Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Greatest Sentence Ever Written (John 3:16)



In the history of human language, there have been some amazing words spoken and written. When we think of great sentences, we may think of someone like the ever quotable Winston Churchill who said during the Battle of Britain, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” We remember John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address in which he said the famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical brilliance could be heard as he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” We may look to the famous words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” And then we could look at literary giants like Shakespeare, Milton, or Tennyson, and almost pick lines at random that would rival any other written words in history. But the words of R. A. Torrey seem to be true, as he said, “All the greatest sentences are in … one Book. The Bible has a way of putting more in a single sentence than other writers can put in a whole book.”[1]

If we restrict our search for the greatest sentence ever written to the Bible alone, our work would still be cut out for us. There are over 31,000 verses in the Old and New Testaments, and many of them consist of multiple sentences. If you were to ask folks to name their favorite portion of Scripture, you would likely get several different answers. For the great Reformer Martin Luther, it was Romans 1:17, “The righteous shall live by faith.” For John Newton, the former slave trader who wrote the great hymn “Amazing Grace” following his conversion, it was Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”[2] But I suppose that if you could poll the whole world, the vast majority of people would say that the greatest sentence in the Bible, perhaps the greatest sentence ever written, is John 3:16: 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. For many, this was the first verse of Scripture we ever memorized. For some, it is the last words whispered before death. For others, it was this verse that first opened their eyes to the truth of the Gospel.

You might have learned it from your parents, your pastor, your Sunday School teacher. I was first introduced to John 3:16 by Rollen Stewart when I was a young boy. Rollen Stewart used to attend every major sporting event in America wearing a rainbow colored wig and carrying a sign that said, simply, “John 3:16.” I recall asking someone, “What does that mean?” And the response was, “I don’t know but I guess it is in the Bible.” And I searched for a Bible and looked it up and read it. It was ten years or more until the truth of it sank into my heart. For those who are too young to remember Rollen Stewart and his rainbow wig, John 3:16 has had another prominent spokesman in recent years. When Tim Tebow took to the field for the 2009 NCAA National Championship game, he had “John 3:16” inscribed on his eye-black strips. In the 24 hours following that game, “John 3:16” accounted for 94 million Google searches. No matter how we first learned of John 3:16, there are a vast number of people on the planet today who would agree that this is the greatest sentence ever written. I believe this is so because it expresses the greatest fact that the world could ever know; it describes the greatest gift that has ever been given; and it offers the greatest choice a person could ever make. So let’s consider these ideas as we examine this single verse carefully.

I. John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it expresses the greatest fact the world could ever know. (God so loved the world)

When I was young, I remember a popular country song by Johnny Lee called “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Some of us have found ourselves looking for love in all the wrong places, and we’ve seen countless others make shipwreck of their lives looking for love in the wrong places. God created us to need love, but not just any kind of love. He created us to know His perfect and infinite love for us. Until we experience this kind of love, we have, as it were, an enormous hole in our lives that we try to fill with all sorts of substitutes. We chase after relationships; we take up behaviors that become habits, and then become addictions; we go to outlandish lengths to be noticed and appreciated by others. And when these fail to satisfy us, we go even further and faster in the wrong direction, or else we become paralyzed by despair. But all the while, ultimate satisfaction lies within reach. If we could only grasp the greatest fact that we could ever know: God loves us. God, the greatest, the most holy and perfect being, the one who created us and knows us more intimately, inside and out, than anyone else, has made us the objects of His perfect and infinite love.

We know that we are included in the scope of His love, because He loves the world. He has not restricted His love to a specific ethnic group, contrary to the assumptions of ancient Israel. He has not restricted His love to only those who are lovely or who deserve to receive His love. When the Bible speaks of “the world,” using the Greek word kosmos, it can refer to the entire created realm; but in most contexts, the connotation is the world as it now exists, corrupted by human sinfulness. Thus, D. A. Carson says, “God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad.”[3] So, you do not have to do anything or be anyone or anything other than yourself to be loved by God. He loves you as you are, as much as He loves anyone else in the world, in spite of how unlovable we are. He loves us because it is in His nature to love, not because it is in our nature to be loved. First John 4:8 says that God is love. Now this does not mean that love is His only or His primary attribute, and we want to stay away from the error of assuming that this means that “love” is in itself some kind of  god. But it does mean that God loves us because it is in His divine nature to do so, even when we are least deserving of His love. Our sin has affected and corrupted our nature. It has not affected His nature. He is love, and He loves us in spite of our sin.

