by Grover Gunn, pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Tennessee
To us, John 3:16 is one of the most familiar statements found anywhere in the Bible. When Nicodemus, however, first heard those words spoken by Jesus, they were anything but familiar to him. To Nicodemus, those words were shocking and disturbing.
In John chapter 3, Jesus first spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth. That was hard enough for Nicodemus to understand and accept. Nicodemus asked Jesus, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" After explaining the new birth, Jesus told Nicodemus that He had other things to share with Nicodemus which Nicodemus would find even more difficult to understand and accept. Look at verse 12:
12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
The new birth was one of the relatively easy to understand earthly things. Jesus began talking about the more difficult to accept heavenly things in verse 13, the very next verse after verse 12. In John 3:16 and 17, we read about the heavenly plan of God the Father to send God the Son into this world on a mission of mercy. There we read about the love of God for the world and the decision of God the Father to send God the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save the world.
These are the heavenly things which Jesus said that Nicodemus would have even more trouble accepting and believing.
There was a reason for this difficulty. The common belief in Israel at that time was that the Messiah would come to judge the evil Gentile nations of the world. Jesus here contradicted that common Jewish belief by clearly stating that God's love is not exclusively for Israel. That was not what Nicodemus had expected to hear or wanted to hear. As a man of his time and a creature of his culture, Nicodemus no doubt thought that Jesus would talk about God's special love for Israel. Instead Jesus said, "For God so loved the world ..."
Today we are going to examine this heavenly love for a fallen world that is expressed in the words of John 3:16. We will examine this heavenly love under four points: its final outcome, its infinite provision, its free offer and its infallible power. First, we will look at the final outcome of John 3:16. Some people want to know in what sense God loves the whole world if God does not plan to save everyone who has ever lived. I think the best way to answer that question is to consider the ultimate fulfillment of John 3:16. This ultimate fulfillment, this final outcome, involves the new earth which we read about in Revelation chapter 21. When Jesus returns to this earth bodily, an event which we call the second coming, Jesus will purge the earth with fire and remove all vestiges of the curse. There will be no more sickness, no more sorrow, no more death; no more earthquakes, no more tsunamis and floods, no more famines, no more thorns and thistles. The whole cosmos will be raised to a new level of glorified existence. The people of God will be resurrected and glorified, and will inhabit the new earth for eternity. That will be the ultimate, final and perfect fulfillment of God's plan to save the world. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That is indeed what Jesus is doing, and He will complete that work perfectly at His second coming.
2 Peter 3:13
13 ... we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
21 ... the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
1 Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. ... You say, “For God so loved the world” has a universal ring to it. Well, yes, it does. And the universal ring of John 3:16 points ultimately to the cosmic redemption which will occur at the second coming. At that time, the whole world system, the entire cosmos, will be delivered from sin, death and the curse. The "world" referred to in John 3:16 is in this final fulfillment the world in this most universal sense.
But let's go back to the earlier stages of God's plan for the world and examine our second point, which is the infinite provision. I am referring to God's infinite provision for the implementation and fulfillment of John 3:16. This infinite provision is the immeasurable merit, the infinite worth, the incalculable value of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. God sent His Son into the world and delivered Him up to the shameful and painful death of the cross. There the Son of God accomplished an atoning work of infinite worth. God poured out upon His Son His righteous wrath against sin. The Son had committed no sin, but He had entered into a covenant union with His people, and His people were sinners. The Son had accepted responsibility for their sins, and so God the Father poured out upon His Son His wrath against sin. The Son experienced that wrath through His human nature, and He cried out, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken Me?” Through His human nature, the Son experienced this human suffering and punishment, and His divine nature gave that painful human experience an infinite worth beyond measure.
If God's plan had been to save only one fallen individual, that same atoning work would have been necessary. A single sin is an affront to the infinite majesty of Almighty God and thus is an infinite offense. Apart from the saving work of Christ, a sinner could suffer God's just punishment against his sin for an eternity and yet never finish the payment, for the debt due is an infinite debt. Thus if Christ had suffered as the atoning sacrifice for only one sinner, the same atoning work of infinite worth would have been necessary.
Yet, on the other hand, if God's purpose had been to save every individual who ever lived not only on this earth but on ten thousand earths besides, the saving efficacy of the atonement would have been more than adequate. The infinite atoning work of Christ is necessary for the salvation of one and yet also sufficient in merit for the salvation of all ten thousand times over.
The worth of the atonement is like the virtually infinite supply of heat and light provided by the sun. If a farmer planted only one plant, that plant would need the heat and light provided by the sun. But if the farmer planted millions upon millions of plants, he would never exhaust the heat and light provided by the sun. And so it is with the worth of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Here is what Charles Spurgeon once said about the infinite worth of the atonement:
In Christ’s finished work I see an ocean of merit; my plummet finds no bottom, my eye discovers no shore.
There must be sufficient efficacy in the blood of Christ, if God had so willed it, to have saved not only all this world, but ten thousand worlds, had they transgressed the Maker’s law.
Here again we see a universal aspect of John 3:16. God provided through Jesus an atoning work with sufficient merit or worth to save not only this world but ten thousand worlds besides.
The first point is the final outcome; the second point, the infinite provision, and the third point is the free offer. As an expression of God’s love for the world, God first provided this atoning work of infinite worth and then God commanded that the saving merit of this atoning work be offered to all. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life. In my third point, I want to emphasize that little word “whoever” and its implications.
God tells the church, “Preach the gospel to every creature.” God says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” God sends forth this gospel command and promise with serious and genuine sincerity. Whenever God sends forth a command, there is a sense in which God sincerely desires obedience to that command. Whenever God sends forth a command and His creatures disobey it, there is a sense in which God sincerely grieves at this tragic choice which leads unto death. Perhaps the clearest expression of this is found in those words of God recorded in Ezekiel 33:11:
11 Say to them: 'As I live,' says the Lord GOD, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?'
This verse says that in some sense, God's pleasure is that the wicked turn and life. And there is the lament of Jesus over unbelieving Jerusalem:
37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
This says that Jesus in some sense wanted to gather those who were not willing. Notice also what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20
20 Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God.
When we plead with people to obey the life-giving gospel command, we are, on a creaturely level, thinking God’s thoughts after Him and feeling God's feelings after Him. When we plead with people to obey the life-giving gospel command, we are reflecting God's sincere desire for that gospel obedience which is in people's own self-interest.
Here again we see a universal aspect to John 3:16 in the free offer of the gospel. God commands for the gospel to be preached to all, and God sincerely desires all to respond to the gospel in the obedience of faith.
Yet there is a divine love deeper than the universal love expressed in God's commands, a love that goes beyond benevolent affection to efficacious action. This deeper yet more narrowly directed love is rooted in God's plan to save a people to the glory of His merciful grace. The gospel command goes out to all, but the promised salvation belongs only to those who believe:
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
The atonement is of infinite worth, but God’s purpose or intention in the application of the atonement is limited in its extent. God's purpose is not to save everyone but only those who believe. And that brings us to our fourth point, which is the infallible power of God's electing love. The first point is the final outcome; the second point, the infinite provision; the third point, the free offer; and the fourth point, the infallible power. By the infallible power, I am referring to God's sovereign grace which cannot fail, God's sovereign grace which will save every single person God intended to save for the glory of His grace. If you have obeyed the gospel command in saving faith, the reason is not that you were better or wiser than others who have rejected Jesus. The reason you believed when others did not is that God first gave you the ability and desire to believe through the miracle of the new birth. As I said previously, Jesus told Nicodemus about the new birth earlier in John chapter 3:
3 ... “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
5 ... “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” A person is first born again, and then he sees and enters the kingdom of God through faith. The new birth and the act of saving faith may happen at the same moment, but the new birth precedes the act of faith logically. A baby must first be born before he can cry. The gift of life always precedes the activity of life. The new birth logically precedes that first act of new spiritual life, which is saving faith.
God does not give this infallibly powerful sovereign grace to everyone. John 3:16 implies that there are those who do not believe and who will perish in their sins. Yet there is a universal aspect even in sovereign grace because those whom God has chosen to save are from every nation of the world. In Revelation 5:9, we read about the new song which the 24 elders sing to the Lamb of God in heaven. They sing, ...
“You are worthy ... ; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, ...”
There is a universal element even in sovereign grace because God has chosen His elect from every nation, tribe and tongue of the world.
This is the plan of God: He sent the Son to provide an atonement of infinite worth. He sincerely offers this atonement to all as a payment for sin. He enables a multitude beyond numbering from all the nations of the world to receive this offered salvation through faith to the praise of the glory of His grace. He will complete this salvation at the second coming when Jesus will resurrect the bodies of the redeemed and will remove the curse from creation. That is what is behind those words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.”
Let me close by exhorting you to respond to John 3:16 by looking to Jesus alone to save you, by looking to Jesus alone to make you right with God, by looking to Jesus alone to forgive your sins as a legal debt, by looking to Jesus alone to deliver you from your sin as a way of life. To hear the message of Jesus and then to refuse to look to Jesus in faith is the most foolish decision a person can possibly make. When anyone rejects the gospel in unbelief, that person and not God is fully to blame for that foolish decision. In fact, God sincerely grieves when anyone rejects the gospel in unbelief. God is not responsible for our unbelief. Yet when we hear the gospel and we do look to Jesus in faith, then all the credit for that right decision does belong to God. God sent Jesus to die for us. God sent the gospel message for us to hear. God sent the Holy Spirit to convince us of our sin and misery, to enlighten our minds in the knowledge of Christ, to renew our wills and to persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus as He is freely offered in the gospel. It is our responsibility to look to Jesus in faith for salvation, but God deserves all the credit when we fulfill that responsibility. Look to Jesus alone in faith for salvation and then praise God for enabling you to do so.
For God So Loved the World
by Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 3rd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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