Last time we read John 3:1-21 to put v.16 in its context, this most famous and beloved of all verses in the Bible. We then took note of its universalism, one of many statements in the Bible that describes the breadth of God’s love and the gospel as an invitation to any and all to believe and be saved. Tonight I want to summarize the theology of this statement that Martin Luther described as “the Bible in miniature.”
There is more here than at first may meet the eye. In fact, it is not too much to say that we have here a statement of the key articles of Christian theology. At this moment, early in the ministry of the Lord Jesus, he would probably not have made a remark quite like this. There is that in this famous verse that would have been impossibly confusing. But when John wrote his Gospel, long after the resurrection had transformed the disciples understanding of both Jesus and salvation, long after the risen Christ had himself taught his apostles how to explain the good news to others, the statement we have as John 3:16 was a commonplace of Christian thought. But you should not assume that someone who hears or reads this text understands it. The fact of the matter is that much of what people have the hardest time believing of our Christian faith is front and center in John 3:16.
Consider the presuppositions that lie beneath this famous statement.
- First, there is here in John 3:16 the nature of God himself.
Everyone has some concept of God. The Bible teaches that, of course, Paul particularly in Romans 1, but it is something that we observe as well. A so-called new atheist confidently asserts that the God of the Old Testament is a dirty bully. Why? Because he assumes that if there were a God he wouldn’t be like that; he would be something else, something more to their liking. The ordinary American more commonly thinks of God as a somewhat distant, well-disposed and well-intentioned avuncular figure who wishes us well but hardly rules the world with an iron hand. When Americans sing “God bless America” at the ballpark or put the phrase — a prayer really, though I think comparatively few grasp that — on the bumper of their car, they have only the vaguest idea of what they themselves mean by the word “God.” Apparently they think that God can bless America. That is, he has the power to do so. Presumably the words imply that God might not bless America. Otherwise why ask him to do so? The words themselves seem plainly to suggest that God is a person: a thinking, willing, self-conscious individual who acts for the sake of reasons sufficient to himself and has great power. How else could he bless an entire nation? But few think that far into the words they are singing or reading. “God bless America,” is an expression of the vaguest and most uncertain meaning. It means virtually nothing. It is the expression of sentiment, nothing more.
But the Bible’s view of God is decidedly more concrete, definite, and specific. In Holy Scripture God is identified as a person with attributes. True enough, he remains shrouded in mystery. As we read a number of times in the Bible, no one has seen God or can see him. No one can comprehend his nature because he is far, far above us. We are but creatures; he is the Creator. We are finite, he is infinite. Our powers, God-given as they are and impressive as they may be, are utterly incapable of grasping God.
But he has told us a great deal about himself and that much we can understand. And chief among the attributes of God are the two that are front and center in John 3:16: love and justice. Not the one or the other. Far too often people’s conception of God is warped by their attention to but one of those two qualities. In the Bible they are always together, a unity. “Behold the goodness and the severity of God!” said the Apostle Paul. And we read in Psalm 99:8: “O Lord our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”
There are a great many statements in the Word of God that put those two aspects of God’s nature together and John 3:16 is one of them. “For God so loved the world…” The entire impossibly vast, astoundingly complex machinery of redemption came into being because God so loved the world. But what made that tremendous effort on God’s part and on man’s part absolutely necessary was that God in his justice had condemned the world. The reality of human death, temporal and eternal, the specter that overshadows human life, it is all there in that word “perish” in John 3:16. And the following verses elaborate the point. The world has to be saved, we read, because it has already been condemned. Why? Because the deeds of human beings are evil and because God is a judge who condemns and punishes what is evil. These are truths that are taught a thousand times in the Bible. They are the context of virtually everything we read in Holy Scripture. We need to be saved precisely because we stand condemned for our sins — our sins and our sin: the deep-seated selfishness and the myriad ways in which it expresses itself in thought, word, and deed — condemned by a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and who will by no means clear the guilty.
God is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful. That too we are taught in Holy Scripture. That too we must believe. He created the world by the utterance of a word and he rules the world he has made and no one can shorten his hand. But, in the Bible, first and foremost, God is love and God is justice. He is infinite love and perfect justice at one and the same time. And the mysterious mixture of longing for love and passion for justice that is found in the human heart is the profoundest demonstration that we human beings have been made in the image of the living God.
We cannot get started in understanding John 3:16 until we have come to terms with these two facts about God: he is the great lover of the creatures he has made and he is the avenger of their sins. If you believe that about God — what the Bible is always telling you about him and what you see displayed in the reflection of him in every human being — “God bless America” is immediately transformed from vague sentiment to urgent prayer, from a conventional and largely meaningless expression of civic piety to the most serious expression of ultimate reality. Only God could love enough to bless a place like America, but being the just God that he is, he will not bless her unless she avails herself of God’s offered mercy. She stands condemned before a just and holy God. She can be saved, but only in that way that a just God provided for her salvation. That is Christianity; that is John 3:16.
