Sunday, January 22, 2012

For God So Loved the World

Today, we look at what has to be one of the best known verses around: 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.' I'm guessing that the only competition that this verse has for popularity is the first verse of 23rd Psalm. 'The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.' There may be some others, but it's clear that we are in exclusive territory.


There are lots of ways to approach a text like this. What we are going to do this morning is to look at some of its key words. There are six that I'll talk about. I am persuaded that there are profound things being described in this verse. It is my hope that you will see them a bit more clearly and that seeing them will change you in ways that people will notice.

The first key word is obvious. It's 'God'. I am finding that so many of the problems that crop up and cause Christians such troubles are related, in some way, to their understanding of who God is.  So much would be very different if believers today understood their God better. So, this first key word really is key and not just for understanding one verse.

As you would expect, the Westminster Shorter Catechism has a question about the nature of God. 'What is God?' And here is the answer it gives. 'God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.' Knowing this God is the goal of life. And the right kind of pursuit of that goal will lead to the adoration and fear of God. What I'm going to do at this point is to pick two qualities from that catechism answer: this God is holy and just. So, to translate, our God is pure goodness, and he always does what is right. As we work our way through the text, we'll come back to these two aspects of God's character.  

The next key word for us here is the word 'world'. I think that it's safe to say that when folk think about this word, especially in the context of this verse, the focus is on 'how many'. And that makes sense. 'World' refers to all the people alive on this globe. But, since this is John, we need to ask whether there's another layer here. And, as expected, there is. 'World' for John is not just about 'how many'. It's also about 'what kind'. So, there's this from one of the letters John wrote. 'Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world - the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions - is not from the Father but is from the world.' You see, for John, the 'world' is also about how evil this place is. The goals of the 'world' are all about 'the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions'. The 'world' is about the way of life that is absolutely opposed to the God who runs this universe. So, we're back to Genesis 6 which I've mentioned before. This is God's assessment of things during Noah's days: 'The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.' That's the 'world' with its devotion to evil and its hostility to God. It's not just how many but also what kind. Layers.

That leads to the next word for us to look at: 'perish'. Isn't it odd that even in a modern translation like the ESV, it still has 'perish'? You expect 'perish' in the old KJV. Why not use the more modern word 'die'? There's a reason. The Greek word that John used includes more than just the idea of dying. It has this undercurrent being destroyed. Demons used this word when they spoke to Jesus. 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God.' The demons understood. It's more than just dying. The holiness of God has to crush evil. So, it just seems obvious to the demons that Jesus, the Holy One, has come to destroy them. And in that, they are absolutely correct. Evil must be destroyed. So, it's not just 'die' but 'perish'.

And now we have three key words that we can put together to understand a part of the verse. John writes about the holy God and the evil world.  So, it's not just demons that must be destroyed. The world must perish. Think back to Genesis 6 and God’s assessment of what was going on in Noah's day. What happened next? The flood. Destruction. The holy God condemned an evil world. He destroyed it. Holiness demanded it. This evil world must 'perish'. And it's not as if the flood were the only example of this attitude of God to evil. Here's a verse describing Joshua and the army of Israel obeying what God commanded as they conquered the Promised Land. 'Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old.' They all perished at God's command. There are lots of folk who squirm when they read this. But should they? How else should a holy God respond to evil? 'But he could just ignore all of that, you know, let it slide. Who would know?' And that's why I also mentioned that God is just. To ignore evil might be something that we might do, but not a just God. Evil must be crushed. Holiness requires it. And justice will make sure that it happens.

This is a sobering thought, one not to be handled carelessly. But it is one that you need to grasp. Do you know why? If you don't get this, there will be parts of the Gospel that you will not understand. As a result, there will be blessings of the Gospel that you will not be able to enjoy. And that is really bad because your life will not honor Jesus as well as it might. There are parts of God's Word that are difficult, but we must work to understand them because they are part of God's Word. Evil must perish.

Now, let’s step back a bit. What is our text about? It's about what won't happen. There are some who won't perish. And why is that? Why won't these face destruction? What does John say? Here's our next word. It's because God loved the world. I hope that that sentence is so very jarring. I hope that the thought of a holy and just God loving a world that hates him and is completely given to evil will seem wrong - because, in a way, it is wrong. There really should have been another flood. And if the survivors of that flood didn't get it right, there should have been another. And then, if necessary, another and then another, until humanity gets it right; the destruction of evil. But that's not what happened. Why? Because this holy and just God also loves. And right there it should be clear that understanding this God is not quite as simple as so many think. It's easy to say that he loves everyone with one big hug and everybody's story will end ‘happily ever after’. But what about the evil? And likewise, it's easy to say that God hates them all and they’re all going straight to hell. But then what about this love of God for the world? There is much more to God than what most people think.

So, this holy and just God, in the face of clear hostility against him by an evil world, loves. How? What does he do? He gives his Son. That's what Jesus was talking about when he told Nicodemus, 'And 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.' God gave his Son to be lifted up on a Cross. Can you imagine doing something like that? There is one person who almost can. Abraham almost gave his son, Isaac. Almost. It didn't happen, but it was close enough for him to feel something. The angel stopped him just in time and provided a ram to sacrifice instead. I remember back when Seth was in a school play. He was in the 3rd grade. The play was about Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac. Seth wasn't Abraham, nor was he Isaac. He was the ram, the ram that was the substitute for Isaac. That ram is an Old Testament picture of Jesus, our substitute, who wasn’t almost sacrificed. I watched Seth as he lay on the altar about to be killed. I thought not so much about Abraham who almost gave his son, but about God who did give his Son. I understood the Cross a little bit better. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

Understand what was going on as Jesus was sacrificed on that Cross. Jesus perished. Destruction. I have read different articles about the physical suffering that Jesus endured, about how he was suffocating and how the nails went through not his palms but the bones of his wrists and all the rest. Horrible. But how can any of that compare to perishing at the hands of the God who was venting all of his holy anger at the hostility of an evil world? Our evil. That's the love that John 3:16 is talking about. It's not some sentimental tripe. Because he loved, the Father gave his Son to suffer the destruction we should endure. So, here are some words that need to go together: God, world, perish, and then love.

Not everyone is rescued from this destruction. And that gets us to the next key word 'believe'. '… whoever believes in him will not perish…' Jesus death for evil is for any who believe in him and only for those who believe in him. But why would God select this? Why believing instead of something else? He could have said that 'whoever loves will not perish' or 'whoever does good will not perish' or something else. Why believing? It is actually a good thing that he didn't choose love or doing good. If either of them were necessary for being rescued from perishing, we would all be destroyed. Who has loved according to God's standard, or has done good in the way that God thinks it should happen? No one. Actually, that's not true. There is one who did meet those conditions. Jesus. So, he is the only one who did not deserve destruction. How ironic that he was the one who was destroyed.

It's a good thing that what’s needed is believing. Believing isn't loving. It isn't even doing good. At the heart of believing is the admission that you cannot meet any condition. Believing is acknowledging that there is no hope of being able to do anything to satisfy any requirements. Believing understands that it all depends on someone else meeting the conditions. So, the question everyone has to answer is, 'Whom will you believe in?' Some believe in themselves, thinking that they can meet any conditions. Others choose some other person or thing to depend on, to believe in. But we believe in Jesus. We look to him. We acknowledge that he must fulfill all the conditions so that we might not perish. And that means, of course, believing is an all or nothing kind of thing. A person believes in Jesus, or he doesn't. Either he acknowledges his complete failure to do what is required, or he doesn't. Either he expects Jesus to do all that is necessary, or he doesn't. There is no third option. Whoever believes in Jesus will not perish. So, here's an important question for you. Do you believe in Jesus? That question is not about how well you might do at that. All Christians do a terrible job when it comes to believing. That's part of what is acknowledged in this believing. Christians can't even believe very well. But they do believe. Do you? If you don't, you need to be thinking about perishing. But if you do, you should be so encouraged. The promise of this verse is yours.

And that gets us to our last key word: 'life'. The promise of the Gospel is that all who believe in Jesus will gain life, eternal life. I've mentioned that there is a lot going on here. Let me point to one thing that seems clear about this eternal life, something that sets it apart from any other kind of life: the love of the Father. Listen to something from Jesus' prayer in John 17. 'I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them…' The point of Jesus' mission here is love. His goal is that the Father might love those who follow him. But did you note how Jesus describes the love that the Father has for his disciples? '… the love with which you have loved me…'

The Father loves us. We know that, but it doesn't have the impact that it might. And do you know why? It's because we do not understand the nature of that love. So, understand what Jesus is talking about here. The Father loves you with the same love that he has loved his Son for an eternity before there even was a creation. The same passion, the same intensity, the same everything. This is astounding! The Father loves you with a love that goes beyond anything that you can imagine. And he loves you with that love not because you've been good enough or you've read your Bible each day for a week or you've avoided that particular sin that you struggle with or met some other condition. There aren't any conditions for you to satisfy. None. He loves you with that kind of love because Jesus has met all the conditions. And so, the Father loves you all the time with the love with which he has loved his Son. And that's just a fact. This is a part of - and only a part of - the eternal life that the Father promises to all who believe in Jesus. This is something you need to take home with you and mull over. This is something that will dramatically change you as you learn how to believe it in the different areas of your life. The Father loves you.

I have one last thought. And to get at that let me remind you that the holy and just God still loves this evil world. But that will not continue forever. There really is a last day. At that point, everything changes for the people of the world. So, the need of the day is for the world - your neighbors, your family, your co-workers - to see that this God and his love are real, not just true but real. Remember that your neighbors have all been told that religion, any sort of religion, is not much more than a security blanket. It doesn't make a real difference, but it's comforting. Only things that you can see and touch make a real difference. The people around you have been told that over and over, and they believe it. What they need to see is that love of God in Jesus is not some security blanket. It is comforting, but it's comforting because it is real. It makes a difference. They need to see that so that they might also believe in Jesus.

So, how will they see that? They need to see it in you. They need to see that all of this makes a difference in your life. And by that I don't mean that you show how nice you are because you're religious. They need to see that your life really does work because you follow Jesus. And that will mean doing things that will make absolutely no sense to them. To use a concept from Paul, you will need to become a fool for Jesus' sake. Being confident of the love of the Father and in obedience to the Spirit's guiding, you will make 'foolish' choices, or at least that is what it will look like to them. And yet, as they will see, your life works well. In fact, they will see that your life works in ways that theirs don't. They will see in you the fruit of eternal life. Our neighbors are perishing. Our culture is perishing. Out of love for them, we need to act. They need to see us believe the Gospel.