Sermon Purpose: To look carefully at a well known text from John 3:16 and see what it really is saying to the Church today. Ultimately we must all answer the question: Who is Jesus?
Sermon prepared by Rev. Mark Verbruggen, Sioux Center, Iowa
Keywords: grace, love, follow, true life
Contained within our Scripture reading today are the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Of all the words in all the books of the Bible, these are probably some of the most well known words. It seems that you only have to hold up a sign with the words “John 3:16” and most people will know what you mean. You cannot do that with many other Bible texts. A sign that says “Isaiah 3:16” or “II Timothy 3:16” would not have the same effect because people will not know what the sign means.
(By the way, Isaiah 3:16 says, “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, tripping along with mincing steps, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.” This doesn’t have the same kind of gospel proclamation as our text from John! On the other hand, II Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”)
What’s the difference? The context of a passage makes all the difference for the meaning of the passage. The Bible must be read carefully and responsibly. The context - what’s going on in and around the words of a particular Bible verse - makes all the difference for our understanding of that verse. Today we will look at both the context and the meaning of John 3:16.
The story around the text is about a Pharisee named Nicodemus who visits Jesus in the night. It begins with his introduction and in verse 2 he does not so much ask Jesus a question, as he makes a statement about him. The Pharisee says, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Why Nicodemus says these words to Jesus. What’s the real reason for his late night visit and overtly flattering words to the Lord? He calls Jesus a “rabbi” which is a title of respect. He says he knows that Jesus is a “teacher from God” which is not an unkind word. He acknowledges that Jesus has been performing “miraculous signs” which means he is not unfamiliar with the Lord’s ministry thus far. But what is the purpose of all this? What does Nicodemus want?
We could accept his words at face value and just hear them as kind words spoken by a first century man who happened to like what he saw when he looked at Jesus. However, that would violate the context of the story. We know that there is something more behind his words in verse 2, because Jesus does not say “thank you” to Nicodemus in verse 3. Instead the Lord says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “You want to speak about the things of God and the people who come from God?” “Fine”, says Jesus, “but do you realize that unless you are “born again”, unless you are converted to the truth, you are a blabbering fool?” Don’t misunderstand me. Jesus is not being mean-spirited or cynical towards Nicodemus, but he is zeroing in on the man’s spiritual condition. To speak about Jesus Christ in truth, to know him as the Word made flesh, the Son of God, is more than giving some cheap lip service to him about being a great teacher who seems to have God on his side. At the heart of Nicodemus statement in verse 2 and Jesus’ response in verse 3 is the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer to that question makes all the difference. If you get this answer wrong you get everything else wrong. Who is Jesus? That’s what Nicodemus is really asking. How a person answers that question depends upon whether or not they are “born again”.
Are you born again? Do you know who Jesus is? The Holy Spirit who breathes life into the Word of God is putting this question in front of us today. Before we get to the well known words of John 3:16, there is in verses 4-15 a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus about what it means to be born again by water and the spirit. At first Nicodemus makes a rather silly statement about not being able to enter the mother’s womb for a second time, so how can a person be born again? Jesus is patient and says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the spirit ...” To understand what Jesus means by “water and spirit” we need to know that both of these images are rooted in Old Testament language and story. Nicodemus is a member of the religious establishment - the Pharisees. This means that he should be very familiar with God’s Word. Jesus says to him, “You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?” For that matter, do we know what Jesus means when he says that a person must be “born again of water and the Spirit”? We should. Simply put, it means that we need a new life. Jesus is saying, “Get a life!” We must be born again into something wholly new from what we once were. As the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:1, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins ...”
To be born again we need to know that sin makes us dead to God and the Kingdom. Those who are dead cannot make themselves alive again. If we are to be born again it will be by the grace of God who comes to us by his Holy Spirit and gives us new life. In John 3 Jesus speaks of “water and the Spirit”. Let’s consider them both briefly.
In the Old Testament the Spirit is the one who brings life to the creation. We see this in the creation of Adam in Genesis 2 when God breathes the Spirit of life into him. Psalm 104:30 says, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” The prophet Joel speaks of a future outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will bring new life to God’s people. The Spirit brings life.
As for “water”, in the Old Testament water is a sign of cleansing and rebirth. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land. This was seen as a kind of baptism by which they were born again. Water cleanses the priests who serve in the temple. In Ezekiel 36:25-27 the prophet bring “water and spirit” together when he says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you ...” New life comes from above. Being born of “water and spirit” is God’s work in us. Are you born again? Do you have a new life from God? The only way to know is to ask yourself the question, “Who is Jesus?”
