Read: John 3:16, 18
How do you measure love? Love is not measured by how much you say or how strongly you feel but by how much you give. This is supremely true of God’s love for us.
One night Jesus was talking with a man called Nicodemus, a leading religious teacher from Jerusalem. Nicodemus had a number of questions he wanted to ask this young rabbi whose miracles and teaching were making such an impression upon the whole country. But Nicodemus had a position and reputation to protect—it wouldn’t do to be identified too closely with one who was so far outside the establishment—so he came to visit Jesus when no one else was around. During their conversation Jesus told Nicodemus some very important things, and none was more important than this:
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, nrsv)
God Loves the World
That’s John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . .” It’s one of the most famous and familiar verses in the Bible. I wonder, could it even be too familiar? Do you understand what this verse really says? Well, in the first place, it says that God loves the world. It says that he gave his Son to save people from sin. It says that those who believe in Christ have eternal life. All of that is there.
But like so many things that seem to be simple on the surface, once we really explore it, John 3:16 turns out to be more complex than at first it appears. The fact is, this famous text isn’t just a general statement about faith or salvation. It is an incredibly profound explanation of an indescribably wonderful thing—the love of God. What John 3:16 really does is answer some especially important questions. Questions like these: We can see from the world around us that God must be infinitely powerful and wise, but does he feel anything, does he care, or is he just some great cosmic force? Answer: God loves, he loves the world. But what does that mean? How does God love the world? Answer: he loves the world so much that he gave his only Son to save it.
There is so much to think about here really. Let’s start by considering the object of God’s love. What is it that God loves? Well, he loves the world, of course—we’ve just heard that. But what exactly is meant by “the world”? The word in John’s gospel is “cosmos,” and that certainly can mean the whole universe. It’s still used that way today in English. Does God love the cosmos, the universe, the earth and the heavens? I think he does, or perhaps we could say, he admires it. When God finished his work of creation, the Bible says that he looked at everything that he had made, “And behold, it was very good.” That’s God’s judgment upon the cosmos or the universe. Like any skilled craftsman God the Creator loves his work. But I don’t think that is what John 3:16 is talking about.
The word “world” can also be used negatively in the New Testament to mean human society and culture as it is organized without and even against God. Does God love the world in this sense, the world of pride and greed and moral corruption, the world of slavery and idolatry, the world of violence and exploitation and indifference to the poor, the world of lies and vanity and emptiness? He does not! And neither must we. “Do not love the world, or the things of the world,” wrote John in another place, “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them” (1 John 2:15).
So what does it mean to say that God loves the world? What is “the world” in John 3:16? I think it’s the world of people. What does God love when he loves the world? He loves us. Is that such a big deal? It certainly is! Perhaps you’ve always assumed that God has to love people, but he really doesn’t. After all, what have we ever done for him that would make him want to love us? What is there in us that would make us attractive to God? We usually pay attention to him only when we desperately need his help. We decide we don’t really need him to live our lives or even to explain our world. We break his laws every day. We continually abuse and mistreat his creation, including our fellow creatures. Why should God love us? It would make much more sense for him to ignore us, or maybe even to wash his hands of the whole business and destroy us all.
But love us he does! It is an amazing thing to contemplate. God loves people, all kinds of people, people like you and me. People who desperately need to be loved, but who don’t really deserve it. That is the truly astounding thing about the love of God.
God So Loved the World
But John 3:16 doesn’t just tell us that God loves the undeserving world of sinful people. It tells us how much he loves us. In one sense, the love of God cannot be measured. God’s love is infinite: “It is as high,” says the psalmist, “as the heavens are above the earth” (Psalm 103).
But in another sense God’s love can be measured by the same standard as anyone else’s, that is, by how much love is willing to give. The real test of love isn’t what we feel. Feelings come and go. It isn’t even what we say. Professions of love are easy to make, and the world is full of lovers’ extravagant claims. The real test of love is how much we give. The more you are willing to give, the greater the sacrifice you make for the one you love, the greater is the measure of that love.
Almost 400 years ago, the Moghul Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, lost his beautiful wife. As a memorial to her, he poured his entire fortune into building her tomb. Twenty thousand workers labored for more than 20 years, building exquisitely in marble and inlaid precious stone, and in the end, the shah had erected the most gorgeous building in the world—the Taj Mahal. It still stands today, in India, as a testimony to the magnitude of his love.
But God’s love is infinitely greater. Just how much did God love the world? Here’s how much: he loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son for it. God gave his Son first by sending him into the world. Jesus left the glory of heaven to enter our world by becoming a man. Then God gave him again when he sent Jesus to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
I’m afraid that many people, when they hear that, think that Jesus is kind and merciful, but God the Father is an angry judge who only wants to punish. We sometimes fall into the mistake of thinking that the cross was the place where a loving Jesus offered himself to pacify a wrathful God, and that Jesus was somehow able there to turn God’s hatred of us into a grudging sort of acceptance. But nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus’ whole coming is an expression of God’s love, from first to last. He was “of the Father’s love begotten,” as the ancient hymn says. He was sent by that Fatherly love to assume our flesh and blood, and to go to the cross as the supreme measure of God’s love. And Jesus willingly came and suffered because he too shares his Father’s heart of love to the fullest.
Whenever I wonder whether God really does love someone like me, I only have to remember the cross to be sure. When I’m tempted to think that maybe God doesn’t care, instead I want to think about Jesus coming into the world to save me. And when I want to know just how much God really does love me, I only have to consider how much he gave for me. He gave his one and only Son to die for my sins so that, trusting in Christ, I could be forgiven.
If you know the truth about the greatness of God’s love, if you have really grasped it, can you do anything but believe and accept it? Could anyone be so hard-hearted as to realize how great God’s love is, to feel the truth of that, and then to reject it? I just don’t see how that could happen.
But yet some do. Jesus’ coming into the world presented the world with an hour of decision. It is a life or death matter. Not just physical life or death but eternal life or death. John 3:16 says that the purpose of God’s sending his only Son into the world was “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” If you do believe in him, you already have eternal life. But if you don’t believe, you are perishing, and someday you will be lost forever.
God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn people. No. Jesus came to save. But some are inevitably condemned because they reject him and his salvation. When the sun comes up in the morning, it comes to bring light into the world, not darkness. But darkness is the inevitable by-product of its light. The sun cannot shine without creating shadow. In the same way, Jesus came to bring light and life to people, not to punish them, not to send them to hell. But his coming inevitably produces a division in the world.
“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18)
To believe means believing that everything God is and does is to be found in Jesus Christ. It involves putting your whole trust in the whole person of Christ. Sadly, some refuse to do that, to their infinite loss. But the good news, the great good news, is that everyone who believes in him will not perish.
So the key question comes down to this: Do you?