Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”John 3:15-17
I once saw a church sign with a message posted on it that said:
For God so loved the world … Enough said.
Can you guess which part of the sign I agree with, and which part I don’t? Yes, I agree that God loves the world, of course. But I don’t agree with the second part – that this is enough said. And not just because you’ve called me to say more! It is not enough to say that God loves the world and leave it that, for lots of reasons, really. First and most obviously, it leaves out Jesus. It leaves out God’s plan to rescue the world.
If you were on a boat and a loved one fell overboard, it clearly wouldn’t be enough to tell them that you love them, right? They would also be hoping that you would choose to throw them a rope, or turn the boat around, or do something to actually help them! As Christians, it is not enough to say that God loves the world, and leave it at that. We must say more.
If we are going to say that God loves the world, we also must talk about how God loves the world. And what God is doing to rescue us from the mess that we are in. We must talk, in other words, about Jesus. Because Jesus is how God loves the world. We must, at the least, include the rest of this famous verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
That is how God loved the world. But not only that, but we must also talk about how we receive that love, and that is through faith. When Martin Luther preached a sermon on this famous verse – John 3:16 – he began his sermon by saying:
Preach nothing but Jesus Christ and of faith in him. That is the sense of this Gospel text.Martin Luther
Luther doesn’t even mention the love part of this verse here! It is not enough to say that God loves the world. We must also say something about Jesus, and about believing in him. That is the sense of this Gospel text.
But maybe a better way to see this is through the eyes of the first person to ever hear this famous verse. We think of John 3:16 as a verse that was dropped out of the sky, that stands alone. But it is actually just one memorable statement that Jesus made in an extended conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.
The Pharisees, as you may recall, were not too sure about Jesus. But Nicodemus was apparently curious. Enough so to risk a night-time visit to Jesus. He approached Jesus and payed him a compliment, saying that “we know you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus responds to this compliment, however, with a statement that seems to change the subject. He says: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” That’s quite a statement. What does it mean? I believe that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that it is not enough to respect Jesus as a teacher, even as one who has come from God. To really see and believe who Jesus is, we must be born from above.
C.S. Lewis once famously said that the one thing we must never say of Jesus is that he was simply a great moral teacher. Here are Lewis’s famous words:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.C.S. Lewis
That is what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, when he told him that he must be born from above. It requires accepting Jesus as Lord and God, and placing our trust in him.
The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up
But then Jesus goes on to remind Nicodemus of a famous story from the Old Testament, the story of when the people of Israel were in the wilderness, and were being killed by poisonous serpents. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, and miraculously escaping through the Red Sea, God’s people were very grateful, for a little while. Then they became impatient, and complained to Moses and to God. It got so bad that God allowed poisonous serpents to bite and kill some of the people. This woke them up, and they turned back to God, confessing their sins and asking for forgiveness.
God forgave them. But not by taking the serpents away. Instead, God commanded Moses to make a serpent of bronze, and place it on a pole. And whenever someone got bit by a serpent, they could look at the bronze serpent and live. This is a famous story that Nicodemus would have known well. Jesus reminds him of it, and then says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should have eternal life.” That verse is John 3:15. I don’t have to tell you what comes next.
So what is Jesus saying here? We are now the people in the wilderness. And we have sinned. And the consequence of sin is death. But God loves us too much to leave it there. He has crafted a solution, a permanent solution, to the problem of sin and death. When we are bit by the sting of sin, all we have to do is look to the Son of Man being lifted up on the cross. Whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.
You see? It is not nearly enough to say that God loves the world. We must also acknowledge the world’s desperate need for forgiveness, and our desperate need for forgiveness. And we must recognize the basic message of the gospel, and of John 3:16: that the only way to be forgiven, and to be made right, is through Jesus and our faith in him.
To Love the World in Jesus Christ
That is what it means for God to love the world. But what about us? What does it mean for us to love the world? I think that is an important follow-up question, especially for we who have already received Jesus as our Lord and God. What does it mean for us to love the world? Or, even better, what does it mean to love the world in Jesus Christ? I think there are three aspects of this.
First, to love the world in Jesus Christ means that we are not to condemn the world. The world can be a pretty discouraging place. There is a lot that is wrong with our world. But God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, as Jesus tells Nicodemus in this reading; but in order that the world might be saved through Him. And so, we do not condemn the world, either. We tell the world that God loves this crazy, mixed-up world of ours so much so that He gave His only Son.
Second, to love the world in Jesus Christ also means to tell the world when it is wrong. When we love our children, we tell them not to play in the road, especially when cars are coming. We’re not being mean. We’re showing love. Why wouldn’t that be the case for the Christian living in the world? We love the world by pointing out the things that are contrary to God’s will. We love the world by working for justice and peace in the world, and sometimes this means telling the world that it can do better, that we can do better. That is love, also. To tell the world when it is wrong.
And, finally, I believe that to love the world in Jesus Christ means to love people who are hard to love. Jesus really does tell us us to love our enemies. But I think that what that looks like on a day-to-day basis, is to love people who are difficult to love. To love people who are wrong. To love people who get on our nerves. And to love people whom the world does not love. And to do it all in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
That is what I believe it means to love the world in Jesus Christ. And I believe that people are dying to hear this message. Not just that God loves them. But that he loves them enough to offer to them his only son, for the forgiveness of their sins.
I believe that you can tell the world, until you’re blue in the face, that God loves them. But it won’t be enough. They need to hear about Jesus. It is not enough to know that God loves you. You must also know that God loves you so much that He gave His only Son for you. And when you know and believe this, your life is changed forever: Your your view of the world and your place in it is forever altered.
Remember Nicodemus? He began by believing Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. But his conversation with Jesus turned his world upside-down. So much so that when Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Jesus down from the cross and placing it in a tomb; and lovingly anointing his body with myrrh and aloes. Why would Nicodemus do all this? Why would he take such a tremendous risk in being seen by his fellow-Pharisees while caring for the crucified Jesus? Was it because he knew of God’s love for the world? Or was it because he believed that God loved him enough to give him his only Son, Jesus? I bet you can guess my answer to that question.When we truly believe that God loved us enough to give us his only son, Jesus, our lives are changed forever. And that, perhaps, is enough said. At least for today. Amen