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.
We are considering the perfections of God and again we turn to the theme of the love of God and to this verse which we have introduced previously. It is the most famous and most quoted verse in the Bible. There are many Arminian preachers but there are no Arminian texts; we love every word of John 3:16. It is often referred to as ‘the gospel in a nutshell,’ and one Christmas time 45 years ago in this church I had carefully opened up a walnut, taken out the fruit and inserted a this ribbon on which I had printed this very verse. I glued the edges carefully and then Clarence and Megan cracked it with a nutcracker (with some difficulty) and then displayed the verse to the congregation on which I then spoke to the children. So some men use T-shirts to get the gospel across, and I’ve used a walnut! Well from such trivia let us turn to the greatness of the love of God, the immeasurable greatness of the love of God. What do we see in the verse about the love of God?
1. THE OBJECT OF GOD’S LOVE IS THE WORLD.
Who or what is the constituency on which the love of God fell? “For God so loved the world . . .” we are told. His love was directed to the whole world, and at one level this could be correctly understood as a quantitative, measurable, numerical concept. The verse could speak of the geographical extensiveness of the divine love. This could be the first natural emphasis of this verse, but my problem is that for some people this is the only thing that they gain from John 3 and verse 16, not so much on how great is God’s love but how great the world is. “It is the world that God loves,” they insist – the world! And then they go on to speak of the vastness of the world and its 7000 million inhabitants alive today, and God loves them all! “Think,” they cry, “of the multitudes of men who have swarmed over it in all the countless generations from the fall of Adam, and who will swarm over it in ever-increasing numbers through the generations to come until the end. God loves them all, each and every one of them, from the least to the greatest. O how great must be the love of God to embrace in its compass these uncounted multitudes of men.” So that thought becomes their sole emphasis, the love that God has for every nation in the world, for the north, and the south, the east and the west, every kindred, every tribe and every tongue.
But then, not disagreeing with that emphasis, we must go a little further, not just resting in the consideration of the indiscriminate universality of God’s love embracing all the people in the world, but to consider also all the moral strata of each society in the world of men. There are all the varieties of moral aberrations, the depths of depravity, the degradation, the murders and torturing, the abduction and rapes, the corrupt businessmen, the lying E-mails, the deceiving members of parliament, the millions subsequently who go to prison. God loves them all. You say to me, “But that is our groaning world, and that is one important part of it, and this love of God is indeed for them.” In other words, his love feeds them and clothes them; he sends to all of them the sunshine and the rain. He displays such long-suffering and patience and tenderness to them all. He is inviting and commanding all of them to come to repentance for what they have done and to believe in Christ. It’s his love that has provided them with a conscience, and he has written the things of the law on their hearts so they don’t lack a moral compass. His love supports the powers that be, rewards well-doers and punishes evil-doers. One consequence is that we Christians can live our lives peaceably in a godly way and we can meet and worship the Lord. God’s love bestows gifts of cultural richness, literature, music, the arts and all kinds of creativity. His love gives intelligence and family values and scientific break-throughs. All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, from the love of God the Creator for our world that he has made. And so men begin with this great quantitative concept of the love of God embracing and enriching the whole wide world.
But we must move on from that vision of God’s love reaching out to a groaning corrupt world to a greater vision. You understand that the number of people in the world is measurable and we know that at this moment it is just over 7,000 million people. That is a large number but it is a finite number. Men have arranged a census and they have counted. Thus they can tell us the numbers living today in India and also in China, the two most populous nations in the world. They too are finite numbers, but do you see this that God’s love is vaster far. It is quite immeasurable and infinite. You are not magnifying the love of God by announcing some statistic concerning the size of the population of China or of the world. We have glimpsed on TV a competition to determine the world’s strongest man, and we feel queasy watching the feats of endurance that these big men go through as they compete with one another. Would we praise the winner by saying, “He can hold a football in his hands”? Would we praise the runner-up by saying of his strength that he can hold an acorn in each hand? Of course not, and so we don’t magnify the love of God by announcing the number of men whom God loves, that it reaches 7,000 million on the love scale. To announce that our God is the Lord of all the earth is to say so little that it is to say nothing at all. This entire universe floats like a speck of dust before Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He who is the Creator loves with every part of himself. How extraordinary must be that love!
