John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)
The Gospel passage that we read this morning contains the three most important verses in the entire Bible. If ever we wanted to reduce Christianity to three foundational statements or encapsulate it in three simple verses, John 3:16-18 contains everything that we will ever need to know, believe, and live by. The words are so fundamental to our faith that without them, Christianity would just be a charitable philosophy based on tolerance, kindness, and niceness.
This morning, I’m going to attempt to convey the importance of these verses. Be aware, too, that these verses challenge me as much as they may challenge you. They are not easy to receive or digest, ponder or apply, but please know this from the outset: they are all about Jesus and God. What we do with these words will not change what is presented. In the end, and at the end of each of our lives, they will become fundamentally important.
The first point that these verses make is this: God loves us and He loves the world that He created. This is a good start because we are immediately brought into God’s grace. As shameful, selfish creatures, we need to know that, despite our sinful selves, God does love us. He does not abandon us to our sinful ways; he does not forsake us to being separated from Him forever. He loves us and because of this love, He offers us a way to be restored to His mercy and grace.
He gives us Jesus, His One and Only Son, the most precious person in God’s eyes, the most perfect gift to an undeserving world, the most complete sacrifice that any parent can make – He gives His sweet and precious child to a bitter and worthless world. Jesus is the One, Great, and Last Hope of humankind. All that we have to do is to believe in Him, place our hopes in Him, give our heart and mind to Him, put our lives into His hands – however we want to say and express that we believe in Him. It’s all that we have to do – a simple act of surrender and submission, and yet it is one of the hardest things that sinful, self-centered, and self-assured creatures can actually do.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
In ancient times, when a king sent his son into a region of his sovereign domain, the purpose of the visit was to give the King’s son time to evaluate that region. If there was anything wrong or if the local magistrates were corrupt, or if the people were disloyal and treacherous, the Crown Prince took back his report to his father. The son’s words were not challenged because the King usually trusted his son’s ability to see what was going on and to give a true account of what was happening. The King would then respond accordingly, based on what the report contained. If there was any corruption, those involved were condemned and punished. If there was any treachery, it was quickly stamped out.
When God sent Jesus into the world, He could have given His Son the divine authority to condemn the entire world for its wickedness, its corruption, and its treachery. It would have been perfectly just and totally God’s divine right. But remember, God sent Jesus into the world to show His love, not His power; to show His grace, not His greatness – unless, of course, we understand that only the most powerful and greatest of Gods would convey His almightiness through love and grace.
Jesus, therefore, did not come as a Divine Inquisitor or Heavenly Magistrate. He came as the world’s Savior. He came to sacrifice Himself for a world full of sinners. He came to save us from our wicked choices and sinful decisions. He came to rescue us from our stubborn and selfish ways. He came to save us because we were wroth rescuing, redeeming, and restoring. He came, because just like His Divine Father, and as the old children’s hymn tells us, Jesus loves us.
Look at what verse 17 simply states: the world was saved through Him. Through Him – not by Him or for Him, or to Him or because of Him. It was saved through Him – not by anything we could do, but through all that Jesus accomplished. We are creatures of God who are saved through the unique and redeeming blood of Jesus Christ, our only and holy Savior. There is no other person who can give us this. There is no other way to procure salvation. There is no other spiritual process, good action, or deed of love that can restore us eternally to God. We cannot do anything to save ourselves – it can be only be done and won through Jesus. Anything else or anyone else is a delusion, wishful thinking, and entirely a dead end.
When the great Scottish reformer John Knox was dying, he struggled with his mortality, conscience, and guilt. He knew that he had made many mistakes, but at the same time, he had accomplished many great things for God. If anyone could rely upon his deeds for God, and be rewarded for his unswerving loyalty, it was John Knox. But as he wrestled with this, he knew it was a temptation – no matter what he accomplished, no matter what he achieved, no matter what he built, none of it could ever buy salvation for his soul on his death bed. Only Jesus could save him – he could only get to heaven through Christ alone. And so the great reformer stopped struggling with his conscience and wrestling with the devil; he surrendered himself to Christ, for only the Son of God could actually save him.
You know, friends, that’s a moment we will all face in this life. We don’t know when it will happen, where it will occur, or how it will take place. This is why I simply stated at the beginning of this sermon that these three verses are ultimately the most important of all of scripture. Why? Because when we are dying and cannot hold on to life, we can hold on to these words, and in the mysterious process, we can also know that Christ is holding on to us.
18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.
At the beginning of this sermon, I emphasized God’s love for us and the world, and how thankful we all are for His grace in our lives. This last verse reveals to us how much God loves us – He loves us enough that if we choose to be independent of Him, we will get exactly what we choose.
He gives us Jesus, His Only Son, as the Only Way through whom we can be reconnected and restored to God forever. However, because God loves us, he does not compel us to do what He wants. We still have the freedom to make our own choice; if that were not the case, then God would have imposed upon us His divine will, which is not love: that is coercion.
Sadly, many people are going to make this the ultimate choice in their lives. They are going to choose to be independent of God and to set aside Christ’s accomplishments. They are going to decide their own priorities, their own mortalities, and their own eternities. God will offer everyone His Son, but not everyone will take God up on that remarkable, redeeming, and exceptional offer.
In what I consider to be his best work, C.S. Lewis wrote about this in his book called “The Great Divorce.” In it he wrote:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
We all choose our own path, we all make our own mistakes. We all decide our own destinies, and we all make our own lifestyle decisions. God graciously offers us salvation through His Son Jesus Christ. He gives us that option – He sacrifices everything that he loves, so that we might experience everything of His love – but He does not make us or force us, compel us or bully us into accepting that offer. God proves His complete love for us by permitting us to make our own ultimate choice. We cannot rescue ourselves, we cannot erase our sins, and we cannot save ourselves. Only Jesus can do that for us – it can only be done, made right, and fully completed through Him.
Again, as C S Lewis wrote in the Great Divorce:
“I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back til you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot 'develop' into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, 'with backward mutters of dissevering power' --or else not.”
My friends, I would urge us all to re-read these three verses this afternoon and to personally contemplate how we each value them in our lives. Death comes to us all and hopefully in the far off future, but salvation can come to us now through Jesus Christ, the Precious Holy Son that God gave to us because He loves us, and our Perfect Sacred Savior who can restore us to God eternally, when we freely and humbly choose to believe in Him.
Prayer and Apostles’ Creed