This week, Pastor Mark walks us through one of the best known passages in the whole of scripture with the BIG IDEA: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Together we’ll look at:

  1. What did God do
  2. Why did He do it?
  3. For what purpose?
  4. How do we respond?


The Gospel by Ray Ortlund (Crossway, 2014)
Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt (Crossway, 2017)

Sermon Transcript

  1. Intro


Today’s text includes one of the most famous verses in the entire Bible. If someone who’s not a Christian knows one Bible verse, it’s probably John 3:16. You see it everywhere – football games, t-shirts, billboards, you name it. It’s famous for a good reason: John 3:16 probably sums up better than any other verse the message of the Bible. [personal story? Time walking on Locust street when I finally got it?] My job today as a preacher is simply to get out of the way and let this text speak with the power that God intended. I’ll do my best to show you what it means in its original context, what it means for us, and how we can apply it to our lives, no matter who we are. Let’s pray. [PRAY]


Let’s set the scene. Today’s passage actually is a continuation of last week’s. Last week, Pastor Matt showed us how Jesus meets with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, and tells him the good news that we must be born again. And last week’s passage ended with a kind of unusual callback to the OT, when the children of Israel were dying because they were being bitten by snakes. But God gave them a remedy which was that they were to look upon a bronze snake that Moses lifted up before them, and they would live. And then Jesus says in verse 14 and 15: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. [16] For God so love the world…


And you’ll notice that today’s text, starting with John 3:16, starts with the word “For.” And whenever you see words like that, they’re telling you how one part of the text connects with the other. So in this case, the word “for” in John 3:16 means that the following verses (16–21) are explaining or unpacking the previous ones. Specifically, they’re explaining the fact that the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. And THEN we got John 3:16 and the verses that follow.


Now, normally, if you listen to our preaching here at Citylight, you know that we have a BIG IDEA that sums up the passage. But the problem here is that you really can’t improve upon John 3:16! So basically today, John 3:16 IS the Big Idea, and what I’m going to do is, I’m going to spend some time UNPACKING what it means, and also the verses that follow. BIG IDEA: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). And we’ll see a few things from the text: What did God do? Why did He do it? For what purpose? How should we respond? Let’s get into it.


  1. Point 1: What did God do?


The central word that controls this whole passage is, the verb “GAVE.” God gave. What did God do? Simple: He gave. But what did God give? He gave His only Son. Friends, think about this. In response to the darkness and sin of the world, in response to our misery, and the problem of pain, and all the rest, God didn’t give a message. He didn’t give a messenger. He didn’t give a plan, or a program, or a list of rules for self-improvement. He gave His Son. His ONLY Son. The Greek word translated “only” here is sometimes translated “one and only” and frankly that’s a pretty good explanation of what it means. Jesus is God’s one-and-only, unique Son. And don’t misunderstand the theological reasoning here. This is not a metaphor. This is not God taking human language and applying it to himself to give an approximation of what the truth is. It’s not like God is saying “Hey, you guys know what fathers and sons are; well, let’s apply this to God.” No, the situation is exactly the reverse: God and His Son (along with the Holy Spirit) are the true realities. THEY are the originals. From all eternity, the Father generates or begets his one and only Son. And HUMAN fathers and sons are a dim reflection of this deeper reality. God’s the original; WE’RE the reflection. So, You know how human sons sometimes look like their fathers? That’s a dim reflection of what this means. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being. When you look at Jesus, you’re getting the best glimpse possible of what God looks like.


And what this means is, in giving Jesus, God gave His very best. For you. He gave all He had to give. He couldn’t give anything more for you, to rescue you from darkness. He gave it all. What do we do with this? How do we apply it? Simple: we remember it. Friends, the good news that God gave His very best for you means that we never have to worry that he’s holding out on us. I think Romans 8:32 says this the best: Romans 8:32: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Friends, let’s face it, life gets really, really hard. Things often don’t turn out the way we expect, and we wonder why God has put us in the situation we’re in, and why things aren’t getting better. Well, if God gave His only Son for you, guess what? He’ll give you everything else you need as well, and if there’s something you DON’T have right now, it means it’s something you don’t really. There is no shortcut to learning to trust the heart of God. This is it! We REMEMBER that God gave His only Son. For us. So, to bring this home, let me ask you: Where in your life are you tempted to doubt that God is for you? That He loves you? Look to God’s one-and-only Son. Remember that God gave Him, for you. What did God do? He gave His only Son. He gave His best. For us.


