How God Loved a Rebellious World
Passage: John 3:16–21
Sermon from John 3:16-21 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on April 7, 2013
Familiar Truth Should Still Be Treasured Truth
John 3:16 is likely very familiar to you all: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We often see this verse or its Scripture reference printed everywhere from billboards to the bottom of my cup at In-and-Out Burger last Friday. It has become a popular text used by the Lord in saving many people over the centuries through evangelistic crusades and gospel tracts. It’s also often among the first Scripture verses our children or a new disciple memorize; and what a fitting verse to begin grasping the heart of the Christian faith—God loves perishing sinners by sending his Son to rescue them.
But where we often go astray with familiar verses like John 3:16 is when we make them more of a cliché than treasured truth for the happiness of our souls. If we’re not careful, familiarity with a Bible verse—which is supposed to work for our good—can often work against us such that what’s really extraordinary becomes ordinary to us [“God loves me…Yeah, I know that…John 3:16.”]. Or, maybe you’ve really grown to value John 3:16 but quite apart from the rest of John’s Gospel that makes the most sense of it. Your expertise in quoting John 3:16 has left you feeling like you’ve arrived at knowing God’s love, when the turn of every page of John’s Gospel opens us to new depths of his love. By treasuring one verse in his Gospel without the whole, we rob ourselves of how amazing the truth of John 3:16 really is.
Or, maybe your familiarity with John 3:16 is of an altogether different sort. You’re in the camp who’ve rightly raised criticisms over the way others have abused texts like John 3:16, but over time you’ve grown so skeptical of anyone quoting John 3:16 that you can’t even enjoy its truth when you hear it. Your relentless skepticism has you so consumed with answering familiar objections that you can’t even savor the sweetness of God’s love for the world. All you can talk about is what John 3:16 is not saying instead of rejoicing over what it is saying: God so loved you—you perishing sinner—that he gave his only Son to bring you eternal life.
Or maybe you’re not a Christian and you just hear Christians quoting John 3:16 all the time, but you’ve never stopped to consider how it relates to you. You just roll your eyes and keep walking, not knowing that by doing so you continue down a path in life that will end in utter destruction; and all the while God’s been holding out to you a Savior from that destruction.
So, let’s not allow familiarity to be a stumbling block for us this morning. Rather, let’s allow familiarity to serve our amazement over the greatness of God’s love revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus the Son who reveals God to us in coming from heaven to earth: “The only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (1:18). And part of what Jesus reveals to us about God is that his mission as Son—his coming, his work, his cross, his resurrection—everything about his mission is grounded in the love of God. His mission reveals God’s love.
The Setting of John 3:16
In our passage, Jesus has just finished teaching Nicodemus about our desperate need for a new heart and new eyes and new life. And Jesus made it abundantly clear for Nicodemus that a new heart and new eyes and new life come only through his death on the cross. Verse 14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [i.e., lifted up to die], that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Then we come to verse 16 and see that all of that work—new heart by the Spirit, new eyes from the Son of Man, new life through Jesus’ death—all of it finds its beginning in God’s love for the world. So what I want to do this morning is hold up the greatness of God’s love and turn it at least five directions that we might know and experience it more deeply.
Understanding How God Loved Reveals the Degree of God's Love
Now just by way of clarification, I imagine a few of you are skeptical of the way I’m talking about “the greatness” of God’s love. You think I’ve already blown this sermon, because you know the Greek word behind our English word “so” in verse 16. In English we use the word “so” to convey either the manner in which something is done—“God loved the world like so”—or we can use “so” to express the degree in which something is done—“God so loved the world.” The Greek can be translated into English either way. But let me just pose a question? Does translating the verse to express the manner in which God loved the world somehow leave us questioning the degree of God’s love for us? Not one bit.
In fact, it’s in understanding how God loved us that we gain greater clarity about the degree to which he’s loved us. John 3:16 does show us how God loved the world, but how he loved the world involved both action and passion for our good, both expression and zeal for our benefit, both demonstration and affection for our well-being. So, yes, it’s important that we clarify what we mean by our language; but what we’re about to see is that how God loved the world shows us the greatness of his love for the world—and we’re going to turn that love in five ways.
1. God's Great Love Revealed in that God Loved a Rebellious World At All
First, we see the greatness of God’s love revealed in the fact that God loved a rebellious world at all. One of the most revolting ways to read John 3:16 is by making ourselves and our own worth the basis for God loving the world. We’d like to think that God loves us because he sees something in us that is so glorious and precious to him that he must have it. We live under the notion that not to love me is for God to be missing out on something special. But John paints an entirely different picture of the world, which makes God’s love shine all the more brightly. As D. A. Carson puts it, “God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad” (John, 205).