This is like no other kind of love than we can experience. Several Greek words are commonly translated as “love” in English. One is the word phileo, which is a kind of fondness that exists among friends. Another is the word eros, which is a kind of romantic love. Another is the word storge, which describes the kind of affection one knows in a family. These are all what we might call “natural loves,” something that people can experience on their own apart from God. But with these kinds of love, there are conditions (strings attached), and these loves can be violated, forfeited, or lost by any number of factors. Our own sin, or the sin of the one we love, can ruin these loves. Death can rob us of it. Another love can enter in and rival it by taking precedence over it. These loves are often cherished for selfish reasons – we cling to them because they bring good benefits with them, or they make us feel good. They reward us, and when they no longer reward us, we feel the desire to cast them aside. But none of these words is the one used here in John 3:16.

Jesus says here that the love God has for the world is agape love. This is a higher love. It is not selfish – there is really nothing in it for the lover. It does not necessarily reward the lover or pay him back in any way. It is sacrificial – the agape lover is always giving, even when nothing is received in return. And it is unconditional. Nothing can be said or done to make the agape lover cease loving in this way. And this is God’s love for you. You cannot be good enough to make Him love you more, and you cannot be bad enough for Him to love you any less. You need not fear that you will wake up tomorrow to discover that He no longer loves you in this way. His love for you is bound up in His nature, and the only way it could change is if He changed. And He is the eternally unchanging God. All of our efforts to find love and be loved by other people fall short of the glory of being the recipient of this kind of love. It is a supernatural love. It can only come from God. And once we receive it from God, we are able to love others, and indeed, love Him in return, with the same kind of love. But until we know His perfect, selfless, sacrificial, unconditional agape love, we are all looking for love in all the wrong places. We are trying to be ultimately satisfied with those loves which will only perpetually disappoint. But Jesus says here that we are loved with the most perfect kind of love already – the love of God. And that is the greatest fact the world could ever know. That’s one reason why John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written. But there are other reasons.

II. John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it describes the greatest gift ever given (He gave His only begotten Son)

My wife and I were privileged to have Dr. Gary Chapman lead us through some pre-marital workshops when we were members at Calvary Baptist Church. Dr. Chapman has written many best-selling books on marriage, family, parenting, and other relationships, the best known of which is called The Five Love Languages. Chapman’s premise in that book is that we all have ways (or “languages”) of showing and receiving love. The five languages he describes are quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, and giving gifts. In his research, Chapman observed that every culture of humanity values gift-giving as an expression of love. He says, “A gift is something you can hold in your hand and say, ‘Look, he was thinking of me.’ He goes on to say that gifts are visual symbols of love, but these visual symbols “are more important to some people than to others.” Often the gift is appreciated regardless of its value, unless the gift is “greatly out of line with” what the giver can afford. For instance, Chapman says, “If a millionaire gives only $1 gifts regularly,” one may question “whether that is an expression of love.” But if one’s finances are limited, “a $1 gift may speak a million dollars worth of love.” But then Chapman says, “There is an intangible gift that sometimes speaks more loudly than a gift that can be held in one’s hand.” This is “the gift of self or the gift of presence.”[4]

Now, the same thing could be said of the love of God and the gifts He gives to humanity. He has given humanity many gifts, but one gift stands above them all as the greatest gift. And when the greatest giver gives His greatest gift, we can be assured that it is the greatest gift ever given. God has unfathomable resources, beyond those of the wealthiest mega-millionaire, and He has not given us $1 gifts. He has given us a gift that no price could ever evaluate. He has indeed given us the gift of Himself, the gift of His presence. John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world.” It’s an interesting little word there, “so.” Most often we have understood the word “so” here to mean, “God loved the world this much.” But, “God so loved” could also be understood to mean, “God loved the world in this way.” That is how the translators of the Holman Christian Standard Bible have worded John 3:16. Whether we are talking about the great extent or the particular expression of His love, the point is this: out of His love for all of humanity, including you and me, He has given “His only begotten Son.”

