For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 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. 19 And 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
The focus of this message will be on John 3:19–21. The main point will be that there is a kind of judgment that came into the world when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came into the world, and this judgment reveals that the guilt of not coming to Jesus lies in the heart of man, and the grace of coming to Jesus comes from the heart of God.
Or to put it another way: The coming of Jesus into the world clarifies that unbelief is our fault, and belief is God’s gift. Which means that if we do not come to Christ, but rather perish eternally, we magnify God’s justice. And if we do come to Christ and gain eternal life, we magnify God’s grace.
That’s the conclusion of my study of this passage. And now my job is to help you see for yourselves in the Gospel of John (exposition) so that we can exult over this truth together (exultation). (More on preaching as expository exultation.)
Costly, Beneficial, and Free
Let’s set the stage for verses 19–21 by reviewing verses 16–18. We can summarize what we have seen so far in verses 16–18 in three steps.
1. God loved the world. Verse 16: “God so loved the world.”
2. The act of this love was the giving or sending of the only Son of God into the world to die. Verse 16: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” We know his death is in view because in verse 14, Jesus says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14; cf. 8:28; 12:34).
3. The way this sending of the Son is love is...
a) ...that he’s God’s Son, not a lamb or a bull or a goat. His Son! And so it was costly for God to send him. “God did not spare his own Son” (Romans 8:32).
b) ...because it opens a door of eternal life to those who are condemned under God’s wrath (John 3:36)—and that is everybody.
c) ...because the way to experience this eternal life is simply by believing on the Son, not by working for the Son.
Or, to say it differently: This sending of the Son is love because it was deeply costly for God, infinitely beneficial to us, and absolutely free.
Bridge: A Shift to Legal Language
Now to see the bridge from this to verses 19–21, notice the way verse 18 restates what verse 16 had already said. It’s the different way that verse 18 restates verse 16 that sets up what Jesus wants to say next.
In verse 16, Jesus describes two possible results of God’s sending his Son. Whoever believes on him will have eternal life. But whoever does not believe, Jesus says, will perish. Verse 16: “. . . that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Into the Courtroom
Now look at the way verse 18 describes these two possibilities: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” What’s the difference? The difference is that the result of believing and not believing is not described in terms of our perishing and eternal life, but in terms of being condemned or not condemned.
In other words, verse 18 shifts over to legal language—the language of the courtroom. The language of judgment. A judge says condemned or not condemned. So Jesus has moved from the language of life and death to the language of guilty and not guilty.
This shift in language had already happened in verse 17: “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.” The literal translation would simply be, “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world” (NASB). That’s the language of the courtroom, legal language.
Verse 17 raises the question: If Christ did not come to condemn, why are some condemned? And verse 18 explains that even though some are, in fact, judged and condemned, it is because they are already in that condition when Jesus came. Verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.”
This is important. See the same point in verse 36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The word remains makes the same point in verse 36 that the word already makes in verse 18.
Not a Neutral World
Jesus did not come to a neutral world with the result that some people moved from neutrality to be anti-Jesus, and others moved from neutrality to be pro-Jesus. Nobody was neutral. And nobody is neutral. We have all sinned. We are all guilty. We are all perishing. Therefore, we are all under God’s righteous wrath. And we are already condemned.
Whether we stay that way depends on how we respond to Jesus. He came not to make neutral people into pro-Jesus people, but to make guilty people non-guilty, condemned people not condemned, and to make dead people eternally alive. God does not owe anybody acquittal or life. That Jesus came to offer it, and that some accept it, is all undeserved grace.
Now we are ready for verses 19–21.
“Not to Judge the World”
Jesus knows that there is something troubling about his coming into the world. On the one hand, he says in verse 17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” The word is simply “to judge the world.” Jesus didn’t come to judge. He came to save.
And yet everybody knows that whenever Jesus opens his mouth, or whenever his name is proclaimed, there is a division. Some escape judgment, and others go away into judgment. You may remember that Paul described his own gospel ministry as “a fragrance from death to death . . . [and] a fragrance from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:16). There is the lingering sense that even though Jesus did not come to judge, judgment is happening—not just already happened, but is now happening.
“For Judgment I Came into the World”
Then you go over to John 9:39 and read this: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” “For judgment I came into the world.” And if you were a superficial reader, you would quote John 3:17, “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world,” and John 9:39, “For judgment I came into this world,” and you would say, That’s a contradiction.
But if you read carefully what follows now in verses 19–21, this will not look like a contradiction. You will see that in the very context of verse 17 (which says Jesus did not come to judge), Jesus explains that there is indeed a judgment that came into the world.
So let’s read verses 19–21.
And 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, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
What we have here is a new description of the division that we saw in verses 16 and 18. There the division was described between those who believe and those who don’t believe.
Here in verses 19–21, that same division is described, only this time instead of using the words believe and not believe, he uses the words love and hate and come. Verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” In verses 19–21, that same division is described but the word believe is not used at all.
Digging into Our Souls
Jesus is digging into our souls and explaining why some believe and some don’t. He is describing the kind of judgment that really does happen when light comes into the world. And it turns out that those who are condemned in this judgment are condemned by what they love and hate. And those who are rescued from this judgment are rescued by God’s grace.
