God So Loved The World
It’s the best known sentence in the best selling book in the world. Travelling around the country you will see it plastered outside Churches, you’ll find it on the sides of buses, in London it is all over the tube system, if you have nothing better to do than stay up late watching American Football there will always be someone who stands up waving a big placard with a the reference to it whenever a touchdown happens or a field goal is scored. It’s there in great big letters ‘John 3.16’ in the NIV it says “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.” and in the translation most loved by those who quote it, the King James (or ‘Authorised’) Version it says “ For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”.
For most of us it was probably the first Bible verse we ever memorised, it is so well known that even many non Christians could quote it. It is a statement we take as an essential fact in our Christian faith, the foundation of our understanding of who Jesus was and what God has done for us.
But what does it really mean?
On one level it’s obvious, it means what it says – God loved the world, and he sent his son,– who we know to be Jesus – and his son gives us the way to eternal life. But you wouldn’t expect us to stop there for a Team Evening Worship, so we won’t.
When a Bible verse, or story, or passage is familiar to us we can often lose some of the impact of what it means. We can also be too quick to take it at face value and not allow the depth or the wonder or the strangeness of a particular idea to surprise, challenge or inspire us. I think it’s probably the case with this most well known of Biblical statements. It really is a wonder, an amazing statement of God’s intent for us, and of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. And in order to get to grips a little more with this amazing statement it might help to look at where it comes from, theologically and Biblically.
You’ll find this amazing verse in John’s Gospel, as you know, in Chapter Three. It is part of a conversation between Nicodemus (who ‘came by night’ to talk to Jesus) and Jesus. In fact it is the latter part of the conversation and follows on from some equally amazing statements about being born again and being a part of God’s kingdom – but that’s a talk for another time! The important thing to note is that unlike most of the teaching in our Gospels which is done via story, parable and miracle this is teaching given by Jesus, directly to a member of the ruling Jewish council. This is something worth listening to, I mean REALLY listening to.
The fact that it’s in John makes it part of one of the most beautifully constructed and carefully created books of Theology in our Bibles. In the IVP Dictionary of Biblical Theology it says that ‘The Gospel of John and the Letter to the Romans are the Mount Everests of Biblical Theology’. Whilst Matthew, Mark and Luke share many similarities and overlaps, which is why they are called ‘Synoptics’ – same viewpoint, John stands apart. The commonly accepted dating of John’s Gospel puts it later than the other three books, and indeed probably later than all of the other Biblical books. It probably appeared around the turn of the first century, rather than in the middle. John’s Gospel seems to be very much the product of years of theological reflection, of sharing the stories of Jesus, of prayer, and it is probably the work of a community of early Christians who gathered around the disciple John who gave his name to the Gospel. That extra time gave the author, or authors, a lot more breathing, thinking, praying and writing space. The Greek in which it was originally written is carefully constructed, fluent and poetic. The style in which it is written is much more fluid and careful than some of the other rougher Gospels such as Mark. The aim of John’s Gospel is carefully set out and clearly stated in the very last verse of the last chapter:
Chapter 20. 31 "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name."
So if John is, in some ways, a pinnacle of theology, and John 3.16 a high point within that, if there is a desire that John is writing that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ then we should take serious notice of what this says.
“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.”
Let’s break this down:
- God loves the world
- God gave his Son
- Whoever believes shall not perish…
But that simple statement has so much more behind it. When the Bible talks of God’s relationship to the world it’s not just about God being proud of his work in creation. It’s not that God likes what he’s done and wants to keep any eye on things, keeping his hand in as it were with humanity. God LOVES the world, and for a being whose very nature is love (as the first letter of John says in Chapter 4v16 “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”) For this God, our God, to love the world is to share his very nature with the world, to be involved, to be invested in the world and its well being, and to be involved with the human beings who reflect and mirror his image.
And that leads on to the next part. God sent his one and only Son, his only begotten, the one who his God in human form, sharing the divine nature, being one with the Father. Now it’s a whole series of talks to wrestle with that theology, to consider the Trinitarian nature of God, who is only One God yet is known in human form and shares our human nature. But what I want to highlight here and to focus on now is that in the context of this verse it is part of God’s love for the world that sends His son, part of himself, to share our lives and to draw us back to God.