Look at the way John speaks of the world in his gospel—and keep in mind that he has the world of humanity in mind, every human being, all people born in Adam. In 1:5, he refers to the world figuratively as “darkness” in contrast to Jesus’ light. In 1:10, John says that “[Jesus] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” The world is so bent on itself that its people didn’t even recognize their Maker. In 1:29, Jesus is called “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That presupposes the world is sinful before God—we’ve rebelled against his ways; we need our sins taken away. In 3:17, John implies that the world needs to be saved from God’s judgment. Then, in 3:19, the light of Christ comes into the world, and it says that the people in the world “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” The moral problem with the world is that it hates how God’s light shines in Christ and they prefer darkness. In fact, 7:7 says explicitly that the world—in its natural state—hates Jesus. Then in 12:31, we find out that the world is also that realm of people ruled by the devil himself (cf. 14:30).
I doubt the majority of people reading a John 3:16 bumper sticker view the world that way and see themselves as part of that rebellious world if they’re still outside of Christ. Most of the world thinks they deserve to be loved by God, when this passage teaches us that there’s nothing lovely about us that would move God to love. And yet what should amaze us is that God freely decided to love us. Yes, God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), but that doesn’t mean that he is obligated to love us. Love is part of God’s very nature, but he isn’t dependent on the world in order to be loving. John 17:24 says that he loves his Son quite apart from the world. So he doesn’t need to love us in order to be a loving God, and that’s even more so the case when our rebellion doesn’t deserve God’s love but God’s condemnation, verse 18 says. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe in him is condemned already.” Already he is condemned for his rebellion against God. Already the wrath of God remains on the world (3:36). Already the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18). God did not love a neutral world, he loved a rebellious world deserving of condemnation under his holy anger and eternal wrath because of our sin.
Knowing this rebellious state of the world is what leads the apostle Paul in Eph 2:4 to speak of God’s love as a great love when he reflects on his own deliverance from the world in Christ. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But 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.” The fact that God loved a rebellious world at all should leave us saying with Paul, “What a great love. What a great love for me. I deserved nothing but his wrath, and yet he set his affection on me.” God loved us not because we’re so great, not because he perceived something good in us, not because we merited it, but simply because he loved us.
2. God's Great Love Revealed in the Worth of the Gift of His Son
Second, we see the greatness of God’s love revealed in the worth of the gift of his Son. God loved a rebellious world, and the result of that love was “that he gave his only Son” (3:16). So, God not only freely set his affection upon a rebellious world of people, his affection also led him to act for their well-being by giving his only Son.
Some of the older translations say “that [God] gave his only begotten Son.” In a theological sense, that’s true—Jesus as the eternal Son is eternally begotten, not made—but that’s not what John means here. Rather, he simply means to distinguish Jesus as the unique, one-of-a-kind Son. In other words, he’s the Son of all sons. There’s no other son in the universe like this Son. According to chapter 1, this Son has enjoyed eternal fellowship with God the Father. He was in the beginning with God and he was himself God. He shared an eternal glory and love with his Father before the world he created ever existed. He is the only glorious Son from the Father, full of grace and truth, and as such a Son he reveals God perfectly and is worthy of all our worship. The Son is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (including the visible and invisible universe).
That means there is no divine gift superior to the gift of God’s Son. There is no one of higher value, no one superior in power, no one more treasured by God, no one who preceded him, no one more loved by the Father, nothing possessing greater riches—God couldn’t give a lovelier gift than the gift of his divine Son.
Some of you need to consider that for a moment before we move on to our next point. God cannot get any more generous toward you than he has already been in giving his Son. Some of your prayers are going unanswered, and it’s unsettling at times to you. Some of you have lost loved ones and it has brought great anger toward God at times. Some of you want this job to change but nothing seems to be happening. All these circumstances in our lives leave us wondering at times, “Do you really love me?” Listen again: God cannot get any more generous toward you than he has already been in giving his Son.
Despite your sin, your rebellion, your depravity, God loved you so dearly that he did not spare his only Son but gave him up to see you saved. Whenever you’re not satisfied with that kind of off-the-charts love, I would plead with you to consider seriously how insulting it is to say “the gift of God’s Son just isn’t enough to prove God loves me.” He is the Father’s eternal joy! He’s heaven’s ultimate treasure! What our dissatisfaction with God’s love ultimately shows is that we’re not seeing Christ for who he really is, and therefore the depth of God’s love for us seems insufficient. But God says here that he gave his best for you—nothing more, because his Son is infinitely glorious, and nothing less, because his Son truly did come. He humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. He entered the darkness of this world as the Light. He identified with your flesh and blood. He lived your life, bore your sins, suffered your wrath, died your death, and rose victorious for your joy. Lift up your eyes to the Son of God in his infinite worth and see how loved you are in that God gave him for your eternal well-being.