Jesus concludes his conversation with Nicodemus by drawing attention to the work he will do on the cross. He says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This conclusion in the conversation then sets up the context for the well known words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Verse 17 echoes and confirms these words. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Do you believe this? Only those who are born again will have the faith to hear the grace of God spoken in John 3:16-17. Jesus does not need our flattery. He did not need Nicodemus to tell him that he was a great teacher and that he sure represented God very well. Apart from the grace that makes us born again by water and the Spirit we are dead in our sins. But the good news of the Bible is that today is a day of grace. Today we too can repent of our sins and turn to Christ for new life. Let’s consider carefully, in full context, what John 3:16 says.
The Evangelist says, “For God so loved the world”. Let’s stop here. The very first two words, “For God ..” tells us that the gospel begins in the heart of God who loves the world and the people he made in his image. God loves the “world” which means that he loves the people of the world and he desires that they turn to him. The word for “love” in this verse refers to “sacrificial love”. This is the love that gives of itself for another. And this is exactly what the next part of the verse says: “For God so loved the world that he gave ...”. God gives of himself for the world. God is not an impersonal deity, a theological abstract. The Sovereign God of heaven and earth is a God who sees and hears and acts. The God who loves is the God who gives! And what does God give? The greatest gift of all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son ...”. There is only one eternal Son of God. There is only One who was begotten from the Father. There is only One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God has given him to the world.
Why has God given Jesus? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish ...” God loves; God gives; we believe! This is in order that we will not perish. By nature we are all perishing. By nature we are objects of God’s wrath because we are sinners. By nature we have nothing to look forward to but condemnation. However, the gospel proclaims a different story. The gospel says you do not have to be who you are by nature. God has loved you from eternity; God has given you his only begotten Son; you do not perish if you believe in him.
Who is Jesus? That’s the ultimate contextual question and John 3:16 tells us the truth: Jesus is the one and only Son of God; the only Begotten of the Father. It then proclaims God’s grace. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loves; God gives; we believe; we do not perish; we have eternal life. What begins in the heart of God overflows into new life for the repentant sinner. By grace you are invited to believe. By faith you will. To be born again by the water and the Spirit is to receive grace and the gift of faith.
The reason Nicodemus really went to Jesus was to find an answer to the most important question: Who is Jesus? So why are you in church today? Tradition? Your parents made you? You were assigned to come? There may be a number of reasons why we find ourselves together on this day. However, if you have come here to flatter God with some pious and nice words you should have saved your time, your breath, and your money. If you’ve already tuned out the gospel proclamation then don’t be too sure you are not still on the path that leads to condemnation. In context John 3:16 drives us to consider the burning question in our hearts: Who is Jesus?
Only a fool will try and flatter God with the words of our text and not consider what they mean. You see, within the loving and triune community of God himself: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God doesn’t need you. Jesus did not need the nice words spoken to him by Nicodemus. God doesn’t need you, but in his grace he chooses to need you. He chooses to send his one and only Son so that you may have fellowship with him. To know this grace of God you need to know Jesus and to know Jesus you must be born again. And when you know Jesus you will not stay the same. You will know the One and only Hope of the world. Your worldview will enlarge and you will love what God loves and God loves the world. It’s a demanding gospel that we hear in John 3:16. Love so amazing and so divine demands your soul, your life, your all. Nicodemus received much more than he expected on that night he visited the Lord. We know from later accounts of him in this gospel that he became a follower of Christ. John tells us his story that we too might believe and follow Jesus. The One who came from the Father full of grace and truth is calling. His own will answer and follow. Amen.
Order of Worship
Call to worship: Psalm 95:6-7
Opening Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 238: 1,2,3,5 “We Come O Christ to You”
God’s Greeting: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.
Hymn of Praise: Psalter Hymnal 483: “How Great Thou Art”
Call to Confession: Psalm 32:1-5
Hymn of Penitence; Psalter Hymnal 32:1,2,3 “How Blest are They Whose Trespass”
Assurance of Pardon: Romans 5:6-11
God’s Will for our Lives: Exodus 20 & Psalter Hymnal pg. 1018
Hymn of Dedication: Psalter Hymnal 464:1-4 “Father Long before Creation”
Prayer for Illumination: O God, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word proclaimed, we may hear what you are saying to us today. Amen.
Scripture Reading: John 3:1-21
Sermon: Jesus: For God so Loved the World
Hymn of Response: Psalter Hymnal 473:1-3 “To God be the Glory”
Closing Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 568:1-3 “Love Divine”