And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Many people are new to Bethlehem. Some simply stop by to see what’s going on. Some have little or no experience with what we mean by preaching. I think it will help you listen to this message (and others) if I say a word about preaching.
What we mean by preaching is expository exultation.
Preaching as Expository Exultation
Expository means that preaching aims to exposit, or explain and apply, the meaning of the Bible. Every sermon explains and applies the Bible. The reason for this is that the Bible is God’s word, inspired, infallible, profitable — all sixty-six books of it. The preacher’s job is to minimize his own opinions and deliver the truth of God. Therefore, it is mainly Bible exposition — explanation and application.
“Preaching does not come after worship in the order of the service. Preaching is worship.”
And the preacher’s job is to do that in a way that enables us to see that the points he is making actually come from the Bible. If they come from the Bible and you can’t see that they come from the Bible, your faith will rest on man and not God.
The aim of this exposition is to help you eat and digest some biblical truth that will make your spiritual bones more like steel, and double the capacity of your spiritual lungs, and make the eyes of your heart dazzled with God’s greatness, and awaken the capability of your soul for kinds of spiritual enjoyment you didn’t even know existed.
Preaching is also exultation — expository exultation. This means that the preacher does not just explain what’s in the Bible, and the people do not simply understand what he explains, but the preacher and the people exult over what is in the Bible as it is being explained and applied.
Preaching as Worship
Preaching does not come after worship in the order of the service. Preaching is worship. My job is not done if I only see truth and show it to you. The devil could do that — for his own devious reasons. My job is to see the glory of the truth and to savor it and exult over it as I explain it to you and apply it for you. That’s one of the differences between a lecture and a sermon.
Preaching is not the totality of the church. And if all you have is preaching, you don’t have the church. A church is a body of people who minister to each other. Part of what preaching does is equip us for that. God has created the church, so that she flourishes through preaching. That’s why Paul gave young pastor Timothy one of the most serious, exalted charges in all the Bible in 2 Timothy 4:1–2: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.”
If you are used to a twenty-minute, immediately practical, relaxed talk, the understanding of preaching that I just described doesn’t lead there. I won’t preach twenty minutes but twice that long; I do not aim to be immediately practical but eternally helpful; and the condition of my soul is not relaxed but standing vigilantly on the precipice of eternity speaking to people any of whom this week could go over the edge.
How God Loves the World
The question before us today is how God loves the world according to John 3:16. Jesus says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is so important that we let the Bible define what it means by love in any given passage. We should not bring all our assumptions about love and make the Bible mean what we think love must be.
“We can say to every human being, ‘God loves you. And this is how he loves you: He gave his Son to die for you.’”
From this verse, a few great things seem obvious.
God loves the world — that is, he loves the great totality of fallen, sinful human beings.
This love is of such a kind and such an intensity and such a magnitude that it moved God to give his Son to die for the world (John 10:17–18).
One incontestably clear purpose and effect of that love, and that giving of the Son, is that “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, this love opens a real door so that anyone who believes on the Son will enter eternal life.
Therefore, this love is indiscriminate. It may be spoken to and promised to and applied to everyone without exception. Because what this love says is, “If you will believe in my Son, I will give you eternal life. I can do this justly because my Son has cancelled the debts of all who believe. If you believe, your sins are cancelled. My love for you is this: I gave my Son so that trusting him is the only condition for living with me forever.”
To Every Human Being: “God Loves You”
We may, therefore, say to every human being, “God loves you. And this is how he loves you: He gave his Son to die, so that if you would believe, your sins would be forgiven and you would have eternal life.”
That is what the love of God means and promises and does in John 3:16. And that’s why this verse has been so amazingly blessed of God over the centuries in bringing people to Christ and to salvation. It expresses what we love to call the free offer of the gospel. There are no limits to this offer: It goes out to all people of every ethnic group and every age and every socio-economic category and, best of all, to every degree of sinner — from the bad to the worst. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever” — indiscriminate and universal — “believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
So what’s controversial about that? Nothing. Unless you try to make this expression of the love of God cancel out another expression of the love God — which is what many people do with this verse. This is a great sadness and robs the church of one of her great treasures.
Three Other Biblical Expressions of God’s Love
Let me describe for you three other expressions or forms or kinds of the love of God in the Bible — two of which no one tries to cancel out by using John 3:16, but one of which many people try to cancel by using John 3:16. My goal here is that we might see and believe all four kinds of divine love, and that we will experience and benefit from all of them personally the way the Bible means for us to. All of them have their place. All of them are meant to bless us and help us and strengthen us and free us to lay our lives down for others.
Just a reminder that Don Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is very helpful in sorting all this out. It is biblical, readable, and compelling.
1. God’s Love for His Son
First, there is God’s love for his Son and the Son’s love for the Father. John 3:35: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.” In John 14:31, Jesus says, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.”
God’s love for the other members of the Trinity is different from his love for us because there is no sin to be overcome. If God loves us, he loves us in spite of our sin. God the Father does not love the Son in spite of anything. Everything about the Son is infinitely worthy of love.
