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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:God's great love and humanity's great call
Text:John 3:16-21 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Mercy

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 84:1,2

Hymn 3:5 (after the law)

Psalm 87

Hymn 72

Psalm 136:1,2,12,13

Scripture reading: Jonah 1

Text: John 3:16-21

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

If there were to be an award for the most reluctant missionary of all time, it would have to go to Jonah.  Jonah had a direct commission from God to go to a foreign country with a message.  God came directly to Jonah and told him to go to Assyria, to the great city of Nineveh.  Instead, Jonah ran in the exact opposite direction.  He boarded a ship and try to make his way to Tarshish, often thought to be in Spain.  Tarshish was about as far away from Nineveh as you could get in those days.  Of course, we know how that turned out.  God didn’t let Jonah get away.  God had a purpose for the prophet – he had to be God’s messenger and eventually he was. 

You have to understand how hard that was for Jonah to swallow.  Jonah was Jewish and he had a very set way of thinking about people from other countries.  In general, the Jewish way of thinking was that God loved Israel and really had no interest or care for other nations.  Now Jonah was sent specifically to a city in one nation, it was Nineveh in Assyria.  Assyria was Israel’s number one enemy.  The Assyrians had a reputation for being brutal and barbaric.  It was like Jonah had been sent as a missionary to an unrepentant serial killer’s convention.  He was supposed to bring a message from God to these cold-blooded butchers and rapists.  If you see it in that light, you might understand better why Jonah ran in the opposite direction.

Jonah had a real problem with where God was sending him.  If Jonah had lived to see the words of our passage, he might have had a real problem with that too, especially before going to Nineveh.  You see, here the Holy Spirit addresses any inclination to think that God’s concerns are narrowly fixed on one people.  He had given clear hints of that before – you can think of what we just sang from Psalm 87.  But it really becomes crystal clear in the New Testament in passages like this one from John.  Here the Word of God reveals that God actually has a care for the entire world.  It’s not just Israel, it’s not just people from one ethnic background.  God’s love encompasses “the world.”  This is a message that we need to be reminded of as well.  We might be tempted to think that the good news of Jesus Christ is only for a certain type of people.  Perhaps it’s a certain type of ethnic background, but it could also be a certain type of social or economic class, or maybe just for people from a certain church.  Here the Holy Spirit clearly reveals that the gospel is a message for absolutely everyone.  This passage reveals to us God’s great love and the great call that goes out to all humanity.  That’s our theme for this morning as we look at John 3:16-21.             

Let’s first remind ourselves of where we are here in John.  Up to this point in chapter 3, Jesus has been meeting with Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees.  Our Saviour stunned Nicodemus by teaching him that he had to be born again from above.  Christ spoke about the need for rebirth from the Holy Spirit.  Christ then went further and called this very religious man to true faith in him.  Nicodemus thought that his religion would be enough to earn him a place with God.  Jesus said that Nicodemus needed him, just like the Israelites needed the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  Like everyone else, Nicodemus, the religious man, needed a Saviour, he needed to believe in Jesus in order to have eternal life.

Now as we get into verse 16, there is a question about whose voice is heard here.  Some say that Jesus is continuing to speak to Nicodemus.  If you look at the verse in your ESV Bible, you’ll see quotation marks at the beginning of the verse.  That indicates that the translators believe that this is still Jesus speaking.  But there is a footnote at the end of verse 15, “Some interpreters hold that the quotation ends at verse 15.”  First, I want to point out that the original Greek didn’t have quotation marks, so these have been added in our English Bibles.  They’re not inspired.  Second, there are good reasons to believe that what we have in verse 16 and following is commentary from John, rather than speech from Jesus.  One of the main reasons is the way things are phrased here.  The words that are chosen sound a lot like John’s writing elsewhere in this gospel and in his letters.  He uses certain words that are unique to his style.  When Jesus refers to himself, he often says “Son of Man.”  But when John refers to him, he calls him “the Son of God” or even “the only Son of God.”  So we are going to move forward with the understanding that the Holy Spirit inspired John to write these words as further commentary on what just happened between Jesus and Nicodemus.         

And now we get to some of the most famous words of the Bible.  They’re famous for a reason.  They speak of an amazing truth about God and what he’s like.  Jesus had just told Nicodemus that whoever believes in him could have eternal life.  This was saying that even Nicodemus with all his religious baggage could have Jesus as a Saviour, if only he would believe in him.  Now the Holy Spirit turns to the readers of this gospel, whoever they might be, whatever their background might be, and he says, “You too!”  You too can have Jesus Christ as your Saviour, if only you believe in him. 

“For God so loved the world,” he says.  These words are sometimes misunderstood.  They’re sometimes misunderstood to mean that God loves every single individual person in exactly the same way.  From elsewhere in the Bible, we know that this is not true.  For example, we know that God loves the elect in a very special way.  The word “world” here has to been seen in the context of what John is writing.  Here “the world” is being used in the sense of that great body of human beings who have rebelled against God.  And in this great body of human beings, there are people from all different backgrounds.  It’s not just Jews, but non-Jews too, everyone.  They speak different languages, come from different cultures, and so on.  God looked upon this great body of lost human beings and he had compassion, pity.

