For God So Loved
Jesus and Nicodemus
Our Scripture comes right at the end of a conversation between Jesus and a man called, Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a great Jewish leader, yet he sensed something in or about Jesus that led him to come and speak with Jesus.
But because of his reputation, and the fact that Jesus was not very popular among the Jewish leaders, Nicodemus came at night. It was there and then Jesus taught Nicodemus the truth about how a person must be saved or redeemed – brought into a right relationship with God.
Jesus even scolded Nicodemus for not already knowing this since he was a great leader of the Jewish people.
Moses and the Snake
As Jesus finished up his lesson to Nicodemus, he referred to an event in Jewish history that Nicodemus would have known well. Referencing Numbers 21:4-9, Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:14-15,
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
It is an interesting story, but the short version is this: after God graciously and lovingly rescued his people from bondage in Egypt, they began complaining. They started speaking against God and Moses, suggesting they had been brought out into the wilderness just to die.
Therefore, God sent poisonous snakes among them and the snakes began to bite the people. Many died. As you can imagine, this got the people’s attention, and they began repenting for speaking against God and Moses and pleaded for deliverance and healing from the snakes.
Thus, God told Moses to make a snake, put it on a pole, and then lift it high above the people. And so Moses did just that. He made a bronze snake, put it on the end of a pole, and when the people looked with faith to the image of the snake lifted up, they were physically healed.
After retelling the story, the last point Jesus made to Nicodemus was this: just as Moses lifted up the snake, Jesus himself would be lifted up. By “lifted up” Jesus was referring to his death on the Cross to be sure, but also his resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
And Jesus added, that everyone who looks to him – trustingly believes in him – will have eternal life.
The Bible’s Most Popular Verse
That brings us to the most widely known verse in all the Bible, John 3:16,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 is the most succinct summary of the Gospel in all the Bible. In one verse John tells us God gave his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to live, teach, heal, perform miracles, but ultimately, to die on the Cross.
By doing so, those who look to him in faith, as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake, would be forgiven and delivered from the guilt and power of sin. They would be reclaimed and reconciled to a right and eternal relationship with God. And they would be empowered to live the lives for which they were created.
The Front Door
John declares to us in this beautiful verse that we must reach out to God with our hearts and minds to receive this free gift of eternal life.
John 1:12 says,
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…
We receive Christ by placing our faith in him. Trusting belief. This is more than mere head knowledge or vague acknowledgement. It is to give our very lives to him. To give him ourselves. To be sure, it involves trust, repentance, submission, commitment, obedience, and following him.
But the front door is faith. We must enter through that front door and say, “Yes Lord, thank you. I believe.” Then, what follows, is a life of getting to know him better – following him wherever he may lead. It means desiring to become more and more like him. It means telling others about him, even as we serve them, along our journey through this world.
According to John, those who do respond in faith in this way receive eternal life. Those who do not respond in faith, do not receive eternal life. John says they stand condemned already because they prefer darkness instead of the light that Christ brings into the world.
Now, if you have been paying attention up to this point, perhaps you noticed I left out the central, governing purpose of all that God did through Jesus on our behalf.
John tells us that, “God so loved.”
That phrase, “so loved” means, God loved “in this way,” which involves everything mentioned so far about Jesus being “lifted up” on our behalf.
And please notice, John says God so loved the world. Not just the Jews, but the Gentiles too, which is a way of saying, everyone. God is not only the covenant God of Israel. He is the God of all. He sent Jesus for all. That is why John said, “everyone who believes” and not just the Jews.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:12-13,
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Emphases mine)
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
And this is because, “God so loved.” God’s love expressed in this way, John reminds us in his first epistle, flows from the fact that God is love. It is who God is.
But here is where we need to be careful. We must not go to movies and music, or Hollywood and Hallmark to get our definition of love and then read Scripture through that lens. Instead, we go to Scripture to learn what love is and then look to see how worldly views compare with what the Bible says (and therefore, what God says) about God’s love. This is how we practice the art of spiritual discernment.
