For God So Loved the World
"For God so loved the world"
St. John 3:16
by William Klock
I want to backtrack a little bit this morning. Last week we looked at John 3:9-21. John 3:16, that verse that almost everyone here has probably memorised, falls in the middle of what we looked at last Sunday, but we only looked at it briefly. Last week we saw that while it’s Jesus who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and while it’s the Holy Spirit who does the work of changing our hearts and teaching us the Gospel, it’s the love of the Father that sets this whole plan of salvation in motion. He created us, we sinned and rebelled against him, and through his Son he made a way for us to be restored to his fellowship. Why? Because, as John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world”. I want to look more specifically at what that means today, not only because God’s love is one of the linchpins of the Gospel and it’s something we need to be communicating to people as we share the Good New with them, but also because the idea or concept of the “love of God” is something that people—sometimes even Christians—often get wrong or don’t understand.
In response to the Gospel we’ve all heard people say that they could never believe or worship a God who would send someone to hell. We’ve all heard people saying things like, “My God is…” or “My God does…” or “My God would…” or “My God would never…” And of course what follows isn’t a statement about the God of the Bible, but an exercise in idol creation as they go on to create God in their own image. Sometimes we ourselves confuse human love with divine love. Sometimes we pit different aspects of God’s own attributes against each other or we ignore some in favour of others—usually we favour love and ignore his justice and his holiness. This is why it’s important that we spend a little more time on Jesus’ statement that “God so loved the world”.
The funny thing is that the first thing we need to realise is that God’s love is bigger than we’ll ever fully grasp. That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t grasp it better, but God’s love is so big that it’s hard to wrap our heads around. St. Paul had as good a grasp of it as anyone ever has and so he wrote to the Ephesians and he prayed as Christ dwelled in their hearts and as his love became the ground of their own love that they might “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,” so that they would “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19). The better our knowledge of the depth of God’s love, the better we’ll know God—and not just know him, but experience him and appreciate what he’s done for us. A knowledge and understanding of the greatness of God’s love is the root of true and genuine service and worship. The more we grasp the greatness of God’s love, the more we’ll love him in return.
And God’s love is great. That’s how the Bible describes it. St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:4-5, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” We read “great” there, but it probably doesn’t have much impact because the word is so overused in our vocabulary. I was just thinking that last week I wrote a book review for a website. I said the book was “great”, but as I was thinking about the greatness of God’s love in this context I realised that the book wasn’t really all that great. It was good, but its goodness didn’t even remotely compare with the greatness of God’s love. If we want an idea of how great God’s love is we need to think about the fact that he loved us when we were his enemies. We need to remember that God sent his only Son to die for you and me when we were rebelling against him. Maybe that doesn’t speak very loudly to some of us. One of our problems is that we’re prone to thinking that we deserve God’s love. Think of the person you struggle the most to love—or, and I hope you don’t hate anyone, but if you do, think of the person you hate or despise the most—and realise that God’s love is so great he doesn’t struggle in the slightest to love that man or woman. He just does. God’s covers murderers and child molesters and Hitlers and Stalins just as easily as it’s greatness covers any of us.
God’s love is also holy. Our culture has so confused love with sex and sex with sin that sometimes it’s hard to think of love in terms of holiness. And yet God is just as holy as he is loving. In fact his purposing in loving doesn’t stop at saving us from hell, he wants to restore us to his fellowship, and even beyond that, he wants to make us the holy people he creates us to be in the first place. That means that he won’t coddle us in our sin. His is a holy love and his goal is to make us holy people. St. Peter wrote, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15). And as big a challenge as that seems to us as we continue to struggle each day with sin, God is almighty and so is his love. In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says, “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God’s love is also eternal. Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4 that “He chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world.” He spoke through the prophet Jeremiah to say, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). And through Isaiah he assures us, “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you” (Isaiah 54:10). And we know that his eternal love is sovereign too. In the next verse of Ephesians Paul writes that in love “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6). The cause of God’s love is only in himself. He doesn’t choose to love us because some of us are particularly lovable. In Deuteronomy 7:7-8 Moses told the Israelites, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you.”
Finally, we need to understand that God’s love is infinite. That’s why it’s so hard for us grasp, but there’s no greater proof of it than Jesus’ statement in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world.” There’s an infinite gulf between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man and yet in his love God sent Jesus to bridge the infinite gap. My guess is that Nicodemus was probably offended by that statement that “God so loved the world”. We know John 3:16 so well that we probably don’t give it much thought, but those words were incredibly provocative. As far as the Jews were concerned, they were God’s chosen people and God loved them and hated everyone else. That was pretty much how all peoples in the ancient world thought. Each nation or people had their god or gods and those gods loved them and hated and opposed everyone else and everyone else’s gods. God’s love is big enough to cover the whole world. He had tried to communicate that throughout the Old Testament. He elected Israel and worked through her so that the rest of the world would see his love, but most of the world—even most of the Jews—missed it until Jesus came to manifest God’s infinite love himself.
If we go on in John 3:16, the next thing we see is that because God so love the world, “he gave his only Son.” Greek has four words for love. Each one emphasises a different kind of love or a different aspect of love. Storge describes family love—the sort of love that is loyal no matter what someone does. Eros is where we get our word “erotic” and it describes romantic or sexual love. Philos is a love that longs for or delights in something—philosophy is the love of wisdom, for example. And that’s a receiving love. It’s contingent on what we get from it. I love bacon because bacon tastes good. If bacon didn’t taste good I wouldn’t love it. But the fourth kind of love—and it’s the love that Jesus stresses in John 3:16—is a giving love. It’s a word you’ve probably heard: agape. It’s a love not based on what we get, but on what we give.