So we must move on as we speak of the object of God’s love – ‘the world’ – away from this quantitative and numeral concept to a qualitative concept. I mean we must consider the character of those whom God has loved. That will tell us far more about his love. Consider how the word ‘world’ is used in the Scripture. It is a synonym for all that is foul and disgusting. We are told that the whole world lies in the wicked one. We are warned not to love the world, and by that John tells us he is referring to the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. These are the vices that characterise the world. There is nothing in the world that attracts the love of God, or even the love of a good man. If any man love the world, we are told, then be sure of this, that the love of the Father is not in him. God and the world are precise contradictions. We are told that the world is at enmity with God and is in rebellion against God. The world has its god, and he has a kingdom of darkness. There are, you know, three great opponents to the Christian life. There is the flesh, and there is the devil, and what is the third? It is the world. When we are told in our text that God loved the world it is like saying, “God loved the flesh,’ or ‘God loved the devil.” The world is north Sudan where a woman is condemned to 100 lashes and to being stoned to death for being a Christian and marrying a Christian. The world is Auschwitz, and Belsen, and Hiroshima, and North Korea, and Syria, and Iraq. The world is little April Jones of Machynlleth, abducted and killed. The world at last showed it own core and essence by its deicidal action when it crucified the loveliest and the best, the young Son of Man.
We will love the lovely won’t we? That will be the focus of our affection. We will sum people up and evaluate them and then come to a decision whether we will love them or not. Now the great thing about the divine love is that it exists in defiance of that attitude. God loves. There is the cosmos with its pregnant combination of the world, the flesh and the devil, and this triad is waging warfare against the soul at this moment. The world is totally and utterly unlovely; God loved it! That is not simply an abstract theological fact. The world ultimately is you and me. He loved me. There can be no argument claiming that his love is of course the divine response to some loveliness in me. In our worldliness, and carnality, and sinfulness, and diabolicalness, then and there, God loved us, and that is perhaps the greatest single presumption in the whole framework and foundation of Christian ethics. God loved the world!
There was a boy who as soon as the law permitted demanded all his inheritance, and he left home never to return, so he thought, to enjoy city life away from all the restrictions of a country farm. What friends quickly surrounded him as he arrived with money in his pocket and money to spend in that place. What parties – wine, women and song – but soon all his money was gone and all his friends were gone too, and then he was reduced to tending pigs and he even envied them. “I’ll go home,” he finally said as there seemed no alternative, “it is better than this non-life,” and this young fool, now stinking and starving and penniless walked the long journey back with none of the jauntiness that had characterized the last time he had walked that road. But when he turned the corner of that country lane and saw the old homestead someone else soon spotted him. His father was always waiting because his father had never stopped loving. He ran to him, and ran and ran, until he caught him in his arms and held him tight, with great heaving sobs of joy and grief. Through all the silence of the wasted years he’d kept loving the boy he had loved from the time he first carried him as a baby in his arms, whom he visited in the night when he was sick or had a nightmare. God loves favoured sinners just like that, long before they turn in repentance to him.
In our minds we can go back behind our gathering today to what has gone on in our lives before today. We can go back behind our pilgrimage and all our experiences and the blessings we’ve known, and we can go back behind our conversion, and we can go back behind all those factors that led us to becoming Christians – our parents and friends and preachers, and we can go back behind our formation in our mother’s wombs and our healthy birth, and we can go back behind the foundation of the world to the beginning of everything, when God loved us and purposed that we should become his children. Yes we can go back in our minds to that point, but we cannot go back behind the love of God to anything more rational or more foundational, because the love of God is the bedrock, it is the fountain out of which salvation and eternal life flow. The love of God is the first; the love of God is the ultimate. God is love. So we have seen that the object of God’s love is the world.
2. THE MEASURE OF GOD’S LOVE IS THAT HE GAVE HIS SON.
That is the next statement in John 3 and verse 16, that God did not spare any cost when he loved this world. His love for the world made him give, and what did he give? Satan? Of course not. An angel, the archangel Gabriel? No. He gave himself. God gave God, God the Father gave God the Son, his one Son, his only Son. The one who was his own express image, the eternal object of his immeasurable affection, the constant focus of his divine delight. Thus God loved – he gave him. Paul says, “God did not spare him but delivered him up for us all,” for constituencies like this – all of us! He was given to make the unspeakable sacrifice for them.