The phrase “only begotten” tells us that there is something unique about the gift that God has given. It is true that the Bible teaches that God has many sons and daughters. Yet all of His sons and daughters are such because they have been adopted into His family by faith. Only one Son can be called begotten. Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God. The idea of Him being a begotten Son of God has caused much confusion for many centuries. Some have misunderstood this to mean that there must have been a time when Jesus did not exist, since He was begotten. And some have misunderstood this to mean that Jesus, as the “Son of God,” is something slightly more than human, but still somewhat less than God. But in John’s Gospel, the very opening words debunk both of these errors. John 1:1 tells us that the Word, the Logos, existed in the beginning (that is, from eternity past), and that the Word was with God, and in fact, was God. And the Word, this Logos, which was in the beginning with God and which was God became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son (cf. John 1:1, 14, 18). So, to rightly understand the nature of Jesus as the only begotten Son of God, we must understand that He is God Himself, who became incarnate in human flesh at a specific point in time in history, who is fully God and fully man in one being. He can be called a “begotten Son” in a way that suggests that He is of one nature, of one substance, with God the Father. Boice writes, “When God gave Jesus, He gave the best gift in the universe. … When God gave Jesus, He gave Himself. To give oneself is the greatest gift anyone can give.”[5] God gave this gift by taking upon Himself human flesh, while maintaining His perfect and eternal divine nature.

This gift of God, giving us Himself, makes every other gift ever given pale in comparison. The Apostle Paul exclaims in utter awe and wonder, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15). One of the reasons this gift is so indescribable is that we are so unworthy of it! All that we can rightly claim to deserve from God is judgment and wrath because of our sin. But God has given us far beyond what we deserve because He loves us. In His love, He came to dwell among us; He came to be one of us; He came to live a perfect life for us; He came to die a sacrificial death for us; He came to conquer death for us. Leon Morris notes that God has “given” His Son to us in two senses: “God gave the Son by sending Him into the world, but God also gave the Son” by sending Him to the cross.[6] You see, it is on the cross that God’s love for us becomes most evident. There, God proved that He loves us in spite of our sin, and that His love for us has prompted Him to meet our greatest need. There, Jesus took our sins upon Himself and died in our place, so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God. You have no greater need than to be made right with your Maker and Judge. And that need was met for you, out of God’s great love for you, on the cross. Romans 5:8 says that God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Have you ever wanted proof that you are loved? Look to the cross. There you will see, though you may not be loved by anyone else, though no other gift may ever be given to you, you are loved by God Himself, who has given the great gift of His Son, Himself, for you.

John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it describes for us the greatest gift ever given. But there is one more reason (at least) why it is the greatest sentence ever written.

III. John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written because it offers the greatest choice you could ever make.

One of my friends who lives overseas recently came to the States for a brief visit and commented to me about the overwhelming array of choices that we have in our supermarkets. If someone sends you to the store for milk, you better ask them to be specific, because there is whole, 2%, 1%, skim, soy milk, almond milk, organic milk, and three or more brands of each variety! And that is just one of many choices that we have to make every day. But we would have to confess that most of our daily choices—what to wear, what to eat, which road to take to get somewhere, and things like this—have little importance beyond the moment in which they are made. There are choices that have longer lasting importance: what career path we will choose, who we will marry, how we will raise our children, and things like these. But ultimately there is one choice, and only one choice, that affects our eternal destiny. And that choice is what we will do with Jesus.

There are only two options available to us in this choice. Either we will believe in Him or we will not. To believe in Him is to believe in who He is – the eternal and infinite God-incarnate – and to believe in what He has done – He has lived the life we cannot live, and died the death that we deserve, and conquered death on our behalf in order that He might take our sins upon Himself and grant us His righteousness in exchange. And so, with sins forgiven and clothed in His righteousness, those who believe in Him are granted eternal life with Him in the glory of heaven.

But what if we do not choose to believe in Him? The alternative is spelled out in no uncertain terms. To not believe is to not receive eternal life, and thereby to perish eternally. To perish is to spend eternity apart from God, apart from His love, apart from His grace and mercy, receiving forever the just penalty for our sins. Know this for certain, all sin will receive its just penalty. But Christ has come to present us with an option: we can allow Him to receive that penalty for us on His cross, or we can choose to receive it ourselves in hell. But there is no third option. To refuse Christ is to choose hell. Some will say that this is not fair, that eternity ought not be based on one simple decision like this, that it is not right for God to punish someone eternally for refusing to accept Christ. Please understand, the penalty and punishment that will occur in hell is not solely for the simple rejection of Christ. It is for every sin ever committed. That is why John 3:18 says, “He who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” In other words, the condemnation has already been pronounced based on what each person’s sins deserve. The gift of Jesus for the world was an offer to redeem humanity from that well-deserved penalty. So, to refuse the gift is to accept the consequences, and those consequences are severe. As Carson says, “The Son of Man came into an already lost and condemned world. He did not come into a neutral world in order to save some and condemn others. He came into a lost world … in order to save some.”[7] And those “some” who are saved are those who recognize Jesus for who He is, and believe in Him on the basis of what He has done. Their sins are paid for with His cross. They are rescued from the hell they deserve. But those who do not believe receive only what they have deserved because they refused to allow Christ to cover their sins. They have chosen to deal with their sins themselves, and to do that is to perish.

God has not lavished His great love upon us, and granted to us this greatest gift, in order that we might respond with a yawn of indifference. The gift of His Son forces a choice upon us. A decision must be made, and to not decide is to decide against Him. It is the greatest choice anyone can make. I have no doubt that many in this room today have made the choice to believe in Jesus, to cast themselves upon His mercy and receive His saving grace. These have believed that Jesus has dealt with their sins for them on His cross. But I also fear that there are some who have not made that choice, and in so doing have chosen the alternative. In Christ, God has made a way of escape, but those who will not receive Him by faith will find no other way of escape. The end of their journey is eternal destruction. Some have substituted faith in Christ for membership in the church, or the activity of organized religion, the company of moral friends, or the ceaseless effort to try to do better in life. But these things are powerless to remedy our greatest problem: that of our sin. In the final reckoning, it will not matter if you have joined a church, been busy with religious tasks, or kept yourself from doing certain nasty things while trying hard to do other good things. What will matter is what you have done with Jesus, because only He can bear your sin for you. If you choose to bear it yourself, the only alternative is hell.

I truly believe that John 3:16 is the greatest sentence ever written. But it can only be that if it is true. Your decision to believe it or not believe it does not make it true or false. If it is true, it is true whether or not you believe it; and if it is false, your believing it will not make it true. So, what do you say about it? Are you willing to believe it, and to therefore believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ to save you? As Boice has written, “When God calls upon people to believe what He tells them, He calls upon them to do the most sensible thing they will ever do in their lives; that is, believe in the only being in the universe who is entirely reliable.”[8] And this One who is completely trustworthy is the One who loves you in a way that no one else can. And He has proven His love for you in giving you the greatest gift ever given, so that you might make the most important choice of all eternity. No one can make that choice for you, and no other choice can make up for the wrong choice on Jesus. So, today, if you never have before, I pray that you will believe what God has spoken in His Word, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. And then you will know by faith and by experience the truth of this, the greatest sentence ever written.




[1] http://articles.ochristian.com/article10674.shtml. Accessed July 25, 2012.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 1: The Coming of the Light, John 1-4, (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 226.
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 205.
[4] Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (Chicago: Northfield, 1995), 73-78.
[5] Boice, 235.
[6] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 229.
[7] Carson, 207.
[8] Boice, 242. 

1 comment:

Scott Newton said...

Wow. That blessed me... What a God, and what a love.

Scott Newton. pswe.net