LIFE VERSES JOHN 3:16, HELEN BOLT
RUMC APRIL 30, 2017
John 3:16… probably the best-known scripture in the entire Bible.
You all know it… say it with me. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
There are only 26 words in John 3:16, yet I’ll bet that all the other verses in the Bible put together have not been mentioned as often as this one verse.
If I say, John 3:17 for instance, most of you could not quote it, but you know John 3:16. We don’t even need the name of the book. If I say, 10:15, or 8:28 you might think I am telling time… but if I just say 3:16, most of you know exactly what I mean.
We see John 3:16 at sporting events, in cartoons, and even painted on walls.
If you look closely, you find it printed on the bottom of one fast food chain’s coffee cups.
We all think we know what John 3:16 says, but I see a goldmine of truth here that would take a lifetime to unpack.
Helen Bolt chose this life verse. She has been carrying this life verse with her for a long time… her memory of it begins when the very strict pastor appointed to this church made the confirmation youth learn Bible verses. Then he called on them to recite the verse in front of the whole congregation. She was one of those poor confirmation youth.
Helen has carried this verse with her through all of the ups and downs of life: getting married, raising her kids, spending almost 40 years at what is now trucks grocery, and losing Maurice last year. Through all of that, she hangs on to it. You know, that if I called her up here right now, she could recite John 3:16 without even thinking about it.
Just as Helen says she remembers unlocking the church door with the numbers 316 when she and Maurice walked in here in the wintertime, for her John 3:16 unlocks the door to the heart of God.
She is not alone. Martin Luther called it the gospel in miniature. It has been called the gospel in a nutshell. It has been called a love letter from God. All of which makes it very famous, but also makes it harder to preach, because we have to chew through years of preconceived colorful, hard-candy-shell before we can get to any meat at the heart of the passage.
That hard candy shell misses the heart of the passage. Many of us come out of Sunday school learning the gospel something like this…
Now I’ll warn you that this is a little harsh, but this is how some people understand John 3:16. It goes something like this.
God allowed free choice, people made bad choices and there was sin. Even though God gave the free choice to start with, he could not stand that people exercised free choice and sinned. God was so mad that someone had to be punished.
Here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus was God’s only son… his only little boy: perfect and innocent in every way. God loved that little boy like we love our children, but because you stole a candy bar, or lied to your mom, of swore, or any number of terrible things, God killed his son because … like I said… someone had to be punished.
So now we are supposed try real hard to obey and to be good, and most importantly believe in this perfectly just God, so that we can spend eternity with him heaven.
Hearing it, you may think that’s terrible, but I would venture to guess that some of you, if not most of you, grew up with some kind of understanding like that. Is that really what John 3:16 say? No.
First of all, it ignores the word” LOVED.” God LOVED. That’s the subject of this verse. That is the essence of the verse… that God so LOVED. That doesn’t sound like a God who is so powerless that he had to pay a ransom to the devil to get his people back. That does not sound like a God who was so angry he couldn’t be appeased by anything but bloodshed. That does not sound like a God that is so unfair that he would allow an innocent man to suffer because of the sins of others. That doesn’t sound like a God who is so inflexibly just that he could not be satisfied until someone paid the price.
Now I don’t want to be too critical of traditional orthodox theology like the ransom understanding that says Jesus paid the price to the devil for our souls, or the satisfaction understanding that God’s justice could not be satisfied until someone died, or the substitutionary understanding that someone had to pay the price. There is something we can learn from each of those understandings of Christ’s work.
However, they all start in the wrong place. The longer I live with God the more I understand that God is not motivated by anger, but LOVE. God is not motivated by strict justice, but LOVE. God is not locked into legalism, but is free to LOVE. And most of all, God is certainly not beholden to the devil so that he had to bribe the devil to get us out of hell. God is only obliged to LOVE.
We can associate that LOVE with mother LOVE. The following ad appeared in a Boston newspaper years ago.
TO MY BOY WHO LEFT HOME MONDAY NIGHT, SEPTEMBER 15. My darling boy, if you should see this, which I pray our Heavenly Father you may, please let your distressed mother know where you are.
The notice was signed with one word - "Mother.” That was all. No name. Nothing to let the world know who she was. Not a word about whose fault it was. No blame. No reproach. Just the reaching out of a mother’s LOVE seeking to bring her wanderer back. Even a mother’s LOVE, however, falls short of the LOVE of God.
God so LOVED. Let there be no mistake. This golden passage teaches first about God’s extreme, unqualified, infinite, unchangeable LOVE for us.
The second thing we often miss if we hold on to that traditional simplistic view of this passage and salvation, is the word GAVE.
It doesn’t say “Paid.” That is what the IRS makes me do. God didn’t pay with his only son.
It does not say, “Surrendered.” Surrender is the last resort before defeat. God did not surrender his son because God cannot be defeated.
It does not say, “Sentenced.” That’s what happens in a legal proceeding. God did not sentence Jesus to death.
It does not say, “Exchanged.” That’s when two parties make a deal. God did not exchange Jesus for us.
No, God GAVE his only son. Jesus was a GIFT, GIVEN to those whom God loved so much that he was willing to GIVE not just everything he had… because Jesus was not God’s property, but he was God himself. Jesus was a GIFT GIVEN to those whom God loved so much that we was willing to GIVE everything he is… he was willing to GIVE himself for our salvation.
Most of the GIVING we know about is GIVING that really has no element of sacrifice in it. God did not GIVE cattle, or silver and gold, or GIFT cards. He GAVE himself, all he was in the person of his Son. "He GAVE," means suffering. We think a lot about the suffering of Jesus, but have you ever thought about the suffering of the Father? Could you stand in a window of your house and watch an angry mob spit on, beat, abuse, and kill your son? Could you allow that even though you had the power to stop it in a fraction of a second’s notice? God could have stopped it… I’m sure God wanted to stop it… but God GAVE... God GAVE because he LOVED.
There is so much more here… a lifetime of learning about God. In part, though, John 3:16 is an antidote … an antidote to the simplistic and sometimes frankly ugly ideas that people have about God.
God so loved the world that God gave his own breath to speak into existence that which was not.
Then God so loved the world that God gave his own breath another time, breathing life into dust to create humanity. Humanity, however, did not live up to the image in which we had been created.
So once again, God’s breath was given to us in the cry of a newborn baby. For God so loved the world that God gave himself self to it in the form of a son. God so loved the world so much that God walked among us as love.
For God so loved the world. For God so loved soldiers, and Roman authorities, and prostitutes, and traitors, and unwed mothers, and soccer moms, and CEOs, and ex-cons, and farmers, and children and the elderly that God gave of himself in the form of Jesus. For God so loved you and me that he gave himself to us to love us, to save us, and to share with us a life that will last long after the breath of life leaves our bodies.
For God so loved the world that he gave… his only begotten son that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.