As a young child growing up in West Virginia, I’m sure someone made me remember the words. I’m sure a well-loving and thoughtful Sunday School teacher made me memorize the words to John 3:16, for I have known these words since I was a young child.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV)
It is almost a rite of passage to be able to recite these 26 words.
These words have passion. These words have meaning. These words are the most famous in all of Scripture.
And, we see them everywhere. From billboards to signs at athletic competitions to a recent book by Max Lucado this verse has become a hallmark passage for the Christian faith, and for good reason.
But, why is that? Why has this passage become so special and so beloved over some other passages in the Bible? John 3:16 is more recognized than some of my personal favorites like Micah 6:8 “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” or even Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
To understand why John 3:16 is so important, we have to understand the meaning of this passage. What is Jesus trying to convey to us about this passage? What does John 3:16 really mean?
By walking through this passage, I believe, we will see that this sentence has a theological depth that gets to the heart of the Christian faith and what it means to follow Christ with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
To understand the passage, we have to understand what is going on in the narrative. Jesus has been in a deep conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the religious council who came to Christ in the middle of the night perhaps wrestling with Jesus’ ministry and whether or not he truly was the Son of God. Christ called Nicodemus to be born by the spirit – to be entirely transformed in the depths of our being, and renewed by this life. For it is only in belief in Christ, Jesus tells him and us, that we would experience the kingdom of God that Nicodemus, and we today, desire to experience.
Even more, Jesus – he says in 3:15, would have to be lifted up so that those who would believe in him may have eternal life. In a allusion to the Passion, Christ says that he must die so we may live.
It is at this point that Nicodemus in the conversation might have had a look of “Why” on his face. A puzzled expression of “I get it, but I’m not entirely following you Jesus. Can you help me out a little bit more? Why do you have to die? What are you getting at?” Nicodemus had already seemed puzzled earlier in the passage, so, perhaps, it is with this continuation of this conversation that Jesus starts out by saying “For God.”
For God: In these initial two words, Jesus lets us know who it is that sent him. It was God the Father, the creator of the entire universe that sent Jesus into the world. This mission – this ministry – was established by God. Christ came into the world at a specific time and a specific place in order to do the Father’s will.
In this ordering phrase, Christ tells the entire world who it is that has initiated this moment of salvation. God the Father, our beloved Heavenly Father, has initiated this grand mission and ministry for which we are part of.
But why would God initiate this ministry? Jesus continues:
For God so loved the world: It was love that was at the center of Jesus’ ministry: God’s love for his created world.
God’s love was at the center of creation. In Genesis 1, it was love that led God to create the moon, the stars, heaven and earth and all that inhabits it. Love brought God to create humanity and to desire humanity to enter into a relationship with Him. Never has this love faded.
For our God is a passionate and loving creator who continues to pour out his unending love upon his creation.
Even when we are disobedient, God’s love has never failed. God continued to love the world when he restored Adam and Even into relationship after their disobedience. God’s love remained true for the world when he entered into a covenant with Noah. God’s love remained with the people of Israel through their acts of disobedience. God’s love remains true for us, today, even as we are disobedient and fallen short of God’s glory and love.
We do not deserve this love, yet God continues to give this love to us, like a loving parent who desires the best for his child. Lucado writes, “God will not let you go. He has handcuffed himself to you in love. And he owns the only key. You need not win his love. You already have it. And since you can’t win it, you can’t lose it.” This is unconditional love at its finest and perfect sense.
In a world that, at times, seems to have lost sight of what it means to love unconditionally, God gives us a picture of what it means to go out into the world and love unconditionally as God has loved us first.
But, what is the length to this great love? How far has God gone to love us? What lengths has God taken to show us his love?
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son: God freely gave us his Son, his only son. God sent his son to earth with a purpose: To die on the cross of Calvary.
In this season of Lent, we are reminded of the depths of God’s love for us. God sent his only son to earth to stand in the place of our sin. God’s son, Jesus Christ, was sent to die the death that we surely deserved to die.
For God is a god of justice, of holiness, and righteousness and the disobedience of humanity had a price that had to be paid. An atonement sacrifice had to be offered in order for humanity to be pardoned of its sin, and renewed in right relationship with God the Father. Christ became the Lamb that pointed humanity to what it truly meant to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, and died on the cross so that we may be free of the burden and debt that our disobedience required.
God’s free love and continued love for humanity led to this great offer of salvation to be made. It is because God loves us, and continues to love us, that we are free from the price of our disobedience.
Christ’s death and resurrection made sure that our debt had been paid. We have been restored into relationship with the Triune God by the blood of the lamb.
Oswald Chambers, perhaps, says it best “Salvation of God is deliverance out of self entirely into union with Himself.”
But, what does that leave for us? How do we join this union? If we are free from sin, what is required of us in response?
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him: Belief is what is required of us gathered here today, or even simply faith.
The response for us is to trust that Christ died for us, and that the debt of our disobedience has been paid for us. To allow the Holy Spirit to enter into our hearts, to renew our lives daily, and to be transformed into the image of Christ so we may be a living representation of the message of Christ in our lives.
It is to allow Christ to be not just our Savior, but to be our Lord. To allow Christ to be the Lord of our lives, and to be at the center of our hearts.
This not just a once-in-a-lifetime decisions where we say the Sinner’s Prayer and give our lives over to Christ. This is a daily desire to live as people who strive to live as God desires us to live. To live as people who believe that Christ died for us. A daily recognition of the need for Christ and the blood of Christ in our lives.
This cleansing blood is available to all. Christ did not die for the select, or the privilege, or even the best of the best. Christ died for all of humanity – for the entire world. When Christ was on the cross, each of us was on his mind.
All of humanity – each person – has a choice to make: Will we live in the recognition of what Christ has done for us, or we will live as strangers to the cross and live without recognizing what Christ has done for us?
And if we believe, when we allow Christ to enter our hearts, to impact our lives, to set our path, what happens? What is the promise for us?
For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life: The cost of our disobedience is death – a second death, which is a spiritual death – a life entirely distance from God for all of eternity. Our acts of disobedience against the love of God requires this eternal death.
Yet, the cross offers hope. The blood of Christ promises something better. For when we believe in Christ, we will not face a life abandoned by God. We have a promise of a life in heaven – of eternity with God, where we will see New Jerusalem and the life of no tears, no pain, no hardships, but to be in the presence of the Almighty worshiping the Lord in His presence.
Twenty-six little words. Powerful words. Important words.
Words that make us think. Words that shape us. Words that define us. Even more, these are words that give us hope and point us towards an eternal relationship with the Triune God.
John 3:16 is important not because it rolls off the tip of our tongue, or that it was a passage we had to remember as children. It is important because at the heart of these words is the Christian narrative of hope, strength, and love. A story of a loving father who sent his son to live among us, to teach us about God, and to die for us so that we may live in freedom. A story of hope that our disobedience has been forgiven and forgotten.
It is the greatest story of love – the love story between God and humanity, and we are the central characters … for God love us so much that he gave us his only so, so that whoever shall believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.