Series: The Gospel of John
John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the entire Bible, and with good reason. It gives us good news in a world so full of bad news: God has provided eternal life for whoever believes in His Son.
When I was a kid I used to watch a lot of ESPN, and one time there was a special on a guy they called rainbow man. He had that title because he had a rainbow-colored afro, and he would go to sporting events regularly and hold up a sign that had on it the words “John 3:16.” John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the whole Bible, and today in our series through the Gospel of John, we’ve arrived at it. It’s famous in large part because it so aptly summarizes some of the central truths of the Christian faith. It tells us something about God, about the work of Christ, and about the choice we all face, a choice the text links to eternity. And, ultimately, it tells us good news for a world that’s so full of bad news. That good news is that God has provided eternal life for whoever believes in His Son. We’ll look at the motive for this, the means, the end, and the choice we now face.
Our passage begins with the words “God so loved the world,” which then sets off a chain of “that”s. God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. The beginning of the chain though, the fountain from which the rest spring, the thing that motivated God to provide eternal life by giving His Son is this simple phrase that begins our passage: “God so loved the world.” It shows us something of what kind of being God is: He is a being capable of love. To love is to desire the ultimate good of another; it is the action of a personal, intelligent being. A rock cannot love. An impersonal universe cannot love. A friend of mine posted on his Facebook recently a letter to the universe, in which he said he told the universe he would receive love in abundance if “you” choose to provide it. He knew that to receive love from the universe, he had to personalize it, make it a “you” not an “it,” but how can one do so rationally? The love he and so many others desire is one that ultimately only a personal God can give.
And God did, a fact made all the more astounding when we consider the object of His love: God so loved the world. He is no mere tribal deity; a God for certain “religious types.” He loved the world, without exception. And the world He loved is a world that did not love Him. Here’s how John describes the world elsewhere: “All that is in the world, the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, the pride of life—is not from God, but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). To love is to desire the good of another, but what we desire is to please our flesh, to possess what our eyes see, to gratify our pride. We love ourselves, in other words, and not God. And don’t you find the people most clearly in love with themselves to be the hardest to love? The person who always has to be in the spotlight, who’s always touting their own achievements, especially when they’re taking from you what is rightfully yours. Imagine you accomplish something great at work, but one of your co-workers who contributed nothing to it willingly takes all the credit. How much would you love such a person? Maybe you’re kind and you say, “Well I wouldn’t wish them ill”; but would you wish them good? And would you so wish them good that you would give what you love most so that they could receive that good?
That’s the situation with which God is faced, but worse. He’s faced with a world He made that has now rebelled against Him, with a world full of people He made, who use the things He made to serve themselves and reject or ignore Him, when He’s been nothing but good to them. And what did God do with such a world? He loved it. And in so doing He showed us that He is not only the kind of being who can love. He showed us that He is the kind of being who is love, in whom love is so essential that it flows out of Him even when there is so much in the recipients of that love that would seem to repel it. He desired our good when we couldn’t have cared less about His, because that’s just the kind of God He is.
Do you relate to God as though He is love, as though He loved us when we didn’t love Him? Many don’t. One of the common objections to Christianity is that if God is love, why is there so much evil in the world? Or for that matter, why do we find in the Bible itself stories of God flooding the world and killing so many, consuming thousands with fire on a single day, taking the lives of the firstborn children of Egypt, and so forth? Well, there are a lot of good answers actually, and some to which we’ve already alluded: We’re the ones who do evil, we’re the world in rebellion against God, and God’s judgment in flood and fire is the just judgment of God against our evil, rather than a contribution to it. Instead of diving deeper into those, though, I want to pose a question back to you today if even part of you believes that God is not love. How do you explain why He gave His only Son? How do you explain God sending His Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved, as verse 17 puts it? His justice doesn’t require it of Him; all justice requires when one sins like we have sinned against God is condemnation. That’s what all those stories of God’s judgment throughout the Bible reveal. So why did God send His Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved? Because the God who is just is also the God who is love.
But beyond the intellectual doubt of “If God is love, why is there so much evil?” there’s also the existential doubt, the nagging, often subconscious sense that Satan has loved to insinuate in us since Genesis 3, that God doesn’t love us. It shows itself when we are constantly trying to avoid God’s commandments. If you find yourself avoiding, twisting, or resisting obedience to what God has commanded, you must not believe He really loves you. You must be believing the lie that Satan told our first parents, that God’s commands are not there because He desires our good, but because He desires to hold us down. On the other hand, if you find you always feel a pressure to go above and beyond what God has commanded, if you cannot rejoice until you’ve proven to yourself, to God, and to everyone else that you are perfect, you also must not believe He really loves you. Rather, you’re treating His love as though it must be manipulated from the hands of an unwilling deity. But let me put the same question to you: If God doesn’t love you, if His commands are something to avoid or His love something we have to manipulate out of Him, why did He give His only Son? Why did He not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it?
The answer is because the true God is love, and He so loved the world that He gave His Son. He loved you when you didn’t love Him; you don’t have to resist His commands. He loved you when you didn’t love Him; you don’t have to manipulate love out of Him. The love of God for a sinful world is the motive for His provision of eternal life, and the means is that he gave His Son.
So the text tells us next that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Elsewhere Scripture speaks of the Son giving Himself for us, so Galatians 2:20 – “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.” There Paul, the author of that passage, says it was the Son who loved him and gave himself for him, and indeed that’s just as true, but do some of you perhaps think Jesus the Son is loving and gracious, while the Father is somehow less so? May this text among many others utterly obliterate that thought from your mind. Just as truly as the Son loved us and gave Himself for us, the Father loved us and gave His only Son. In my most heroic moments I can imagine myself giving some good to people who hate me, but what love must the Father have for we who hated Him to give His only Son for us?
And He had to give His Son for us because He is truly just. Those passages in the Bible I mentioned earlier about floods and fires that God sends upon sinful humanity are really there, and Jesus didn’t come to delete them. Quite to the contrary, Jesus Himself said He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. God is just, and in a world filled with injustice, in which we so often cry out for justice, a God who is not Himself just would not be worthy of our worship. And because He is just, the rebellion of the world against Him, our rebellion against Him, cannot simply be overlooked. His justice requires personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience to His law if one is to receive eternal life, and condemnation for any disobedience.
So God looks out on a disobedient world, and out of love for that world, He desires to give that world eternal life instead of condemnation, and the means through which He provides it is He gives His Son. He gave His Son first to become human, and to take upon Himself the responsibility of personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience to God’s law. He then ultimately gave His Son on the cross, where He was condemned for our disobedience. He accomplished everything necessary for humans to receive eternal life, and so He received eternal life when He rose from the dead. God’s giving of Him is thus the means through which God has provided eternal life for whoever believes in Him.
The means is not more diligent performance, conformity to the rules, or better self-talk. He didn’t so love the world that He gave a set of religious rituals, a political platform, or mere words of affirmation. He so loved the world that He gave His only Son, with this end in view: That whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
The default here is perishing, for reasons we’ve already touched on: The world is in rebellion against God, and God’s just judgment on our rebellion is death. And so the default for every human now is that one day we will die. And in verse 17 the parallel expression to death is condemnation. So the idea is not only that we are destined to perish, but we are destined to perish precisely because we are under God’s condemnation. But once again, even while we were condemned, God loved us, and so desired not to condemn the world ultimately, but to save it. So He sent His Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.
Eternal life is, of course, the opposite of perishing. As soon as we believe, we enter into the enjoyment of it. Notice the present tense of “have”: Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. Eternal life begins in those who believe in Jesus with the transformation of their souls from slavery to things like idolatry, envy, anger, division, greed, and sensuality to things like love for God and others, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness to the truth, and so forth. The desires of who we were by virtue of our first birth conspire with the world and the devil to fight against that new life in us, and so we continue to struggle against sin for as long as we are in these bodies. But the life that has begun in whoever believes is eternal, and it wins in the end. They will not perish, but have eternal life in the future as well. It doesn’t mean that those who believe in Jesus will never die, but though they die, they will live again: Their souls will go to be with the Lord in heaven upon death, and when Jesus returns, their bodies will rise to live with Jesus forever in a new heaven and new earth.
Eternal life means a new life that begins to live in us now, that will continue forever, and that will even give life to our dead bodies. But it also means a life without condemnation. That’s the contrast in verse 17. Those who are saved are those who are not condemned. Presently, for whoever believes, there is now no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus. Not even your sins have the power to condemn you any longer; God already gave His Son for them. No accusation, human or demonic, ultimately has the power to condemn you. God’s end goal in giving His only Son was that whoever believes in Him would not only live forever, but live forever under His favor, without condemnation.
