How Can This Be?

Christ Covenant Church
Bo Cogbill
17 April 2016
John 3:16-21

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Well, good morning. As always, it is a joy and a privilege to gather with you on the Lord’s Day.

I hope the last month and a half or so in John’s Gospel has been as encouraging to you as it has been to me. If you remember, as we began this series in late February, we discussed John’s purpose in writing his gospel was so that y’all might believe, and I hope that as we’ve been going through these stories, that by the Holy Spirit, the remnants of unbelief in your hearts are being replaced by a deep love for, and faith in, Jesus and that your lives are being re-written to tell His story.

One of the things that has struck me week in and week out is how we could hear stories we’ve heard dozens of times and still by amazed by the new things God reveals to us in His Word each time.

I hope that’s our experience this morning as we come to a text that is probably the most well known in all the Scriptures.

If you’re willing and able, please stand and open your Bibles to John’s Gospel, chapter 3, and we’ll read starting in verse 16. If you don’t have your bible, you can follow along in your worship order.

(John 3:16-21) 

“For in this way God loved the world, such that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

The Word of the Lord.

May God bless the reading, hearing and preaching of His Word, and may He grants us all the grace to trust and obey it, and all the church said, “Amen.”

Neuroscientist, Dr. Manny St. Victor, said that one reason we don’t learn new things is that we hear a little portion of something we think we know, and once we think we know what’s coming, we checkout and miss the new information required for transforming what we already know into an even deeper understanding.

Robert Green, in his book, “Mastery,” speaking to a similar theme says, “The mind must be able to feel doubt and uncertainty as long as possible. As it remains in this state and probes deeply into the mysteries of the universe, ideas will come that are more dimensional and [more] real than if we had jumped to conclusions and formed judgments early on.”

Perhaps, some of you may have already been thinking you’ve heard John 3:16 a hundred times, and so you might be tempted to hear what you think you already know and therefore miss out on what God wants you to experience this morning and beyond.

If you stick with me, it is my prayer that you will come to understand ideas that are more dimensional and more real than you’ve been able to experience up to this point.

The three ideas I want us to explore together this morning are all centered on God’s love for His Creation in the person and work of Jesus, His only begotten Son.

The first idea is that God’s love is more than mere sentiment.

Secondly, God’s love is more than spiritual restoration.

And, third, God’s love is reflective.

Look at the Scripture reading in your worship order with me, and we’ll get started looking at our first point, that God’s love is more than mere sentiment.

“For in this way God loved the world, such that he gave his only begotten Son,”

The reason I asked you to look at your worship order and not your open bible is because most modern translations translate John 3:16 as, “For God so loved the world,” and while that isn’t a mistranslation, if we’re not careful, we won’t get the fullness of what God is revealing in this text.

Add that subtle translation difference to our modern, cultural misunderstanding of the word love, and we are in real danger of missing out on the reality of God’s love being more dimensional and more real than we may have previously realized.

A better translation is, “For this is the way God loved the world, such that He gave His only begotten Son.”

If we translate it this way, a fuller way, then we see that God’s love is not like ours – God’s love is not mere sentiment, but rather His love leads to sacrificial action.

Tim Keller, in his book, “Counterfeit Gods” quotes author Ernest Becker who says that our society has fallen prey to what he calls “apocalyptic romance.”

Our culture, even our church culture, has redefined biblical love into a vague subjective, mystical and emotional experience.

You and I are not immune to this. We too are tempted to believe the lie that love is some feeling I have. And because, in our minds anyway, everyone “deserves” love, once we don’t feel love anymore, we owe it to ourselves to pursue that feeling again, whatever the cost.

People will pursue this feeling even though it might cost them their marriage, their friendships, their children or their church family. Even if it wrecks everything we once thought we loved, we will pursue that feeling again and again, always left wanting, never feeling satisfied.

This pursuit of that inner emotion often destroys everything that gets in our way, so I don’t think Becker’s definition of our new idea of love as “apocalyptic romance,” or “destructive love,” is a bad one at all.

But, that is not the way God loves, and when we read “For God so loved the world,” we should not read it to mean, “For God had an extreme emotional connection to the world,” so He sent Jesus to give them an example of what strong emotion looks like.

