One day, during my senior year of high school, I noticed someone in the gym I’d never seen before. He was a juggernaut of a man I assumed to be a trainer, brought in to work with the football team. Turns out, he was brought in to work with the team but as the new quarterback. It was a 16-year-old named Timmy Tebow. Nobody knew him then, but we all know him now! We know him for championships, broken records, Heisman trophies, NFL highlight reels, and bestselling books.
But I think his greatest feat took place on January 8th, 2009, when he led the Gators to a championship victory with “John 3:16” written in silver sharpie on his eye blacks. He later told reporters that he chose John 3:16 because it was “the essence of our Christianity and the essence of our hope.” Astonishingly, 94 million people Googled “John 3:16” during the game and read the good news for themselves: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Luther agreed, hailing John 3:16 as “the Gospel in miniature,” and Spurgeon called it “the North Star of Scripture.” It’s one of the first verses we teach our children at the start of life and one to which we cling at life’s end. We see it everywhere from billboards to bumper-stickered tailgates and tattooed forearms. But frequent handling causes callouses. Perhaps, John 3:16 has become to you like the patinaed engagement ring with a dusty diamond, worn everyday but scarcely looked at. How beneficial then, to shine the gem and remind our forgetful hearts that God gave his Son for us because he loved us.
The God of Love “For God so loved the world…”
This good news wasn’t trumpeted by Jesus during a mountain-top sermon but late one night after Jerusalem’s Passover crowds had ceased, to a pharisee named Nicodemus. To Pharisees, God was chiefly a master who commands, an inspector who scans, a judge who renders a verdict, an executioner who punishes, not a Father who loves. But the love of God and the God of love was first and foremost in the heart of Jesus.
There are four Greek words translated as “love”: philia, the love of friends; storge, the love of family; and eros, the romantic love of a spouse. But here, Jesus chose the greatest, agape love to express God’s divine motivation in the salvation of sinners. The Bible says God’s agape love is: a sovereign love in which, “God predestined us for adoption to himself” before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:5); an unbreakable love which “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can sever (Romans 8:38-39); a great love by which he “made us alive together with” Christ when we were dead in sin and trespasses (Ephesians 2:4); an infinite love whose breadth, length, height and depth surpass all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19); and an unconditional love shown in that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).
There are two tragic mistakes we make regarding God’s love. First, we misprioritize God’s love and see it as one grape in the cluster of his attributes, forgetting that “God is love” (1 John 4:8 & 16). Harry Ironside said, “[Love] is his very nature. We can say that God is gracious, but we cannot say that God is grace. We can say that God is compassionate but we cannot say that God is compassion. God is kind, but God is not kindness. But we can say, God is love.” Can you say that? Or have you exchanged the Bible’s God of love for the cold, grey deity of the pharisee? Yes, we must press on to know God’s eternal power, holiness, and justice but we must remember that it is only by God’s love that he is these things for us! God’s love is the bridge by which he comes to us to rescue us from our sins for himself.
We also misplace the love of God, putting love at the end of the salvation equation as a product; believing that Jesus bled and died for our sins to make God love us. But Christ puts God’s love at the beginning of the equation as the chief factor, saying, “For God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son.” That means the cross of Christ is not the place God started loving his people, but the ultimate sign of his love for them which had been burning in his breast for all eternity. “Love,” wrote Thomas Watson, “made Christ suffer for us, love was the chain that fastened him to the cross.” This love Spurgeon said, “flows from its own secret source in the eternal Deity, and it owes nothing to any earth-born rain or rivulet; it springs from beneath the everlasting throne, and fills itself full from the springs of the infinite. God loved because he would love.” O let us rejoice in the love of God and the God of love.
The Gift of Love “… that he gave his only begotten son…”
On Nov 25th, 1864 amidst the bloodshed of the Civil War, a widow in Boston received a letter. It read, “Dear Madam, I have been shown in the files of the War Dept… that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved & lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully, Abraham Lincoln.”
So too, Scripture speaks of a great war, not of flesh and blood, but between heaven and hell, light and darkness, good and evil; a war which began behind heaven’s veil, where Satan and his legions, blinded by pride and malice, broke out in rebellion against the living God. After being cast down to earth, the Evil One, disguised as a serpent, slithered into Eden and persuaded our first parents to join his coup against their Creator. Their hereditary treason has made revolutionaries of all mankind, leaving us seething in sedition against God, the just penalty of which is death in hell.
