John 3:16-17 Series “For God So Loved the World” (Part One)

(a 13-minute podcast)

John 3:16 is like the Lord’s Prayer—we all know it, but our very familiarity with this verse hides its profound message. We think we know what it means because we hear and interpret it through the theology we’ve grown up with. But I am convinced that the real truth of this passage has escaped much of the church.

Evangelicals often cite this as the most important verse in the entire New Testament. Here, they say, we will find the gospel in miniature/the plan of salvation summed up in one verse. It couldn’t be clearer—the only way to salvation is to believe in Jesus. This is the way God has provided for our redemption. And this is the only way to heaven. You must believe in Jesus to be saved. Period.

On the other hand, some liberals within the church (yes, some of us exist) ignore this verse. They assume that to some degree the Evangelicals have properly interpreted this verse from John. But they cannot accept this interpretation because it goes against their ideas concerning fairness and common sense.

What I want to do today is consider one way of understanding and interpreting John 3:16 which takes it seriously and at the same time discovers a bigger picture communicated by this verse than most of us have ever imagined.

The most important part of this verse, if we are to believe the sermons most preachers have offered on this passage, is the second half: “that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Too many preachers and Christians mumble right past the first half to get to what they see as the most important part. But I want to suggest that the most important words of this verse are to be found in the first part. That little word “for” says a lot. It says that the basis for God sending Jesus into the world is God’s great love for what? You? Me? Jews? Gentiles? Americans? Catholics? Our race? Capitalists? Socialists? Communists? Christians? Moslems? Hindus? Atheists? Straight people? Human beings? Aliens? What does it say regarding the object of God’s great love? “For God so loved the WORLD!” (The Greek word used here is kosmos from which, of course, we get our word “cosmos.”) Perhaps a better translation would be “the whole creation.” It is because God loves this whole creation so much that God has sent God’s son into this world. And if we missed it in verse 16 John reminds us of the same point in verse 17: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Now, let’s think through this for a moment. If the traditional interpretation of this verse is correct (that you must believe in Jesus to be saved; otherwise you are lost), then most of the world/creation has no hope of salvation from the very beginning. What about all those who have never heard of Jesus? Those who came before Jesus? Those living during Jesus’ life but because of distance (not to mention oceans which separated continents!) never had a chance to hear of him, much less hear him? Those living after Jesus came but still had no opportunity to hear about him? Those who heard about him through some twisted, sick theology preached by a corrupt and sick church or preacher that no one with an ounce of intelligence or integrity would believe? Those who were born into another faith and were taught from birth that their religion was the “way”? (Historians using very sophisticated statistical analysis estimate that in the last 50,000 years more than 108 billion humans have been born. This number excludes stillbirths. Currently the world population is 7.5 billion. Can one really believe in a God of love with a theology which condemns the overwhelming majority of those 108 billion humans to hell for something they had no chance of knowing or believing?)

Do you get what I am saying? It astounds me that so many people in the church have never even considered these questions. And what is disgusting is that when these kinds of questions are raised, some in the church say something like “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it. I didn’t make up the rules. That’s just the way it is.” If God’s love is for the whole world/creation and God sent God’s Son into the world to redeem the world, then the traditional interpretation of John 3:16 makes no sense. The usual interpretation of this verse basically says that God loves the whole world but must be satisfied with snatching a few souls from the fires of hell. The rest of the world goes to hell through no fault of their own. (The only way to maintain this traditional view is to believe along with some Calvinists that God has predestined a few for salvation but has predestined the vast majority for damnation. Such a cruel, fickle god is not worthy of our worship. We could fear such a god, but we could never love that god. How do we know that such a cruel, fickle god won’t stop loving us? I purposely used lowercase for God in those last two sentences because such a god has nothing in common with the Jesus I know and love.)

We seem to be at an impasse. Is there another way to make sense of this verse and to take it seriously as a legitimate part of the Bible? I believe there is. First, we need to look back at the first chapter of John which is called “the Prologue.” (Read John 1:1-9) The Word is the dynamic power, will, love, and character of God which has existed from all eternity. That Word (with an uppercase “W”) became incarnate in a unique way in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus did not exist before his birth in Bethlehem, but the Word did. And that Word became focused like a laser beam in Jesus. But according to John that Word has been at work from all eternity. It was involved in the very act of creation—in the very gift of life. And that Word was and still is a light for ALL PEOPLE. That light has been shining all along, even in the darkest periods of cosmic and human history. Look again at verse 9: “The true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” In other words, anyone who has ever been enlightened has been gifted by this Word. No doubt many of these people had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth. But they experienced the life and light of the Word. Perhaps it was a Native American living on this continent over a thousand years ago before any missionaries came to these shores. Perhaps it was a cave woman 20,000 years ago who looked up at the stars and was overcome with such a sense of wonder and gratitude that when the time came to discard an older and worn-out member of the clan, out of compassion, she took him in and cared for him with a pure and Christ-like love. Perhaps it was a Mahatma Gandhi who was a Hindu but saw, understood, and lived more of the life and light of God’s Word than many of us who claim to be Christian. Perhaps it’s an atheist with a sensitive soul who cannot believe in God in a world of such suffering and evil, but who goes and does what God would have us do—to seek justice where there is none.

What we see in Jesus is the Word focused uniquely in one person, but that Word has been intimately and intricately involved in creation, history, and human existence from the very beginning.

And if this is the case, then perhaps we can make more sense of what John was saying in John 3:16. Perhaps he was saying that there is only one way to a life worth living and that is God’s way. That way has been here all along but in Jesus of Nazareth, God has sent God’s will, love, character, and very self into this world in a unique way. And if we trust that way—a way others in history have also found (or been found by) but was concentrated to the full in Jesus—we will find a life worth living—a life full of love, purpose, and joy. But what about all this perishing and eternal life in John 3:16? We will look at that in the second sermon in this series.

Today I want to us hear the gospel in all its power and truth: God loves this whole creation so much that God is committed to its salvation, healing, redemption, joy, and homecoming. What we see in Jesus is a concentrated form of what God’s will has been for the whole creation. And that will has been at work enlightening and healing from the very beginning. If we have a theology which allows only for the salvation of a few (of which we just happen to be conveniently numbered—isn’t that special! as the church lady on SNL would say), then the premise of John 3:16 as well as the premise of the whole New Testament is a big, fat lie. But if we listen to John and really believe/trust that God so loves this whole creation, there is hope for all. And that is a theme you find throughout the Gospels, all through the letters of Paul, and even in the Book of Revelation. “God loves the world so much that God gave, is giving, and will always give the Word which enlightens and makes whole.” Now that is Good News for the whole creation.

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