In London, England there is a 70-foot high red granite obelisk called “Cleopatra’s
Needle” that stands beside the Thames River. In the 1870’s it was given to Britain by Egypt. When they moved it to England and set it up, they put a “time vault” at the base they constructed for it, with all kinds of representative clothes, toys, etc. from their culture for future generations to uncover. They also appointed a committee to select what they considered to be the single greatest verse of scripture to put into that vault as well. The committee chose John 3:16, and put that verse into the vault, translated into the 215 known languages of that day.
Last week we saw by way of introduction why John 3:16 is such an important verse that people would put it in time capsules, and on signs at football games, and in every kind of imaginable place. It is perhaps not only the single greatest verse of scripture, but quite arguably also the greatest sentence ever spoken in human vocabulary! We saw last week just WHY it is so important: it is a succinct summary of the fundamentals of faith in one sentence, which can lead a person to salvation. So today we want to begin to study this great verse word by word, and phrase by phrase for the next several Sunday mornings. This verse begins with these important words: “For God …”.
I. It All Begins With God
It is so appropriate that this great verse begins, “For God.” Friends, everything begins with God. Half the problems of the world — or more — would be solved if we human beings would just understand this basic fundamental: that everything begins with God. It does not begin with us. We are not the center of this universe; GOD is. This world is not all about us; it is about God. “For GOD.” It is all about Him.
This is the first message that the Bible gives us. In its very first words it states: “In the beginning, GOD …”. And it is no accident that John 3:16 begins that way: “For GOD …”. Because it starts with Him.
This just reminds us that philosophically – and practically – everything is centered around God. It all starts with God: a very specific God as we shall see; who is glorious, who is worth being with for all eternity; who loves us and made us to know Him and be satisfied with Him.
It is significant that this verse does NOT start with man. It doesn’t say, “For MAN …”, but “For GOD.” But this is the problem that many of us have. We want everything to revolve around US; and it does not. It revolves around HIM. “For God”!
Back in the olden days, when nations would make a map of the world, they had an interesting and very revealing habit: they would always put their own country in the middle of the map. All of the rest of the world would revolve around them. They did this of course because they felt like THEY were the most important people; that everything else in the world revolved around them. This is called “ethnocentrism”: ethno, meaning a specific ethnic group, and centrism, of course meaning at the center. “Ethnocentrism” means that you think that your particular ethnic group is at the center of history. For example, the ancient Chinese called themselves the “Middle Kingdom” – they believed that they were literally the center of the universe. (I have read that even today, China places itself at the center of their maps which are printed domestically!) So “ethnocentrism” has been around a long time, and is still with us.
But the problem of mankind is not only that we are “ethnocentric”; it is that we are EGOcentric! The “ego” of course is the “I.” We think that everything is all about US; the whole world must revolve around US! It is basically selfishness; and it is the root of most of the problems we face in our families, in our economy, in politics, in our churches – in every sphere of life. This “egocentrism”; this selfishness is the very root of sin itself. We want everything to revolve around US; as if WE were God – and we are NOT!
This is probably THE single greatest difference that exists between people in our world today. Most people believe (or at least live) as though everything revolves around them. But there are others who see that this world is NOT all about us, that this world was created BY God, FOR God, and for His glory. This is the Christian outlook. For the genuine Christian, it all starts with God.
This is where the so-called “prosperity gospel” falls short of being genuinely Christian. Unlike John 3:16, which starts with God, the prosperity gospel starts with YOU: You dream your own dream, whatever it is, and God will be there to help you reach it. You pick out your goals, whatever you want them to be, and God will help you achieve them: He will make you rich; He will make you successful; He will make you the winning athlete; He will make you the head and not the tail; He will give you “your best life now” – this is what “being a Christian” means for a lot of people, but do you see what the problem with all of that is? It is all about YOU! This is not “Christian” at all. In this teaching it is as if God exists for YOU. John 3:16 reminds us that God does not exist for YOU; YOU exist for GOD! It starts with GOD!
In fact, the first thing that needs to happen for you to really get back right with God is for you to repent of your self-centeredness and say to God, “Lord, I am sorry that I have tried to run my own life; that I have made it all about me. I have only hurt myself and others trying to go my own selfish way; forgive me for that.” That is what real repentance is: turning back from your SELF-centered life, and putting GOD as the center of your life, the way He is supposed to be.
John 3:16 reminds us right here at the very beginning that it is all about God. You were created to know God, and love God. Sin is self-centeredness and it separates you from God. When you are really saved, you don’t just “pray a prayer” and sign a card; you ask for His forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross, and put God BACK in the center of your life where He belongs, and you make the rest of your life revolve around Him. And then one day when we go to heaven, we will spend all eternity around the throne of God, where He will be the glorious center of our undivided attention and awe and worship. And it will all be about Him forever. “For God …”. John 3:16 reminds us that it is all about God!
II. A Very Specific God
This verse begins, “For GOD so loved the world.” In the Greek text it does not just say: “theos”, but “ho theos”. That article, “ho”, is the English word “the”; it is what is called a “definite article”. It makes it definite: it is not just “a god”, but “THE God”! So the Bible is not referring here to “just any” God, but to One, very specific God: “THE God”! The God of the Bible; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ — this is a very specific God the Bible is referring to in John 3:16.
— This is not just “any” God the Bible is talking about here; this is THE God whom Genesis 1:1 says “in the beginning … created the heavens and the earth”.
— This is THE God who told Abraham in Genesis 12 that He would bless all the nations through him.
— This is THE God who told Moses in Exodus 3 that His name was “Yahweh”, “I AM that I AM”!
— This is THE God who promised His people in Isaiah 53 that He was sending a Messiah who would bear their sins in His body.
— This is THE God who said of Jesus, “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”
— This is THE God whom Romans 1 says demonstrated that Jesus was His one-and-only Son with power by raising Him from the dead.
The Bible is not just speaking about ANY God here; it is speaking of THE God – the One True God; the Most High God – the Triune God, Who exists eternally as Father, Son & Holy Spirit. This is THE God, who is eternal, and holy, and spiritual, and omnipotent, and omnipresent, and omniscient and just and LOVE! This is not just “any” God here; it is speaking of THE God; the One True God; the God of the Bible; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is important, because there are a lot of people in our society today who believe in “a” god; but those beliefs vary widely. Surveys tell us that the number of people who believe in “god” is still over 90% of the American population – which is what it has been for a number of years. But in recent years there has been a growing difference: there are more people now in that 90% who do not believe in the God of the Bible necessarily, but in some other “god” of their own personal belief system.
I never saw the tv series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (and I am pretty sure I hope you have never seen it either) but it was pretty “successful” as a tv show, and went on for 7 seasons. I understand that a lot of people liked it because it supposedly had a “spiritual” side to it. But I read that that is part of the problem; that the show tried to be “spiritual” in a general kind of way, without really having specific Biblical convictions. The lead actress in the show, Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played “Buffy”, was the same way. When she was interviewed by Scotland’s Daily Record, she said that her personal spirituality borrows from a hodgepodge of religions. “I consider myself a spiritual person … I believe in an idea of God, although it’s my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting, and I’ve been to every kind of denomination: Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist. I’ve taken bits from everything and customized it.” In other words, she has “picked and chosen” what she “liked” from whatever religious practice sounded good to her, and came up with her own, personal, hand-picked religion. This is becoming more and more commonplace today; people just pick and choose their own religious ideas and practices like they would food servings at a Golden Corral, just adopting whatever ideas about God they personally like, and “surprisingly enough”, they come up with a god who allows them to do whatever they want to!
But the problem with that is, picking and choosing what sounds good to you doesn’t lead you to the truth. These people want everyone to be “ok” with their differing beliefs about their “god”, as if we can all be right, and it’s all true. But it’s not. What they are missing is that there really is One True Living God. And He is not just all the different things that anybody wants to believe about Him. Because He really exists, there really are facts about Him which are true, and others which are not. To say that it doesn’t matter what you believe about God is to say that God isn’t real.
You don’t do that with anything else that is real in this world. When it comes to math; you don’t say: “It doesn’t matter what answer you give; they are just all right.” NO! 2 + 2 can’t be 3, 4, 5, whatever you want; it doesn’t matter! (Some of our students may WISH that was so, but they know it isn’t!) There is a real answer to math. You don’t do that with science, either, or any area of reality. In any area of reality, there is a right answer to something. So if God really exists – and He does – then He really exists with certain specific characteristics. He has revealed to us in His word, the Bible, what He is like: He is Triune, He is holy, He is just, He is loving. He is not just anything that anyone wants to believe about Him. He is the God the Bible describes Him to be. And when we come to John 3:16 THAT God is the One the Bible is speaking about. John 3:16 is not just talking about anyone’s idea about a “god”; but THE God; the One True God; the God of the Bible; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ – this specific God!