This lost humanity didn’t deserve to be loved.  It’s not like the world was so lovable.  That’s what makes this love so great and remarkable.  This lost humanity has done everything to make itself offensive to God.  We’re part of that.  We’re part of a humanity that was designed to exalt and praise God, but yet has turned against that design.  Instead, as a race we’re more focussed on exalting ourselves and pushing God away.  Yet it’s this rebel race that God so loved.  Words fail when we try to express the amazing character of this love. 

Where words fail, actions say it all.  God acted.  God demonstrated his great compassion and love with action.  He gave up something costly:  his only Son.  He sent his only Son into this world for the salvation of sinners.  If anyone would believe in him, they would not perish but have eternal life.  “Whoever” is the word the Holy Spirit uses.  Again that emphasizes the universal availability of salvation in Jesus Christ.  Anyone, regardless of whether they’re Jew or Gentile, man or woman, young or old, anyone can be saved by believing in Jesus Christ.  You too! 

And what are they saved from?  They’re saved from perishing.  That’s referring to perishing under the just wrath of God against sin, a wrath experienced with an eternal conscious torment in hell.

How are they saved?  By believing in God’s only Son, Jesus.  Let’s be clear about what that means.  Sometimes when I refer to believing in Christ, I’ll use the words “resting and trusting.”  I choose those words on purpose.  Listen carefully:  to believe in Jesus is to rest in him.  It means that you stop working to earn your way with God through your own efforts.  You rest in him, you stop trying to measure up for God.  To believe in Jesus is also to trust in him.  It means that you hold that he has done everything for you to secure your place in God’s family.  Because Jesus is your Saviour, you can be confident that God is your Father and you are his child.  Nothing can change that.  Trusting in Jesus means that your confidence rests entirely in him.  Loved ones, when we rest and trust in God’s only Son, we will not perish, but have eternal life.  A God of great love promises us this in the gospel!  Believe it.

God’s great love continues to get unfolded in verse 17.  Why did God send his Son into this rebellious world?  Not for the purpose of condemnation – condemnation had already been introduced with human sinfulness.  Instead, God sent his Son for the purpose of salvation.  The Father sent his Son into this world so that people would be saved through believing in him.  And again, did God owe that to the world?  No, of course not.  The world had no right to it.  God was under no obligation to provide salvation, but in his great love he chose to.  He mercifully chose to give a way of rescue to those who would otherwise be condemned to perish eternally.

In verse 18, we again find that word “whoever.”  It’s used twice.  This is a universal word.  So whoever believes in Jesus, anyone who rests and trusts in him, is not condemned.  This is saying something about another great gospel truth:  justification.  Justification is God’s declaration that we are right with him because of what Jesus has done in our place.  When we think about justification, we think about a courtroom and a Judge on the bench.  When we think about justification, we think about the fact that we are the accused.  We are accused of breaking God’s commandments and never keeping any of them.  Into our courtroom steps our lawyer, our Mediator Jesus Christ.  He defends us in the trial of our lives.  He tells the Judge that he has paid our penalty on the cross.  He tells the Judge that he has lived a perfect life in our place.  Since we take hold of him by faith, he tells the Judge that the verdict must be in our favour.  And so it is.  We are not condemned.  The Judge has declared us righteous in his sight.  Not condemned!  What beautiful gospel words!  What a comfort it is to know that when you trust in Christ, you are not condemned.  The judgement has been made and nothing can ever overturn it.  The case is never going to be reopened.  There’s going to be no appeal.  Not condemned.  Not now.  Not ever.  Through resting and trusting in Christ, you are free!  As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  All because of God’s love in sending his Son. 

But verse 18 also speaks of those who do not believe.  If someone doesn’t believe in the name of the only Son of God, if someone doesn’t rest and trust in Jesus Christ, they remain under condemnation.  That means that they have an eternal death sentence hanging over their heads.  The Holy Spirit reminds us here that not believing in Jesus Christ is not a light matter.  He’s not someone you can just take or leave with no consequences.  What you do with Jesus matters and matters eternally.  That’s true of everyone and anyone.  Again, note that the Holy Spirit uses the word “whoever.”  “Whoever does not believe…”  It doesn’t matter if you’re Nicodemus and a very religious man.  It doesn’t matter if you’re the Samaritan woman coming up in chapter 4 and following a different religion.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve grown up in the church.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is.  If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to perish.  “Whoever does not believe is condemned already” – is still under condemnation.  Jesus is the rescue offered, and if you don’t take hold of him there is no rescue. 

And we all desperately need that rescue – that’s really the point in verses 19 and 20.  When Jesus appeared in this world as the light shining in the darkness, he met with hatred and resistance.  Because people are sinful, “because their works were evil,” they loved the darkness rather than the light.  Without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, sinful human beings just want to maintain the status quo, keep going in a sinful direction, down the broad road to destruction.  It’s about what they “love.”  John says that they “loved the darkness.”  That’s about their affections, what they set their hearts on.  They don’t set their hearts on Jesus, but on a sinful way of life.  They set their hearts and their love on rebelling against God, they love the things that God hates.  Don’t we see that in the world around us?  Don’t we see so many people who just love the darkness?  For those of us who were converted later in life after some years in the darkness, don’t you agree that this was you before Christ?  Without the Holy Spirit giving us a new heart, we have a full-on love affair with sin. 