While it is true that God has a deeper emotional connection to His world than we ever could, that pursuit of an emotional connection isn’t what determines or drives His love. He isn’t controlled by His passions like we are.

God’s love is independent, sacrificial and restorative, not dependent, selfish and destructive.

God’s love was perfect within Himself, without us, yet He did and does love the world that He created in a very real way.

Jesus’ language in John’s Gospel reveals what God’s love looks like.

Remember, Jesus is still responding to Nicodemus question, “How can these things be?”

“How can Jesus be doing the things He is? Making the claims He makes? How can mankind get this new start after the mess we’ve made of everything? How can man have no control over whether he’s born again and yet be responsible for being born again?”

Those types of questions are what led Jesus to answer, “These things are possible because out of His love for the world, God sent Him, Jesus, His only begotten Son, into His world.”

If God’s love was merely sentimental, He could have kept starting over with new generations. He could have kept sweeping the earth clean with floods or plagues or by raising up new armies to wipe out rebellious nations.

If God’s love was an emotion only, He could have kept His distance, kept accepting the blood of bulls and goats and kept lifting up snakes in the wilderness.

For God to do this would have been right and good, but His love for the world took Him infinitely further.

So Nicodemus, Jesus can do what He does because He is born of the Spirit. He can make the claims He makes because He is the sent one, God in the flesh. Mankind can get their new birth by believing in the Son of God, and that faith is a gift of this loving God.

Not a standoffish god, not a god who loves in word only, but a God who loves in in deed and truth.

God’s love was such for the world that He sacrificially acted on His love for us to do something no one could do for themselves.

But, the skeptic might ask, “If God loves the world so much, why would He allow all the brokenness in the first place?”

The skeptic in me was tempted to ask that very thing this week.

This week Rachel’s cousin lost her baby at 39 weeks. Rachel’s sister lost a friend who had a 6-month old and a husband who had loved her long before she ever knew who he was.

This week alone, over a million people, men, women and children died, some horrific, violent and agonizing deaths.

Already this month there have been earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and snowstorms. There have been wars and rumors of wars.

Our political landscape continues to slide further into idiocracy as some of our most popular leaders threaten, amongst cheers, to rip families from their homes and send them into harms way while others promise to give women the right to continue to murder their children by the millions and enslave the poor by making and keeping them utterly dependent.

So, even if you never doubt, surely you have to understand how the skeptic might doubt our claim that God loves the world.

Well, that brings us to our second point.

Secondly, God’s love is more than spiritual restoration.

One of the dangers of making God’s love purely emotive and making John 3 just about “gettin urself born again” is that both ideas give the impression that God’s love only brings about some vague, spiritual restoration.

Just like there is a danger in the church to make God’s love reflect that “apocalyptic romance,” so too are we in danger of making salvation only a spiritual experience. We give the skeptic reason to believe none of this “God is love” talk is real.

Gnostic tendencies to make salvation about escaping this world, freeing our soul and living forever in heaven are rampant in the church, but this isn’t the biblical ideal God’s Word lays out for us.

Salvation is more real and more dimensional than that.

Look at verse 17-18.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – (John 3:17-18 ESV)

One answer we could give the skeptic, though perhaps not the most palatable, is found in these verses. Jesus could have come into the world to put an end to all things and judge everyone who didn’t trust Him because they’re condemned already.

God didn’t break this world, and God was under no obligation to fix it. He has given mankind grace upon grace.

We know what we ought to do and we don’t do it. We know what we ought not to do, and we do it anyway.

We know we shouldn’t pursue destructive love, yet we do it anyway, whether in our physical relationships or in our minds.

We know we should trust and rest in God, yet we toil with anxiety and fear.

We know we should love our neighbor as ourselves, yet we demand they work for us on the Lord’s Day or we slander and gossip about our co-workers.

We know we should honor our parents, love our enemies, tell the truth and be satisfied with what God has given us, yet we don’t do any of these things all the time, with pure motives.

And while it is true that this is the primary reason that God sent His Son into the world, to save sinners from their sin and restore their relationship with their Creator, there is more to God’s love than spiritual restoration.