- Second there is here in John 3:16 the triunity of God.
By the time John wrote his Gospel, probably near the end of the first century, the triune life of God, the deepest mystery of all mysteries, had been the confession of the Christian church for many years. But at the time the Lord had his conversation with Nicodemus, early on in his public ministry, no one understood God as the Trinity. Probably no disciple really grasped this at all until after the resurrection. I imagine, though the Bible does not tell us, that this was a subject the Lord spoke to his disciples about in the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension; sorting out his relationship between the Father and the Spirit. Israel had believed in one God, but she had not believed because she had not been taught that the one living and true God existed in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God had not been revealed to Israel as three in one. As B.B. Warfield explains:
“The elements in the doctrine of God which above all others needed emphasis in Old Testament times were naturally His unity and His personality. The great thing to be taught the ancient people of God was that the God of all the earth is one person. Over against the varying idolatries about them, this was the truth of truths for which Israel was primarily to stand; and not until this great truth was ineffaceably stamped upon their souls could the personal distinctions in the Triune-God be safely made known to them.”
You get his point. The distinction of persons at that time would inevitably have led to a polytheistic understanding of God. It was not until monotheism had been firmly entrenched in the Hebrew mind, that the triunity of God was revealed. [Biblical and Theological Studies, 153]
And that revelation was made not primarily by prophetic utterance, but by the appearance of God the Son in the world and the revelation of the Holy Spirit not as an emanation of God or as the power of God personified, but as a person in his own right. We have had mention of the Holy Spirit as an agent in salvation earlier in this chapter in the Lord’s remarks about the new birth. And now we have the Father and the Son. Father, Son, and Spirit thus appear in John 3.
The deeper one gets into the Bible’s explanation of salvation, the more essential the triune life of God becomes. All three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — play unique roles in the redemption of the world and each is essential to our salvation. The Father sends, the Son comes, and the Spirit creates new life. Lying behind and beneath that famous phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” is a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So much of who and what we are as human beings depends upon the Triune God in whose image we are made. God is forever love; he has always lived in love, the three persons in perfect harmony and in affectionate unity. That is why love is such a big deal in human life. God is not solitary; we cannot be either. God himself lives face to face. So do we. We are individuals, each with his or her own life, personality, and attributes, as each of the persons of the Godhead is an individual, with something utterly unique to him, some incommunicable attribute that makes him the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit. But, at the same time, we were made for fellowship, for unity, for relationship with others, as God is and has always been in relationship with others. We see this so beautifully illustrated in the life of Jesus himself. He was born into a family. He was always with other people. Even when he sought solitude, it was to speak to his Father in heaven. He chose a group of disciples; from them he chose an inner circle of his closest friends. Where does all of this come from — this stuff of human life and experience — except from the nature of God himself, a nature that he has stamped on his creation. [Donald Macleod, Shared Life, 53, 60, 61] God is a perfect unity of three persons acting in love to save the world.
That is Christianity; that is John 3:16.
- Third there is in John 3:16 the incarnation.
True enough, we don’t get all the details here — they are scattered over the face of many pages of the Word of God — but we get the gist. ”God sent his only son…” Here is the second mystery of our faith and of human life: God becoming a man. For obviously John is talking about Jesus of Nazareth, a man that everyone knew as a man: first a baby in Bethlehem, then a child in Nazareth, and now a man walking the roads of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. And yet God gave him to the world. And that “gave” in 3:16 is “sent” in v. 17. This Jesus came from somewhere else; he was sent into the world.
True enough, many are the sons of God. It is a commonplace of the New Testament that we who believe in Jesus are the sons of God or the children of God. But this Jesus is the only son of God. Now perhaps you remember that the word “only” was translated “only-begotten” in the KJV. But that was a mistranslation, a fact now acknowledged by virtually everyone. The Greek word is monogenes. “Mono” means “one” or “only.” And genes comes not from the verb gennao, which means “to beget,” but from ginomai, which means “to become.” The French translation has it right: son fils unique, his only son.
Were this the only such statement in the Bible we would struggle to know what it means, but there are many such statements that affirm 1) Christ’s preexistence — that is, that he lived as a person before he was born to Mary —; 2) his divine life as the second person of the Triune God — he was the Son of God from eternity past –; and 3) his mission into the world — “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The most astonishing fact about Jesus of Nazareth is not that he performed miracles — prophets had done so before him — or that his teaching was electrifying — so had been the teaching of John the Baptist. What is astonishing about Jesus of Nazareth is that, as the realization dawned in the hearts of people who witnessed his life, death, and resurrection, they began to worship him as God! “My Lord and my God,” cried Thomas as he fell at Jesus’ feet a week after that first Easter. That a Jew with monotheism in his bones addressed the man standing in front of him as God was a fact powerful enough to turn the world upside down.
