“John 3:16, Up Close and Personal” (John 3:14-21)

Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 14, 2021

“John 3:16, Up Close and Personal” (John 3:14-21)

It’s perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible. People know what it says simply by the reference, “John 3:16.” It’s so well known that folks will hold up a sign with just the reference on it, and people will remember what the verse says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” A brief, concise, beautiful summary of the gospel. In fact, this verse is often called “The gospel in a nutshell.” Well, let’s take a closer look at it now, as we explore “John 3:16, Up Close and Personal.”

You’ve heard this verse a thousand times. You may even know it by memory. But by its very familiarity, we may just gloss over the particulars of the content. So let’s see what each part of the verse is saying.

Let’s start with “God.” Now this word may seem obvious as to what it means, but it isn’t. Who or what you mean by “God” can vary from person to person, from culture to culture, from religion to religion. When people say “God,” they’re not all meaning the same thing, especially in a secularized, post-Christian society like ours. Different people have different ideas about God. Is God a “he,” a “she,” an “it,” a “they,” an “us”? Who or what is “God”? Is it just some generic “higher power”? How many gods are there? Or are there any at all? Can each religion have its own god? The truth is, men may think that God is whatever they imagine him to be, or want him to be, but such is not the case.

The reality is, there is only one true God, who created the world and all its creatures, all human beings included. This is the God who is revealed in the Bible. In the beginning, he created the heavens and the earth. In human history, he called together a people for himself, the people of Israel in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, the people of God has been expanded to be the church of all nations. The one true God is the one who has acted in history and has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. And, despite what men may think, there is no other god.

Now we know from Scripture that this God, the one true God, is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 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 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.” We’ll get to the word “love” in a moment, but first let’s talk about “the world.” In the Gospel of John, the term “the world” is speaking of the world insofar as it does not know God. This is the world that has gone its own way, that has rebelled against its Creator. The “world” here means the world of men as they have set themselves against God, the world whose value system is opposed to the ways of God.

The people of this world seek to be independent of God. Each man wants to be his own god, really. And this does not work out very well. We think we know better than our Creator the best way to live. But how’s that working out for you? We end up doing damage to one another. We hurt our fellow creatures in countless ways. We shake our fist at God, and we turn a deaf ear to his Word. The Bible calls this “sin.” It is stupid, and it is deadly. “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” That is the state of the world in which we live.

And you and I were part of this sinful world, according to our fallen 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 were those dead sinners. We have hurt people and ignored God and dismissed what he says is the right way to live. By nature, you and I were part of the whole sinful world. By nature, we were children of wrath.

So what is God going to do to us? What ought God to do to us, to the world? You might think the verse would read: “For God so condemned the world.” “For God so hated the world.” That would be appropriate, given how badly we have acted. But what does it say? Surprisingly, it says. “For God so loved the world.” Now that is amazing! But that’s what John 3:16 tells us: “For God so loved the world.”

Here again we need to define our terms. Just as “God” means many things to many people, so does the word “love.” For many people, “love” is just some warm, fuzzy feeling. “Love” means not being judgmental, not saying that anything is wrong or sinful. But that is too shallow for the love that God has. “For God so loved the world” means that he loves us in spite of how we have sinned against him. And what’s more, God’s love doesn’t stop at mere feelings. God’s love goes into action. When God loves, he does something about it. He acts in mercy to fix the mess that we’ve made of this world.

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 nature. “Every good gift is from above and cometh down from the Father,” says the Bible. Think of all the gifts our 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 will be.

And when God gave us his greatest gift, his love was costly. It was sacrificial. It cost God something very near and dear to his heart. What has he given? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Here we’re dealing with the profound mystery of the Holy Trinity. God the Father gave his only Son. This is God’s eternal Son, from before the foundation of the world. The Son of God was with God in the beginning, true God in his nature. This unique, one-of-a-kind Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, God sent into the world, to take on our flesh, to be 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.” Even so, God gave him up for us all. He gave him into suffering and death. This is how much God loves us, that he was willing to make such a sacrifice. Christ Jesus went to the cross to suffer and die, to do the will of his Father who sent him and who loves us so much.

But why? For what purpose? To what end? 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.” God’s giving of his Son was for our benefit. And there are two sides to this benefit: It’s what we get and what we don’t get. What we don’t get is the “perishing.” To perish is to die eternally, under God’s judgment and condemnation. To perish is to die without hope. It is to be lost forever. But Jesus died so that we would not perish. God does not want us to perish eternally. That’s why he gave his Son, so that we won’t.

That’s what we don’t get. What we do get, what we do receive, is life. Eternal life, the life that last forever. But there’s more to everlasting life than just a matter of quantity. It is first of all a new quality of life, a new kind of life. Life with God, the way it was meant to be. And you, dear Christian, you have actually received this eternal life already. You have eternal life now, present tense.

How did you receive this gift? By faith. John 3:16 says, “Whoever believes in him.” The Holy Spirit has worked this faith, this trust, in your heart. By the faith worked in you by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, now you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior. You rely on him for your salvation, not on yourself. Now you know the one true God. You have God’s name placed on you in your baptism, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s all a gift, both Christ’s dying for you, to redeem you from your sins, and the gift of faith, so that you believe in Christ and trust in him. As Ephesians says: “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.”

God is the great giver of every good gift. And John 3:16 tells us how God has given us new and eternal life in Christ. You have this gift now. And one day, this gift will blossom into life with no more sin or sorrow. When Christ returns, we will have this life forever, with glorified bodies in a renewed creation. We will know God fully, even as we are fully known. We will live in fellowship with all of God’s people, love perfected all around. All this and more is what we have, because of God’s love for us in the giving of his Son.

John 3:16, the gospel in a nutshell. And now that we’ve taken a look at what’s inside the nutshell, up close and personal, we see how it’s packed full with meaning and good news for every one of 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.”

Published in: on March 13, 2021 at 7:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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