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.John 3:16
It is “the gospel in miniature,” Martin Luther famously said, but “so pregnant with meaning that it can never be exhausted.” It is the most famous verse in the Bible, and with good reason. It is, of course, John 3:16. The gospel, in a sentence. So simple, but it says so much. Memorized by Christians for generations, as it should. Preached on by many a pastor, as it should. And known the world over, as it should. In fact, this verse has been translated into more languages than any other sentence.
To remind you of the importance of this verse, let me share with you two quotes. The first is almost 500 years old. And the second is just a few years old. Both describe the importance of John 3:16. The first is from Martin Luther, who put it this way when he talked about John 3:16:
If you want to find God, then inscribe these words in your heart. Don’t sleep, but be vigilant. Learn and ponder these words diligently: ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.’ Let him who can write, write these words. Furthermore, read them, discuss them, meditate and reflect on them in the morning and in the evening, whether aware or asleep!Martin Luther
The second is from the contemporary Christian author, Max Lucado, who wrote a little book called simply, “3:16.” He begins that book this way:
[John 3:16 is] a twenty-six word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending with life, and urging us to do the same. Brief enough to write on a napkin or memorize in a moment, yet solid enough to weather two thousand years of storms and questions. If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder. The heart of the human problem is the heart of the human. And God’s treatment is prescribed in John 3:16. He loves. He gave. We believe. We live.Max Lucado
Great words about a great verse. A verse that should be inscribed on our hearts. A verse that begins our Christian journey, and provides direction all along the way.
There is a lot that I could say about John 3:16 today, but I thought that I would just look at a couple of words in this verse, and see if we can’t learn something new about John 3:16, or at least be reminded of why it is so very important.
And let’s start with the very first word in John 3:16: “For.”
“For God so loved the world.”
It’s not a typical way to start a sentence, is it? But when we do start a sentence this way, it is usually to connect this sentence with the previous one. It helps to explain the previous sentence. So if we really want to learn something about a sentence that starts with “for,” we will end up studying the previous sentence. In this case, that means that we’ll look at John 3:14-15, verses which are much less well-known than the next one. In these verses, 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.”
The Son of Man must be lifted up, Jesus says. Why? Because God so loved the world that he gave his only son. The sentence before John 3:16 helps us to understand what it means that God gives his only son. It means that God allows his son to be lifted up, on the cross, for us. That is the measure of his love for us.
That is what Jesus tells Nicodemus in this amazing conversation. I suspect that Nicodemus did not fully understand all of this until after Jesus was crucified; when Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross, and place it in the tomb. He must have understood then. And isn’t that true for us? We don’t fully understand the measure of God’s love for us until we go to the cross, and embrace the awe-inspiring mystery that he died on the cross not only for the world, but for you, and for me.
For God so loved the world. I have preached a lot on love, so as important as that is, I want to jump to the word, “world.”
“For God so loved the world,” Jesus says. But what does he mean, in this case, by ‘world’? It can mean a lot of different things, but in John’s Gospel it is used in some particular ways. We get our first hint about what ‘world’ means in John’s Gospel back in Chapter 1:
“[Jesus] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”
The world did not know Jesus. That’s often the case in John’s Gospel. He is the light of the world, but so often the world is blind and can’t see this. The world even hates Jesus, as he tells his disciples in Chapter 15, and the world often hates his followers, too. So, the world is definitely not just the church. It is not just those who believe.
It is everyone, even those who do not know Jesus, who reject Jesus, even those who hate Jesus. But God so loved the world that he gave his only son. It’s important, I think, to recognize that John 3:16 is not just talking about you and me. This verse is also talking about people who don’t know Jesus, and it’s even talking about people who hate Jesus. For God so loved them that he gave his only son. John 3:16 is only about us if it is about them. God only loves us if God loves them. But God does love them. And God does love us. And God asks us who love God to love the world, even the parts of this world, and the people in this world, that are hard to love. That, too, is what John 3:16 teaches us.
But there is one more word I want to consider with you today, that we find in John 3:16. And that word is: ‘believe.’
“Everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
‘Believe’ is a verb here. It’s something that we do, not something that we have. And in fact in John’s Gospel, ‘believe’ is always a verb; never a noun. It’s never simply something that we have. It’s always something that we do. Our faith is not an insurance policy, in other words, that we file away in a safe place until we need it. It is, instead, something that we do. When we believe in Jesus, we do something.
As an example of this, consider the first person who ever heard these words: the Pharisee, Nicodemus. He had visited Jesus at night to explore what Jesus was teaching. (He visited at night, no doubt, because he didn’t want the other Pharisees to know that he was there. The Pharisees, after all, did not like Jesus and were looking for ways to destroy him.) But Nicodemus was curious, so he visited Jesus that night to explore his teachings. And in the course of that conversation, Jesus spoke these famous words to Nicodemus: “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.”
Nicodemus was clearly changed by these words, and by his conversation with Jesus. He appears twice more in John’s Gospel, and each time shows how his faith has changed him. When the Pharisees were seeking to have Jesus arrested, Nicodemus went against them, defending Jesus. And when Jesus died, it was Nicodemus, joining with Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely claimed Jesus’ body and prepared it for burial, and this was while Jesus’ own disciples were in hiding! For Nicodemus, believing that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son changed everything. His faith became a verb. And for us, it does the same.
Martin Luther on How Faith Changes Us
We Lutherans are known for emphasizing faith over works. Which seems to suggest that faith doesn’t really change us. But that wasn’t Martin Luther’s understanding at all. He wrote some powerful words on the connection between faith and works, between what we believe and how we live. Here is how he put it:
Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God. It kills the old Adam, makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active powerful thing is faith! It is impossible that faith ever stop doing good. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them. It is always active.Martin Luther
You see? Faith changes us. Faith is not simply a way to receive eternal life. Faith is itself a way of life. Everyone who believes in Jesus is promised eternal life. But eternal life doesn’t begin when we die. It begins when we believe.
Eternal life is simply a way of describing our being in a relationship with the one who created life, and who promises eternity to all who believe. Whether our world knows it or not, this is what it hungers for: Eternal life. And it is our blessed task to remind them of this. To remind them, through our words and our actions, that God so loves them that He gave them His only Son, so that they, too, might come to believe, and by believing have their life changed forever. Thanks be to God. Amen