3. God's Great Love Revealed in the Salvation His Son Achieves for Sinners
And not only did God give his divine Son in the sense of sending him from heaven to earth, but he gave him in the sense of killing him on a cross in our place. So, third, we see the greatness of God’s love revealed in the salvation his Son achieves for sinners. When we look back just a couple of verses, we see Jesus comparing himself to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness (Num 21:4-9). The main point is that just as God made provision for the people’s deliverance from death through the serpent, so also God had made provision for our deliverance from death through Jesus. In fact, the bronze serpent was even a picture that foreshadowed the much greater deliverance we gain through Jesus’ death on the cross.
So, for example, the serpent could only rescue Israel from the temporary curse of serpents, but it foreshadowed the day when Jesus would rescue the world from the eternal curse of God’s wrath. The bronze serpent could spill no blood to remove the sting of death ultimately—the people still died after they were healed—but it looked to the day when Jesus would spill his blood to remove death’s sting completely for all who believe. The serpent delivered Israel from the temporary plague of death when they looked upon it, but this foretold of the day when Jesus would deliver us from the eternal plague of death when we believe. All these connections Jesus wants us to make so that we understand what his “lifting up” really achieves for sinners—in short, deliverance from eternal death due to our sins, our moaning, our lustful thoughts, our lies, our poisonous tongues, our fist-shaking at God. God gave his Son in this way so that if we believe on him, salvation in full is ours. We will not perish, but have eternal life.
His purpose for coming wasn’t to bring condemnation to some and salvation for others—the whole world already sat condemned, guilty for their sins. Rather the purpose for Jesus coming was “that the world [that sat under condemnation] might be saved through him” (3:17). God gave his Son to die so that the poison of sin is removed and the curse of death is conquered for all who would believe in him.
That God loved you by sending his only Son to stand in your place under the weight of his omnipotent wrath you justly deserved should be a refuge for you in times of despair. There are days when all I can see is the hidden evils of my heart and when the angry powers of darkness assault my soul in every part. Knowing that God loved me such that he sent his Son as a wrath-absorbing sponge to satisfy God’s anger against my sin to its very last drop so that there’s none left is a refuge for me in those moments. It should be a shield for you when you take the Lord’s Supper in a moment and the accuser of the brethren stands over you, pointing out the depth of your wickedness. John 3:16 will absorb every one of his fiery darts, because whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
These words should serve as an encouragement for you in seasons of depression when you ask, “How could God ever love me?” Divine love for you was not wrung from God like a son begging his angry daddy to have mercy on his friends. The Father freely, willingly, extravagantly loved you such that he sent his Son to die for you—he gave him up that you might be rescued and given eternal life. And if your depression goes long in this life—I say this with all sincerity—what will be these next 30 years of darkness in comparison to ten-trillion in the light of his presence made accessible to you through the death of Christ. You will sing of his love like never before. Hold on to his love now; it’s holding on to you.
4. God's Great Love Revealed in that He Extends Salvation to the Entire World
Fourth, we see the greatness of God’s love in that he extends salvation to the entire world. By saying that, I don’t mean that God saves every single individual in the world. Verses 19-20 show us that not everybody believes. The passage also makes it clear that God only saves those who believe in Christ. The Lake of Fire will be populated with everyone who does not believe in Christ (Rev 20). So by saying that God extends salvation to the entire world, I don’t mean that he saves every single individual.
What I do mean is that God reveals his great love by extending salvation beyond his chosen people Israel to encompass countless multitudes from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (cf. Isa 54:2-3; Rev 5:9). John is highlighting the same thing here that he did in 1:29. There, Jesus is the greater Passover Lamb “who takes away the sin of the world [not just Israel’s, but the world’s].” The same sort of comparison is being made here. Jesus is not lifted up merely to deliver Israel from the curse of death; he’s lifted up to deliver the world from the curse of death. Again, certainly not meaning the world without exception—people must believe in order to be saved. But it does mean the world without distinction.