  • Why did He do it?

But next, let’s look at why did He do it. And we get that in the beginning of the verse: “For God so loved the world.” Did you know, this is the first time that love is mentioned in John’s Gospel? Now, to understand what’s going on here, and why He says it here, we need to look at the context. Remember who He’s speaking to: Nicodemus. Who’s Nicodemus? Well, he’s a Jewish religious leader. Why is that important? Here’s why: If you were a Jew at that time, especially a religious leader, you would believe that God loves the Jewish people. You would remember that way back in the Old Testament, God chose Abraham, and from him, Isaac and Jacob, and from Jacob, the 12 tribes of Israel. And he set His love on them. His special, covenant love. And He had plans for them, to bless them, and through them, to bless the nations. So you’d have no problem at all believing that God loved YOU as part of His chosen people. But the world? Those pagans? Those idol-worshiping, bacon-eating Greeks and Romans and Barbarians? God loves THEM? But they’re so wicked! Look at what they DO!


See, in the previous verse, John 3:15, Jesus said that “whoever” believes in him may have eternal life. And Nicodemus is probably thinking “OK, ‘whoever’: Any member of the Jewish race.” But here, in John 3:16 and following, Jesus tells Nicodemus just what he means by “whoever”: Anyone. Anyone! Not just the Jewish people, but the whole world. Every nation, tribe, and tongue. God’s love is big enough to cover them all. Even in their wickedness and rebellion against Him. Why did God send His only Son? Because He loved the world so muchBecause He loved US so much.


What do we do with this? Here’s three quick applications:


First, well, if God loves the world, then WE should love the world too. Let me explain that. I know that someone will quote to me “do not love the world or the things in the world.” Fine. OK. But that kind of love is a bad love that sees what the world is like and wants to TAKE from it. But remember our key word “gave”? THIS kind of love, the love of God, is a love that GIVES. And so when I say we should love the world too, this is what I mean: we should love the world like God does, with a love that gives, even to those who are different; even to those who are our enemies. How do we do this?


There are more than 7 billion people in the world today, made up of thousands of different ethnic groups. And the Bible says that one day, there will be worshipers from every single one of them, worshiping God’s one and only Son. In fact, there are still about 7,000 different people groups today – over 3 billion people – who have little to no access to the good news about Jesus. And God loves them, and wants to see them reached with the good news of Jesus and have strong gospel-preaching churches among them.


So, how do we love the world? Simple: We share the love of God WITH the world. We can get involved with what is sometimes called “missions.” At Citylight we love missions. We love to identify, raise up, send, and support international workers who will go to the least-reached places and bring the good news of the gospel to them. In fact, in the past month, Citylight has sent out three international workers to go to the unreached. If you’d like to learn more about missions at Citylight, either to go yourself, or to send others who are going, it’s really easy – just check “missions” on your connect card. I’ll reach out to you this week and let you know how you can get more involved.


But maybe you’ll never go to the “world” in this sense, but guess what, we can still love the world right where we are. We can tell our friends and neighbors and co-workers about what Jesus is like and how to have a relationship. We can pray, love, invite, and speak. What next step might God be calling you to in order to share the love of God for the world? Who is he laying on your heart to take that next step with?


Second, 1 John 4:11 gives us another way to apply this text. It says, Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. Our love for one another is a reflection of God’s love for us. If you’re part of this church, is there anyone in this church with whom you’re not in a relation of love right now? Maybe there’s someone you’re holding a grudge against. Maybe you’re holding back from being involved and letting others into your life. In light of God’s love for you, how might he be calling us to love others?