What better end could possibly exist for humans? To live forever under the favor of God, free to come into His presence and worship Him without fear of condemnation. To be fully known and truly loved by the most lovable being. To be able to finally forget ourselves and lose ourselves in Him. Here we get discontent with God because He hasn’t given us more money, a better job, a family, a better house, better health, whatever. And do you see what small potatoes all of that is compared to the eternal life He has provided for whoever believes in His Son? Even if God gave you all those things, in the blink of an eye, death would take them all away. Even if you leave behind a great family, a great piece of art, a great institution, they too will one day perish. The sooner you really face that, the better. Because you do have a choice to make.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. There’s that word “whoever.” It excludes no one; it has no racial, cultural, socioeconomic, appearance, life experience, personality, or any other boundaries. God’s love for the world is such that He genuinely offers eternal life to all, and yet not all receive eternal life. The “whoever” of verse 16 shows us that the offer of eternal life is extended to all who hear it, but the additional words “believes in Him” show that only those who believe in the Son God gave will receive the eternal life He has. He did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that through Him the world might be saved, verse 17. But then verse 18 adds that not all are saved. It is specifically whoever believes in Him who is not condemned, while whoever does not believe in Him is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
And that makes sense, right? The giving of His Son was the means God used to accomplish the end of eternal life, so how can one reject the means and expect to receive the end? Eternal life is not just out there somewhere, detached from Christ. It is in Christ. It is the very life He lives now in resurrected human flesh. And the only way it becomes ours is if He becomes ours, if we receive Him by faith. The statement there could be more literally translated “whoever believes into Him.” The idea is not merely one of intellectual assent, like I believe Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania. It is the idea of trust, like someone who believes in a company enough to invest their personal assets into it. Believing in Christ means we invest ourselves in Him, putting all our hopes for eternal life in Him, trusting God’s promise that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.
It’s not “whoever believes in Him” and does enough good who receives eternal life: It’s simply whoever believes. There is no one who sincerely believes in Him to whom God will say, “Sorry; no eternal life for you. You may have believed, but your obedience after that sure was lacking.” The Son of God accomplished everything necessary for eternal life; He’s not waiting for you to add to what He did. Faith is simply the open hand that receives Him, and thereby receives eternal life in Him. Whoever believes in Him has eternal life and is not condemned. If you believe in Him, you are not condemned. If you believe in Him, you have eternal life. And if you don’t, you are still condemned, and will perish in that state unless you believe. The text holds out only these two options. You’ve heard the message: God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. Now the choice is yours: Believe in Him, and you are not condemned, do not believe in Him, and you remain condemned, as verse 18 says.
Nonetheless, some will not believe in Him, and verse 19 goes on to explain why: The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. Why was Jesus rejected by so many? Why is He still rejected by so many today? Because He is true light. He is pure and holy. And what that light does is it exposes all that is unlike it. It exposes evil, and so those who are committed to their evil deeds will not come to Him. They don’t want their wickedness to be exposed, because they don’t want to leave it behind. All of us have sinned; that’s not what makes the difference between those who receive eternal life and those who do not, between those who are saved and those who are condemned. The difference is that those who remain condemned are unwilling for their sins to be exposed. To come to Christ, to believe in Him, would mean admitting that the way they were living was truly sinful. It would mean letting His light shine on their lives. It would mean turning from their evil works. There is no option of believing in Jesus and remaining in the dark. He is light! And so there are many who, no matter how well you articulate the gospel, no matter how beautifully godly your life is, no matter how bright the light shines, will still reject Jesus because they simply do not want to admit they’re evil and part with their evil works.
On the other hand, there were some when Jesus came into the world who received Him, who believed in His name, who are here described as those who “do what is true.” We met one of them in chapter 1, Nathanael, one of Jesus’ first followers, who Jesus described as “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” In chapter 1, John described them as those who were born of God. These were those who had been born again before God’s only Son became man, and who were living in accordance with the truth God had revealed up that point, doing good works, waiting for the promised Messiah, so that when He came into the world, they recognized Him and believed in Him, thus revealing that the good works they’d done were genuinely the result of God’s good work in them. They loved the light, and so when the light came into the world, they were drawn to Him, instead of rejecting Him.
And the fact remains that if you sincerely desire to know what’s true and order your life around it, you will recognize Jesus as the truth. All who want to walk in the light will come to Jesus, because He is the light. You will not want to trust your own righteousness, but will want your good works to be clearly revealed as God’s work in you. And you will want the light to shine on even your evil works, so that you can forsake them. That’s part of the choice we who hear this message now face. Eternal life is held out to us. The light has come into the world. Will you come into the light so that your evil works can be exposed, forgiven, and forsaken, or will you hide them so you can hold on to them?
It’s a choice of massive importance, a choice of eternal consequence. So don’t make it lightly. But don’t put it off indefinitely either. None of us knows the day of our perishing, and there’s no good reason for you to live another minute under God’s sentence of condemnation. Whoever believes is not condemned, present tense. Eternal life begins the moment you believe, and God has provided it for whoever would believe, because of His great love for the world, through the giving of His Son on the cross. Believe in Him, and you are not condemned. Believe in Him, and you have eternal life. What could be better?