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Verse 18, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” In other words, God’s love is so great because it opens the door for anyone who believes on the Son to be saved. Red, yellow, black, white, or brown, young people and old people, rich and poor, from self-righteous moralists to unashamed prostitutes, from bad sinners to the worst of sinners—anyone who trusts in the Son of God will not perish but gain eternal life. God’s love indiscriminately offers to all peoples Christ and all his saving power through the gospel.
That means we preach as the apostle Paul did in Acts 17:30, that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Or like Peter to Cornelius in Acts 10:43, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Or like God did through his prophet in Isa 45:22, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.” No sinner excluded from the offer of full salvation in Jesus Christ, none Redeemer Church! We preach God’s love in Christ indiscriminately to all people, offering not merely the possibility of salvation, but offering salvation itself in Christ—pleading with sinners to acknowledge God’s love for them in Christ that they may not perish.
5. God's Great Love Revealed in that He Enables People in the World to Believe
Lastly, we see the greatness of God’s love in that he enables people in the world to believe. Look again at the contrast he makes in verses 20-21: “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” Then notice what he doesn’t say in verse 21. He doesn’t say, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that his works should be exposed”—as if to say they have any ground to boast in coming to the light of Christ. No, verse 21 says, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” Here’s the picture John paints for us: in this world there are two kinds of people—people who don’t come to the light because they’re morally unable and people who do come to the light because of God. Or let’s put it another way: you’re either running to hell because you want to or God has snatched you up and given you new affections for his Son.
So God’s love doesn’t merely hold out salvation in the gospel that people might believe, God’s love goes even further for some in that it causes them to believe—it brings them to the light of Christ, not so that people boast of their goodness, but so that it may be clearly seen that God did it—he brought you to the Son, he led you to believe, he provided everything necessary for you to gain eternal life. John raised the same point in 1:12-13: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Many reject Christ, but some receive Christ and believe on his name, and that belief is a work of God—they are “born of God,” John says. Or in 6:40, Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life [you must believe in order to be saved—that’s a message extended to all].” And then Jesus adds, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him [in other words, “If you believe, God drew you to Christ.”]” (6:41).
We’re beginning to see that the way God expresses his love is complex. He loves his Son quite apart from the world—we noted that earlier—he loves the world generally in that he offers salvation to all indiscriminately—we noted that in point 4—and now we see that God loves some within the world in that he enables them to meet the condition of belief and walk in the truth. The point is that salvation is never offered to a neutral world; God extends salvation through the gospel to an actively rebellious world running straight to hell. If any person in this world believes, it’s wholly owing to God overcoming their rebellion and resistance. So, at the end of the day, God’s love for the world precludes all boasting does it not?
If you’re not a Christian today, please accept my apology on behalf of all those Christians who’ve pretended they’re better than you are. The Bible doesn’t promote that kind of attitude, and I’m sorry you’ve had to endure the arrogance. Don’t get me wrong, we seriously believe that you’ll perish if you don’t repent and follow Jesus Christ. But never are we saying that in a spirit of one-upmanship. Actually, when we preach Christ truly, our words will say everything of his great worth and nothing of our own. We, too, deserve to perish. We, too, have the same sin problems. We, too, have gone astray, lived it up with the world, danced with devil, yelled at our wives, looked at pornography, and told our share of lies. We’re not better than the world—we were part of it and made our own empty contributions to its darkness. But our story is that of Scripture: God loved us unworthy as we are and sent his Son to rescue us; and he can do the same for you. How do I know that? “God so loved the world—you included—that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If you believe in him, he will save you.
If you are a Christian today, let me plead with you not to think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think. Your salvation is owing to nothing of your own merit and nothing of your own loveliness. It is solely owing to God’s love for you—his self-giving affection acted in Christ for your eternal good. Moreover, he overcame your resistance to the truth that you might not hate the light but run to the light. You’re life is no longer full of falsehood and wickedness. God, in his great love, has made you a doer of the truth. His love supremely displayed in the cross, “compels us,” as Paul says, “because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15). We are debtors. That is to say, we owe others the gospel of Christ.
In his book, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul, Peter O’Brien writes, “We who have experienced the saving power of the gospel in our own lives and have the assurance of deliverance from the wrath to come on the final day, cannot be anything other than debtors to those for whom Christ died. If we know the desperate plight of men and women under divine judgment—we ourselves had once been in that predicament—and that the gospel is the only hope for deliverance from the wrath to come, then we should be wholly involved in bringing it into the lives of others.” We must no longer live to promote ourselves but to promote Christ in all that we do; for in him, the greatness of God’s love toward sinners is revealed.
More in The Gospel According to John
May 24, 2015Eyewitness Testimony to the Greatness of Jesus
May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus