John 3:16 is a well known and loved piece of scripture. It speaks of God’s great love for creation and humanity. However, when this passage is situated within its larger context we see that it evokes a depth and breadth of meaning that is not initially apparent.
Below you will find the audio and manuscript for the sermon on this passage from March 15, 2015.
For God So Loved – Audio
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, perhaps the most famous and well quoted verse in the Bible.
John 3:16 speaks of grace upon grace. God’s love, mercy and goodness are pouring out in abundance in just this one verse. It takes our breath away that God would do such a thing for us. We rest easy in the knowledge that we are loved by God so much that Jesus came to live with us.
The difficulty in this passage is also found in that verse that we all love, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” God loved the world so much that that Jesus came. The Greek word used for world here is kosmos. Which can be translated as all of creation. For God so loved everything that God created that he gave Jesus. Not just for us, you and me, but for everything.
Straightforward enough, but then in the same breath we read “So that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Now it seems that there is a condition put on the first section of the clause.
So which one is it? All of us or some of us?
The apostle Paul writes “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Is the good news of John 3:16 only for those who have faith or for the whole world?
If we focus on God’s grace too intently then we risk making salvation an arbitrary act. In short we risk cheapening God’s grace. If we focus on human faith as the integral focus then we risk making salvation a human accomplishment. We may inadvertently put God in a box of our own creation because we are so focused on what we have done for ourselves.
A whole host of very significant theological questions arise from how we interpret this passage. Let’s consider it in this very personal way is our salvation dependant on our faith, or will we be graced by God whether we are faithful or not?
John 3:16 is not a question, it is a statement. However, the questions that arise out of this one verse are significant. What seems simple is complicated when we realize that in the first clause of the sentence the whole word is referenced. It would seem, just as my grade school teachers told me, that grammar and sentence structure matter.
John 3:16 asks us to look at the relationship between grace and faith. The two are separate items, but they are not mutually exclusive. Clearly we can see a strong connection between them. Perhaps we can best refer to the relationship between grace and faith as holy mystery. Not mystery because we lack understanding or choose to ignore the problem. Rather, a mystery that needs to be explored, a mystery that needs to be experienced. When we are faced with mystery we ask questions for understanding. Often, when we seek answers we realize that our questions only bring more questions. That is a part of holy mystery and the walk we walk with Christ.
So let’s dig a little further into this passage because as important as John 3:16 is, what comes before it and what comes immediately afterwards are equally as important. Let’s start with the very curious words of Jesus at the beginning of this passage.
“And Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” What does an obscure passage about Moses, which we read in our Old Testament reading, have to do with Jesus? Why is Jesus referring back to this old story?
Let me ask you a few questions, who has ever received a flu shot? Why did you receive the flu shot? When you receive the flu shot, what are you receiving with that injection?
You are receiving a small dose of the flu virus to help protect your body from the flu. We receive a little of what can hurt us to protect us. Think of the symbol for the medical profession, two intertwining snakes. Poison and antidote.
In our story from Numbers the Israelites were under attack by snakes and were commanded to look to the bronze snake Moses had fashioned to cure them. They look to the cause of their distress and find their cure.
The snakes in Numbers are a reminder of what first caused us to fall from grace. When the Israelites looked at the snake Moses had fashioned they were cured. However, they were also reminded of how they first fell out of relationship with God in the first place.
Think of another time when the words of a snake caused things to go wrong? Is everyone thinking of the Garden and our friends Eve and Adam?
It is not an accident that God asked Moses to use this symbol. It is not an accident that Jesus uses this same imagery. Except now instead of looking up at the snake, we must look up at Jesus. The same Jesus who hangs on a cross on our behalf, the same Jesus who ascended in glory to demonstrate that the bonds of death had been shattered. Look to Jesus and find your cure.
“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.”
Jesus came to save, not condemn.
That may sound like basic stuff but think on it for a moment. There have been plenty of Christians, plenty of churches who are more inclined to point a finger and call out sin. There may even be many Christians who feel that is their primary calling as a Christian, to point out the short comings of others.
And if we read through verses 18-20 of our passage today we will need to acknowledge that Jesus knew that there were bad or evil people in the world. This isn’t a passage that asks us to pull the wool over our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening. Instead we are reminded of the very purpose that Jesus came, to save not to condemn.
God loves creation, God loves us so much that he sent his son that we might believe in him and have eternal life. Jesus says look up to me, not because I am an authority figure, but because I’m up here on this cross. Look to me and know that you are loved.
You’ve probably heard the story about the guy who is walking down the street but who suddenly falls into this deep hole he did not see. The hole is deep, the walls are steep.
A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me here?” The doctor writes a prescription and throws it into the hole.
A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down into the hole.
Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says, “Now we’re both stuck.” “Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
In this world of sin and evil, there are so many dark and deep pits into which we fall. And for each of us there is finally a six-foot deep hole in the ground waiting for us at some cemetery somewhere. Thanks be to God that Jesus has been down in that hole himself and he knows the way out.
You’ve probably also heard of the way out.
It’s called Easter.
* Illustration from The Center for Excellence in Preaching.
God doesn’t judge us for getting into the hole. God does not point out our shortcomings and faults. God is not interested in assigning blame. God wants to move past all of that.
God sees our situation and does two things. He jumps in the hole with us and in doing so says “I’m with you.” And by jumping in the hole he also says “I got this.” God did not send Jesus to judge and condemn, but to save. Which is the same business that you and I should be in, proclaiming the Good News, teaching and preaching. Amen.