There is a critical truth that many Christians can quote, but not nearly as many actually think about. It’s easily dismissed as “that thing we learned in Sunday School,” considered so elementary that it’s now trivial. Sometimes we even roll our eyes at it, because it’s showing up on yet another cheesy bumper sticker or sandwich-board sign. But in reality, it is one of the deepest, most profound revelations in Scripture.
I’m speaking, of course, of John 3:16.
I’ve been meditating through the book of John for our Christology Bible study, and have been stuck on John 3:16 for a little while. Here on Christmas Eve, it only seems appropriate to take some time and write about it. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, God giving us His only Son, I’ve loved looking at what that entails and what it says about His heart. What I’m about to share with you is only a little bit of what I’ve been journaling in the prayer room — I definitely encourage you to take this verse and run with it on your own, and see how it hits your heart.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
For God… Salvation was entirely God’s initiative. We had nothing to do with earning His favor. He was in no way pressured into it, under no obligation to us or to anything else in the Created order. He saves because He wants to. It’s because of Him and His mercy that we may enter His kingdom.
For God so loved… Often, Christ’s atonement is pictured this way: There is a just Father who is an angry Judge, ready to condemn us to Hell forever. Just at the last second, Christ, the gentler, nicer Son, jumps in the way and heroically “takes the bullet” for us. But nothing could be further from the truth. “God [the Father] so loved…” Salvation was in the heart of God from the beginning. It’s true that He was in opposition to us because of our sin, but He was (and is) also madly in love with us. It was the groanings and yearnings of His own heart that motivated Him to send His only Son. We are not saved because the Son is kinder or more loving than the Father. The entire Godhead, in perfect agreement, loved you before the foundations of the world.
…loved the world… It’s amazing to me that God did not love only those who were sincerely pursuing God but couldn’t quite get it together. He loved the world. We’re talking about the world that rejected Him nearly as soon as it was created. We’re talking about the world that learned neither from flood nor fire and brimstone Whom it was they should serve. We’re talking about the world that was drifting farther away each day. It would be enough for God to love one such person who treated Him this way, but He loved the entire globe. Out of the ultimate self-giving love, God poured Himself out to an undeserving population in genuine, free, unforced desire.
Also, I believe “the world” refers to more than just the people, but the planet they live on. God has always desired a dwelling place among His own. He has always longed to bring heaven and earth together in His Son (Eph 1:9-10). It has always been in His heart to establish His throne in Zion and reign over all the earth (Isaiah 2, 4, 11, and a host of other Scriptures in both OT and NT).
…that He gave… True love gives. True love pours itself out on behalf of another. When God loved the world and wanted to reconcile us to Himself, He did not express it by coercing us or by forcing us into submission. He gave. No strings attached, no recourse. He gave us an invitation into the very deepest places of His heart by giving that which was dearest to Him. Love can be painful, and love is always costly, but God is love. It’s all worth it.
…His only begotten Son… This simple phrase speaks volumes about who Christ is. He is the only begotten Son — although many, many sons are brought to glory through the Spirit of adoption, Jesus is the only One who is “light of light, true God of true God” (Nicene Creed). This is the One who spent eternity past with the Father, daily His delight (Prov 8:30). This is the One who is the Word, the exact expression of the Father. God could give nothing more precious to His heart. (For more thoughts on Jesus’ Sonship, see this post.)
…that whoever believes… This is not an exclusive, elitist club. This is not for those who are spiritual enough or strong enough to strive their way into holiness. This is for the “whosoever”. Rich, poor, male, female, weak, strong, famous, or obscure, people of all races, people of all backgrounds. That means me. That means you. Although having faith can be hard, it is astonishingly simple. God has opened His heart to anyone who wants in. And He has made it so simple, so near to us, that all we have to do is believe.
…believes in Him… Now, belief does not just mean giving mental assent to a concept. We’re not believing in an idea or system. We are called to believe in a Person. This means that we agree, in the depths of our heart, with who Jesus says He is, and what He says He has done and will do. This, as simple as it is, will necessarily change everything. If I truly believe that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God, that He has come once for the forgiveness of sins and is coming again to take over the planet, that’s going to change how I live. If I believe that His words truly are spirit and life, then I must follow them. Belief in a mere religious idea leads to debates and intellectual elitism. Belief in a Person leads to a transformed heart. We believe “in Him.”
…should not perish, but have everlasting life. This is more than just dodging death and continuing in impassive existence forever. Jesus came that we may have life more abundantly. The age to come is not going to be a dreary perpetual cloud-sitting, harp-strumming affiar. We’re really going to be living, interacting with Him and with one another, doing things, learning things, loving deeply and fully and without the hindrance of sin. He wants us to be with Him where He is because there is a dynamic life and fellowship to be found when heaven and earth have come together and God tabernacles with His people. This is what we were created for, and this is what it means to truly live.
Praise God that Christ came to earth nearly two thousand years ago! All glory be His for His unmatched love and mercy towards us.
Merry Christmas, all!