Several years ago, some students at Southwestern Baptist Seminary were talking before the start of class, one of them started telling a joke that involved a story about hell. Just then, the professor walked in, and he said, “Men, I never joke about hell. People are going there.”
This morning we are studying a very sobering topic. We have worked our way, word by word and phrase by phrase, through John 3:16, until now we come to the last two phrases: “should not perish” and “but have everlasting life.” Next Sunday morning we are going to conclude our “John 3:16” series with a look at the glorious nature of “eternal life.” But before you can be healed by the gospel, first you must be wounded by it. So this morning we will study the phrase, “shall not perish.” God so loved the world that He sent Jesus to die on the cross so that we might not “perish.” What is this talking about? What is this “perishing”, and why are we doing it?
I. WHY ARE WE PERISHING?
To answer that question we need to go back to the very beginning. As we have said before, the Bible is not merely a bunch of unconnected stories — although we too often teach it that way. It all fits together. And the reason we have Jesus and John 3:16 in the New Testament is because of what we find in the very beginning in the Old Testament.
The Bible tells us in the Book of Genesis that God created mankind in the very beginning. And He created us “in His image”: that is, we are able to think, to create, to have a personality, to make decisions, to relate and fellowship with other persons. And THE greatest Person that we were able to fellowship with was God Himself. Genesis tells us that God walked with the first people (Adam & Eve) in the cool of the day, in perfect fellowship with them — which is what He made us for. As we have said a number of times: God did not create us because “He needed someone to love” or because He needed anything at all; He already had perfect fellowship and love as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in His Triune relationships. He created us to invite us into the perfect fellowship and love that He was already experiencing.
But God commanded those first people not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. They could eat from any of the other trees, but not that one. As my old Hebrew professor said, it was the fewest amount of choices God could have allowed, and still given them free choice: just ONE tree they were not to eat from — but as we know, they did. They broke God’s commandment.
God had told them: “You shall not eat from it, and touch it, or you will die.” But they did both touch it and eat it — and they suffered the penalty that God had warned them about. They didn’t die physically the moment they touched it — which was only by God’s grace — but everything about them died:
— their relationship with each other died: Genesis 3:7 says they were immediately ashamed in each other’s presence. Later in that chapter it says that “you will desire your husband, but he will rule over you” — the sweet fellowship of their marriage was now marred with sin.
— They lost the Paradise of the Garden of Eden that God gave them; that opportunity died.
— They saw their children fight each other, and the blood of one of them spilled on the ground, and they saw literal death come into the world.
— And then Chapter 5:5 says “So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, AND HE DIED.” Their sin brought all kinds of death into the world.
— But more than that, their sin brought an eternal “death.” Revelation 20:14 speaks of “the second death, the lake of fire” which is eternal punishment and separation from fellowship with God forever.
In all these ways, sin brought death into the word. This is just what Romans 6:23 teaches: “For the wages of sin is death” — physical, relational, spiritual, and eternal death.
We need to understand that Adam & Eve’s disobedience of God brought this death into the world not just for them, but for all of us. Romans 5 says that “through one man sin entered into the world … and so death spread to ALL men.” (5:12). Because we are descended from Adam & Eve, we are all born with their same sin nature. So whenever we come to the time in our lives when we can choose to sin, we DO — every single one of us.
— Romans 3:23 says: “For ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
— “All we like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6).
— “All our righteousness is like a filthy garment” before God. (Isaiah 64:6)
— Eph. 2 says “we ALL formerly walked in the lusts of the flesh … even as the rest.”
— Rom. 3:10 “There is none righteous, not even one …”
Jesus said here in John 3:16 that God so loved “the world” that He gave His only begotten Son so that “they would not perish” — because the WHOLE WORLD was perishing — ALL of us alike!
On April 15, 1912, the Royal Majesty Ship Titanic, (the largest passenger ship in the world, and considered to be unsinkable) hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean, and sank, and over 1500 people were drowned. What is striking is the variety of people that were on that ship. There were 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-class seats on the ship, so there were people of every class level on board. In addition to the passengers, there was also the crew: there was a captain, but also men who worked in the kitchen, scrubbing dishes, and others who worked in harsh conditions in the engine room. There were people of every kind on board — some who would be considered much “better off” than others, like John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in America, who was worth over 2 billion dollars in today’s money. But when that ship hit that iceberg in the North Atlantic that April day, it didn’t matter what class of person you were. It didn’t matter if you were the captain, if you were John Jacob Astor and had 2 billion dollars, or if you were the lowliest crew member who scraped food off the plates in the kitchen — they were ALL PERISHING — every single one of them.
This is how it is with our spiritual condition as well. There are all kinds of people in this room, and in this world. As humans we tend to point to some people as being “better off” than others; those of us in America look at people in Mexico, or in the gypsy village at Hrip and think how much “better off” we are than they are. But the truth is, we are ALL “perishing.” Rich, poor, young, old, American, Mexican, Romanian, Indian, successful businessman or homeless person. Just like on the Titanic, it doesn’t matter how much money we have, when the ship is sinking. And this whole world is “sinking”, and we are all perishing. Had God not done something for us in Jesus, we would have ALL perished: “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”; “ALL we like sheep have gone astray”, and Jesus said: “Unless you repent, you will ALL likewise perish.” We are all perishing because of our sin.
II. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO “PERISH”?
The Greek Bible word here (apollumi) means “to destroy, or to be delivered up to eternal misery.” Sometimes this word is used of something just being destroyed: a hair off your head; an arm or an eye. But other times it is used of “eternal misery.” It is the judgment of God that happens beyond the grave; it is eternal punishment. That is what it is speaking about here. How do we know that?
One scripture passage that teaches that is Matthew 25, where Jesus tells how one day, all the nations will be gathered before His glorious throne and He will separate them the way a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. At the end of that story He says in :46, “These (goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (sheep) into eternal life. The key word in this verse is the word “eternal”: the goats will go into “eternal punishment”; and the sheep into “eternal life.” The time span of each of those two is the same: “eternal.” If life in heaven is eternal, and never ends, then the punishment of hell is likewise “eternal”. It is not merely a temporary “being burned up”; it is an eternal punishment that will never end.
So what is this punishment like? The Bible describes it in a number of places. It is not a pretty picture; and it is not often talked about in our modern religious climate of “feel good religion” and “prosperity preaching”, but the doctrine of eternal punishment and what it involves is taught all through the word of God, and if we are to rightly represent His word we must teach it today. What does the scripture teach about what eternal punishment, or “perishing” will be?
First of all, it describes that punishment as a punishment of FIRE:
–In that Matthew 25 passage about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says in :41, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”
— Revelation 20:10 “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
— But this fate is not only for that unholy trinity. Verse 15 goes on to say “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Now some people ask, but couldn’t this just mean that they are “burned up” and “perish” and exist no more? There are many who would like to believe so. These people teach what is called “annihilationism” — that those who are thrown into the lake of fire are consumed and are no more: they are “annihilated.” We might wish that is the way it was; but the fact is that is NOT what the Bible clearly teaches.
— We have already seen in Matthew 25 that both of the fates are described as “eternal” — “eternal punishment” and “eternal life.” If eternal life is forever, then the fire of eternal punishment is forever also. In addition to this,
— Rev. 20:10 says “there they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
— Jesus said in Mark 9:47-48, “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, ‘Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'” — in other words, that punishment will never end.
— One of the most sobering pictures of hell was given to us by Jesus Himself. In fact, it is often stated that Jesus taught more on hell than anyone else in the Bible, and that is true. He referred to hell numerous times, in more depth and more detail than any other Biblical person. It is not that “Paul and all these other writers came up with these ugly doctrines like hell, but let’s just follow Jesus who is love, and who wouldn’t teach things like that.” No, Jesus Himself taught much and in very detailed fashion about hell. And one of those places is in the story He told of the Rich Man & Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Let’s read this story this morning, because it gives us one of the clearest pictures of eternal punishment, from the mouth of the Lord Jesus Himself:
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham *said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
We see there that hell is a place of burning and agony, and that it lasts forever.
