There’s no doubt that we can spend our whole lives wrestling with what a godly life is like. That’s what discipleship is about—how to live the best life in the knowledge that God loves us. Or put another way, how do we appropriately respond to God’s unconditional love? But sometimes, it’s good to just take a moment and appreciate the simple, simple fact that God loves you. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just that God loves you. Of course we can explore what that loves means, and we most certainly do, but at the end of the day, God loves you and nothing, 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus. We can get so bogged down in the details that we forget the big picture. We miss the forest for the trees. And the danger in that, of course, is that we easily forget that God’s love isn’t something we earn, isn’t something we gain, isn’t something that we achieve on our own. No—God’s love is a pure, unadulterated gift to us. Sometimes it does us well to just hear that in pure, unadulterated language. God loves you and nothing will ever take that away from you. As we go on today, remember that simple, simple truth and try not to let the rest of everything clutter up your conscience.
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Aside from Psalm 23, that verse is probably the most iconic, most well-known verse of the whole Bible. People even know it by its citation, John 3:16, and that alone requires little more exposition or explanation when people use it. Not only is well-known within the church, but people who aren’t regular churchgoers or even people who don’t subscribe to the Christian way of life know the citation and what it refers to. Before I was ordained, a longtime pastor who’d retired told me that his advice to me, regardless of the assigned text for the Sunday of my call vote, was for me to preach on John 3:16. The reason for that’s simple—it’s sums up the gospel, or the good news in other words. John 3:16 really distills the gospel to its essence, without needing a lot of deep diving to understand it. God loves the world and Jesus is how we know that’s true. Whoever recognizes that lives life to its fullest, just as God intends. It’s the gospel in a nutshell, if you will, and at face value there’s not a lot more that can be said about it.
But of course, we’re going to take a little time today to say, perhaps not a lot more, but a bit more.
The Bible contains within it the revelation of everything we need to know for salvation. Now—we could talk about what revelation means in this case. We could talk about what knowing something in this case means. We could also talk about what salvation means. But at the end of the day, Christians believe that through the Bible, the Scriptures, God reveals everything we need to know for salvation. The Bible is divided into two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. That’s a total of 66 books, which are further divided into 1189 chapters, and those chapters are further divided into 31,173 verses. There’s a lot going on in the Bible, but there are parts within the Bible that help us understand the other, more difficult parts. John 3:16 is one of those places that helps us understand the other places that might pose us difficulty—not that there’s anything wrong with difficulty when encountering Scripture. Good Christians should and do wrestle with Scripture, the entirety of it, if we are truly faithful to abiding in God’s Word, as Christ has commanded us. But as I said, there are parts of the Bible that help us understand other parts more easily.
John 3:16 is one of those parts. Like I said, John 3:16 is the gospel, or the good news, in a nutshell. And like any nut, the center is full of meat. John 3:16 is the meat of the gospel—what nourishes us. When we look at the verse, we see several things. Who is this verse about? God. What does God do? God loves. What, or whom rather, does God love? God loves the world.
What’s critical for us to understand here, although often the world is set as opposed to God and something that we don’t want to get too caught up in so that we neglect our relationship with God, when we say that God loves the world, on one hand we’re saying that the world is beloved by God. God does love the world. The world is not to be hated or despised. It’s precisely because God loves the world that God wants to draw the world back into good relationship with him. We often think hate is the opposite of love, but that’s not it at all. It’s apathy, or not caring. If God didn’t care, God would let the world to its own devices. But God not only cares about the world; God loves the world. That’s important for us to understand. The next thing we need to understand is that when we speak of the world, we’re also speaking of ourselves. By saying that God loves the world, we’re saying that God love us—that God loves you. That’s also important for us, for you, to understand. God doesn’t just love the world as some abstract idea, but God loves you. God is both a universal and a personal God. God has a relationship with you and with everyone in the world. God loves us, and God loves you—a critical part of “us.”
And so, how does God show his love? He sent us his Son. Again, we can spend a huge amount of time on what “Son” means here, but it’s sufficient to say that God shows his love by coming into our lives and living with us. He loves us so much that he joined us in real relationship in a way that is easy for us to get—a relationship with another human being.
And so that naturally leads us to ask ourselves how we are to respond to this. We’re told that in this verse as well. We believe in him—that is, Jesus, God’s Son sent to us. Again, we can spend a lifetime pondering and discussing what it means to believe in Jesus, but what isn’t unclear is that to believe in him means to recognize that we have a good relationship with God because of him. At its most fundamental level, that’s what believing in Jesus, having faith in Jesus means—to recognize our relationship with God is good, not on our own account, but on account of what God has done for us in, with, through, and by Jesus. And that recognition, that belief, that faith brings us to the end of this verse, where we hear that this is all so that we don’t perish, but have eternal life.
Some think of eternal life as a reward, but that reduces the gift that God has given us in Jesus to something far too small. Eternal life is life without limits, life as God first envisioned. It’s not a reward as much as it’s a return—return to God’s plan. A return to life at one with God, at one with other people, at one with everything that God has made, and at one with ourselves. Understanding the gift of relationship with God as the gateway to life without limits means not seeing eternal life as just “heaven,” or merely a get-out-hell-free card or a ticket out of the grave. Understanding that relationship with God means life without limits frees us to embrace heaven now, but what’s more, what’s more important is it frees us from worrying that whatever happens to us, no matter how bad it might seem, not even death will stand in the way of God coming to us. Death is far bigger than simply ceasing to think or breathe or be alive. When we fail to grasp hold, to live like the promise that God makes us matters to us, we are dead in sin, removed from the life God wants us, separated from his love.
To believe is to live lives like it matters to us.
That’s the meat of the gospel.
That’s John 3:16.
That’s the gospel in a nutshell.
But what’s the shell?
A nut is more than simply the meat inside, the part that you eat. If John 3:16 is the gospel in a nutshell, what’s the nutshell of the gospel? Well, the often overlooked yet equally important verse that follows it—John 3:17. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Like with any nut, the nutshell of the gospel, John 3:17, surrounds and protects the precious meat of the nut within. You see—some would make John 3:16 into something that you do, not something that God does for you. They focus on the “whoever believes in him” part of the verse, and they make it into a sort of menacing threat, not a comforting promise. Believe or else! The nutshell of the gospel protects the meat of the gospel from outside harm so that it can go on to nourish you. God did not send the Son into the world, that is, God did not send Jesus to us and everyone else to condemn us, or to scare us into relationship, but rather to save us from that very thing—from fear. Fear holds back, where faith leads forward. God beckons us, pleads with us, coaxes, sometimes cajoles us, and even in Jesus comes to us, not to fear him, but instead so that we embrace life the way he wants, the way he first planned it for us, for everyone, and for everything. Jesus didn’t come to put the fear of God into us, but instead to feed us with the love of God, to nourish us with the meat of that good news, so that we live lives like that matters to us, even now. That’s the whole story, the whole nutty story, the meat of gospel and the gospel in a nutshell, altogether.
There’s so much that can be said about this one verse, this John 3:16. But in a nutshell, God loves the world. God loves you. God loves you and the world so much to send his Son Jesus to live with you in this world, along with everyone and everything else, so that we don’t fear what lays ahead but rather, trust that no matter what, all things work together for good for those who love God. Living like that matters to us, even in our lives now, each and every day, is what eternal life is all about. And the nutshell of the gospel is simply this—God does this for you out of pure love in Jesus.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.