Love is the most profound, central concept in the Christian faith, but it is also very overused in our world. Somehow in the English language, we use the same word to describe how we feel about our family and our favorite ice cream!
If we’re going to talk about God’s love, we need a clear definition. Theologian Wayne Grudem describes God’s love as “God eternally giving of himself to others for their blessing and good.” As I unpack in my post on the “Meaning of Love,” God is love and the source of all love. In his work on the Attributes of God, Arthur Pink says that God’s love is uninfluenced: God doesn’t love someone because they are worthy of his love. His love is free, spontaneous, uncaused. God loves because of himself, not because of you. I define God’s love as a deep passion, devotion, and affection for his children, rooted in his essential nature, driving him to act in self-sacrifice, even though it is undeserved.
John 3:16 is not just the most famous verse on God’s love – it is probably the most famous verse in the Bible. It is inscribed on pictures in our homes, tattooed on people’s forearms, even written on the eye-black of professional athletes! And for good reason – it is a beautiful summary of God’s love, the good news of the faith.
Jesus said these words in the context of a conversation with Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, who was asking about the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that salvation only comes when one is born again through faith in him. He then says, “For God so loved the world…” This was a radical statement for Jesus to make at a time when Jews understood God’s love to only be for the people of Israel. For generations, God had set his unique Fatherly love on the nation of Israel. As Creator, God has a general love for all the world; but as Savior, God has redemptive, covenant-only love for those he has chosen. But now through the work of Jesus, that redeeming love goes out to the whole world – to people from every race, nation, region, and culture of the globe.
God so loved the world that he did something about it. God’s love drove him to act. This verse could be translated, “For this is how God loved the world…” Love that doesn’t propel action is either shallow or nonexistent. You can’t say you love something – whether your kids or your favorite ice cream – if it doesn’t impact who you are and what you do. This is true for us, because it reflects God.
God so loved the world that he gave, he gave his only Son. Older versions translate this as “only begotten,” but translators explain the meaning of the Greek word as “one and only, one of a kind, unique.” Jesus is the Son of God – not in the sense that the Father birthed him – but because they relate together as Father and Son and the Son reflects the Father. The Nicene Creed explains Jesus’s identity like this: “We believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.”
The word “gave” is rich with theological meaning. It means that God the Father sent his Son to earth, God in the flesh. Jesus was born, grew, and matured. He walked in full obedience as a human, and then he willingly traded his life for our own. The penalty of our rebellion against God is death, and so Jesus took on that death for us. He died as our substitute, an atonement for our wrongs. In his death on the cross, Jesus faced an eternity of God’s righteous judgment that should have been given to us. And then he rose from the dead, conquering sin, death and the devil so that we could have life.
God gave his Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. We will all still die, but that death can either be the transition into eternal life or the beginning of eternal death. Judgment is an existence in darkness, separated from the blessings of God. All people will either perish eternally or live eternally. But in Christ, we can be born again into eternal life – this means a life with unending duration and unending quality. An abundant life beginning now, and going on for all eternity.
But this gift of life does not come to everyone. It comes to “whoever believes in him.” To receive God’s love and all its benefits and blessings, you must believe. This doesn’t mean just intellectual ascent, like nodding your head to a list of concepts. In Greek, “to believe” is the verb form of faith. Think of belief like this: If you’re on a small island that catches fire – everything is burning, buildings are falling – you’d be looking for a bridge to get off the island to escape to safety! Faith does not mean finding a bridge and then just standing there thinking, “That bridge looks well designed and finely constructed. And it sure is beautiful. I really believe that it could take me to safety on the other side.” Biblical belief, saving faith, means putting your trust in that bridge, actually walking across that bridge to escape the disaster. It means trusting in Christ, putting your life in his hands, and actually walking from death into life.
Do you believe? Will you receive the love of God and the Son that was given for you? Will you embrace abundant, eternal life found in Jesus?