III. Salvation is from God
Most specifically, this verse reminds us that our salvation is from this God of the Bible. In John 3:16, Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, and to us today through His word, about salvation. And significantly, He begins this great verse by saying: “For God …”. He’s saying that GOD is the One who initiated and brought about salvation. It doesn’t say “For Man …” as if we as mankind had all realized we had a problem and worked out a way for us to get back to God. (No, we HAVE done that — and that is exactly what we find in all of the failed philosophies and religious systems of the world). But Jesus doesn’t begin His explanation of salvation with man; He begins it with God. He says: “For GOD”! Folks, we must realize that salvation begins with GOD! If GOD had not done something for us, we would have all been hopelessly lost forever. It was GOD who made things happen and brought about our salvation. Ephesians Chapter 2 may say it better than anywhere else:
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.”
This is a hopeless picture of every one of us: DEAD in trespasses and sins, facing the deserved wrath of God, like everyone else in mankind. But then :4 begins with those 2 great words: “BUT GOD …”. You should underline or circle those words in your Bible if you haven’t already, because those are the words that made all the difference for us: “But God …”!
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“But God”, Ephesians 2 says: GOD was rich in mercy; GOD had great love for us; GOD made us alive in Christ; GOD raised us up with Christ Jesus; GOD showed us His kindness in Christ; GOD saved us by His grace. “But GOD”!
Ron & Pat Owens wrote a great choir song back in the 1980’s that began like this: “Before the earth was formed, or stars were hung in space; before the breath of life was given to man; God looked through time and saw a hopeless human race — and there devised His great Redemption Plan.” This is just what John 3:16 tells us; “For GOD”!
Salvation comes from GOD! We must look to HIM for salvation. Unfortunately, that is NOT what most people do. Most people look to something they can do to save themselves. An extreme example of that is found in the true story of what happened in an airplane a few years ago. Pete Rose, the famous baseball player was once on a flight with his Cincinnati Reds teammates, and the plane flew into a terrible storm. They said it was so bad that even the veteran flight crew was shaken by it. Pete Rose’s teammate, Hal King, was sitting by him on that flight, and he said that during that storm Rose turned to him and said: “If this plane goes down, I am taking a .300 lifetime batting average with me. How about you?” Now I don’t think most people would claim that their sporting skills are going to justify them before God and give them a place in heaven. But the truth is, many people DO look to their own good works and deeds, to justify themselves before God. They think things like: “I’m a pretty good person; I went to church; I gave some offerings; I cared about people. I haven’t sinned like some folks have”, etc. But those verses in Ephesians we looked at a few moments ago tell us that we cannot save ourselves by our good works. It says that salvation is “not of works.” Romans 3:20 says: “By the works of the Law, NO flesh shall be justified in His sight.”
You have to look to GOD for your salvation. It cannot come from yourself. “For God”! Look to Him. This is the point of what I believe is one of the greatest pictures of the right and wrong ways of salvation in all the Bible: the story of the Pharisee & the Publican in Luke 18. Jesus said there that two men went up to the temple to pray: a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed and said, “I thank You that I am not like other men … I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all I get.” You notice the common word there: “I, I, I”! It was all about him, what HE could do that he thought made himself right before God. But Jesus said the tax collector was unwilling to even lift his eyes to heaven. He just beat his chest and cried: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He had nothing to offer God to justify himself; he just asked God to have mercy on him, to do for him what He couldn’t do for himself. And Jesus said THAT was the man who went home saved – the man who looked to GOD, not himself, for his salvation.
I think we basically have these same two kinds of people that Jesus talked about in Luke 18, right here in this room today:
— Some of us are just like that Pharisee: you are all dressed up, looking your Sunday best, trying every week to show God and others how good you are – surely you deserve a place in heaven; you’re so “religious”! But the truth is: you will NEVER deserve a place in heaven. NONE of us do. We have all sinned. You have sinned. And you can’t save yourself. And you will never be saved until you humble yourself and admit that you need God’s help in Jesus.
— But others of us are like that second man in Jesus’ story: when we think about Holy God, we wouldn’t even dare to lift up our head to Him in prayer. We know we are sinners; we have fallen short; we don’t deserve heaven. But we have asked God to have mercy on us, and do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves, and save us. And every one of us who looks to HIM for our salvation, is just like that man Jesus described in Luke 18: we’re gonna go to our home today JUSTIFIED — right with God! — NOT because WE’ve done something — but because of what GOD did for us in Jesus Christ. See, salvation is all about God. It is about looking to HIM to save us, when we couldn’t save ourselves. It’s all about God. That’s why it was no accident that Jesus began this verse the way that He did: “FOR GOD”!