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For God so loved the world

“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16-17)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
October 6, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

John 3:16 is one of the most recognized verses from the Bible. You see it on signs at ball games or along the road or on Christian artwork to be hung in homes. It’s a beloved passage for church members to memorize, and one that most have been taught from a very early age. And I think that it is beloved and well known for good reason. In John 3:16-17 the very essence of the gospel seems to be communicated: “God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.”

And at the very heart of this good news, is God’s deep and steadfast love for the world. And this deep and steadfast love encompasses all people, all of creation, all of the world. God’s love is not just for a select group of people, or just for those we assume fall under God’s care and favor, but also for those we tend to assume are outside of God’s care and favor, even those who we do not ourselves love, even those we consider to be our enemies. It is the world in its entirety that God so loves.

And God so deeply loves the world that God was willing to send the One who God loves most, the only begotten Son, into the world, despite what would happen, despite the great pain that this would cause, despite the tremendous sacrifice on God’s part.

When I was a freshman in high school, my youth group participated in DOOR in Denver. We stayed at one of the local churches there and would gather every night for worship. And I remember the pastor of the church telling this story to communicate God’s deep love as we sat on the mountain side. He imagined that all of us youth had gone to bed for the night in the church building and then for some reason or another, he happened to stop by the church only to see smoke pouring out because of a fire in the building. He said that in that situation he wouldn’t even think twice about rushing in to warn us so that he might save our lives, despite the risk to his own body.

But then he imagined the same scenario, that he stopped by the church building after we were all asleep, only to see smoke pouring out because of a fire in the building, only this time, his 5-year-old son was with him. And he pondered what it would be like to instead send his son into the burning building to warn us and save our lives, all at the risk of the life of his son for our sake. And the pastor didn’t think that he would ever be able to do that; it goes against every fiber of a parents’ being to put our children at risk or to send them into a dangerous or hostile situation.

Yet God loves each of us so much, that God was able to do just that. God loves each of us so much that God was willing to send the One who God loves most into the world, despite the great risk, despite the great pain and sacrifice that this would bring about, all for the sake of our salvation. It was love, God’s deep and steadfast love for the world that caused the incarnation, despite all that would happen. The Son was given for the sake of the world’s salvation, even at the cost of his own life, because of the deep and steadfast love of God.

And because of God’s deep love for all of the world, salvation is offered to every person, that everyone might have eternal life. It is God, out of love, who takes the initiative for our salvation. It is God who makes the first move, and who gives the Son for the sake of the salvation of the world. Salvation is available for all who believe in the Son and the One who sent him. But we know, of course, that not all will believe, for some have loved the darkness rather than the light. Some will not accept God’s offer of love and salvation.

But for those who believe, God gives the power the power to become children of God, to become a part of God’s family. This is God’s doing. For those who believe, God brings about our salvation and leads us from death to eternal life. Those who believe are born anew into God’s family out of God’s deep love for us. John 3:16 and 17 are located within the narrative of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. And Jesus tells Nicodemus, that one must be born from above (or born anew) to experience eternal life. The thought that the birth is from above suggests that it is God’s doing, that we ourselves do not bring about our new birth. And if you think about it, how many of you had a say about whether you were born or not? Our birth was not our own choice, but the choice of our parents. Just like, to be born from above (or born anew) is not our own doing, but God’s doing in our own lives, it is God bringing us from death into eternal life. And we begin to experience eternal life now. It is not something we simply have to wait for, it is not just something for the age to come, but for those who believe, we have already passed from death into life.

But believing in Jesus, does not mean that our lives will stay the same as they were before. We cannot simply claim to be born again, and then continue to live in the same ways that we did before we experienced eternal life. Believing in Jesus, fundamentally changes who we are. To be born anew is to be transformed completely.

And though it is God’s initiative that brings about our salvation, and our new life, we always have the choice to respond to what God is doing. In the gospel of John, “believe” or “faith” is always a verb, it is always active, it is always moving. Believing is what you do. Believing is how you respond to God. Believing is the way you live so that your life reflects the True Light that came into the world.

In the language that the gospel of John was originally written, John 3:16 can literally be translated “all who believe “into” him.” In the Greek, you do not only believe “in” Jesus, but you believe “into” Jesus. Believing means moving towards Jesus. Believing means orienting one’s life towards the direction of Jesus, to move closer and closer to him.1 Yes, there will be times when we “miss the mark”2 or even veer off course. But even when that happens, we can once again choose to reorient our lives towards Jesus and to move towards him.

Believing is to be orienting our lives towards Jesus. Believing is to be moving towards Jesus. Believing is to be living in a way that reflects the True Light of the world. Believing is to be responding to God because of what God is doing, and because of God’s deep love.

For it is God’s deep love that makes this all possible. It is because of God’s deep love that our salvation and assurance of eternal life is possible. It is because of God’s deep love for each of us and for all of creation that God gave the One who God loved most for our own sake, despite the tremendous cost. Out of gratitude and awe for this tremendous gift, may we spend our whole lives believing and moving towards the One whom God has sent into the world for our salvation. Amen.

1. Willard M. Swartley. Believers Church Bible Commentary: John. p. 505.
2. Literal translation of one of the NT words for sin, “harmartia.”

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For God so loved the world by Katherine Goerzen, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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