Start with verse 19, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world.” That light, of course, is Jesus, the Son of God, who in verse 16 was given to the world, and in verse 17 was sent to the world. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12; 14:6).
Jesus, the Light—Sum of All Truth
I take this to mean that Jesus is the very presence of God himself whom John described in 1 John 1:5 like this: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” And the Word was God. So when the Word became flesh, light came into the world, for God is light. This would mean that Jesus is the sum of truth. “I am the way the truth and the life” (John 14:6). All truth is summed up in Jesus. “In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). If you would know anything truly, you must know it in relation to Jesus. “All things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). So he is the purpose of all things. And the origin of all things. So the meaning of all things is in him.
When he comes, the truth about all things comes. The truth about God. The truth about ourselves. The truth about the way of salvation. The truth about what is good and beautiful. The truth about evil and ugliness. The truth about how we ought to live. All right thinking, and all right feeling, and all right doing is defined and measured by Jesus. That is some of what it means to be the light of the world.
So verse 19 says the coming of Jesus is a kind of judgment. How so? The rest of verses 19–21 describe two kinds of response to the light. The first is negative, verses 19–20:
And 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, lest his works should be exposed.
Five Steps Revealed
There are five steps revealed here in this kind of heart.
1) At the end of verse 19: “Their works are evil.” Verse 20 at the beginning: they “do wicked things.”
2) They do not want their deeds to be exposed. Verse 20 at the end: “. . . lest his works should be exposed.”
3) So they love darkness where there will be no exposure of their sin. Verse 20 in the middle: “. . . and people loved the darkness rather than the light.”
4) And they hated the light because that’s where their sin gets exposed. Verse 20 at the beginning: “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light.”
5) Therefore, they do not come to the light. The middle of verse 20: “. . . and does not come to the light. . .”
Now remember, this is Jesus’ explanation of belief and unbelief. The division into two kinds of people in verses 19–21 is the same division as in verses 16 and 18, namely, the division into those who believe on the Son of God and those who don’t. So what we have just seen is how Jesus understands the inner workings of unbelief. Why do people not believe on Jesus?
Out of Sync with God’s Worth and Beauty
We are all sinners who feel and think and do things that are not in sync with the infinite worth and beauty of God. That’s what evil is. We dishonor him everyday by falling short of loving him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. And it makes us very angry, or very frightened, or both, if this sinfulness begins to get dragged out into the light. It begins to look as horrible as it really is in relation to Jesus. Shame for real corruption is a very painful thing.
Jesus is not saying that no sins happen in public. Many people flaunt their sins in public. But they only do this where the light of Christ is so banished that they can get approval from the people that matter to them. In other words, where darkness abounds publicly, you can sin publicly without coming into the light.
The Guilt Lies in Us
But when Christ, the light of the world, begins to shine on a person’s life, it must either break him and lead him to repentance and faith, or drive him further into the darkness. Because it is simply intolerable when our sinful works and thoughts and feelings are forced out into the light of Christ. Sin is so ugly and so monstrous and so hideous that it must surround itself with darkness. It must live in illusion and deceit. It hates the light and loves the darkness and will not come to the light. This is the inner working of unbelief in Jesus.
It will not come to Jesus. And that, Jesus says in verse 19, is the judgment. This response of loving the darkness and hating the light reveals that the guilt of not coming to Jesus lies in the heart of man. It lies in us. We don’t come because we don’t want to come. There is bondage here, but these are chains forged in the furnace of our own desires—what we love and what we hate.
The Other Side: Belief
Which leaves us now to see what the other side of this judgment is. We just saw what the inner dynamics of unbelief looks like. What about belief? Verse 21: “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
I think this sentence expresses not so much a single act but a principle of ongoing action. I’d bring it out by saying: “Whoever goes on doing what is true (acting in accord with the light) will always come to the light and not run away from it. And the reason he will come is so that it will be clear that this ongoing behavior—his doing what is true—has been the work of God, not himself.”
Only by God’s Power
In other words, the ultimate contrast between the believer and the unbeliever is not that one hates the light and the other loves it. That’s true and vastly important. And the ultimate contrast is not that the unbeliever will not come to Jesus and the believer will come. That’s true and vastly important.
The ultimate contrast is that the believer, the one who loves the light, the one who comes to Jesus, comes by the grace of God. That is, he comes with a profound sense of God-dependent humility that every good thing he does he is able to do only “in God.” And that means only by God’s power. “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Unbelief Is Our Fault; Belief Is God’s Gift
So here’s the main point again: There is a kind of judgment that came into the world when Jesus Christ came into the world. And this judgment reveals that the guilt of not coming to Jesus lies in the heart of man that loves darkness and hates the light. But the grace of coming to Jesus comes from the heart of God.
Or, to put it another way: Unbelief is our fault, and belief is God’s gift. Which means that if we do not come to Christ but instead perish, we magnify God’s justice. And if we do come to Christ and gain eternal life, we magnify God’s grace.
In fact, Jesus says, that is why we come: “that it may be clearly seen that our works have been carried out in God.” Believers love when God’s free grace is clearly seen!
Magnifying His Grace
Do you come to Christ? Is that why you come? It can be. In your heart right now come to the light and say to God as you come: Without your work I would not be coming. I magnify your grace.