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Sermon August 12, 2018

Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1361

August 12, 2018 John 3:16-21

Rev. Dr. Ed Pettus

(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)


For God So Loved”


  • The Son of Man Lifted Up


We are in a series of sermons on ten passages that every Christian should know and cherish. This is week three covering another section of John 3. Last Sunday we looked at the topic of being born from above, “born again” in many translations. Today we continue Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, one of the teachers of Israel. Jesus is in the midst of one of the core expressions of the gospel message. I want to start where we ended last Sunday with verse 14 because I think it important that we keep the context of these verses in mind as we approach the well known John 3:16.

In John 3:14-15 Jesus appeals to the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness and comparing that to the lifting up of the Son of Man. The story is from Numbers 21:4-9 where the people became impatient with God and Moses and they complained.


4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.


What we might note from this story and the significance that Jesus may have hoped for Nicodemus to see, is that God’s gives His people life through grace and love. They did not deserve grace or love, but God does not give either because we deserve it, but because He loves us. Knowing that, we come to the sixteenth verse.



  • For God So Loved


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


God loved Israel in Numbers 21 and God loves the world in John 3. God gave physical life in Numbers and gives life eternal in John 3. Both come from God’s love. So we cannot fall for the idea that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament is the God of love. That is a simplistic generalization that does not result from a serious reading of the Bible. God loves and displays love, steadfast love, throughout the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. God is love. God has always been love. This love did not develop over time and only find its expression in Jesus Christ, but it was certainly expressed in Jesus because God so loved the world that He gave his only Son. We might also say that God so loved His creation of humanity that He breathed life into him. We might say that God so loved Israel that He delivered them from bondage. We might say that God so loved the world that He sent the prophets. We might say many things from the Bible that demonstrate God’s steadfast love. Look at our bulletin today. I have placed throughout our worship verses from the Old Testament that speak of God’s love throughout. Deuteronomy 7:9 in our opening meditation. Psalm 136 in our call to worship. Psalm 25 in our first scripture reading. For God so loved...it is the first phrase in John 3:16 and it has been a characteristic of God’s actions toward the Israel and the world from the beginning.



  • The Gift of the Son


The love expressed in John 3:16 is manifest in the gift of His only Son. Not one of many sons, but His only Son. His Son is sent to die for the world, a world that does not receive Him. This is expressed time and time again in the New Testament. John 1:9-13, The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.


In our reading for today we see the same thought, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).


The apostle Paul says it this way:


Romans 5:6-8 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.


I lift these passages because it reveals the powerful love in the gift of the Son, not given to a world that was ready and willing to receive, but to a people who were unwilling and resistant, sinners, weak, and ungodly. I don’t know about you, but that makes me all the more grateful for what God has done in Christ. God does not love us based on merit or our own righteousness or our good deeds or for being good people. He loves sinners. He loves us when we are at our worse. He gave us Jesus because we had no way to come to God without His sacrifice.

Imagine doing some wrong to someone and that person does everything possible to reconcile your relationship while you do nothing! While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.



  • Belief and Salvation


Some people try to argue that Jesus died for the world in the sense that everyone will be saved. But that is not the whole story of the gift of Christ. John 3:16 ends with this understanding of salvation, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. “...that whoever believes!” The same could be said early in this chapter, that only those who are born from above will see the kingdom of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is not about universal salvation, but about those who believe, those who receive, those whom God has given another gift, the gift of faith.


4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:4-8).


This is why the reformed expression of faith speaks of belief and salvation as gifts. We are given everything in Christ. We have no reason to boast in anything, not even our own choice to receive Christ, so we boast in nothing but the cross of Christ and the gifts of God. Our mission in this world is to share that gift of the gospel with others that they might come to know the love of God, the gift of God, and the salvation of God.


  • Light and Darkness


I spoke earlier about the Old and New Testaments sharing the love of God and as John 3 continues, it reveals, of course, the love of God, but also what we might consider as God’s wrath in the condemnation of those who do not believe. 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 (John 3:18). There is in this world, those who believe and those who do not. There is light and there is darkness.


19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 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” (John 3:19-21).


Nicodemus has heard about new birth from above, about God’s love and the gift of the Son. He has been exposed to the understanding of believing all this about God and Jesus concludes with a statement about judgment.


Sometimes I wonder why Jesus added these verses to what was such good news about the love of God. Perhaps it was to show Nicodemus (and us) the realities of a broken world and a loving God. Perhaps it was to express the fullness of God’s character, that a righteous and loving God must separate light and darkness, good and evil, and love without judgment is not really love at all. Love without discipline is not love at all. Love without boundaries is not love at all. Love without sacrifice is not love at all. Love without cost is not love at all.

Perhaps to show that salvation without belief is not salvation at all. Perhaps to show that there are those who will refuse the Son and gravitate to the darkness. We see this all the time in our world. People who are thirsty for evil, people who are adamant about denying Christ, and people who have such a hatred for the truth that it seems impossible they could ever be reached with God’s good news.


What we know is that God has shown His steadfast love through the giving of His only Son, Jesus Christ. I cannot begin to imagine how God could do this because I cannot imagine any parent making a similar sacrifice. But it means even more than that, for this gift means that God gave Himself to us that we might come to know Him and to know a relationship with Jesus Christ like no other relationship we could imagine. And what we learn from this conversation with Nicodemus is that God has done it. God has sent His only Son, God has and does love the world, and God has given life eternal and given it now. This eternal life comes when one believes in the heart and confesses with the mouth (Romans 10:9-10). Our mission is to present this story to the world, to our world of Princeton, and wherever our reach can take us. This passage, and particularly John 3:16, is a summary of the Gospel. While everything is not revealed here, enough is revealed to lead people to Christ. Enough is given here to show the love of God. While John 3:16 has been overly popularized, it would serve us well to consider John 3:1-21 and not just John 3:16 alone. Even more, to consider an even broader view of Scripture when presenting more of the Gospel. But as it has always been, John 3 is a tremendous starting point. This is Jesus telling a teacher of Israel about God’s love and God’s gift and God’s actions for the world. This is good news and it is the news the world desperately needs to hear again and again, but perhaps more completely than just one verse. We don’t need to wear t-shirts or hats with John 3:16 printed on them, we need hearts with John 3 imprinted upon them. We need to know and cherish this text and to live it and to proclaim it. Amen.