1. The Things We Take For Granted
I don’t know about you, but there are certain ‘firsts’, as I was growing up, that have stayed in my memory. Included in these, I quite clearly remember the arrival of the first washing machine, the arrival of the first telephone, the arrival of the first television, and I even remember my mother drawing up in the family’s first car.
Now at the time I thought all these inventions were great—they were a marvel. And (except for the car) everything was new. And the whole neighbourhood seemed to be a-buzz in acquiring each of them.
However, over time, instead of staying the marvellous inventions that they were, each began to become only too familiar—part of the furniture. They became inventions and appliances that you just sort of expected to be there. And as a consequence, whatever marvel was seen in them at their arrival, just faded away, to the extent that they were no longer the luxury items they were at the start. And, instead, became part and parcel of everyday life.
Now, in a sense my experience may reflect life. Because if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll understand that the things that we marvel at, over time, just become ‘ordinary’. Indeed, we change that something has value and end up by just taking it for granted.
And of course that’s not just true about inventions. It is also true about people too—from meeting some for the first time, to getting used to having them around. And the one person in particular who suffers the most because of this, is none other than God himself.
Now one of the most well-known passages of scripture must be John 3:16. I was taught to memorise it at school. It’s a verse which tells of the magnitude of who God is and what he has done. And yet, even I find myself, these days, skipping over its meaning because I’ve heard it all before.
As a consequence, I would like to spend some time putting back the marvel into the passage. To put the awe and wonder back in the verse, which should never have been lost in the first place.
B. FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD…
1. For God loved the world so much . . .
The passage begins, ‘For God loved the world so much . . .’
Now when we say God, what do we mean?
Well, what we mean is a being who is all powerful, all knowing, who transcends whatever images that you or I could portray. Indeed, nothing of what we could describe could come anywhere near to describing God in all his glory.
After all, we’re talking about a God whose mere presence was even too much for his people. And as a consequence, God restricted his physical appearance to only a few selected people—to people like Moses, Elijah, and Ezekiel. And even then, for their own protection, they were protected from his real appearance, by only seeing a shadow or vague image of who he really is.
We’re talking about God, the creator. The one who created the universe in all its tiny detail. The one who in six days created light, the sky, the land and seas, vegetation, suns and planets, and living creatures: birds, fish, insects, animals, and mankind itself.
If we look through a telescope, we cannot even begin to see the wonders. And if we look through a microscope, we cannot even begin to appreciate the detail. The magnitude of creation itself, is something that should continually fill us with awe and wonder.
And yet, this God, despite all his magnitude, of which we haven’t even scratched the surface, is also a personal God. He is one who wants to have a direct relationship with his creation. And despite the magnitude of who he is, and the consequent apparent insignificance of who we are, he still wants to spend time with us and be involved in our day to day lives.
So much so, that he has poured out his love on his people. Because this personal loving God, is the one who continues to come to the rescue of his people.
He did with Noah and his family. When everyone else had gone astray, he came to their rescue by pre-warning Noah to build a boat. So that he and his family would not be destroyed with the others by the flood.
He rescued the Israelites, who were languishing in slavery in Egypt. He rescued them by raising up Moses to lead them to the Promised Land. And even once in the Promised Land, as the people continued to go from one mistake to another, it was this same God who provided a series of Judges to help them in their time of need. Judges who would put them back on the right track.
And the list could go on . . .
The God of John 3:16, therefore is: a Holy God, a creator God, a powerful God, and is far beyond any ability of ours to understand. And yet he is also a personal God, and a loving God who is very much concerned about his relationship with his people. To such an extent that even what he did for the people in Old Testament times, was nothing to what he was about to do to demonstrate his love for his creation.
The God of the New Testament—the same God—was going to do something even greater. This time his act of love would be not just be for the benefit of a few—a tribe or a nation—but would be an act of love aimed at all the people of the world. From Jew to Arab, to Chinese, to South American, to Australian, his greatest act of love would cross all boundaries. An act of love that would include every person, even those who are the most unlovable.
2. . . . that he gave his only Son . . .
And what did that act entail? Well, the second part of the verse is ‘. . . that he gave his only Son . . .’
God’s love is not a vague sentimental feeling, or a love that’s here one minute and gone the next. No! God’s love is the greatest of all, and is the kind that is very costly. And as a consequence God gave his only Son.
Now, God gave his Son in two senses.
