How So?

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is the greatest text for Valentine’s Day. Its ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere—from lips of little children to signs in football stadiums—distinguishes it as the most well-known passage in Scripture; rightfully so, for John 3:16 succinctly summarizes the central message of the Bible.  It is the gospel in a nutshell.

In a real sense, if you edited down the Bible to this one verse, you would still have enough gospel to save the world. John 3:16 declares what every human heart—whether we admit it or not– knows—wants to hear and needs to hear: God loves you! In fact, as Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love.

John 3:16 plainly makes one of the most awesome claims of the New Testament: God loves the whole world. This statement is remarkable for several reasons.

God is a lover. Jesus said so. This goes against the prevailing notions of God. Many people think God is angry. We see God as a God of wrath, but we misinterpret that wrath in terms of our humanness rather than God’s holiness. Thus, we view God as a tyrant, a cosmic killjoy, an angry parent sitting in the heavenly throne room belt in hand waiting for the disobedient sinner to come through the door. Others view God as indifferent. They think God does not and cannot care about the world or anyone in it.

Others view God as temperamental. They spend their lives trying to earn it. This produces a legalism, which results in either despondency or pride, but never reveals the true love of God. John 3:16 stands against all these misinterpretations of God’s attitude toward us and declares God loves us. 1st John 4:8 says, “God is love.” God personifies love. If fact, if it has to do with God, it has to do with love.
Mercy is God’s forgiving love.
Grace is God’s undeserved love.
Peace is God’s comforting love.
The will of God is God’s unerring love.
Providence is God’s caring love.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s proven love.
Sanctification is God’s nurturing love.
Heaven is God’s rewarding love.
Eternity is God’s unending love.
The Universal Scope of the Love
It had to have been mind blowing for Nicodemus to hear that God loves the world.  He had grown up believing that God only loved Israel.  But the verse claims God does not love just certain groups, races or nations. God loves everybody. God doesn’t exclusively love Christians. God loves the world. What a truth!

And just as amazing the breadth of this simple verse forces us to look not just beyond our own race but beyond our species and even broader at this planet we call home and the universe in which it spins.

The fundamental point of John 3:16 is that God loves the world. If the point of the most famous verse in the Bible is that God loves you, why is it that so many people live as if there is no God? At the same time, many who call themselves followers of Christ often question God’s love for them. In spite of all the publicity that John 3:16 gives to this truth, how is it that so many of us do not really know the true love of God?

In his book The Five Love Languages Gary Chapman argues that people communicate love differently. Each person has a natural and distinct way in which he or she gives and/or receives love. Physical affection, verbal expression, acts of service, providing, giving gifts, opening opportunities, and spending time are some of the common love languages.

There are couples who obviously love one another but each feels unloved. They haven’t understood the others’ love language. He, in his way, demonstrates  his love by slaving at a job he hates. She receives love by how much time he spends with her. So, he feels unloved because she doesn’t appreciate his bread winning efforts. She feels unloved because he doesn’t spend more quality time with her. They love one another, but they are not speaking the same love language. Could this be why we do not understand the love of God?

The truth of God’s love is hidden with the nature of God’s love. We hear about the fact of God’s love in the words of John 3:16 but the verse speaks to us about the manner of God’s love.  You can live under a dark cloud of divine abandonment while the light of John 3:16 shines the light of God’s love in your face if you do not know how God communicates His love for you.

The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” Our question should be ‘How So?’ That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” We prefer our English translations such as “God loved the world so much,” but that obscures the implications of the phrase.  It literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”

John 3:16 is about how God says, “I love you.” What’s the answer? Here it is: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son.” John 3:16 does not teach that God loves us so much that He would do anything for us. Rather, it teaches us that God loved us by doing something specific for us: He gave! You cannot know the love of God without embracing it in terms of the gift He gave to communicate His love for us.  John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

All human beings are God’s children through creation. but our New Testament writers insist  that Jesus  is God’s Son uniquely because He is the only begotten Son of the Father.  In other words, there is nobody like Jesus. Nobody was born like Jesus. Nobody lived like Jesus. When John 3:16 says God loved us by giving His only begotten Son.  Theologians have argued for the last two thousand years what that means.  It may best be said by the author of II Corinthians “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!”

For most people there are three characteristics about God that seem essential to us.  First, God is holy. It means God is not like us. God is set apart, completely unique, totally different, morally excellent and without any speck of darkness whatsoever.  That is un-doubtably our needing that in God. Second, we want to believe God to be just. That is, God judges on the basis of a righteous standard. God judges by the standard of His own holy character. Holding these two attributes of God are big trouble to us. God is holy. We are not. It fits our persuasive purposes to believe that some day, you will have to answer to God for how you have lived your life.

Here is the best news: God is love. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Recently one of the leaders of one of the largest churches in America stirred the pot when she said  “when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God – I mean, that’s one way to look at it – we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. “So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”  Promoters of the prosperity gospel tell us that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy and happy.

I wonder how that works for Christians in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and North Korea today.  2014 saw twice as many Christians martyred than the year before.

To believe in someone one or something is to have faith in it or them, to follow them.  Early in Jesus’ ministry he told his disciples that if they would follow him, their rabbi, they would have to take up their own cross – note that this occurred about two and a half years before the leaders of the popular religion saw Jesus’ message as such a threat that they used the powers of the civil authorities to kill him.  Our cross and his cross are not the same but they come from the same source, a willingness to follow Rabbi Jesus and live in a way that challenges the world.

With that in mind we can put away our images of some imagined court room or theories of ransom paid to a personification of evil.  or  you are a criminal. The closing portion of John 3:16 states “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The benefits of God’s gift are only received through faith. Jesus made this point with his references to Numbers 21. The story of Moses, the children of Israel and the bronzed serpent. It is a story of the children of Israel’s rebellion against God. It is a story of judgment as the Lord sent fiery serpents into the camp. It is a story of grace as God provided an undeserved way of salvation, but it is also a story of faith as those who obeyed the word and looked to the uplifted serpent were saved.  Words like faith and belief are based in a concept of trust.  Despite our acts of disobedience, rebellion and rejection God never stops loving us.

We can all see ourselves in that story.  It’s easy to believe that due to the consequences of poor judgment or our outright nastiness God’s judgment already has bitten us.  Not so.  Jesus himself said “he makes his sun rise on both evil and good people, and he lets rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  But the fact that you too will inevitably die, like every other living entity in the world that God created will die, is not punishment.  It is part of our humanity for which we are grateful.  You eventually, inevitably. will die. It’s no curse.  And there is no divine inoculation from natural death.

Yes, like Nicodemus, we need to be born from above, that is we need to raise our sights from the things of this world, taking our cue from Jesus who early on told his disciples that to follow him they must take up their own cross, a willingness to find their life in trusting God and loving what God loves. That’s what following Jesus meant throughout Jesus ministry. Life eternal, living life in God’s kingdom begins the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ. It introduces you to a new quality of life. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  This life isn’t a test we have to pass.  It is this moment .  The greatest love song is the world goes:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.

 

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