Ah, John 3:16. Probably one of the most, if not THE most recognizable verses in the whole Bible. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
You may have seen this Bible verse pop up in sports— in signs at games. When I was in grad school in Philadelphia, I went to a Phillies game with one of my friends from class. In the section next to us, there was a man who was dressed like Jesus— you know, long white robe, purple sash across his chest, long brown hair, a beard, sandals, the whole bit. And he had a sign that he unabashedly held up: JOHN 3:16 I HAVE FAITH. GO PHILLIES! And throughout the game the people in his section and the sections around him were having mixed reactions to his fashion choice and his sign.
So this went on for a while, and as you may know, between innings there are camera people wandering around, capturing people up on the big jumbotron screen. And between one of the innings, wouldn’t you know that the Jesus guy made it up on the jumbotron. In a split second he realized he was on the screen, in front of thousands of people, and excitedly he jumped up and down, holding his sign high. I looked around me, waiting to see what the reaction would be. And believe it or not, the whole ball park started chanting, “JESUS! JESUS!” My friend and I looked at each other, unsure whether we should be thrilled or weirded out.
When I mentioned John 3:16 in sports, Tim Tebow, the quarterback who caused quite a stir a few years back, may have crossed your mind. He constantly made the news because of how open he is about his Christian faith. He even put a Bible verse in his face paint one time. When making a good play, he was known to fall on one knee in thanks to God. And according to Christianity Today, when Tebow threw 316 yards in a playoff game, there were 103,923 Wikipedia searches for John 3:16.
Sports games and players aren’t the only place this verse pops up. The In-N-Out Burger joint surprises customers—when you get to the bottom of your fries, there is a Bible verse written in the bottom of the paper container-- and typically the verse is John 3:16. When I was on a roadtrip down the East Coast to Florida, I stopped on I-95 to grab a snack at a gas station in North Carolina. When I got back in my car and turned the popcorn bag over to read the nutrition facts, I was surprised to see the John 3:16 verse very clearly on the back of the bag. Popcorn outreach—who knew?!
So, what makes John 3:16 such a big deal? I mean, it’s obviously important, if it keeps showing up. And it keeps showing up in even our leisure activities like sports, fast food, and snacks. What do you think? Why is this verse so important…? Many people like to say that in one sentence, John 3:16 gets to the heart of the Christian faith. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
“For God so loved the world…” I think sometimes it’s easy to skip over the first part of this verse. We skip to the part about how God’s son was given so that followers of Jesus would have eternal life. And that’s definitely an important part! But those six words that start the sentence, “For God so loved the world” actually explain the rest.
Because, if we are perfectly honest, our world is not easy to love. There’s human brokenness and sin, crime, addictions, death, disease. Some Christians go so far as to say that because the world is so bad, we must refrain from engaging in the world as much as possible—only watching Christian TV shows and movies, only listening to Christian radio, only experiencing a Christian school or being home schooled. And although most of us don’t go to that extreme, for the most part none of us could really say that we love this world as it is.
You know the phrase “He has a face only a mother could love?” Our world is like that. Only GOD is able to love our world, exactly as it is. Only God is able to love US, exactly as we are. Because, quite frankly, we humans are the main cause of many of the bad things in this world.
But John 3:16 tells us that “For God so loved the world.” And the rest of the sentence tells us that God doesn’t just love the world, God loves the world SO MUCH that God gave up God’s son for us. That’s a huge sacrifice for a world that’s broken. Only God can love us that much. Only God loves us so much that Jesus died on the cross-- so that our sin no longer means death-- so we that even when we die, we are able to live with Jesus forever.
So God’s idea of value, and our idea of value, are two different things. God sees our world and us as so ridiculously valuable, that Jesus is willing to sacrifice his life so that we can live. Where we see awfulness, God sees redemption. Where we see hopelessness, God sees a hope-filled future.
So here’s a 20 dollar bill. Would you want it if I offered it to you? What about if I crumpled it up? Would you still want it? What if I stepped on it, ground my heel into it. Would you still want it? What if I sat on it? Dragged it through the mud? Licked it? OK maybe I should lick it and THEN drag it through the mud! But chances are you’d still want this $20 bill because it still has value. That’s how God sees our world and us—even at our worst, at our most disgusting, we are of infinite value to God.
The thing is, it’s really hard to wrap our minds around this amazing gift of God’s grace. Lutherans tend to throw that word around a lot—grace—because Luther was big on emphasizing it. Grace is all the good stuff God gives us—love, forgiveness, mercy, peace. And God gives us these things for nothing, or as I like to say, on the house.
Nothing?? You may ask. I don’t have to do ANYTHING to earn God’s grace?? Yup, that’s right. How contrary is that to our world! Americans live out the philosophy “Good things come to those who work.” We work hard to get a promotion. We work hard to make enough money that we can travel, or do other things. We work hard because it’s in our DNA to work hard. It’s part of what is expected. One could argue that our identities are wrapped around our work—which can be a problem when we retire or lose our job somehow. One time when I traveled to Europe, a Greek woman told me, “Europeans work to live. Americans live to work.”
So coming from a culture of hard-workers, it’s really hard for us to get that God gives us grace and salvation, for FREE. No charge. No catch. God basically functions in a completely different way than we’re used to. ““For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God loves you so much and believes you to be of so much value, that Jesus died for you. Jesus took on all the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain on that cross, for you. If you were the only person on the planet, Jesus would have died for you. You are worth it. You are loved. And you can’t earn that love—Jesus gives it to you, no strings attached.
Paul’s version of John 3:16 is in a famous passage from Ephesians, 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved THROUGH FAITH, it’s a GIFT FROM GOD. It’s not our own doing! God hands us the gift and says, “I love you so much that I want to be with you forever. Enjoy!”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to the story! In the next verse, Paul says “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” So being saved by grace through faith also means that we are made to do good things, to help others.
This makes sense. Jesus says the famous John 3:16 verse in response to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, coming in the night to ask Jesus questions. Nicodemus is sincerely curious. And what drew him to Jesus was what Jesus was doing and saying. He saw Jesus serving others—healing people, feeding people, teaching people, changing people’s lives.
And what drew Nicodemus to Jesus is what continues to draw others to us, and to the Christian faith. We don’t serve others because it’s something we HAVE to do, we serve others because it’s something we WANT to do, because of Jesus’ love for us. Because Jesus first loved us and gave us that love as a gift, we are able to show his love to others, by doing those things that help them.
Paul says we are built to serve others—God loves us and created us to love God and to serve others out of that love. Our actions flow out of our joy and thankfulness to God. And by showing God’s love in our broken world, we are showing others a glimmer of what God’s kingdom is really like.
And that’s when we can proclaim to everyone: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Amen.