Let me carry you up to the very pinnacle of this whole matter immediately, to God in the glorious Trinity. There exists a fellowship of love in which the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Holy Spirit, one deity, one godhead within which there are distinctions such as one person loving another person. There is a sharing, a communion, a fellowship in common between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It is not wise to pretend or claim that you can grasp the logic of the Trinity, but may I just say this, that the very statement, “God is love” demands triune-ness in God because a monad, a being who has lived in eternal isolation with himself being the only entity in nothingness, in nihilum, this sad and utterly lonely being would have no one to relate to, no one to look at, no one to converse with, no one to be with for billions of billions of billions of light years – I am saying that such a god cannot love. That god might become a loving being when it makes an angel or a man, when it has an object to love, but it can only be love if there is within itself that totality that we have in the simple words at the beginning of John’s gospel, that in the beginning he was, and he was God and he was with God. God towards God, looking out to God, the eternal outgoingness, the mutual eternal outgoingness of the persons of the Godhead, and that’s where love began, in the beginning. There never was a time when there was no love. There was the delight of the Father in the Son, and there was the response of the loving Son’s loveliness and his adorableness. There was never a more loving Son or Father, and yet John 3 and verse 16 tells us that this loving Father gave this beloved Son.
Now here’s a strange thing, that many a human heart, and many a Christian heart, has felt for Abraham in what Abraham experienced on that solemn journey to Mount Moriah to offer his boy, his only son Isaac – “whom thou lovest.” We have felt with a father’s heart the poignancy and pathos of the situation as the child said, “Dad, here is the wood, and the altar, and the knife, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And we have felt, as Abraham takes his son those great words of God still ringing in his ears, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love.” And Abraham takes him, and he binds him, and he takes the knife in his hand to cut his throat. Then what relief we feel when we hear the voice that says, “Lay not your hand upon the child.” We are grateful for such a denouement.
But you see 2000 years later, there was no such voice in the darkness of Golgotha. No words crying “Stop!” sounding forth. There was no stopping that great movement of the divine Father’s priesthood as he offered his own Son, the Son whom he loved, a Father of whose love for his Son the patriarch Abraham’s fatherly love was only the faintest image. No voice spoke on Calvary saying to the soldiers and the mob, “Lay not your hand upon the child.” There was no cessation to the execution process. The nails were driven home; the cross was lifted up and dropped into its socket and the dark journey into the anathema began, until finally, hours of agony later, he cries, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” That was the denouement, not a rescue mission by a legion of angels, but abandonment.
Suppose it were Abraham’s son Isaac screaming, “Father, father, why?” Suppose it were your son? But it’s not your son, it wasn’t Abraham’s son, it’s the Son of God, his holy child Jesus, and he is crying, “My God, my God why?” He’s not spared. He is the given one; he is the holocaust; he is the burnt offering, vulnerable, divided, his very inwards (in the symbolism) open to the flame, cut, bleeding, flayed, dismembered to allow the fire immediate access, and that is what Christ was on Calvary.
Let me remind you of the words of David in a very different context, but although the context is different yet they speak with marvelous eloquence of a father’s heart. At the moment of Absalom’s death, David “went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Sam. 18:33).
Let me remind you of another parent’s love displayed, and this was on the 19th September 1853, in Liverpool where 21 year old Hudson Taylor got on board the double-masted sailing ship, the Dumfries, as the only passenger, for a five month voyage to Shanghai, China where he was going to spend his life preaching the gospel. His mother had come to see him off. She went with him into the stern cabin and she smoothed the little bed. They sang a hymn, the last hymn they would ever sing together. Then the captain told them that the boat was leaving and they said good-bye never expecting to meet on earth again. And they did not. She went ashore saying, “God bless you my son.” She moved slowly down the dock walking in parallel alongside the ship as it slowly set sail until she could go no further. Hudson Taylor wrote, “Then I shall never forget the cry of anguish wrung from my mother’s heart. It went through me like a knife. I never knew so fully, until then, what ‘God so loved the world’ meant, and I am quite sure my precious mother learned more of the love of God for the perishing in that one hour than in all her life before.”
