(Preached at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, 9-25-16)
Some time ago I read an interesting article on what the author considered to be the greatest love stories of all time in history and literature. There were many familiar stories listed: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet of course; Lancelot and Guinevere from King Arthur, Darcy & Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice — all great stories of great feeling and sacrifice. But I noticed one thing about them — none of these were real! They were all works of fiction! But the greatest love story of all time is not found in any novel. The greatest love story of all is TRUE, and it is found in the book I hope you brought with you today: the Bible, which tells the story of the love which God has for us.
This morning we continue our study of John 3:16, and we are looking at the second couple of words in this great verse: “For God SO LOVED the world …”. Last Sunday we saw that the opening words, “For God”, teach us that it is all about God, not us, and that He is a very specific God the Bible describes, who initiated salvation. Mankind did not dream up a way to God; GOD made a way of salvation for us. It’s all about God. But WHY did God do what He did? WHY did He make a way for us to come to Him? He did He make the costly sacrifice in Jesus that He did? The Bible tells us in this verse that He did it, out of LOVE. It says: “For God SO LOVED”.
I. The Response of Love
The words “so loved” here are important because they tell us how God responded to mankind. From the very beginning God made us to know Him and love Him, but from the Garden of Eden on, we all sinned and turned away from Him to try to satisfy ourselves by disobeying Him instead. Last week we saw that Ephesians 2 says “we all lived in the lusts of the flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” None of us are an exception to that: Romans 3:23 says, “For ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s what God saw in us. So how did God respond to that?
He could have, theoretically, responded in a number of different ways. He could have immediately wiped us out with a lightning bolt from the sky! He could have responded to us with contempt or spite or anger. But instead the Bible says He responded with love. “For God SO LOVED.” We see this taught all through scripture:
— Ephesians 2 says that when God saw all that, :4 says: “But God, being rich in mercy, BECAUSE OF HIS GREAT LOVE which He had for us …” sent Christ for us.
— Ephesians 5:2 “as Christ also LOVED you, and gave Himself up for us …”
— Titus 3:4 “But when the kindness of God our Savior and His LOVE for mankind appeared, He saved us …”
God’s response to us, even in our sin, is LOVE. Jesus didn’t come to the world in anger; He came in love. The very next verse, John 3:17, says: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” God responded to us — even in our sin — with love.
We should not be surprised at this. I John 4 says “God IS love.” Everything God does, He does with love. So we should not be surprised that God would respond to the world with an amazing, undeserved love.
One of my very favorite books is Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy. In it he tells the very unusual story of General Dan Sickles, whose wife had been unfaithful to him. Sickles shot and killed the man who had been involved with his wife, and he was acquitted in what they believe to be the first case in which a person pleaded “temporary insanity.” Sickles was for a short time a pretty popular “hero” after that. But then Sickles did the unthinkable. When all the fallout from the trial had settled, he forgave his wife and took her back. And THAT scandalized society. They could not understand or accept his forgiveness and love for his wife. Sickles became an outcast. He was a member of Congress at that time, but Mary Chestnut, the South Carolina diarist, sat in on a session of Congress, and wrote in her diary that as she watched Congress, not one person would come near Congressman Sickles. She said they treated him “as if he had the smallpox.” All because Sickles did not respond with bitterness and hatred towards his wife, but with forgiveness and love instead. His was a shocking response of love.
If you think that is a shocking story, that is actually OUR story with God, isn’t it? In fact, God puts it in those same terms of marital unfaithfulness; He says in Jeremiah 3:20, “’But like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me … declares the LORD.” God made us for Himself. We exist to love and be loved by Him. But we have been unfaithful to Him. Romans 1 tells how we exchanged Him for other gods; and loved other things in His place. We have been unfaithful to God. But instead of responding with anger, or judgment, or condemnation, God responded by actually loving the world, and coming here Himself to die for us, that we might be forgiven, and come back to Him! It is a shocking response of love!
In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape tells his “apprentice” demon Wormwood, “One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men … is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really DOES …”! That demon had it right. God really does love us. Despite all we’ve done: “For God SO LOVED”!
And you can make that personal! If you are wondering today, because of your sin, if God could ever love you, or want you back, the answer is YES! Once and for all, on the cross, He “tied a yellow ribbon ’round the old oak tree” and said, “See that cross? It says I love you, and I want you back!” If you will admit your sin, and turn back to Him, He will take you back. He responded to us, even in our sin, with love.
And there’s another application to this too: if God responded to US with an attitude of love, then WE need to respond to OTHERS with that same love! When we have people in our lives who commit sins, against God, or even against us, we should respond to them the same way God did to us: with LOVE! Now does NOT mean that we don’t care if they sin, or that we accept the sin, or don’t call it sin. It is. God is a holy God, and their sin IS sin; nothing can change that. and we have to care about it because it is hurting themselves and others, and separating them from God. But when we see someone in sin, our attitude towards them is to be that of COMPASSION, just like God had for us. We should love them enough to want them OUT of their sin; and we should fervently pray for them, and minister to them; and witness to them. But most importantly, everything we do towards them is to come out of LOVE for them — just like God had for us. We should respond to other people with love — because that is how God responded to us: with LOVE!