If you look at the last line of our Scripture reading in your worship order, part of God’s promise to Abraham was that in His offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

God had just asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son whom he loved, to show that he loved God with more than just his emotions, and because Abraham trusted God and loved him in deed and truth, God delivered Abraham and his offspring and prolonged the family line.

Here, to the skeptics’ dismay, in John 3, we see God doing more than He demanded from Abraham.

Rather than just ask that any beloved son be sacrificed, God sent His son, His only son, whom He loved, to keep His promise to Abraham and to make sure that his offspring would be a blessing for the whole world!

So yes, God’s love results in spiritual restoration, but God’s love for the world and the sending of His Son results in physical restoration as well.

The word for world John uses here is the same word he used in chapter 1:9-10 when he said of Jesus, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him.”

Our spiritual lives aren’t the only things that are broken. Our physical bodies are breaking down too. The physical world is heating up and breaking down, and we’re at fault for that brokenness too, but God sent His Son to fix what man has broken.

So, we can tell the skeptics in our life and the skeptic in our heart that God doesn’t owe the world anything, but He does love the world, and He promises to fix what we broke, spiritual and physical, through the person and work of Jesus.

The intertwining of love with action and spiritual with physical brings us to our third and final point: God’s love is reflective.

Look at verses 19-21 with me.

(John 3:19-21 ESV)

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

These are Jesus’ last words in response to Nicodemus, and it should sound familiar. We just read in John 1:9-10 that Jesus was the true light who had come into the world, the very world He had made, but we didn’t read verse 11 where John tells us that God’s people didn’t receive Him.

John tells us there that His own people didn’t receive Him and Jesus tells us here why they didn’t receive Him.

They loved darkness rather than light. They didn’t want Jesus coming into the world, turning over their tables and shining light into the dark places, so they refused to come to Him, they refused to come to the light.

We can read this one of two ways. Jesus could be challenging Nicodemus.

If you remember, Nicodemus had come to Jesus by night, in the dark, but Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be willing to come to Jesus in the day, come into the light, and if he does, it will be clearly seen that this work of Nicodemus coming to Him was a work of God.

Or, Jesus could be affirming Nicodemus, who already came out of darkness to the light. Jesus could be telling Nicodemus that his coming to Jesus was evidence of that God had already done a work in him by showing him the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus.

Nicodemus had asked, “How can these things be? How can someone be born from above?” and Jesus could be saying something like, “What has happened to you must happen to all the people you’re responsible for as a religious leader. God must do to them what He’s just done to you. God brought you to me, out of darkness into the light, and you, as the premier theologian of your day must tell them these things. You must reflect to them the same light that has been reflected to you.”

Or, John could be telling this story this way to imply both things. If you remember, every story John tells is written so that y’all may believe, either for the first time or all over again.

You must feel the doubt and uncertainty of what you think you know long enough to probe into the mysteries of the cosmos so that you might experience something more dimensional and more real than ever before – God’s love for you in Christ.

That’s what I think is happening here. This story is here so that y’all might believe.

If you don’t believe, if you’re a skeptic who is hanging out in the outer darkness, refusing to come into the light for fear that your works will be exposed by Jesus, then I can promise you, He will expose you. He will reveal the darkness in your heart and your destructive loves. But, if you believe in Him, you will not perish but have eternal life. You will receive the promises of God, you will begin to be restored spiritually, and you will experience the resurrection and restoration that awaits the material world as well.

On the other hand, if you already believe, and you are wondering how you came to Jesus, howsomeone might be born from above, John gives us this story so that you will believe the deep reality that you didn’t and couldn’t cause yourself to be born again. If in fact you are in Jesus, it is a miraculous work of God and your whole life is meant to be carried out in His presence.

You who believe are called to reflect this light that the Lord has lit in your heart.

His love is reflective, and your love should look like His love. Not a love that is a mere feeling, but a sacrificial love. You too are to be an instrument of spiritual restoration as you spread the gospel and tell people about the good life in Christ. You too are to be instruments of physical restoration as you take care of the environment, submit to authorities and work well for the glory of God.

To reflect this kind of love will cost you dearly, for it will cost you your life, but to love like this will never cost you something God wasn’t willing to give Himself.

Pray with me.

cross passion

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