So let us never for a moment imagine that because it is God’s love it is emotionless and pitiless and passionless. No love has been like that, and there can be no love like the love of God the Father for God the Son. And can you believe that that is also his love for the world of believing sinners as such. For that world, in its ugliness and ingratitude, God gives his only-begotten Son, his beloved Son. There was no other way. The very nature of the only God there is demanded it, and the God who is loved provided the Lamb. He found the Lamb; he found him in his flock, in his bosom. He became the Lamb, and God gave the Lamb. The Son of God willingly became the Lamb motivated by the same love as his Father and the Spirit.
3. THE DEMAND OF GOD’S LOVE IS THAT WE BELIEVE.
God loved; God gave his Son – both verbs are in the past tense describing a past action about one sent by the Father 2,000 years ago, born in Bethlehem who lived and died in this world. Then the tenses change; “that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Present tense. Present activity. Today. This very macro second. And whoever now. You, and you, and you now. Whoever you might be; however muddled; however light your interest; however cynical; however indifferent. “Whoever . . .” God is saying, he is making no distinctions as his word goes out. He is not saying, “You and you put your fingers in your ears. Turn away in case you repent and trust in Jesus. I am not speaking to you.” He is speaking to you and you and you. None is exempt from this evangel.
It is whoever, and it is sincerely spoken and it is whoever believes in God’s Son.
It is speaking of an action that we perform from our hearts that affects the whole course of our lives, that from this moment on, quite consciously, we are entrusting all we are and all we have to God the Son to save us and keep up and take us at last to heaven. We are trusting in everything that is Jesus Christ to do this. We trust his teaching that it is the word of God the Creator telling us what’s wrong, how it has been put right by the Lord and that henceforth we are going to follow him. We trust his redemption, that when he cried on the cross that it was finished then his great mission in the world, not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many, was all done. We believe that we have been redeemed by him. And we trust his kingly rule over us, protecting us, supplying all our needs and working all things together for our good. All that I am I entrust to all that Christ is; that is saving faith, and whoever believe in him like that has everlasting life. No one who comes to him will be turned away; not one will be rejected who comes seeking mercy for Jesus’ sake. The love of God is displayed in the offer of salvation to all who believe.
I also believe that there are many whom God the Father has given to his Son – and their identity is known only to the Godhead – but for them the Son is praying that they may be kept, and that the evil one may not have them at all. God so loves them, the destined inhabitants of the new heaven and the new earth, that he is absolutely determined to save them, and for them his love goes beyond offering, and beyond expostulation, and beyond pleading. His love for them becomes an invincible drive. He will make them ready to trust him in the day of his power. “As many as the Father gives him shall come to him, and those who come to him will in no wise be cast out.”
There are in our town today, among all the rest to whom God is also patient and good, there is yet a core, many or few I do not know, a favoured number whom God loves in the power of saving grace, to whom he is totally committed, passionately determined to conform them to the image of his Son, many or few I do not know. Paul was told before he began his evangelism of Corinth that God had many people in that city. Please God there be many in our town whom God has loved with a covenant saving love, the pledging of all of the Godhead to the salvation of all for whom Jesus died to save, loving them with a love that will never let them go. “I am persuaded that no creature shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is such a personal love; “The Lord is my Shepherd and so I shall never be in want.” “I am poor and needy, but the Lord thinks of me.” Think of it! There isn’t an electron that moves but that it moves at God’s behest. There is no rogue molecule in the cosmos uncontrolled by him. There are 6 billion bacteria in your gut and every one is within the control of God. He is the ultimate source of everything that moves. He plots their every action. There may be a billion galaxies of which we know nothing about which God knows exhaustively and he is sustaining them all day by day. This universe in its constant expandedness moves within God’s parameters and yet, “He thinks of me; he is my Shepherd.”
Paul says, “He loved me; he gave himself for me.” Paul could say that Calvary was the meaning of history. It has certainly been the meaning of my history, and the history of all you who know the Lord. Christ came in the fulness of the times to save us. Paul could even say, “I am the meaning of Calvary.”
What love! That love constrains us to die to all the world and to live for him who died for us. How can you reject such love? Think of it. What was the Father’s input into our lives? To give his one and only Son. He spared him not from the agony and the bloody sweat, the lash, the nails and the spear. He spared him not from the mockery, and he spared him not from the anathema. He was constrained by God to taste death, to know the rending apart of body and soul. All that was God’s contribution to our redemption. And ours? What is our contribution? Simply to believe . . . to trust in Jesus, and that is all. To entrust ourselves to him for the years of time, and then when we stand before him he is our exclusive plea. Have mercy for Jesus’ sake.