Though the Bible could end there, it doesn’t! As we peer through the smoke of the cratered battlefield of redemptive history, we behold God the Father walking his Son up Mt. Calvary, as Abraham walked Isaac up Mt. Moriah, to the cross where he laid his own Son down upon the altar of our freedom. But God’s Son wasn’t conscripted, he was given. And God’s Son didn’t die for strangers but for those whom God foreknew and foreloved from all eternity. And God’s Son didn’t bleed to free them from a slavery of the body only, but from the cold chains of sin and the merciless bondage of Satan. And God’s Son was not an accidental casualty but was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). And Christ was not just one of the Father’s many sons. John tells us God gave his only begotten Son, the one to whom the Father said before time began, “You are my Son today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7); the one who was the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15); the “heir of all things through whom he created the world” and the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Hebrews 1:2-3); the Son in whom “the whole fullness of deity was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 2:9).
Is there anything or anyone on earth for whom you would give up your own child? No. We wouldn’t give the life of our child for the very best person, let alone for the very worst of sinners. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Sinner, have you ever realized how very loved you are? Has it ever truly come home? Have you ever owned John 3:16 believing “For God so loved me that he gave his only son for me.” Well did the hymnist write, “Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry nor could the scroll contain the whole though stretched from sky to sky.”
But the love of God is also a source of deep comfort to you who may be standing beneath a cloud of care. You may be caught again in the snare of the same old sin wondering “will I ever be free?” You may be writhing in financial hardship wondering, “will I ever pay the bills?” You may be suffering the pain of relational strain wondering, “God can fix this?” You may be reeling from a difficult medical diagnosis wondering, “What does tomorrow hold?” But remember Paul’s exhortation to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (Romans 8:32)? Look to the cross! See where your soul’s provision was made; where your deepest need was met; where your sins were paid for at the highest price. Surely, he who gave his Son for you loves you no less today than he did on that dark Friday long ago. Surely, he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of redemption (Philippians 1:6) and is working all things together for your good and his glory, as he promised.
The Gain of Love “…whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)
We recently celebrated my son’s birthday. The night before, my wife and I stayed up inflating balloons and wrapping presents in “John Deere green” paper. The next morning, when he burst through the wall of streamers like a runner breaking the tape, we were waiting for him around the gift-adorned kitchen table. He didn’t waste a second! With a smile so big it made his eyes grin, he hurled himself at the largest present and tore into it. So too, the gift of love given by the God of love is to be received in reckless abandon and joyous faith. Faith is the heart’s open hands releasing any claims of self-righteousness and reaching out to take hold of Jesus for salvation. In Christ alone can we find the double gift of mercy and grace. You see, in mercy, God vents his just wrath on Christ as our substitute and does not give us what our sins deserve saying, “‘whosoever believes in Him shall not perish,’ for Christ perished in your place!” Though mercy is a gospel all by itself, worthy of the endless praises of men and angels, in Christ, God gives more grace saying, “whosever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life!” You see, if mercy is not receiving what is deserved, then grace is receiving that which is undeserved. Not only do we escape the endless anguish of hell, but we also enter into the cloudless bliss of “everlasting life,” that is the abundant, joyful, peaceful life of a soul that reposing in the love of God; an everlasting life accomplished by Christ and applied by His Spirit that begins here and now and disappears over eternity’s horizon.
What keeps you from reaching out and taking hold of Jesus, God’s gift of love, in faith? You say, “I’ve made shipwreck of my life and am guilty of great wickedness.” But God says, “Whosoever believes…”. You say, “I’ve been a hypocrite for so long!” But God says, “Whosoever believes…”. You say, “I know so little about the Word of God.” But God says, “Whosoever believes…”. You say, “My zeal for the kingdom is so small and my love for the lost is so dim.” But God says, “Whosoever believes shall not perish but have everlasting life…”. God gave his Son for you, not because you were worthy but because he loved you. That gospel should make you sing, “Amazing Love! How can it be? That though my God shouldst die for me?”