The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, seldom talked about God’s love without referring to it as a “holy love.” Each of God’s attributes relates to all the rest. God’s attributes do not exist in separate, isolated compartments in which they have nothing to do with one another. Furthermore, God’s attributes are not partial. He is not a 10% one attribute and 15% another and so on. He is 100% each of his attributes, and as I mentioned, they all interrelate and influence the others.
This led A.W. Tozer to write,
From God’s other known attributes we may learn much about his love. We can know, for instance, that because God is self-existent, his love had no beginning; because he is eternal, his love can have no end; because he is infinite, it has no limit; because he is holy, it is the quintessence of all spotless purity…”
Charles Wesley beautifully captured a glimpse of God’s love in his hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”…
Love divine, all loves excelling
Joy of Heaven to Earth come down
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling
All Thy faithful mercies crown
Jesus, Thou art all compassion
Pure, unbounded love Thou art
Visit us with Thy salvation
Enter every trembling heart
That is the love of God. And so how do you respond to that? This idea that God sent his Son to come and save, not a world that was cheering for him, but just the opposite. As the words of the Holy Communion liturgy in the United Methodist hymnal, borrowing from Romans 5:8 put it,
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Emphasis mine)
How do you respond to that? How does that impact you emotionally? Does it fill you with awe? Humility? Reverence? Joy? Gratitude? Indifference? Distaste? Fear? The Apostle John suggests that all those seem to be ways people respond to the glorious announcement of God’s love in Christ.
How about you? Is the good news of God’s love for you in Christ an announcement of indescribable beauty to you? Of horror? Of Indifference?
I want you to know there is a God in heaven who loves you and who went to the greatest lengths to act on your behalf – to win you to himself. To enable you to become the person he created you to be.
He loves and rejoices over you so much he sings. Zephaniah 3:17 says,
The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
He loves you so much he offers you eternal life in his presence. But he will not force you to respond in faith, to give your life to Christ. He will not override your will and desire. To those who would prefer not to spend eternity in the presence of God, God replies, “thy will be done.” And yet, like the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, he waits and watches for you. More than that, with his Spirit he lovingly calls you and draws you to himself. And he is doing that today.
The Ultimate Gift
And what is the gift that awaits you when you trust in Christ? The gift is God himself. “Life of abundant joy and immeasurable blessing in the presence of God forever.”
At the end of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis writes these words about some of the characters in his books,
“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Don’t you want to be a part of that Great Story?
If you have never put your trust in Christ before, reach out to God today and call to him. Trust in him. Enter his Great Story and become a part of it. If you do know Christ, then give thanks and continue to love and follow him. Tell others about him. Invite them to join you in the Greatest Story ever told.
Thanks be to God for the love of God.
Threats to Peace, Joy, and Contentment
When do you find yourself struggling most with being discontent? When are you more likely to experience restlessness and anxiety? What’s usually happening in your life when you’re least likely to have joy?
Each one of us struggles with these things at different times throughout our lives. There are perhaps a variety of reasons for this, but very often, the threat to our peace, joy, and contentment can be found in one of these four areas of our lives…
These four areas very often chip away at our peace, joy, and contentment. Can you relate to that?
In our Scripture, Jesus points us to a new way of seeing that can make all the difference in our lives. This change in our perspective can help us find, and hold onto, the peace, joy, and contentment God desires for us.
The Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5:1-12 comes at the beginning of what’s called, The Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5-7. I love The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve studied it many times at the church I serve. However, as much as I love studying it, that’s exactly how much I don’t like studying it.
That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but there’s some truth behind it. The Sermon is very convicting. Jesus doesn’t pull any punches in those three chapters. John Stott once said that the most charitable thing you could say about a person who says, they try to live according to The Sermon on the Mount, is that they’ve never read it. Maybe you’ve heard someone say, “the preacher isn’t preaching… he’s meddling.” That’s the kind of sermon, The Sermon on the Mount is.
Therefore, it’s interesting that some of the most beautiful words in Scripture, the Beatitudes, make up the first 12 verses of that kind of sermon. But it’s important to understand that they do because the Beatitudes are the foundation for everything else we read in The Sermon.