Firstly, he gave his Son, by sending him into the world—with all the risks that that entailed. He deprived himself of his Son’s presence with him because there was something vitally important that had to be done. Someone had to live a life—with all the tensions that that involved, with all the temptations to turn away from a relationship with God—and come out the other end having faced all the things that we face, but still having lived a perfect life. It should have been one of us that did that, but only his Son was capable.
But, secondly, as a consequence of that, he needed this perfect being to substitute himself for us—to pay the price for our sins, to sacrifice his life and take on the punishment we deserve for all the wrong we do. And, again, only his Son could do that.
This great God—this God in all his magnitude loved us so much, cared that much for us, mere worms in comparison—that we should continue to be amazed about the God that he is
And what about the cost? The cost to him? Well, what greater sacrifice can one possibly make, than to give one’s one and only child. God gave what was most dear to him. He gave us his all. And that reflects the extent of God’s love for us.
3. . . . so that all who believe in him . . .
And the purpose? What was at the heart of God’s extraordinary compassion? Well the third part of the verse, ‘. . . so that all who believe in him may not perish, but have eternal life.’
God was concerned for a continuing relationship with his creation. He not only created the world, but was determined to have a continuing involvement. He knew, left to our own devices, only one scenario was possible—alienation from God, and in the end judgement and eternal punishment. God was therefore desperate for a solution. He wanted to provide an alternative.
The sacrifice of Jesus, therefore, has given his people an alternative which they didn’t have before. They can either perish, that is, spend eternity separated from God, with all that that entails (which would have been the result of God doing nothing). Or now they can opt for eternal life—have a continuing relationship with God now—and spend the rest of eternity with him.
Unfortunately true love is a two-edged sword. If you truly love someone, then you try to do your best for them. Then, if that person accepts that love, then that is good and everyone wins. But if they refuse to accept that love, and turn their backs on you, then there’s very little you can do about it. And God is no different.
As a consequence, God may have sent his son in the world to provide the opportunity for salvation. But that doesn’t mean that everyone will want to be part of his plan. God, to be true to himself, and as loving as he is, is unable to impose himself on anyone who does not wish to be part of his salvation plan.
John 3:16 then is a familiar passage, and one that many people (including me) can repeat by memory. But while at first, it may have been a passage that engendered feelings of wonder and awe, I wonder, today, how often we just read it or hear it and say ‘Yes, I have heard it all before.’
And yet, in that one verse alone we not only have a summary of the Christian gospel, but we also have a dramatic picture of the wonder of who our God really is. His greatness, his holiness, and his creative work, on the one hand, describing the magnitude of who he is. But on the other hand, the God who also cares for his creation, with the care and compassion he has for his people.
To God, we are not little ants or mere microbes that are so insignificant that we don’t matter (although perhaps we should be). We are his people, and the central focus of his whole creation. So much so, that he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to come to our rescue—even the death of his only Son. And that is a rather mind-boggling thought.
So, then, what does the magnitude of this well known verse do for our religious sensibilities? And do we see and experience God in all his greatness—that is, who he is, and what he has done?
For example, do we see God in all his holiness? Do we see him as a powerful being who transcends whatever images we can portray, or even begin to imagine? Do we look at his creation, and marvel at the detail? And I don’t just mean the occasional sunset. But the sheer size and magnitude of what he has made—that we can only glimpse at through either the telescope or the microscope.
On the other hand, have we experienced that personal relationship that can be ours, where even as individuals we can obtain direct access to our creator? Do we know his presence, and do we keep up some sort of dialogue? And have we experienced God’s love? Has he rescued us from situations outside of our control, in situations where our only hope has been divine intervention?
The God of John 3:16, the God of the Bible, and the God of creation, demands a response. So what is our future? And have we taken up God on his very costly gift? Or has all God’s love and activity, as far as we are concerned, been in vain?
In this world we so easily get used to things. Things that once seem special—even modern inventions—we so quickly take for granted. And that’s not just true of inventions, but it’s true of people and relationships too. And perhaps the one person who suffers from this most is God himself.
Now John 3:16 is one of those passages that many will know by heart. You may have learnt it at school, or even Sunday School. And there may be a tendency to say, ‘Yes, I’ve heard that before!’
The challenge today, however, is not just to recall the words, but to remember the depth of what they mean—the enormity of who God is and what he has done.
Strangely we might be the equivalent of microbes in a universe of gigantic size, but we are still important in the eyes of our creator. And that is the real challenge behind the familiar verse of John 3:16.
Posted: 3rd November 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis