Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Greatest Love Possible (John 3:16)

The Very Rev. Dr. Curtis I. Crenshaw


During this time of year when we prepare our hearts for the Advent of the King, it is appropriate to reflect upon John 3:16, where we learn about the love that was demonstrated to us in His first Advent.

God = The greatest Lover
So loved = The greatest degree
The world = The hardest to love
That He gave = The greatest act
His only Begotten Son = The greatest gift
That whoever = The greatest opportunity
Believes = The greatest simplicity
In Him = The greatest attraction
Should not perish = The greatest promise
But have = The greatest certainty
Everlasting life = The greatest possession

It seems every Christian has a favorite Bible verse. With John Wesley it was Zechariah 3:2: “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” David Livingston preferred the last words of Christ to His disciples, recorded in Matthew 28:20: “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace” and was a former slave trader, reveled in Romans 5:20: “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” Luther loved Romans 1:17: “The just shall live by faith.” I’m not in the league of these men, but mine is Romans 3:26: “That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” But John 3:16 has to be the all time favorite verse of the Church down through the centuries. Its richness cannot be exhausted.

In the Greek text there are three clauses in the verse: (1) the main clause (God so loved the world); (2) the result clause (that He gave His only Son); and (3) the purpose clause (in order that whoever believes in Him may not perish but have everlasting life).

I. The Love of God

It was not necessary for God to send His Son, for He could have let us perish as He did the angels who fell with Satan. He did not owe us love. In the first portion of the verse, we will focus on three words. First, “so” is an adverb that indicates the manner of His love, not the intensity, though His love was infinitely intense. Second, “Loved” is not just an emotion but a doing, as the rest of the verse clearly states. Love is action. Third, “World” is here not a quantitative term that indicates how many He loved. Rather, it is a qualitative term, revealing the kind of people God loves: those who love darkness rather than light, as the next verses state. In other words, His love extends to sinful ones, like you and me (see vv 18-21). We don’t exalt God’s love by saying the infinite God loved a finite number of people. We exalt His love by acknowledging that the Most Holy Creator stoops to love His rebellious creatures. His love is exalted by the kind of person He loves, as seen in the following passages:

And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:19-20).

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-7).

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

“For the object of His love is not the world in its first condition when He pronounced it “very good,” but the world ruined by sin and condemned for apostasy. . . . Yet without any change in His claims or character He loved us. And this love is not a mere relenting which might lead to a respite, or simple regret which might end in a sigh. There is no merit in loving what is lovely. There is nothing about man but his misery to attract the Divine attachment. Man’s sin is not his misfortune, but his fault. And the marvel is there is nothing God hates so much as sin, and yet no one He loved so much as the [elect] sinner.” (Biblical Illustrator)

Therefore, the grandest thought we can have is expressed in the words of the simple song many of us learned as children:

Jesus us loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.

Moreover, this love of God is infinite, for He is infinite. That means it will never end, that its depth cannot be plumbed, that nothing can stop it, that it conquers all:

. . . that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love,, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height —to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17-19).

God’s infinite love is demonstrated in the account of the martyrs of Ecuador. In 1955, Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, and three other missionaries who had previously made inroads with the Huaorani tribe were massacred. Yet the murderous hearts of the Indians were transformed as Nate’s sister Rachel and Jim’s wife Elisabeth not only forgave them but went to live among them to share the Gospel. Love is the most powerful force there is.

God’s love is giving, continually giving to us all that we need. As a giving love, that in turn means it is unchangeable.

For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob (Malachi 3:6).

The Old Testament book of Hosea presents God’s unchanging love for Israel. God commanded Hosea to marry a former prostitute to illustrate His love for Israel, and when she fell back into her sin, God commanded Hosea to go get her and clean her up again! God wants us to recognize that we are the undeserving prostitute upon whom He showers His love.

II. Result of His Love (He Gave)

There is virtually no mention of the love of God in the New Testament without the Cross being in the context. The Cross is the greatest demonstration of God’s love, and it provides the pattern for human love as well:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph 5:25).

Further, observe that we are not the reason for God’s love. We cannot be, for we are too sinful. Not even Christ is the reason for God’s love, for Christ is the manifestation of God’s love, not that the Son won God’s love for us. It was because God loved us that He gave His only Son! The Father and the Son loved us! Indeed, the whole life of Christ is a manifestation of the love and mercy of God, for Christ never turned anyone away who asked for mercy.

When we consider that God gave His Son, we must not think that the Father made the Son do something He did not want to do. We are told, in fact, that He “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). He always delights to do the Father’s will, so He came willingly.

“His only Son” means not only that Jesus Christ was unique, the one and only, but also that He was the one who was begotten from all eternity so that we can say He was always the Son just as the Father was always the Father. “Only begotten” is one word in Greek, and does not mean begotten in the sense of beginning. Thus the Nicene Creed says that the Son was “begotten not made.” He is one of a kind, the only Son of the Father, and the best He had to give. The incarnation is the greatest mystery in the Bible because in it we find God Almighty in the Son adding to Himself humanity forever. As man He could not raise Himself from the dead, and as God He could not die. But as God-man, He died, shed His blood for us, and raised Himself from the dead.

Right after my daughter had her first child, a son, she said to me on the phone: “Daddy, for the first time I’m beginning to understand God’s love in giving us His Son. I’ve only had my son less than an hour, and I cannot imagine giving Him up for others, especially for those who might hate him.”

Once I was talking to a couple who were having trouble in their marriage, and the wife kept saying that her husband did not love her. He kept saying he did, and he listed all the things he had done for her: nice house, expensive cars, beautiful clothes, and so forth, to which she responded: “You’ve given me everything but yourself.” God gave Himself. That is the result, the manifestation of God’s love.

How do we know that God loves us? He gave Himself to us and for us in the person of His Son. It is not just all the marvels of creation, the food, shelter and so many things that demonstrate His love, but God gave HIMSELF!

We are also to reflect God’s love to others, even to those who hate us, who use us, yes, even to the spouse who wearies us with his/her sins, to the boss who takes advantage of us, and to the person in traffic who cuts us off.

III. Purpose of His Love (everyone who believes)

Believing seems so simple that the world rebels against it. One person stated to me that he could not conceive of a God who would allow someone to cause a lifetime of misery to others only to escape at the last minute by “just” believing in Jesus. My reply was that he underestimated the value of the gift, for no one gets away with anything: the Son took the punishment. And believing is not so simple as just saying the words “I believe in Jesus,” but it is a total commitment to Christ to love and serve Him to death.

But on the other hand, it is simple in one sense. He is there and available for His people:
It is said that some years ago a vessel sailing on the northern coast of the South American continent, was observed to make signals of distress. When hailed by another vessel, they reported themselves as “Dying for water!” “Dip it up then,” was the response, “you are in the mouth of the Amazon river.” There was fresh water all around them, they had nothing to do but to dip it up, and yet they were dying of thirst, because they thought themselves to be surrounded by the salt sea. How often are men ignorant of their mercies? How sad that they should perish for lack of knowledge! Jesus is near the seeker even when he is tossed upon oceans of doubt. The sinner has but to stoop down and drink and live. (Spurgeon)
But belief is also something that holds on to the mercy of God:

When a shipwrecked sailor, left to the mercy of the waves, has no help within reach or view but a spar or mast, how will he cling to it, how firmly he will clasp it — he will hold it as life itself. If a passing billow sweeps him from it, with all his might he will make for it again, and grasp it faster than ever. To part is to perish; and so he clings — and how anxiously! So the awakened sinner feels. The ocean of wrath surrounds him; its billows and its waves go over him. Hell yawns beneath to engulf him. The vessel is an utter wreck. All its floating timbers are very rottenness. Oh, how he strains his eye searching for a mast, a plank, a spar! His eye rests on the only hope, the only rock in the wide ocean of wrath, the Rock of Ages, the Lord Jesus. He makes for the Savior — he clasps Him. He cleaves to Him. Every terror of sin and of unworthiness that strives to loosen his hold only makes him grasp with more terrible and death-like tenacity, for he knows that to part company is to perish. (Biblical Illustrator).

There are two sides to the one coin: “may not perish but have eternal life.” There is the negative (not perish) and the positive (have life with God). This is the free gift!

Perishing is possible. We don’t like to think about hell, but the Lord Jesus talked more about hell than all the rest of the Bible combined. We could wish hell were not true, but we must not apologize for God’s truth. Every fiber of my being could wish it were not true, but every fiber of my being tells me it is true if God has righteousness — and He does have righteousness. We must be warned to “flee from the wrath to come,” as John the Baptist put it.

Jesus said:

And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matthew 25:46).

Paul stated:

. . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).

The Apostle John proclaimed:

And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name (Revelation 14:11).
And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).

No one is annihilated, but they go on forever in full consciousness. What makes hell so awful is being in the immediate presence of the infinitely holy God devoid of all righteousness and without any grace at all. Yet we read:

“Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).

The final words of this verse, “but have eternal life,” may be the most comforting because they mean that we have it right now! That is the gift! Our life with God in heaven begins right now. John does not say one day we’ll have eternal life, but HAVE (present tense in Greek) the life now. And isn’t that what John’s epistle states: “HE WHO HAS THE SON HAS LIFE, but he who does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:12).? Because we have life now is one reason I’ve said in the past that death for the Christian is a change of geography, but not much else. We go from enjoying eternal life now in a sinful state to enjoying it in a perfect state, which means we’ll be able to have the full enjoyment of God! Right now our sins hinder us from enjoying our relationship with God.


In John 3:16, we have a view into the heart of God: He delights in mercy, not in wrath. There are no second-class citizens of God’s kingdom, the Church, for we are all loved by God, and every one of us has been given the Son for our surety, our inheritance. Thus whatever the Son has, we have.

He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Rom 8:32).

What are our needs that Christ supplies? (1) We need to know about God, and Jesus is the perfect revelation of the Father (John 14:9). If you want to know what God is like, read about Jesus in the Gospels. (2) We need a savior from our sins, and Jesus is the perfect savior, not only taking our punishment in our place but also delivering us from sin’s power so as to enable us to overcome the enslaving power of sin. (3) We need to have victory over our greatest enemy, death. We don’t like to think about death, but we will all die. Christ also died, and His resurrection is our resurrection!

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Heb 2:14-15).

Thank God for giving His Son for us and to us, God’s greatest gift, Himself. He who has the Son has life, and he who does not have the Son does not have God’s life. Amen.