— In :24 the rich man cried out that he was “in agony in this flame” and asked for just a drop of water from the poor man’s finger.
— :26 shows us that there was no way out; there was a great chasm that no one could cross.
— And :31 says that it is based on how you respond to God’s word today: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”
— And significantly, this is not a parable. Jesus began this episode by saying: “Now there WAS a rich man.” This is not a parable; it is a true story. There was really a rich man who lived — and the horrible thing is, that man is still in that agony today.
This fiery “perishing” is just what Psalms 11:6 predicted of the punishment of the wicked, and says: “Upon the wicked He will rain snares; fire and brimstone and burning wind will be the portion of their cup.” The phrase, “The portion of their cup” refers to their eternal inheritance. The “cup” of the righteous is the Lord; HE is their portion, Psalm 16 says. But the “portion”, the “inheritance”, the eternal judgment, of the wicked is “fire, and brimstone, and burning wind.” This is taught in both the Old Testament and the New Testament; Jesus and the prophets. “Perishing” means to go to a real and fiery hell.
“Perishing” not only involves eternal fire, but it also involves darkness.
— In Matthew 25:40 Jesus says that the wicked will be thrown into the “outer darkness.”
— Jude 13 speaks of that as well, saying the “blackness of darkness has been reserved forever”
Most importantly of all, “Perishing” means separation from fellowship with God. II Thessalonians 1:9 says “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
We might think that fire and darkness and burning wind would be the worst punishment, but there is something worse — and that is the complete loss of the fellowship of the presence of God.
Jonathan Edwards said if God is the highest good, then to lose Him is the highest loss. Psalm 16:11 tells us that in His presence is fullness of joy forever in heaven — so the LACK of His presence will cut us off from all joy; from everything that could possibly make us happy.
John Chrysostom, an ancient preacher, wrote: “To be separated from God is a greater punishment than a thousand hells.”
Richard Baxter, a Puritan, and perhaps the greatest pastor of all time, wrote: “Little does the world know what is the loss of that soul who loses God! What a dungeon would the earth be if it had lost the sun! … yet all (this is) nothing to the loss of God. As the enjoyment of God is the heaven of the saints, so the loss of God is the hell of the ungodly … the loss of God is the loss of all.” (Baxter, Saints Rest)
Now wonder Jesus said in Matthew 8:12 that “in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
But a great part of the punishment of “perishing” is its finality. As we said, it is “eternal”; it will never end. Charles Spurgeon wrote: “That there is no end to its misery is the hell of hell.”
I remember several years ago when I was sick, it seemed like it went on for so long: my body felt like it was made of lead; I had pangs of pain constantly; night after night I couldn’t sleep; it was so miserable; I had migraine headaches and couldn’t read or listen to anything. And it seemed like it would never end. But of course, thank God it DID. The worst part lasted for months, in total a couple of years, but finally it ended. The worst illnesses and conditions that any of us have here on earth, we can take comfort in, because they won’t last forever; one day we will be free of them. I was visiting with one of our sweet home bound ladies the other day, and she was saying how she longs to be in heaven so that the physical pains and disabilities she has now will all be gone — and that is the hope of the Christian — all these things are temporary; soon they will be over: “soon we’ll be done with troubles and trials” — but you’ve got to understand: the “perishing” that John 3:16 talks about will never end!
Revered SBC president and teacher J.P. Boyce wrote in his systematic theology: “The strongest words of the Greek language are used to express the eternity of that condition.” It will never, ever end. Richard Baxter wrote that the testimony of a lost person in hell might be: “When the Lord cried to me, ‘Wilt thou not be made clean? When shall it once be?’ my heart … answered, ‘Never.’ And now, when I cry, ‘How long shall it be till I am freed from this torment? how justly do I receive the same answer, ‘Never, never!’“ (Baxter SR)
Dante Alighieri was one of the great poets of world literature; in the early 1300’s he wrote his epic poem, the “Inferno”, in which he attempted to describe hell. In the poem he wrote that over the entrance to hell these words are written: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” That is part of what makes hell, hell. There is no hope of an end to it. Richard Baxter wrote that the souls in hell could rejoice if there was ANY hope of ever escaping; even after millions of years, there would at least be HOPE — but there is NONE! Just as eternal life will never end; just as the Christian can sing “When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun”, so the lost souls in hell can utter: “When we’ve been THERE 10,000 years in torment like the sun, we’ll have no less days to suffer here, than when we first begun.”
Hebrews 10:31 says: “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” The God who invented pleasures and who will feed the saved with them from His own right hand in heaven forever; will devote that same power and creativity to delivering His wrath on those who reject His Son. His wrath is so powerful that the Jesus who did not fear the high priests, or the Roman centurions, or a legion of demons, sweat drops of blood and begged that this might pass. He did not want to face the merciless wrath of God that is due for our sins. If Jesus did not want to face that — you do not want to face it either! “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God”, Hebrews says, “for our God is consuming fire.” (Heb.10:31, 12:29). That is what it means to “perish.”
III. YOUR RESPONSE TO PERISHING
So what about all this? You really have a personal choice to make. You can either laugh about this and say it is just a bunch of made-up stuff — or realize that it is the most important thing in all the world. If this is not true — if there is no eternal life, heaven & hell — then I would walk away from this church and never come back. Why waste your time with it?! “Eat, drink and be merry” — get all you can out of this life, and don’t waste your time here. But if this is true — and it is — then then there is nothing more important in your life than making sure that you do not “perish.”
I remember reading how one of the famous “advice columnists” (Dear Abby) was asked, “Do you believe in life after death.” She answered: “I’ve never really thought about it.” The man who asked her said he was amazed by that answer: “Never really thought about it”? It’s the most important question in all the world! If there is a real heaven and a real hell, then there is no more important issue in all the world, than where you are going to spend eternity. Nothing else in your life compares to this:
— A lot of people think this Presidential election of 2016 is pretty important — and I guess in some ways it is — but listen, it doesn’t begin to compare with the seriousness of eternity.
— How your job or business is doing doesn’t compare with this.
— How much money you have in your retirement or 401-k means nothing compared to this
— How your football team is doing isn’t on the same radar as this
— Even your temporary physical health doesn’t touch the importance of this. Your physical problems will be over soon — this is eternity! Nothing is as important as this.
In Luke 10, Jesus had sent some of His disciples out to preach and minister, and :16 says they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!’ But :20 says that Jesus responded to them: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”
In other words, Jesus was saying, there is NOTHING more important than this — nothing here on this earth, not even the “success” of your ministry — NOTHING is more important than knowing that your name is written in heaven, and that you will NOT perish in that lake of fire, but will live with Him in heaven forever.
The thing is, you CAN know it. That’s what this great verse is all about: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him SHOULD NOT PERISH, but have everlasting life.”
— If you’re a Christian, and you KNOW Jesus is your Savior, then this truth should impact you. Nothing should be more important to you than praying for lost people you know, to be saved. Like that seminary professor you can say: “I know people who are going there.” If they’re going to go, then let it be over our prayers and witness. We need to get serious about praying and sharing with the lost.
— This should impact our giving. Our Southern Baptist Convention just called back 800 missionaries from the field all over the world, because people like you & me are overspending our money on bigger homes, and newer cars, and all kinds of entertainment and things we can’t afford, and we are not even tithing — and they’re calling back missionaries from the field who are trying to save people from perishing.
— It should impact our attitude. We get so upset about things in church like the color of the carpet or the kind of songs we sing, or whether the church is too hot or too cold — while people are dying and going to hell. We need to be more concerned about eternity, than we do our own preferences or convenience.
— But before anything else, this needs to start with your own life right now. Do you know for sure that you are not going to perish, but that you have eternal life? As we saw last week, there is only one way to know it — by putting your faith in Jesus, and what He did on the cross for you. If you have never done it, why don’t you call out to Him right now to save you …