And Third, we delight it. We delight in the great love of God. The Puritan theologian John Owen writes, “So much as we see the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more.” And in another place he says, “Though all others are hard to me, yet my Father is tender and full of compassion I will go to him, and satisfy myself in him. Here I am accounted vile, frowned on, and rejected; but I have honor and love with him, whose kindness is better than life itself. There I shall have all things in the fountain, which others have but in the drops.” Friends, Christian, God loves you. He delights in you. Delight in his love.


  1. For what purpose?


So: What did God do? He gave his only Son. Why did he do it? Because he loved the world so much. But next, for what purpose? God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).


Notice that word “that.” It gives the purpose of God giving His only Son. It’s why He did it. Why did He do it? So that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.


Let’s talk about “whoever.” What does this mean? Here’s what it means: no one is beyond the reach of Jesus. I want to speak to those of you here who are not yet followers of Christ, or you’re on the fence, or maybe you’re just checking Christianity out. And maybe, just maybe, part of what’s holding you back, is that you’re thinking “God couldn’t save me. Look at what I’ve done. Look at who I am. How could God ever accept me?” Hear me when I say this: “whoever” means “whoever.” Turn to Christ. Believe in Him. He will in no wise cast you out.


But what about the next part, what about eternal life? Well, the following verses – and here’s where we’re going to get beyond verse 16 –unpack what this means. Let’s read vv. 17-18:  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. 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.


(Notice that word “for” again – it’s explaining what just came before.) So it turns out that here we have four different ways of describing the purpose that God sent his son. Check this out:


For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. 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.


These are four different ways of describing the same thing, the purpose of the sending: so that whoever believes would not perish; would have eternal life; would be saved; would not be condemned. It’s as if he wants to make it crystal-clear to Nicodemus what he’s getting at: If you believe in the Son, no matter who you are, you will not face God’s judgment, but you’ll be saved.


Friends, we are born into sin. We’re born dead, spiritually. All of us, through our birth and what we’ve done, are separated from God. We’ve inherited a sinful nature from Adam and Eve, and through our actual sins we’ve earned condemnation from God. We perish. But here’s the good news: We don’t have to. God LOVED the world so much that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. Would be saved. Would not be condemned.


This verse doesn’t explain exactly how that works, but other places in the Bible do: Jesus died for our sins. He took the wrath; HE took the punishment; HE took the death; HE took the condemnation. He’s our substitute, the perfect sacrifice for sin. And because he did that, because He IS that, we don’t have to be condemned. “In my place condemned he stood” goes the old hymn. God’s Son, God’s perfect, beautiful Son, was condemned in your place. Died in your place. So that YOU don’t have to be.


And understanding this, really understanding John 3:16-21, helps to answer one of the biggest objections people have to Christianity. “It’s so narrow” they’ll say. “How can you say there’s only one way?” But if you’re thinking that way, the trouble is, you’re thinking in terms of a PHILOSOPHY. You’re thinking that God is up there sort of arbitrarily coming up with some METHOD, some hoop to jump through, by which he’ll accept you. But if you remember God gave His Son – if you remember He’s your substitute – why then, the whole objection vanishes.


Because what are you asking God to do? There’s a place where CS Lewis says, and I’m going to paraphrase, What are you asking God to do? To wipe out all your sins and, at all costs, give you a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help?” But that’s exactly what He has done! And he’s done it all at the highest possible cost there could ever be: the death of the Son. God didn’t give you a philosophy, He gave you His Son. Won’t you believe in Him? His Son has already been condemned. There’s no need for you to be.


Now, what if you’re a Christian? Is there anything in here for you? You bet there is. The apostle Paul writes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This freedom from condemnation that we enjoy in Christ is something we keep coming back to, we keep appropriating, again and again and again, so long as we need to. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Christian, enjoy your eternal life now, revel in your freedom from condemnation. Not as a license to sin but as an invitation to truly live.


  1. How should we respond?


So we’ve seen What God did; why he did it, and for what purpose. There’s just one thing left to look at: How should we respond?


Well, the answer is one that I’ve mentioned already, and you’ve heard before in this John series, and I guarantee you’ll hear again: believe. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.