Moreover, we hate and resist what would expose that love of sin.  “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”  Without a new heart from the Holy Spirit, human beings hate the gospel and will not believe it.  Why?  Because the gospel says that there’s something wrong with who you are and what you do.  The gospel is a message of salvation -- it’s salvation from your sin and the wrath of God that you have earned for yourself.  Coming to the gospel and believing in Christ means that you have to acknowledge that you are a sinner.  You come to God only with your sins.  The gospel forces you to own up to the reality of who you are and what you’ve done in your life.  In the words of verse 20, your works get exposed.  They get judged.  You get judged.  Accepting the gospel means accepting God’s evaluation of you as a sinner in need of rescue.  That is a frightening thought for unregenerated human beings.  That’s something they can’t stand to contemplate and therefore they don’t come to the light.

But there are those who do come to the light.  The Holy Spirit graciously grants the gift of a new heart, he creates faith.  So there are those who “do what is true.”  That expression at the beginning of verse 21 is a Jewish way of speaking about acting faithfully.  It’s referring to the proper response to the call of the gospel. 

We can think back for a moment to Nicodemus.  What would it look like for Nicodemus to “do what is true”?  It would have meant that when he heard Jesus say that whoever believes in him may have eternal life, that Nicodemus would say, “Yes, Jesus, I do believe in you.  I rest from my efforts at earning salvation and I trust that you did it all for me.”  That would be Nicodemus coming to the light, coming to Christ the one who is the light shining in the darkness.  By doing that, it would be clear that “his works have been carried out in God,” or through God.  Nicodemus would do what is true through the Holy Spirit giving him new birth and giving him saving faith. 

We don’t know for sure what happened with Nicodemus.  Our passage, including that verse, is couched in terms of “whoever.”  Again, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is.  What’s said here is true of absolutely everyone who does what is true and comes to the light by responding to the call of the gospel. 

You see, you need to look at that word “whoever” as a call.  Loved ones, it’s a call that comes to you.  In his great love, God calls you to do what is true and come to the light.  In his great love, he has sent his Son into this world so that if you believe in him, you will not perish, but have eternal life.  Doing what is true, coming to the light that’s not about doing more good works, but about resting and trusting in Christ alone for your salvation.  And when you do that, it’s clear that this has been done through God, through his grace, through his Spirit.  We don’t take any credit for ourselves, but give all the praise to our loving God! 

So you need to look at this as a call to you.  But it’s also a call to extend to others.  Our passage is clear that the gospel message is not just for one type of person.  It’s meant for all sinners.  God has shown his great love in giving a way of rescue for everyone.  And we’re supposed to be God’s instruments to make sure that everyone knows about this way of rescue.  We can tell people, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that if you believe in him, you will not perish but have eternal life.  Without Jesus, you will perish forever.  But anyone who takes hold of him by faith will not be condemned!”  We don’t know in whom the Holy Spirit is working.  We can’t look into hearts and know what God is doing in terms of a new heart or new birth.  We don’t know when or if the Lord will use our witness to bring a lost sinner to saving faith in Christ.  What we do know is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58.  He encourages believers to abound in the work of the Lord, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  That includes the work of sharing the gospel with everyone we can.  It’s never in vain.

That gospel message is for everyone.  Jonah thought that God’s love was only for Israel.  He couldn’t imagine that God would want Nineveh to repent.  And when Nineveh did repent, Jonah couldn’t handle it.  He wanted God’s fire and brimstone, but instead he saw people in sackcloth and ashes.  At the end, Jonah just sat down to die.  He was so depressed.  How could God do this to him?  Send him to preach and the people respond with repentance!  He wanted to see them destroyed.  Some missionary!  But then God approaches Jonah and challenges him.  “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”  God pitied Nineveh, a city in rebellion against him, a people who had oppressed his own people.  Similarly, God so loved the world in rebellion against him that he sent his Son.  What amazing love!  And because of that love, if anyone believes, anyone!, that person will not perish but have eternal life.  That includes you, that includes us all.  AMEN. 


O God our Father,

Your love is amazing to us.  You loved a world in rebellion against you.  Your love was shown in your sending your Son for us.  We know that we have not deserved that.  We have earned nothing but judgment for ourselves.  Father, we thank you that through Jesus Christ, we are not condemned.  We thank you that looking to him, we can be sure that we are righteous in your sight.  Please help us all with your Spirit to fix our faith on Jesus, to rest and trust in him only for our salvation.  Help us to stop trying and instead trust.  We pray that you would also use us as witnesses to share your love, what you have done in the gospel.  Father, we pray for opportunities to witness.  We pray that you would give us the right words and, more importantly, the right attitude.  We ask that you would work through us to bring more people to yourself, for your glory.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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