Everything in the Bible’s account of salvation depends upon the incarnation, God becoming a man to save men from themselves. There is nothing about the cross in John 3:16. Perhaps you noticed that. Of course, there will be a great deal about the cross later in the Gospel of John. But the cross is only as important as it is because of the one who died on it: the one who came from heaven to save his people from their sins.
God is love and God loves the world. This great verse opens with those facts. But God did not simply think loving thoughts about the world. No, God so loved the world that he gave… God so loved the world that, as John put it in his chapter 1, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Father gave his only Son. Our salvation begins in a great act of sacrifice, in an act of supreme generosity on the part of both the Father and the Son. For in order to come to us, the Son had to humble himself terribly. God had to become man, the divine glory had to be hidden from view, and he had to subject himself to the animosity and the bitter mistreatment of a world whose deeds were evil. But the Father knew that when he sent his son and the son knew that when he came.
That is Christianity; and that is John 3:16.
- Fourth there is here in John 3:16 the requirement of faith.
“…that whoever believes in him…” It is something that we do not think about often enough: the place of faith in the scheme of salvation. Why faith? Why is faith, as the Puritan Thomas Watson put it, “the master-wheel [that] sets all the other graces running”? Perhaps there are several answers that might be given to that question, but surely the first reason is this: faith makes it personal! God was not interested in salvation accomplished by some mechanical or mindless routine, even if such a salvation were possible, even if divine justice could somehow be satisfied in that way. He is himself a God of love and by requiring faith he was requiring from us a response as personal as was his own initiative on our behalf. He made us persons — thinking, feeling, willing individuals — and his salvation, therefore, requires a personal response.
Think of the various ways in which faith is described in the Bible. Across the page, in John 4:50, we read of the official who, as the NIV has it, “took Jesus at his word.” Alexander Whyte once remarked in a sermon,
“Faith in its most elementary sense, faith in its first and foundational sense, simply means the reliance placed by one man on the truthfulness and power of another.”
That is surely right. You are counting on someone else, either to have told you the truth or to be willing and able to do what he has promised. There is something highly personal about faith. And so it is wherever we are given a definition or description of faith in the Bible. Faith is “receiving” Jesus, John tells us in his first chapter. Faith means welcoming Jesus as your Lord and Savior, welcoming his Word, welcoming his righteousness. In other passages faith is likened to looking at God or Jesus. We have that in John 3:14-15 in the image of the serpent on the pole in the wilderness to which the afflicted Israelites had to look. There is something intensely personal in that image: one person is looking at and to another person, someone who can do for him what he cannot do for himself.
In other texts faith is a laying hold of Christ or a fleeing to him for refuge. Think of children who when afraid or distressed run to their parents or want to be picked up. That is their faith in action. “I want my mommy!” Why does he say that except he knows that she will take care of him and protect him! Have you been following the human catastrophe that is developing on our southern border? We now have large numbers of poor, often young Central American children sent by their parents across the U.S. border to escape the poverty and crime of their homelands. Did you see this in the Wall Street Journal yesterday? Peggy Noonan was writing of these children, now being warehoused near the border while bureaucrats try to figure out what to do with them.
“To them, everything is a swirl of lights, color, and clamor, and shouting and clanking. A reporter touring a detainment center in Texas noted a blank, lost look among some of the younger children. Every mother knows what that suggests. Children who cry and wail anticipate comfort: That’s why they’re crying, to alert those who care for them that something is wrong. But little children who are blank, withdrawn, who don’t show or at some point know what they’re feeling — those children are in trouble.” [WSJ July 12-13, A13]
They don’t have anyone to turn to. In other words, when you don’t think there is anyone who can or will comfort you, what is the point of crying? How sad! But faith is the expression of confidence in their being someone to care and to help. This is like the idea of those texts that describe faith as a coming to Jesus. “He who comes to me I will never drive away.” “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’” One person going to another is the idea here too as well. There is something intensely personal about all of these descriptions.
Another image often used in the Bible is that of submission. In Acts and in the letters of Paul especially this is a characteristic way of describing how someone becomes a Christian and what it means to be a Christian. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved.” Submission is also a personal thing.
What all of these definitions of faith have in common is their intensely personal character. Faith is the attitude we bear toward the person of God and the person of Christ. It is the confidence we place in him, the commitment and loyalty we offer to him, and the welcome with which we receive him. Listen carefully to this from C.S. Lewis. (It is a little more complicated than C.S. Lewis often is, but I think an extraordinary insight.)
