Summary: Facing up to John 3:16 and exactly what it means to me, phrase by phrase.
If you were like me, around the age of five or six, Miss Money taught you your first Bible verse in Sunday School; and it probably was John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life." Over the ensuing years that verse has eased many heart-breaking situations and has opened several opportunities to share the Good News with other people. Anyone who has spent very much time attending church should be quite familiar with this verse. Over the years and through different translations the words have changed somewhat: "whosoever believeth" has become "everyone who believes" and the "only begotten Son" is now "His only Son." I’m not sure if I really like that last change, it sort of removes GOD as Jesus’ Father from the understanding of the verse. Since I began my preaching ministry I have tried to shy away from this particular verse, because it is so well known. Trying to do a sermon around it seemed to be a futile effort; after all, what else can be said about it? But then, this past week I decided to face up to it, because maybe, everyone doesn’t really comprehend what is being said in it. Let us spend some time this morning looking at this particular verse and see if we all have a similar understanding of it. I know scripture means something different to each of us; we each have our own value systems and life experiences to use in interpreting what a certain verse may mean at a certain time in our lives.
"For God;" who is GOD and what does GOD mean to us in this particular context? What is our perception of GOD? Do we envision GOD as the loving Father, who will give us all we ever need; open and approachable as a good friend? Or maybe our concept of GOD is as a mysterious being; aloof and floating around somewhere in the great beyond, far from our view. Or do we see GOD as the omniscient being who knows all, the omnipotent one who can do all things, and the omnipresent one who is always near by in our time of need? Maybe GOD, to us, is a mixture of all these.
Scripture tells us GOD always has been and always will be; therefore, there is a bit of mystery about who GOD is. We also read in scripture GOD rescued Israel from slavery, cared for them through the wilderness, and eventually led them into the Promised Land; GOD is compassionate. The psalmist says, "Where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there;" GOD is ever vigilant Jesus even calls GOD "Father" on several occasions; GOD is loving. Therefore, we may presume GOD to be multi-faceted in every respect.
"…so loved the world;" I love my wife, is that not the same thing? First we must realize GOD gave Jesus to the world because GOD loves the world. The world is GOD’s creation and the love of GOD’s heart. When God gave Jesus to the world, the world was presented with a critical decision. Jesus’ incarnation into the world begins the cycle of judgment which is our call for all humankind to love GOD in return. Through Jesus we are invited to become members of GOD’s family, to become one with our Creator. If we accept this invitation, we must then be willing to welcome a new way of life and return our complete love back to GOD.
But how are we supposed to love God; in what way is our love sufficient? We can best answer this query by recognizing love and the types of it. First there is "eros" love, this is the physical love felt between two human beings, which is often fulfilled with something as simple as a hug or maybe a kiss. Eros love is that love which leads to human marital relationships. The next kind of love is "phileo" love, or the love of our neighbor. The "city of brotherly love," Philadelphia’s name is a derivative of this term. In "phileo" love we willingly share of our prosperity with those around us in need and do not expect anything in return from it. Both of these types of love are more often applied between human to human interactions. But, the love which GOD has for the world is much different, that is "agape" love. Agape is an ultimate form of love, that special unconditional love of GOD; a love which is always willing to unconditionally forgive any and every transgression.
"…that He gave His only Son;" Jesus, the only Son of GOD, the most perfect gift, GOD gave to humankind in order to provide for our salvation. We have already established GOD gave Jesus to the world because of GOD’s great love for the world. But here, in John’s Gospel, is the only place in scripture where it says "GOD gave;" everywhere else it says "GOD sent" or "Jesus was sent." What is the difference in "sent" and "gave?" "Send" more clearly associates with GOD’s will for the world, whereas "gave" appears to underscore the incarnation of Jesus is derived from GOD’s love for the world as well as from GOD’s will. GOD "gave His only Son" to all people, including those who are at odds with Jesus and GOD. Even though GOD gives Jesus in love to all people, only believers will accept the gift.