First Mennonite Church
April 19, 2020
Corresponding Love with Love
Text: John 3:1-17
Last Sunday, we celebrated Easter Sunday, which was preceded by Good Friday. Jesus’ death and resurrection are reminders of God’s immense and mysterious love for the world. The words of John three, verse 16, as we see, come in the context of a dialogue between Jesus and a leader of the Jews, Nicodemus. John three, sixteen, is often called “The Gospel in a Nutshell.”
Today, I want us to take a closer look at this well-known verse in the Bible.
As Jesus was discussing with Nicodemus, explaining to him some truths he could only begin to grasp literally, Jesus made reference to what Moses did in the desert. According to Numbers 21, verses four to nine, in the typical Hebrew portrait of God, Yahweh sent poisonous snakes to punish the Israelites. The Israelites had been complaining about food and water shortages, forgetting Yahweh’s more important gift to them—their liberation from hundreds of years of oppression. In some way, maybe, to divert the Israelites’ attention from the superfluous concern about the kind of food they wanted, God turned their attention to a matter of life and death. Scores of people were dying from snake-bites. And the people clamored to God for relief. Yahweh instructed Moses to cast a bronze image of a serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Those who had been bitten should look up to the bronze serpent to be healed and to live. And it is at this point that verse 16 of John three comes in.
We are very familiar with the traditional Bible translations of John three, sixteen: For God so loved the world he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. The immediate meaning we get from the way this verse has been translated emanates from the word “so,” –for God so loved the world . . . . It emphasizes the idea of God’s audacious, unexpected, and sacrificial love for the world that he gave his only Son. That is the truth about God’s love. However, in the Greek, this verse begins with the word Οὕτως—outos, which translates “in the same way.” This word gives continuity to what Jesus had just talked about with Nicodemus. In the same way that Moses raised the bronze serpent to give healing and life to the afflicted and dying Israelite, God loved the world that he gave Jesus to give healing and life to a rebellious world. All sinful and dying men and women who turn to Jesus will have eternal life.
John three, sixteen, is indeed central to our understanding and proclamation of the gospel. It is the gospel in a nutshell, as Luther said. Yet, we must beware of the grave mistake the Israelites did with the bronze serpent. In 2Kings 18, we read about the spiritual reforms King Hezekiah made. He destroyed every image and idol the Israelites had come to worship in their drifting away from the Lord. In the second part of verse four, we read: He (Hezekiah) broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. The Israelites turned the bronze serpent into a god, worshipping it and offering sacrifices to it. They made an idol of something intended to remind them of God’s forgiveness and healing. The bronze serpent was the means by which God showed them his compassion and grace for being rebellious and dying people.
It is easy to take John three, 16 and make it into a superfluous evangelistic formula. It is easy to claim belief in Jesus, which implies an easy way to being saved. Often times, John three, sixteen has been used as the litmus test as to whether a person is saved or not. John three, 16, taken that way, reduces our Christian life and commitment to Christ to a mere affirmation of belief in him. Such a view makes of Christianity a shallow religion and even more so when verse 18 is emphasized: the one who believes is saved and the one who cannot or fails to believe is condemned. We should always remember that verse 17 is between 16 and 18. In verses 17 we read: “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.”
John emphasizes God’s purpose in sending his Son—not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. In John’s gospel, the world is always portrayed as antagonistic towards God. The world hates God and does not know that it is already under God’s judgement. (See, for instance: John 15:18-25; 16:8-10, 20, 33; and 17:9-16). God sent his Son to this God-hating world, so that anyone who turns to Jesus might be saved. It is God’s desire to reconcile the world to himself. As Paul would say, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross [of Jesus] (Col. 1:20). The extent and degree to which God went to show his love was scandalous to the Jews. They could not understand how a crucified Jesus could be the way in which God would show his love and desire to reconcile his people and the world to himself. Indeed, God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but to save it. But for the ones who do not turn to him, it is not that they will be condemned, they are already under God’s judgment. We all were if not for faith in Jesus (John 5:24). The world is dying like the Israelites who were beaten by the fiery serpents, but is refusing to look at the bronze serpent to be healed. The world refuses to accept God’s mercy and grace offered to it in the death of his Son. That is why we need to highlight the love of God towards it. We need to emphasize God’s love, not what will happen if it does not receive the message.
For those who have believed, that is, for us, there is much more than just making an affirmation of having belief in Jesus. The life of Jesus, not only his death, is important also. It is in the life of Jesus where we find the example to live a life that responds to God’s sacrificial love. Micah six, eight says, “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah’s word have properly been called “the summary of the prophets.” But Jesus also summarized the Law and the Prophets with two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39).
It is very interesting that God’s love should be corresponded with love, not belief only. Loving God is the supreme expression of corresponding to his ultimate gift. Loving God, as John would say, is only knowable if loving the brother, sister, and neighbor is also present (1John 4:20-21).
As we give thanks to God for giving us his only Son, let us love the Lord with our whole being. Let us acknowledge the Lord’s goodness in these times of great challenges. Let us remember that loving the Lord is demonstrated in many more ways than gathering for worship and fellowship, which we cannot do these days. Let us display God’s love as we patiently wait in line in the grocery story. Let us be considerate to others by wearing a mask when we interact with those who might be afraid to get sick, even when we know we are not sick. During these days when restlessness is visibly increasing, let us practice self-control. Let us remember Paul’s words to Timothy: God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. (2Tim. 1:17). Let us love the Lord by showing concern for others by checking on them, by visiting with those who are by themselves through a phone call. Let us love the Lord by running an errand for those who cannot go out.
Visible Christian love is the best way we proclaim, John three, sixteen: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Let us live the power of the resurrection of Jesus by reflecting the love of God in our everyday life’s activities and interactions with others. God might use them to point out others to Christ who was raised up on the cross, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Amen!