In those few words ‘that he sent his one and only Son’ we see the summary of God’s love for and involvement in the world. We see a God who refuses to be detached from the pain and suffering of the world, who doesn’t leave us to stew in our sin and to bear the inevitable fatal consequences of sin. We have a God who gets his hands dirty, who is a part of the everyday stuff of life, who by his very nature is part of the world he made. And Jesus, God made man, Immanuel, God with us is the epitome of this. Jesus isn’t sent out like someone being sent off on a mission but is an expression of God and God’s love for us. He is God himself walking among us and is willing to do what it takes to combat sin and its effects on our world.
Which leads us on to seeing again the wonder of the sacrifice made, as it says in our communion services ‘once, for all, upon the cross’ and the wonder of the resurrection where Jesus was restored again to life with God. Every time we repeat ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son’ we are not saying that Jesus came on a day trip, or to have a look around. We are saying that he became one of us, that he taught and shared the love of God in word and deed, that he made real the love of God in the everyday, the ordinary, and that he suffered and died in such a way that it changed the very nature of reality. That in his sinless death he took the effects of sin, the wages of sin, upon himself and made it possible for us to live beyond death.
Which leads us on to the last part of this particular verse. “…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”. All we have to do to share in God’s great gift of love and life is to accept it. We use the term believe, but it means so much more than ‘think it is true’. If we truly believe in something we give heart and soul to it. If I say I believe, for instance, that so and so is the greatest musician of all time that means not just that I think this is a good idea, but that by my own life and action I align myself with this truth. I give myself to this belief – I try to convince others that this is the case, I listen to their music whenever possible, I go to concerts, I might even buy the t-shirt. OK, it’s a trivial example, but it makes the point. When we say we believe in Jesus it’s not a case of saying that we are in line with the official teaching of the Church on Jesus, or that we understand and accept the theology of incarnation. On the contrary it’s not the understanding that is important, it is the living. The implication of knowing God’s love for the world and knowing that Jesus came into the world to make the love known and to make it real is that it changes our own alignment. We accept the gift of life from Christ and we long to share it with the world.
And there’s more. As well as this particular verse it is important to consider where it comes in the passage… Not just as part of a conversation Jesus has with this learned, important man, but as part of a teaching that calls us to make Jesus known (the Son of Man must be lifted up), and to remind us of God’s attitude to the world.
From this passage we see that God’s attitude is not one where he looks at us with a jaundiced viewpoint, but that he looks at us and loves us. Without going into a detailed blow by blow look at the whole passage I just want to look at the next verse in the passage. If John 3.16 is the most well known in Scripture then perhaps John 3.17 is the most neglected! It’s easy when there is a well known verse to forget what comes next and this next verse serves to enhance what has been said in that wondrous, well known, verse 16. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that that the world might be saved through him.”
God’s attitude is always to look at us with love. God is prejudiced! He always prejudges us with grace, forgiveness and mercy… And the purpose of his incarnation in Jesus Christ is not to make us feel bad about ourselves, or to convince us of our evildoing but to reach out to us with Grace. The technical term is ‘Prevenient Grace’ the Grace that goes before us, that meets us where we are.
Jesus came that we might be met by that Grace, that we might be embraced by it, that we might know his life through it. It may convict us of our sin, but only that in order that we can know his love and forgiveness, not to terrify, exclude or indeed condemn us.
And if that is our attitude to faith, that it begins with the love of God, and that God’s love is made real in the form of the Son who was sent into the world, and that God longs for all to share his life then that is a very different starting point than that which much of the Church seems to come from. Rather than criticising the lives or attitudes of others, rather than threatening with hell fire or the wrath of God, rather than using our ‘status’ as God’s beloved children as a way of feeling ‘one up’ on those who don’t believe the things we do, rather than any of this we will begin with love, with a feeling of gratitude for all God has given and done for us and we will long to share that with a world that God loves. We will long to share it with a world that God gives himself to. We will long to share it with a world that God gave himself for.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.