John 3: 16
A pastor met a church member out in the community and asked why he didn’t attend services on a regular basis. The man replied that the sermons were so-so and lamented, “Every time I go to church you sing the same songs!” The pastor asked him which songs he was referring to. The man replied, “O Little Town of Bethlehem and Joy to the World?”
Whether you’re here every week or once a year, we’re glad you’re here! In order to better understand who Christ is and why the Father sent Him to earth, we’re going to set up shop in one verse today. This verse contains deep truth but it comes with some danger – because it’s so well known, you may nod when you hear it or just nod off. Familiarity can breed contempt or it can breed boredom.
It’s been called the theme verse of the entire Bible and the gospel in a nutshell. It’s extremely popular – when you type it into Google, 1.7 billion results come up. That’s pretty amazing because the verse contains only 24 words.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Max Lucado: “If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder. This is a great Christmas text. We’re going to unpack it phrase by phrase.
1. God Loves
“For God so loved the world…” This verse begins with God. This is precisely where the Bible begins: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Everything begins with God and ends with God. The sooner we realize that life is all about giving glory to God and not to ourselves, the better off we will be. It’s not about you. It’s all about Him.
God doesn’t love a little, but a lot. The volume of His love is cranked up high. It’s an unconditional covenant kind of love. It’s a verb, meaning it’s a word of action.
God loves the whole “world.” This would have been a shock to Jewish listeners who thought God only loved them. He loves refugees and the rejected. He loves the little, the least and the lost. He loves the powerful and popular. The Christmas drama is filled with diversity as we’re introduced to upper class foreign astrologers and lower class Jewish shepherds. The cast of
Christmas characters is made up of different generations and genders – Joseph and Mary were teens while Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna were senior citizens.
Listen. While you may not feel loved by others, God loves you more than you can even imagine! You matter to the Majesty! He takes great delight in you, no matter what you’ve done. He loves you no matter how you’ve been living. He treasures you in spite of all your transgressions.
God has given us so much…but the best is the gift of His Son.
2. God Lavishes
“…that He gave His only Son…” In this season of gift giving, let’s not forget that Jesus Christ is the greatest gift ever given. The word “gave” has the idea of sacrifice. Isaiah 9: 6 - a “son is given.”
Most of us know that the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was also the birthplace of King David. As a boy, David tended sheep on these hills where shepherds still watch their sheep to this day. The little town of Bethlehem is known as the house of Bread, which is appropriate since Jesus is the bread of life. It’s also known as the house of meat, because Bethlehem, not far from the Temple in Jerusalem, is also where fields were full of sheep for sacrifice.
Friends, God “gave” His Son as final sacrifice. He was born in order to die. Do you know what time Jesus died on the cross? It was at the 9th hour, which was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the exact time that the Passover lamb would have been sacrificed in the temple!
The phrase “His only Son” is very significant. The idea is that Jesus is the “unique, one and only” Son. At Christmas we’re called to put our faith in the Father’s only Son and ultimate sacrifice…
3. We Lean
While it’s helpful to know that God loves and God lavishes, we also need to lean into Him: “…that whoever believes in Him…” Aren’t you glad that the word, “whoever” is in this verse? God loves the whole world, which means everyone and he offers salvation to whoever, which means you! After all, who isn’t a whoever?
Many years ago, Bible translators in the New Hebrides islands were struggling to find an appropriate word for believe. They came upon a solution accidentally while hunting with a tribesman. After bagging a large buck and carrying it on a pole along a steep mountain path, they returned home and relaxed into some very basic chairs. As they did so, one of the exclaimed in his language, “My, it’s good to stretch yourself out here and rest.”
The translator immediately reached for paper and pen and recorded the phrase that ended up in the translation of John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever stretches himself out on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” When we lean on the Lord He gives us life. Stretch out on Christ and find rest.
To believe means to, “trust in, rely on and lean into.” The idea is to fully surrender to the Saviour, to give yourself up to Him, to take yourself out of your own keeping and entrust yourself into His keeping. Faith is believing that God is who He says He is and will do what He has promised to do.
Some of us expect something more complicated than this, a more sophisticated salvation. Doesn’t the Bible say, “God helps those who help themselves?” That’s not even in the Bible. We can’t help ourselves. Our good works don’t work. Being good is not good enough because no one is good enough. The issue is not right behaviour, but right belief. The only way for sinners to be saved is by repenting and receiving the Saviour, by leaning on the Lord Jesus Christ. John 1: 12 “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Not everyone will benefit from what Christ has done. The offer is universal but the application is exclusive – salvation is only through Jesus Christ and is applied only for those who believe and receive Him. God loves and God lavishes. When we lean into Him…
4. We Live
“…should not perish but have eternal life.” The only negative aspect of this verse is found in this phrase? To “perish” means to be eternally separated from God. I love the word “but” here because it shows a contrast - we don’t have to perish but can instead have “eternal life.” Most of our Christmas messages declare, “Peace on Earth,” or “Joy to the World,” or the more secular “Seasons Greetings.” Have you ever received a Christmas message – “Saved from Hell?” What you do with Immanuel will determine where you spend eternity.
Look at the verse that comes after John 3: 16 - “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus was sent on a search and rescue mission. He didn’t come to condemn but to convert sinners. Ezekiel 18: 23 “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
Look now at John 3: 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This verse teaches 2 surprising truths -
• If you believe in Christ you will not be condemned
• If you don’t believe, you’re condemned already
In other words, if you choose to not be saved, you are condemned right now and you’ll be condemned in Hell forever. That’s where everyone is headed. The only way to avoid that destination is by being converted through faith in the finished work of the Saviour, who stood in as your substitute when He paid the price for all your sins by dying in your place. If you are saved, you will not perish but instead you have eternal life. I like the little word “have” because it means, “to have and hold, to have in your hands,” implying continued possession.
I am more sinful than I ever believed and more loved than I ever dared to imagine. God gave the Word in order to save the world and that means whoever…and that means you.
A young boy once came up to a missionary and said, “I love you and I want you to have this.” He pulled from a straw basket the most beautiful shell the missionary had ever seen. As she admired its beauty, she recognized it as a special shell only found on the far side of the island; a half-day’s walk from the village. When she asked the boy about his journey, he smiled and said, “Long walk - part of gift.”
Crucial to Christmas is this truth... that God loved the world so much that he made that long walk to come from where He was to where we are. When it was impossible for us to reach out to Him, He reached out to us.
God loves and lavishes. Let’s lean so we can live.
The greater context of this text is found at the beginning of John 3 where we read of an encounter between a man named Nicodemus and Jesus. He came to Jesus at night because he didn’t want any of his friends to see that he was on a spiritual search. When he finds Christ he pays Him a compliment and then is immediately jarred by what Jesus said to him - John 3: 3 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
I love what Corrie Ten Boom once said: “If Jesus were born one thousand times in Bethlehem and not in me, then I would still be lost.” It’s time today to make sure that Jesus is born in you.
You can do that right now by praying this prayer:
“Father, I don’t understand how you can accept me. But thank you for loving me so lavishly that you sent your Son to die for my sins on the cross. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for not only being born but for dying in my place and rising again so that I can be born again. I lean into you now by faith so that I can live with you forever. Amen.