Very often, when we think of the Christian life, we think of behavior, of how we act. And yet, in this sermon on the Christian life, Jesus begins by focusing on the character of the Christian, of what’s happening on the inside of a person. He’s saying, “This is what every Christian’s character should be.” If you want to behave or act in a Christian way, according to Jesus, you must have the character he describes in these verses.
You see, the change Jesus calls us to, happens from the inside out.
So, here are the eight virtues, or character traits, Jesus gives us in these verses…
The virtues Jesus lists here give us a picture or portrait of what every Christian is called to look like. It’s not a buffet table where we can pick and choose the ones like and pass on the ones we don’t.
To be honest, I used to think that. I thought these were like spiritual gifts. We don’t all have the same spiritual gifts, and that’s a good thing because the body of Christ needs the variety of gifts – like a body needs feet, hands, noses, ears, and so on.
But the Beatitudes, and the Fruit of the Spirit, are in an entirely different category. Just as each of us is called to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, So too is each of us called to be poor in spirit, mourn over sin, be meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, pursue mercy, purity of heart, peace, and to stand for our faith, even under the threat of persecution. It’s a group package. It’s a cumulative portrait of what each of us who follow Christ ought to look like.
Now, what word comes before each virtue? “Blessed.” Each virtue or character has a particular blessing that goes with it. And it’s important to understand the blessing isn’t something we do. It’s something given to us by God. And Christ says we receive those blessings when those virtues describe us. It’s from those blessings we begin to receive the inner satisfaction of peace, joy, and contentment.
It’s also vital to understand that these blessings don’t depend on outward circumstances, or the people in our lives, or the stuff we own, or what people think of us. We often use the word “blessed” or “blessing” to describe something that happens to us – something related to our circumstances; like a good report from the doctor, a promotion at work, a safe trip. And, to be sure, God blesses us in those ways and it’s right to see God’s hand of blessing in those circumstances.
However, that’s not what Jesus is saying here. The blessing he’s talking about doesn’t have anything to do with circumstances. Paul knew what Jesus had in mind. He said in Philippians 4:12-13,
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Paul’s outward circumstances weren’t dictating his inward peace, joy, and contentment. He found them in Christ alone.
God’s Eternal Perspective
So, here’s the big idea: Jesus is giving us a new way of seeing. It’s not what we would’ve naturally come up with on our own. It’s only as we see all of life the way God does – what we might call an eternal perspective – that we’re able to have this inner peace, joy, and contentment, regardless of our circumstances.
But don’t you find yourself, more often than you would like, thinking and living like Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh? We can become really negative, really quickly, can’t we? And that’s often because we’re not enjoying God’s blessings that come from cultivating these virtues, because we’re looking at life through only a temporal perspective.
Thus, we say things like,
You can fill in the blank with whatever you want, but those things will never bring the blessing Jesus is talking about. The blessing he’s talking about doesn’t depend on your outward circumstances. The Apostle Paul knew it’s our perspective on our circumstances that will shape us most, and not just the circumstances.
This isn’t Stoicism that says, just adjust your attitude and then you can handle any situation you face. Instead, God is at the center of an eternal perspective. Trusting in God and depending upon his grace in every circumstance is what brings the blessing. It’s loving what he loves, desiring what he desires, obeying him always, seeking to align your will with his. This is what brings the blessing Jesus is talking about.
The World’s Temporal Perspective
But this isn’t the perspective of the world, is it? How might the Beatitudes sound if they were written today. I came across the following that attempted to answer that question.
You get the idea. But when we compare those to the eight characteristics Jesus gave us, they don’t exactly match up, do they?
That’s because Jesus turned the thinking of the world upside down.
A New Way of Seeing
Instead, we must look to God’s inspired Word, the Bible. That’s where we hear the authoritative voice of Jesus saying things like, “blessed are…
But those aren’t virtues we’d naturally seek to pursue and cultivate, are they?
We need God’s grace to change our hearts. We need a new way of seeing – a different perspective. God’s perspective. This new way of seeing comes only when we have a new heart, and we receive that new heart only when we trust in Christ alone as our Savior and Lord. We need his Word to direct us and his grace to enable us to see in this new way and cultivate the character of Christ in our lives.
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