II. The Meaning of Love
What did it mean that God “so LOVED” the world? Love, according to the Bible, is not just a “good feeling” about someone. I Cor. 13:4-8 gives us the Bible’s famous definition of love, saying:
“Love is patient, love is kind, is not jealous, love does not brag and is not arrogant; does not unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered. Does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
You may notice that in this famous definition of love, there is not a single “feeling” mentioned in it. Not one! In fact it is a series of 16 VERBS. Love is not just a “good feeling” which you have towards someone, that changes over time. Love leads you to ACTION, to do what is best for the one who is loved. That is how God’s love is for us. God didn’t just see us and “feel good” towards us; He saw us in our sin against Him, and knew what would happen to us, and so He took ACTION for us.
It would be like a person who sees someone drowning in a pool of water. They could just stand there and say, “Oh I just love them; I feel so sorry for them” — but that is not really love, is it? God is like the person who saw someone drowning in a pool who dove in there to save them. He saw that we were perishing in our sins, and He “dove” right into this world in the Person of Jesus Christ to save us. That is what love does. It acts on behalf of the one who is loved. And that is what God did for us.
We need to understand what love really is because a lot of people misunderstand it. They think that “loving” someone means that you just have “good feelings” towards them, and let them do whatever they want. So they think that if God says here that He “loves” them, that means they can do whatever they want and He doesn’t care. But that’s not love.
For example, if there was a child who is running wild, and undisciplined, but their parent said, “Oh, I know I should discipline them, but I just love them too much to do anything about it.” What would you say about that? You’d say they don’t really love that child, right?! Because love cares enough to do what is best for them – even when it is hurtful or painful. Proverbs 13:24 says “He who withholds his rod hates his son.” The Bible says the parent who does not discipline his child does not “love him too much”, it says he “hates” him! Because love does what really needs to be done, for the best for the person.
What you need to understand is that this is exactly the way God is with YOU! Some people think: “Well, God loves me, so I can just keep doing what I’m doing and He will just leave me alone and love me.” But that’s not true. God DOES love you. He REALLY loves you. And that means He loves you too much to leave you the way you are, when He knows that your sin will eventually destroy you. He’s like a lifeguard who puts a fence around the the pool to keep people out who can’t swim — and that fence is what we call His “commandments.” We accuse God of being “mean” because He gives us commandments about things we shouldn’t do. But what He’s really doing with those commandments is “fencing off” things that will hurt you if you get into them. He loves you too much to just leave you doing whatever you want to. He knows what your sin is doing to you; to your family; & to the people around you. He knows that your sin will ultimately lead you to eternal punishment in hell. God loves you too much to leave you in that. He loved you so much that He took action. He came to this world in Jesus Christ, and paid an unimaginable price on the cross for your sins, not so that you could just STAY in your sins, but so you would have an opportunity to turn BACK from those sins that are hurting yourself and others so much. It cost God greatly to do that – but that is what love does; it acts sacrificially to do what is best for the one who is loved. We’re going to see some more about that in a couple of weeks as we see how God GAVE His only begotten Son. But that is what love is: it cares enough to take action, and to give sacrificially to do what is best for the one who is loved, and that is how God loved you, when He sent Jesus to die on the cross for you.
III. The Motivation of Love
And WHY did God do what He did for us in Jesus Christ? Because He “so loved” the world. It was not because we deserved it, or because we were so worthy of it. On the contrary, we did NOT deserve it. Romans 5:8 says: “God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God didn’t send Jesus because of anything good He saw in us; but just because He loved us when we were needy sinners.
When I was in seminary, I was called to pastor my first part-time church. It was really quite a privilege, because there were 5000 students at Southwestern Seminary at that time, and even part-time churches could be hard to get. One I was cleaning out an office at the church and I came across a stack of papers — and I noticed that they were resumes that had been sent to the church from pastoral candidates. A lot of them looked like they had better experience than I did, so I felt pretty good about the church calling me. A few days later, I said something to one of the church members, whose husband was on the search committee, about finding those resumes. She said, “Oh yes, there were a lot of them to pick from. But we chose you because you were so young & inexperienced, and we figured we could help you the most!” That was humbling. They didn’t pick me because I was so good, but because I was so needy!
What we need to understand is that’s what God did for us. He didn’t love us because He looked down from heaven and saw nice, or how beautiful, or how sincere we were, or anything like that. He looked down and saw how SINFUL we were, and He didn’t love us because we were so good, but when we were so needy. The only explanation for God’s love for us is that He just IS love!
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is known for her famous love poems for Robert Browning in the 1800’s. In one of them, she speaks of what she hopes will be the motivation for his love for her:
If thou must love me, let it be for naught Except for love’s sake only.
Do not say ‘I love her for her smile—her look—her way Of speaking gently,
—for a trick of thought That falls in well with mine’ …
For these things in themselves, Belovèd, may Be changed, or change for thee,
—and love, so wrought, May be unwrought so …
But love me for love’s sake, that evermore Thou mayst love on, through love’s eternity.
Elizabeth wanted Browning to love her, not “because” of any specific qualities she had — because those things could change — but just from love alone – which would never change or alter. The Bible tells us here that this was the motivation God had towards us. He did not love us for anything good about us – but simply because He is love. “For God so LOVED …”.
And we will talk about this more in the coming weeks, but it is not stretching the truth of scripture to apply this personally, and say that He “so loved” YOU in this way. In Galatians 2:20 the Apostle Paul says that Jesus “loved ME, and gave Himself for ME”! We see there the Lord’s motivation was LOVE – a very personal love! Paul said God didn’t just love “the world”; He said He “loved ME”! You can make this personal, too. God “so loved” you! He sent Jesus because He loves YOU! Just like on the mugs we gave away the other day, you can write YOUR name in the blank of John 3:16, “For God so loved YOU”!
By the way, this is God’s motivation for all everything He does in your life — even those hard things you go through. Hebrews says: “those whom the Lord LOVES He disciplines”. He brings us through a lot of difficult things in life, and we wonder why. God has an ultimate purpose for everything – but the scripture says the motivation behind what He is doing is LOVE. He loves you. You can know that whatever you are going through is filtered through the love of God, who is going to use it for ultimate good. God is always motivated towards you by love.
IV. The Measure of Love
Finally, this great verse does not just say “God loved” – which would be amazing enough – but it says that “God SO loved”! That word “so” indicates that the measure of God’s love for us was (and is!) very great. D.A. Carson says that the grammar here “emphasizes the intensity” of God’s love.
(((Now, there are those who assert that the Greek word translated “so” here does not refer to an intensity of love, but rather that this is the way in which God loved. They would translate this verse: “God loved the world IN THIS WAY …”. Now, to be fair, the Greek word “houtos” can be translated that way, and it actually most often IS in the New Testament. Yet there are a number of times when it is used emphasizing intensity:
— Galatians 1:6 “I am amazed that you are SO quickly deserting”;
— Galatians 3:3 “are you SO foolish?”
— I Thess. 2:8 “SO deeply do we care for you” (this verse is very similar to John 3:16’s expression of sentiment!)
— Heb. 12:21 “SO terrifying was the sight …”
— Rev. 16:18 this same author John writes: “SO violent was the earthquake …”
Thus we see that “so” is used several times in scripture in such a way which indicates intensity, so that can have confidence that we are not mistreating scripture to assert here that “SO loved” in John 3:16 indicates the intensity of God’s love for us.
There is yet another thing which argues for this meaning of the word “so.” In Greek, this word “houtos” is actually the FIRST word in John 3:16. That is the emphatic position. So the verse literally reads: SO MUCH did God love the world! It does seem to be indeed emphasizing the intensity of God’s love for us.
But the intensity of God’s love for us is not merely a matter of Greek grammar.)))
Other Scriptures reinforces this teaching of the intensity of God’s love:
— I John 3:1 “See HOW GREAT a love the Father has bestowed upon us”
— Ephesians 3:18-19, Paul prays they will comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.”
— Romans 8:38-39 famously says that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
All through scripture we see that the “measure” of God’s love is immeasurable! It is no exaggeration to say that He “SO loved the world”! John Piper (who, ironically wrote elsewhere that “houtos” should be translated “in this way”) wrote: “This love is of such a kind and such an intensity and such a magnitude that it moved God to give his Son to die for the world.” That is an intense love! God “SO LOVED” with an intense, amazing love!
Several years ago, an American couple went to China on a mission trip. While they were there, they went to a village, and they saw an odd sight: there was a boy behind a plow, guiding it, but instead of an animal pulling the plow, there was an older man who was pulling it. The American man laughed at the sight, and pulled out his camera to take a picture of it. He said something about it to his host, who said, let me tell you the story behind this. He said, yes, this is an unusual sight; the man and the son used to have an ox that pulled that plow. But they belong to a church here in China, which was constructing a new building for worship. They wanted to give something for the building, but they didn’t have any money. So they gave their only ox, which was sold, and the money was given to help build the church. So now the man has to pull the plow. The American man said his laughter turned to humble awe, at the thought of that man’s loving sacrifice for his church.
That really is an amazing kind of love that man and his son had for their church, that they would give the only ox they had to do their daily work, and that the father would have to pull the plow himself. How great a love would you have to have for your church, to give your only ox; your only source of income? But think about this: what kind of love must God have for US – that He would give His only SON to die for us?! And yet that is exactly what the Bible says. “For God SO loved the world”, with such an intensity, that He would give His only Son to die for us. THAT is an intensity of love!
Years ago, I said something in one of my sermons I wish I could take back (probably not the only thing I ever wished I could take back, but … !) I said that you could tell how much something was worth, by what someone was willing to give for it – and that meant that we as human beings must really be worth quite a lot, if God would give Jesus for us. As I said, I wish I could take that statement back. I can’t – but I can correct it today. Folks: the fact that God gave Jesus for us is not a measurement of OUR great worth; no, it is a measurement HIS GREAT LOVE. We aren’t worth it; we don’t deserve it, but the amazing truth is that despite all our sins and all our failures, God just loves us with amazing love beyond description: “For God SO loved!”