One of the leading preachers in the Hebrides was Donald MacRae and a few days before his death almost exactly ten years ago in July 2004 a Christian elder from Stornoway called to see him. MacRae was awake and alert, and he grasped the hand offered to him, and he would not let go. “Now,” he said to his visitor, “What will you have to say to the Lord on the Day of Judgment?” The elder was quite disconcerted at such opening words. He replied hesitatingly, “Well . . . you are the minister, what will you say yourself?” “Oh,” said Donald MacRae warmly, “Mercy . . . mercy . . . mercy . . .”
4. THE GIFT OF GOD’S LOVE IS ETERNAL LIFE.
Don’t perish! Don’t be a lost sinner. For that is the result of rejecting such love and the gift of such a Son. It is here in this most beloved of truths, the heart of the gospel. Here, I say, is the warning . . . whoever believes shall not perish. The implication is utterly unavoidable. If you will not entrust yourself to the one name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved, then you will perish. Jesus says it. He makes the peril transparently clear. Don’t perish. Why should you perish? Consider that first moment when the perishing begins, and the blinding consciousness that this is not going to end. But there’s no need to perish. It is determined defiance that calls down such destruction upon us. Take him! Trust in him. God gives his Son, and you believe in him.
All who believe possess eternal life. This is a dying world. It has been ramsomed at infinite cost and redeemed to an extravagance of blessing and privilege – to know the blessing of the life of eternity. One of the great themes of the New Testament, Donald Macleod has pointed out to us, is its ‘hyperisms,’ the way that at so many points the extravagance, the unmeasuredness, and almost the wastefulness of the love of God is declared. Paul in Romans 8 says that “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” We are hyper conquerors. It is not that we are on the winner’s side by the skin of our teeth. It is not that we are fortunate to escape the great tribulation. No, we escape magnificently. We are hyper-conquerors through him that loved us.
You have it in the awe-inspiring language of John’s gospel in our Lord’s own prayers and utterances; “Father I will that those whom you have given me shall be with me where I am, that they may see your glory which I had with the Father before the world was.” That where he is, there we may also be. At that great day (after the great separation) you can’t distinguish between the glory of the eternal Son and the glory of the sinners he’s redeemed. They are where he is, and each one of them is like him. We see it in the glorified church described in Revelation 7 where it is assembled before his throne, and he that sits on the throne dwells among them. And what is he doing? He is feeding them and leading them to the fountain of the water of life. The Lamb shall shepherd them. What a bold figure that is, of the Lamb shepherding this vast flock of sheep.
Or there is that other statement of John where he speaks of the river of the water of life that flows out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Where are the fountains of eternal life? They are in the midst of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Where does the Lamb lead them? To the midst of the throne of God and of the Lamb. He leads them into the heart of divine majesty, into the heart of the divine sovereignty, into the very midst of the throne where the Lamb himself stands as a Lamb that had been crucified.
Isn’t it extravagant? Eternal life isn’t merely the remission of our guilt and of our punishment. It is not merely acquittal. It is not merely justification. It is more than that. It is adoption. God brings us into his family, and the marvel is that there is no place in the temple of God, the house of God, and no place in the glory beyond, that is forbidden to the believer! It cannot be because we are escorted by the Shepherd himself into the very midst of the throne. We are allowed into the throne room. We may stand before the throne. More, we are led into the midst of the throne.
On the part of any judge it would be an extravagance, that he should take the just judgment in the criminal’s place, but it would be a far vaster extravagance that the judge should then adopt into his family the guilty criminal, and even more, that he should make him his heir and give him his credit card until he gets the full inheritance, that he should allow him his key into his private rooms and give him totally free intimate access to him night and day – what extravagance all that would be. But all that is the reality of the eternal life that is God’s gift, the expression of his love falling on all who believe on Jesus Christ, and that is why the apostle at the close of his theological chapters at the end of chapter 11 cries out with astonishment, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” God’s immeasurable love is for the unworthy, and it spares no cost. It is extravagant in all it does for us and gives to us. It is this love that has confronted us today, love that is so amazing, so divine, and it demands my soul, my life, my all.
15 June 2014 GEOFF THOMAS