In today’s world, God is not so much dead as cancelled. He is not to be spoken about. If he does exist, there’s nothing good to say about him: he is grim and uncaring.
How different this is from what the Bible actually says about God. Consider the most well- known words in the Bible: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
They occur in the context of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who had come to see him late at night. Nicodemus was one of the thousands who had been impressed and he wanted to meet Jesus for a personal chat.
Jesus’ rise to stardom had happened very quickly and his popularity was enormous. He said the most amazing things and backed them up with the most extraordinary actions: he healed the sick, raised the dead to life, and overcame the powers of evil. No matter what confronted him, he was always in control. His person and presence had so great an impact that he is also mentioned by other historians of that era – such as Tacitus and Josephus.
God’s love. The Bible tells us that God’s essential nature is love. In Psalm 145:8-9 we read: The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
The theme of the love of God permeates both the Old and New Testaments. What is more, we find that his love is not sparked by something attractive about us. God loves because love is at the very heart of his being.
Now it’s important to note that our English word ‘love’ translates four Greek words (the language in which the New Testament was written). One word is eros, from which we get our word erotic. It’s a word associated with intense emotional feeling. It’s a word that pagan religions have long used in part as a reference to the mystical experience of the supernatural. One form of yoga in Hinduism exploits sexual intercourse as a technique for achieving spiritual enlightenment.
But nowhere does the New Testament use the word eros. It uses a rare word in the original Greek: agape. There are no rapturous, mystical experiences associated with agape. Rather, agape is committed to serve the best interests of the ones who are loved.
Furthermore, John tells us, God so loved the world that he reaches out to all men and women. This is breath-taking. God could have shut humanity down at the moment of their rebellion. We deserved nothing less. But God in his love had a bigger and very costly plan in mind that would benefit a world that rejected him.
God’s gift. He gave us his Son…
John is not saying that God loved world enough to give his Son. Rather, it was out of God’s love for the world that he gave his Son.
These words are amongst the most famous in the Bible. Consider what they say about Jesus. He is ‘the one who came down from heaven, the one and only Son of God’ (John 1:14).
Being from God, the Son personally reveals to us what God is like. As Jesus says later, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). More than ever we need to hear him and respond to him.
But significantly, God didn’t give his Son just to shine his light into a dark and troubled world. God so loved the world that he gave his Son to rescue it. The gift would come to its climax and fulfillment when the Son was crucified.
t was with Jesus’ death that we discover the immeasurable depth of God’s love. For it was through Jesus’ voluntary, sacrificial death that God opened the door once and for all whereby he could forgive men and women who had shown no love for him.
God’s offer. John tells us of the offer that God holds out: Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life is contrasted with perishing. John doesn’t tell us what perishing is but he does tell us that it will be a most unwelcome experience. Elsewhere we learn, mainly through Jesus’ own teaching, that it is a very serious thing to refuse God’s gift. Perishing won’t mean perpetually partying with friends. Everything that is good, beautiful, and true will be lost. T.S. Elliot put it this way, Hell is oneself. Hell is alone…
Life eternal will be a life of perfection and beauty, where there will be no more pain or suffering, self-absorption or injustice. It will be fullness of joy in the glory of the Lord.
God’s beneficiaries. John tells us who will benefit: Whoever believes in the Son… We can’t achieve eternal life by our own efforts or merits. We are totally dependent on God’s generous gift. To turn to Jesus, the Son of God and to trust him, is the key to our benefiting from God’s precious gift.
In our natural state we don’t want to accept God’s offer because we know it would mean a radical lifestyle change. And we don’t want to change. We would rather stay in the dark than move into the light and admit what we are really like.
I’ve wondered how long the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus recorded in John chapter 3, lasted. Nicodemus had arrived late at night. Could it be that as he left there were the first glimmerings of dawn on the horizon? And as he saw the rising sun, did he smile with joy at the dawn of a new day, or did he turn his eyes back upon the darkness of the night?
This is the choice that confronts you and me, and indeed the world.
A prayer. Almighty God, we ask you to look on the heartfelt desires of your servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your power to be our defense against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.