“Unpacking the Nutshell” (John 3:14-21)

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012

“Unpacking the Nutshell” (John 3:14-21)

“John 3:16”: You’ll see that reference–just that reference, by itself, no other words with it–you’ll see “John 3:16” showing up in all sorts of places. You might see a guy with a rainbow wig at a sporting event, holding up a sign that says on it, simply, “John 3:16.” You might see quarterback Tim Tebow with “John 3:16” written on his eye black. They figure that just the reference is enough to get their message across, since the verse, John 3:16, is so well known.

You all know it. You probably learned it by memory when you were a kid. Depending on the translation you learned, it goes something like this: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That’s John 3:16. This verse is commonly called “the gospel in a nutshell,” because it so well captures and encapsulates the precious gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The gospel in a nutshell, John 3:16. But there is so much packed into this one verse, packed into that nutshell, that we do well to examine and explore its contents. Otherwise, we may take it for granted and miss some things that we’re overlooking, because the verse is so familiar to us. So let’s look at what’s in John 3:16 right now. I call it “Unpacking the Nutshell.”

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We’ll take it a piece at a time. Let’s start with “God.” Now this may seem obvious, but it isn’t. Who or what you mean by “God” can and does vary from individual to individual, from culture to culture, and from religion to religion. When people say “God,” they’re not all on the same page, particularly in a pluralistic society like ours. Different people have different ideas about who or what God is. Is he–or she, or it–is “God” just some generic “higher power”? How many gods are there? Does each religion have its own god? Are there as many gods as there are people, since men have a tendency to create god in their own image? No, it’s just the opposite. People may think that God is whatever they imagine him to be, but that is not the case.

There is only one true God, who created the heavens and the earth and all men everywhere. This is the God who is revealed in the Bible. He created the world, and he called together a people for himself, the people of Israel in the Old Testament, expanded now to the church of all nations in the New Testament. God is who he is as he has revealed himself. And there is no other.

Now we know on the basis of Holy Scripture that this God, the only true God, is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And in the context of John 3:16, the term “God” here refers specifically to God the Father, since later in the verse God’s Son is spoken of as distinct from the Father. So here where the verse starts out, “For God,” we’re talking about God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“For God so loved the world.” Before we get to the word “love,” let’s talk about the term “the world.” When the Gospel of John says “the world,” it is speaking of the world insofar as it does not know its Creator. This is the world as it has gone its own way. The people of this world seek to be independent of God, to be their own god, really. And this does not work out too well. We think we know better than our Creator what is the best way for us to live. But we end up doing damage to one another, hurting our fellow creatures in countless ways, and bringing guilt on ourselves. We shake our fist at God and turn a deaf ear to his Word. The Bible calls this “sin.” It is stupid, and it is deadly. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” That is the state of the world we live in.

And you and I are part of it, according to our fallen sinful nature. As Ephesians puts it: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world.” You and I have those sins to confess, where we have hurt people and ignored God and ignored what he says is the right way to live. By nature we’re right there in that whole sinful mess called “the world.” By nature we are children of wrath.

So what is God going to do to the world? What ought the verb to be in our verse? “For God so condemned the world”? “For God so hated the world”? Those verbs would be appropriate, given how badly we have rebelled against our Creator. But what does it say? Surprisingly, “For God so loved the world.” Now that is amazing. That God would love us, after all we’ve done. But that is what John 3:16 tells us. “For God so loved the world.”

Now here again I suppose we have to define our terms. For just as the word “God” means many things to many people, so also does the word “love.” To many in our society, “love” has been reduced to just a warm, fuzzy feeling. “Let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.” No, that’s a bit too shallow for the love that God does. “For God so loved the world.” In the first place, it means he does this in spite of how the world has rebelled against him. In spite of that, God loves us. Furthermore, the love that God does never stops at mere feelings. God’s love results in action. When God loves, he does something about it. It means that God has mercy on us. He sees the mess we’ve made of this world, and he is committed to doing something to fix it. God wants the best for us. His love is a steadfast, faithful love, by which he takes action to help us at the point of our need.

So what has he done? John 3:16 tells us: “For God so loved the world that he gave.” God’s love doesn’t stop with a feeling. God’s love gives. It’s part of his giving nature. “Every good gift is from above and cometh down from the Father,” says the Bible. Think of all the gifts the heavenly Father gives us, from day to day. Food, clothing, house, home, wife, children–the list goes on and on. God is the biggest giver there ever was or ever will be. God’s love gives.

And when it comes to God’s supreme gift to humanity, his love is costly. It is sacrificial. It cost God something very near and dear. God gives of himself, out of his deep love for the world, out of his love for you and me. What has he given? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Now here we are dealing with the profound mystery of the Holy Trinity. God the Father gave his only Son. This is God’s Son who has always been, from before the beginning of the world. The eternal Son of God, who was with God and who is true God in his nature–this unique, one-of-a-kind Son of God, the second person of the Trinity–at a certain point in history God sent his own Son into this sinful world, taking on our flesh, as our brother. This is God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

And God “gave” his Son. His only Son. The Son he loves, Jesus Christ. “This is my beloved Son,” the Father says, “with whom I am well pleased.” Nevertheless, God gave him, sacrificially. Gave him into suffering and death. This is how much God loves us, that he was willing to make this supreme sacrifice. Christ Jesus went to the cross, to suffer and die, precisely in order to do the will of his Father who sent him and who loves us so much.

But why? What was the purpose of this giving, of this suffering and dying? John 3:16 tells us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It was all for our benefit, and there are two sides to this benefit. It’s what we get and what we don’t get. Because of God’s gift of his Son, what we don’t get is the “perishing.” To perish is to die, to die the big death, to die under God’s judgment and condemnation. To perish is to die with no hope. It is to be lost forever. But Christ died so that we would not perish. God does not want us to perish, and therefore he has given his Son so that we won’t.

That’s what we don’t get. What we do get, what we receive, is life. The big life, eternal life. This is life that last forever. But there is more to it than just a matter of quantity. It is a new quality of life, too, a new kind of life. Life with God. And you actually have entered into this eternal life already. You have it now. The gift is yours.

How? How have you received this gift? By faith. “That whoever believes in him,” our verse says. The Holy Spirit has worked this faith, this trust, in your heart. By faith, faith worked by the Holy Spirit, through the means of the gospel–now you trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior. You rely on him for your salvation and not on yourself or on anything else. Now you know the only true God. You have his name placed on you, the name of the triune God, given you in your baptism. Now you have the gift of the Spirit, by which you are born again, by which you believe in Christ, and by which you have begun to live as God intends for you to live. And it’s all a gift. Christ’s dying for you, to redeem you from your sins–that is a gift, of course. But so also is the fact that you believe in Christ. Your faith, too, is a gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Yes, God is quite the giver. John 3:16 is about how God gives you the gift of eternal life in Christ. You have this gift now. And one day, this eternal life will open up into life with no more sin and no more sorrow. When Christ comes again, it will be life in a new heaven and a new earth, restored better than ever–like the Garden of Eden, only better. We will know God fully, even as we are fully known. We will live in community with all of God’s people, love perfected all around. This all, and more, is what we have out of God’s great love for us in the giving of his Son.

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.” It is called “the gospel in a nutshell,” a condensed summary of the entire gospel in just one verse. Today we have unpacked the nutshell, very briefly. But, praise God, it will take us an eternity to enjoy the results.

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Published in: on March 18, 2012 at 1:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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