Here is the beauty of the Christian message: what God requires of us is not to do some great work; is not to clean ourselves up; not to get serious about our faith. He asks us to BELIEVE, to look to the Son; to move the center of your life away from yourself and toward God. It’s so simple even a child could do it. It’s open to all, regardless of age, status, race, gifts, intelligence, anything. Believe in the Son. Believe He is the only Son of God. Believe He was given for you and died on the cross and rose again. But what does “believe” mean?


There was a famous tightrope walker in the 1800s named Charles Blondin who was known for walking  across Niagara Falls, from Canada to the U.S. and vice versa, on a tightrope. It was   1100 feet long for him to cross. About 160 ft above the water. As he did it repeatedly, he gained more and more of a  crowd. He added pieces to it, too: He did it blindfolded, in a sack, with a wheelbarrow, on stilts. One time he even sat down midway, cooked, and ate an omelette. Legend has it that one time as the crowd was cheering him on, he asked them, “Do you think I   could carry a man across on my back?” and they all said, “Yes! You can do it!” and he asked, “Who wants to be the man?” and suddenly there was less enthusiasm. One person actually did it though – it was his manager. But the point is, there’s a difference between saying you trust someone, and actually trusting them, and the proof is that you’re willing to act on it.


Are you willing to trust Jesus with your life? Are you willing to move the center of your life away from yourself and onto him? Are you willing to actually stop trusting in yourself or your record and trust in His perfect record for you? That’s what belief means.


Now, if you’re already a Christian, you might be thinking, “what about me? I’ve done this already. I have believed in Christ. Is there something in this text for me?” Oh yes. More than you could imagine. You see, this passage is definitely talking about the first time we come to Christ, the time when we pass over the canyon from death to life by holding on to Christ by faith. But the Apostle Paul says something interesting in the letter to the Galatians: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). Notice what he says: “The life that I NOW live, I live by faith.” Friends, believing in Christ is not just how we come to God the first time, but it’s how we keep coming to him, over and over again. Not to be saved from condemnation, that only happens once. But to make real the salvation that is already ours.


Author Jeff Vanderstelt in His book Gospel Fluency tells a story about one of his children. One day he hears screaming and he comes upon two of his kids in the middle of playing chutes and ladders. (Now, I don’t care how old you are, if you want to work on your sanctification, play a couple rounds of chutes and ladders. Go on, I dare you.) Anyway, it turns out that his son had ripped the head off the player of his daughter. And she’s saying “he ripped the head off” and he’s saying “she cheated.” So he does a little investigation, and asks his son point-blank “did you rip the head off?” And the kid sort of disappears like a turtle into his shirt. What’s he feeling? Shame.


Now, what do you do then? How do you confront this? Do you say “How could you do such a thing? You should be ashamed of yourself!” Well, does that work? He’s already feeling shame! Instead, Vanderstelt points out that his son is actually acting on his faith. He believes, first, that his value depends on his performance in the game, and second, by hiding, he’s trusting in his OWN work to cover himself. You see that?


So instead of saying “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Vanderstelt says “Caleb, you don’t need to hide. Remember, Jesus died on the cross for your sins. I know you feel ashamed for what you’ve done. That’s what we feel when we sin. But you don’t have to keep hiding. Go to Jesus and believe that he died for you and can take your shame away.”


Eventually, he sees an eyeball poking out of the shirt’s neck, and then slowly his face and his head, and next thing Caleb runs into his arms and says “I’m sorry dad!” That’s the gospel. That’s the good news at work. I guarantee you, if you’re a follower of Christ, no matter what problem you’re facing, no matter what struggle, somewhere in there, on some level, is a struggle to believe, to truly trust Christ. [plug for Gospel class]


And notice the fruit that comes from belief: Caleb repents. Let’s look at verses 20-21 for a moment before we close: For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”


Caleb comes out of the shirt, he literally comes to the light, so that it’s clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.


Turn to Jesus. Trust in Him. Whether for the first time, as you cross the canyon from death to life, carried in the arms of Jesus, or for the thousandth time, as you run back to him in repentance and faith. He’ll be there for you. Let’s pray.