This is driven home by what God gave because of his love: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. If you want to measure God’s love, Jesus is the measuring stick. Only the infinite worth of God’s only Son could match the infinitely giving love of the Father. There aren’t many things stronger than the love of a parent for a child. When it comes to a choice between our children and people who aren’t our children, children always win. Even if the people who aren’t our children are incredibly important to us, children win. John Flavel wrote, “Who would part with a son for the sake of his dearest friends? But God gave him to, and delivered him for enemies: O love unspeakable!” The gulf was infinite, God’s love was infinite, and so to bridge the gulf he gave us a gift of infinite worth: his Son.
Now, what does Jesus mean when he says that God “gave” his only Son? As the Bible teaches us—and as we affirm every week in the Creed—“For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” He humbled himself and became one of us, dealt with all our struggles and temptation, but without sin. Thirty-nine times in John’s gospel alone Jesus tells us that the Father “sent” him on a mission of salvation. The Father sent him to reveal his truth, to proclaim the good news of salvation, but especially do what had to be done to actually save us. Bishop Ryle wrote, “Christ is God the Father’s gift to a lost and sinful world. He was given generally to be the Saviour, the Redeemer, the Friend of sinners,—to make an atonement sufficient for all,—and to provide a redemption large enough for all. To effect this, the Father freely gave Him up to be despised, rejected, mocked, crucified, and counted guilty and accursed for our sakes.”
Brothers and sisters, when Jesus says that God “gave his only Son” we should be thinking of the cross where Jesus suffered and died so that we can be forgiven. God’s love is so great that even though our redemption meant the torture and death of his only Son and even though it meant pouring out his own just wrath for sin on his beloved child, God was willing to give him for that. I can only imagine how painful that was for the Father to give up his Son, but he was willing to do so because his love for us is so great. This is what Paul wanted the Ephesians so desperately to grasp, because the better we understand what it means that God loved us enough to give his only Son, the closer it will draw us to him, the more we’ll be driven to holiness and service and worship, and the more we’ll want to share that love with the world around us.
And God’s gift wasn’t just infinite in worth; it was perfectly suited to need our need: “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 has done all sorts of things for us because of his love for us, but it was the giving of his only Son that met our greatest and eternal need of redemption. This is why when the Bible speaks about God’s love, the most common way it does so is to speak of it in terms of the saving work of Jesus at the cross. In his first epistle John writes: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
Let me conclude with three practical applications of the truth that Jesus gives us in John 3:16. First, if God’s love is so great that he was willing to sacrifice his own Son to restore men and women to him, shouldn’t that drive us to share that Good News with the people around us? The means that Jesus himself ordained for the spread of the Good News was his Church. He gifts his people to share the message with others. This starts at home with our children. Parents, do not neglect to share the love the Father has shown you in his Son with your children! Set a godly example, pray with them and for them, teach them Scripture, and include them in the life of the Church. Take those vows you made at their baptism seriously!
Second, we should find great assurance in the knowledge that God loves us enough to give his only Son. If God’s love for us is this great and if he’s willing to go to such great lengths to save our souls from the eternal damnation, we can be sure of his willingness to meet our day-to-day needs. Paul wrote in Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” We needed a Saviour and God did not withhold his own Son. Why shouldn’t we trust him to provide the other things in life we need? He loves us.; our response should be to trust in him—for eternal things and for the things we need today. Our trust shows our love and gratitude and it serves as a witness to the world of the Gospel and God’s love.
Finally, third, we need to ask what it means to reject Christ. John Flavel put it this way, “If the greatest love hath been manifested in giving Christ to the world, then it follows that the greatest evil and wickedness is manifest in despising, slighting, and rejecting Christ.” Think of what that means. How often do Christians first slight God’s holiness by believing—against everything the Bible teaches us—that somehow everyone’s going to go to heaven, that there’s really no condemnation for sin? How much greater is the slight to God’s infinite sacrificial love when we say—again contrary to everything the Bible teaches us—that there are lots of different paths to God? Dear friends, if our sin wasn’t an affront to God’s holiness and worthy of eternal condemnation, why would he give up his only Son to torture and death? And if there are multiple paths to God, why would he have paid such a high price—a price the value of which we can never fully comprehend—why would he have paid that so that we can be forgiven and restored to his fellowship? Brothers and sisters, in his love God has given his very self as a sacrifice for our sins. All we have to do is accept his invitation to trust in that sacrifice. You and I may not have rejected that offer of salvation, but we need to be careful not to slight it by worldly wishful thinking about the state of humanity, about the heinousness of sin, or about our need for a Saviour. By the same token, you and I need to press this reality on the hearts of the people who are reluctant to receive God’s gift of his only Son.
The wonderful thing about growing in our knowledge of God’s love is that it will cause us to grow into the experience of God’s love. That’s why Paul didn’t first pray for the Ephesians that they would share the Gospel more or that they would trust God more or that they would receive the Gospel more. No, he first prayed that they would come to know the height and depth and breadth of the great love of God. The more we plumb it’s depths and come to realise just how much God loves us, all those other things will come as natural responses. If you feel like you’re lacking motivation for obedience, for evangelism, for prayer, for worship, take time each day to meditate on the cross and what it means that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Let us pray: Almighty God and Father, thank you for the great love you’ve shown us by giving up your only Son as a sacrifice for our sins. Increase in us daily our understanding of your love that we might ever more grow in our appreciation of it and in our desire to live it out and share it with others. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.