2. God’s Love for His Creation
Second, God loves his creation and sustains it with his care, even for the use of his enemies. For example, “The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalms 145:9). Or in Matthew 5:44–45 Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” So God’s love moves him to provide rain and sunshine where it is not deserved. Jesus calls it an example of love for his enemies, and an example of how we should love our enemies.
Nobody uses John 3:16 to undermine these two kinds of divine love. So we know three ways that God loves: (1) He loves his infinitely love-worthy Son. (2) He loves his creation and sustains it even for the benefit of his enemies. (3) He loves the world by sending his Son and opening the door of eternal life to anyone who believes on him.
3. God’s Love for His Chosen, Covenant People
But the most precious experience of the love of God has not yet been described. This is the love of God that moves him to go beyond the free offer of the gospel and choose a people for himself, bring them to himself in faith, and make with them personal everlasting covenant. To know yourself loved this way is the greatest experience of all.
You could call this God’s electing love, or God’s regenerating love, or God’s covenant love. With this love, God does more than offer. He overcomes rebellion and resistance so that these loved ones receive the offer.
Let me try to show it to you in several ways.
“God’s quickening love made you alive. That’s why you were able to believe.”
God’s Choosing of Israel
First, look at this kind of love in God’s election of the people of Israel.
Deuteronomy 10:14–15: “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.”
The point here is that God did not just offer to be Israel’s covenant God; he chose Israel. He took them from all the people. He didn’t negotiate. He freely and sovereignly and unconditionally chose Israel.
The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you. (Deuteronomy 7:6–8) This does not mean that they all have eternal life. But it does mean that God put them in a special covenant relation to himself. They did not choose him. He chose them. And he calls this love. It is a love that goes beyond an offer.
God’s Gift of New Birth
We see this kind of love in God’s raising us from spiritual death and causing us to be born again.
Here in John 3:8, Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” In other words, being born again happens to us at the Spirit’s will. We don’t control the wind, and we don’t control the Spirit. He comes and goes with his regenerating power as he pleases.
This is called love — great love — in Ephesians 2:4–5: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (see also “great mercy” in 1 Peter 1:3). This is “great love” that goes way beyond offering to spiritually dead people that if they will believe, they will be saved. This love conquers our deadness. It gives new life, and brings us to faith, and unites us to Christ — all in one sovereign instant.
Let me read it again: “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” God’s quickening love made you alive. That’s why you were able to believe (see also John 10:16; 11:52).
Jesus’s Love for His Sheep
You can see this love going beyond John 3:16 in the way Jesus talks about his sheep in rest of the Gospel of John.
In the rest of the Gospel of John, the relationship between being a sheep of Christ and believing on Christ is not that we believe in order to become sheep, but that God makes sheep in order that we may believe. This is clear in John 10:25–26. Jesus says, “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” So we don’t first believe in order to be a part of Jesus’ flock; God makes us part of Jesus’ flock in order that we may believe.
“We need all the help we can get now to know the greatness of God’s covenant love for his sheep.”
This means that when Jesus says in John 10:11, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” we know this is a greater love than John 3:16. He lays down his life for the sheep means that he dies not just to offer the sheep eternal life but to make absolutely certain that his sheep will believe on him and follow him and have eternal life. In John 10:16, Jesus looks beyond the present fold of believers and says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also.” And John 11:51–52 says he died to gather them. He died in order to bring his chosen sheep to faith.
John 10:27–28: “My sheep hear my voice [that’s how you can tell they are sheep] and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Why do they come? They come because the Father has chosen them and gives to Jesus. John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” They come because God draws them. John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” John 6:65: “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Why doesn’t everybody believe the good news of John 3:16, “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life”? Why don’t people come? Jesus answers in John 3:19–20, “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light.”
A Love Greater Than John 3:16
The more amazing question is: Why do any of us come? Why do any of us receive Christ as the supreme Treasure of our lives? And the answer is: There is a greater love than the love of John 3:16. The love of John 3:16 is an amazing gift of Christ to the world so that the free offer to eternal life goes out to everyone: Believe and you will be saved. Believe and your sins will be forgiven, God’s wrath will be removed, you will have eternal joy with him. If you believe.
But there is another love of God. It goes beyond offering eternal life and actually creates it in your heart. If you only know the love of John 3:16, there is more love for you to know and enjoy and admire and be amazed at and be thankful for and be strengthened by.
Those of you who believe on Christ, God wants you to know yourself loved, not only with universal love of John 3:16, but also with his death-conquering, hardness-removing, rebellion-eradicating, sight-imparting, faith-creating, personal, individual, invincible covenant love of which we are absolutely undeserving. He inspired the Gospel of John and I have preached this message so that you would know more fully and experience more deeply how you are loved.
Invincible, Never-Ending, Covenant Love
My father, who was a great evangelist who led more people to Christ than I ever will, used to quote D. L. Moody like this: Written on the outside of the gate of heaven are the words, “Whosoever will may come.” And on the other side of that gate, which you can read from the inside, is written: “Chosen before the foundation of the world.”
And I would only add: Yes, and the Gospel of John is meant to be read before you walk through the gate. Life is hard. We need all the help we can get now to know the greatness of God’s covenant love for his sheep. Come to Christ and discover that you are loved with invincible, never-ending, covenant love.