend at work tomorrow that he loves darkness, but you love light. See what he thinks about that! But, it is John’s teaching. It is the teaching of the entire word of God and it  entire muchious waytencemost inexcusable and hurtful and useless expressions of human pride and hypocrisy.eis the observation of life. John uses the verb “to hate” twelve times in his Gospel, almost a third of the total number of uses of the verb in the NT. And always to make this same point: that the sinful world hates God, hates Christ, hates what they stand for, and hates those who love and trust in them. The contest between the unbelieving world and Jesus Christ may sometimes seemed to be waged with courtesy and respect, but, at bottom, down deep in the heart where human beings are their truest selves, it is a bitter hatred that the world has for Christ, no matter his love for the world!

 

And the reason is, as John says in v. 19, because their deeds are evil. There is a moral basis for unbelief. To come to Christ would amount to admitting the evil that one’s life has been, the darkness it has been. To come to Christ is tantamount to the admission that one has been a failure as a human being, a failure root and branch. Men in their pride, they love themselves too much for that. They would rather remain in the darkness than admit that they live in it!

 

Do you remember that scene near the end of King Ahab’s life? It is reported in 1 Kings 22. Ahab wanted to go to war against his enemies, in order to recover territory, they had taken from him. And he had sought the assistance of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, in that undertaking. Jehoshaphat, was a believing man, a godly man, and so naturally he suggested that the Lord’s prophets should be consulted before committing to battle. Ahab, therefore, gathered them all together, and to the man they gave a favorable judgment on the plan and urged the kings to go forward. Jehoshaphat, however, was no idiot. He knew that Ahab’s prophets were worthless, sycophants who would tell the King whatever he wanted to hear. So, he asked if there wasn’t at least one true prophet of the Lord that they could consult. Ahab replied, “There is one more, Micaiah, the son of Imlah, through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.”

 

How perfectly true to life that reaction on Ahab’s part. We don’t want to hear the truth if it condemns us, if it makes us feel bad, if it makes us look bad. And that is exactly what John means when he says that fallen man, sinful man, man as he is by nature, loves darkness rather than light because he fears exposure. We of all people should not doubt this! We know how much of our lives, of our thoughts, of our attitudes we hide from other people, because we would be absolutely mortified for people to see us as we actually are.

 

We live in a culture that has made a massive investment in the protection of people from this exposure. We have made the condemning of the practices of others the unforgivable sin in our culture (though, hypocritically, we continue to delight to expose the bad behavior of people we don’t like or feel superior to or with whom we disagree). We have provided excuses for every form and manner of bad behavior and taught generations of people not to condemn themselves for it. And, correspondingly, our culture hates the light as virulently as any culture in the history of the world.

 

And that is why, in this culture, fewer and fewer people are becoming Christians. In Europe and North America in particular, the number of evangelical Christians is much lower per capita than it was a generation ago. In North America it is less than half what it was in 1960, in Europe it is less than a third of the number in 1960, down to a tiny fraction of the population.

 

And the human explanation of this is simple enough. All men love darkness rather than light. But we live in a culture that is urging the darkness upon us, defending our love of it, demonizing the light and all who bring the light, and, all the while, in the academy, the media, and the entertainment industry which exert constant pressure on our thinking and feeling, the darkness is being dressed up to look like the light. Of course men will love the darkness rather than the light. Our culture, every human culture, makes it its business to make it possible for men and women to live in darkness all the while thinking themselves to be basking in the light. The Devil himself, remember, the Prince of Darkness, dresses up as an angel of light! And we live in a world that is following him in lockstep. What we are learning in our time is that human beings are even willing to give up meaning, purpose, and hope in life, just to protect themselves from exposure. As Flannery O’Connor, the novelist, once wrote, ours is an age “that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.” [Mystery and Manners, 159.] How and why? Because the alternative – exposure – is so terrifying to them.

 

But Christians do not live in darkness. They love the light; they have come into it and see it for what it is. They have faced the hard truth about themselves. They have found the truth and have been set free by it. And so, it is that it is this radical antithesis between darkness and light, between eternal life and the wrath of God that lies in and beneath the beautiful John 3:16! The immeasurable love of God and the promise of everlasting life is set against the backdrop of a wicked world that stands under the condemnation and wrath of a holy God.

 

But, do you see, you cannot have one without the other. You cannot have the love of God bringing salvation to lost sinners through the sacrifice of his Son unless there are lost sinners to save, unless man in his sin is both unwilling and helpless to do for himself what would have to be done to deliver him from the wrath of God that looms over his life and his future. You cannot have salvation unless there is something to be saved from. You cannot have a Savior unless there is salvation. And you cannot have the great, mysterious, mighty love of God that provided a savior unless loving a people like us is an utterly astonishing thing. As Thomas Goodwin, the Puritan put it long ago, “He who makes little of his disease, makes little of his doctor.” That isn’t what most people think about when they see a placard at a football game with John 3:16 written on it. But that is what John meant when he wrote that most famous verse.

 

You must face verse 18 before you can understand or embrace verse 16. You must hear in your heart the verdict being read out against you, that you have all along loved the darkness rather than the light, that, therefore the wrath of God rests upon you, before you will ever find the life and the love and the hope that is to be found in John 3:16. Do you remember Rudyard Kipling’s testament to a mother’s love?

 

If I were hanged on the highest hill,

I know whose love would follow me still.

If I were drowned in the deepest sea,

I know whose tears would come down to me.

If I were damned of body and soul,

I know whose prayers would make me whole.

 

There is something past wonderful in a mother’s love, tenacious, indefectible as it is. But she is loving her own child, her son. She is not loving her enemy. But God loved the world, corrupt and unworthy as it is, loved it so much he gave his own son, whom he loved more than any human mother has ever loved her son, gave him up to suffering, humiliation, and death to save that world. The two realities together – judgment and salvation – together are the light of the world. Only together do they give us the way, the truth, the life, and the light!