“I do not think there is a demonstrative proof (like Euclid) of Christianity, nor of the existence of matter, nor of the good will and honesty of my best and oldest friends. I think all three are (except perhaps the second) far more probable than the alternatives. The case for Christianity in general is well given by Chesterton [He is referring to G.K. Chesterton’s magnificent work The Everlasting Man the reading of which had been influential in Lewis’ own conversion]; and I tried to do something in my Broadcast Talks [He is referring to the radio lectures eventually published as Mere Christianity]. As to why God doesn’t make it demonstratively clear [he means something you can work out in a mathematical proof or demonstrate in a laboratory]: are we sure that he is even interested in the kind of theism which would be a compelled logical assent to a conclusive argument? Are we interested in it in personal matters? I demand from my friend a trust in my good faith which is certain without demonstrative proof. It wouldn’t be confidence at all if he waited for rigorous proof. Hang it all, the very fairy-tales embody the truth. Othello believed in Desdemona’s innocence when it was proved. But that was too late. Lear believed in Cordelia’s love when it was proved: but that was too late. ‘His praise is lost who stays till all commend.’ [By which Shakespeare meant, if you hear all these other people thanking the cook and then finally you add your thanks at the end, your thanks doesn’t amount to much because it obviously never would have occurred to you to say it yourself. You only said it because everybody else did.] The magnanimity, the generosity which will trust on a reasonable probability, is required of us.” [Cited in Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, 92]
That’s faith and it is a highly personal thing: confidence in a person, not in a mathematical proof, not in a laboratory experiment, but in a person. All of that to say that sola fide, justification or salvation by faith, makes salvation an intensely personal matter; it makes salvation a matter of relationship, and being a matter of relationship, a matter of love and loyalty.
That is Christianity and that is John 3:16.
- And fifth and finally there is in John 3:16 the single alternative of heaven or hell.
“…should not perish but have eternal life.” That is the alternative, the sole alternative from the beginning of the Bible to the end. In Eden there was a tree of life. The term itself (written in the plural there in Gen. 2) refers to life in its fullness, or life at its best, life as we all know life ought to be. In Proverbs, for example, righteousness, longing fulfilled, and a tongue that brings healing are all described as a “tree of life.” But the penalty of sin is death. Adam and Eve sinned and they died, but they didn’t cease to breathe.
“Life, in Scripture, is never mere existence, and death is never the same as annihilation.” [Bavinck, Ref. Dog. iv, 710]
Life is one condition of human existence; death is another. A person can be vitally alive in a physical sense and stone dead in a spiritual sense. We’ve seen this a thousand times. In a similar way, a person can be disintegrating in health, struggling for breath, in racking pain and still be entirely and vitally alive. A person who is a Christian can actually be dead in body and still more vitally alive than ever before as a soul in heaven! When Christ said “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly,” he was not talking about mere existence. Nor was Paul when he summoned his readers to “take hold of the life that is truly life.” He was talking about a kind or quality of human existence, a life blessed by God, a life come into his own, a life that satisfies the God-given longings of the human heart. And, in the same way, death is always in the Bible human existence shorn of God’s blessing and favor, a life dominated by the enervating qualities of sin, by estrangement, by anger at misspent opportunity and frustration over unhappiness one cannot escape. It is this understanding of the word that accounts for a phrase such as “the second death” to describe human existence in hell.
Life and death are juxtaposed at the very beginning of the history of mankind as the only possible destinies of human beings and from that point onward that is the alternative that faces every human being. This is the assumption of everything said in Holy Scripture about salvation and it is certainly the assumption of John 3:16. Perish or live forever; be condemned or be saved. And this is why in the Bible there is always this radical division between human beings. They are either saved or lost, dead or alive, bound for heaven or bound for hell. There is no third category. Because Jesus makes the difference and because one must either believe in him or reject him, so it must be, as we read in John 3:36:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Because their destinies are so profoundly different, no wonder that their lives in this world should also differ dramatically. Christians love the light, as we read in vv. 19-20, while unbelievers hate it.
That is Christianity and that is John 3:16.
So there you have it. 1) A God of love and justice, who exists in three persons. 2) The triune God providing redemption for sinful humanity; the Father giving or sending his Son. 3) The incarnation of God the Son. 4) The summons to trust ourselves to him person to person. And 5) The seriousness of that summons with heaven or hell the destiny suspended on the decision. All of that in 24 of the most weighty and most beautiful words in the world. So much reality in that single sentence that anyone who understands what is being said and embraces these truths will live forever; not simply exist, but live forever!