And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:14–21)
A theologian once answered “love” when he was asked “what is the most misunderstood word in theology”. Be assured, there are lots of confusing words in the world of theology! Why not try rolling ‘supralapsarian’ or ‘hypostatic’ around in your mind. What about ‘harmatiology’, ‘Amyraldianism’ or ‘immutability’? All tricky stuff, yet I tend to agree with the theologian who insisted that ‘love’ is the most misunderstood word in theology.
There are some issues of translation involved here. The single English word ‘love’ is used to translate a number of different Greek words. I love my wife and love Bombay Mix, but just not in the same way! Yet the reason for the misunderstanding is not simply to do with translations. It’s to do with the Bible’s statement in 1 John 4:16 that “God is love”.
So why is that an issue? The problem is this: we tend to think that God’s love is a bigger version of human love. We take our own experience, and then define God in light of our experience. It’s all very understandable, but the problem is that you end up creating a God who is simply a bigger version of yourself. Yes, God is love. But he is so much more than simply human love. In fact we should go as far as to say that it is God who defines what love should be, and that human love is but a pale echo.
Right then. How do we approach working out quite what God’s love is like? The answer is two-fold: look at what the Bible says about God’s love; and look at how God acts. And here, in today’s passage, we have the perfect starting point to do just that.
Turning to the text, the first thing to notice is the object of God’s love: “God so loved the world”. There is a comforting generality to God’s love. The passages does not say “God so loved worthy people”, but the world. Our task is not to be lovable, but to be part of “the world”. God loves his creation, of which we are part. In other words, it’s not all about us!
Ah, some will say, does that mean that God’s love is indiscriminate? In the end will all get into heaven, regardless? Is God no longer to be thought of as just? Is the final judgment just a sham? Well, read on! “God so loved the world that he gave his only son...”. God’s love should not be thought of as a bare emotion, but rather as an action. His love lead to Jesus’s birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. It is a concrete form of love. If we wish to know what “God is love” means, we should look at Christ for the answer.
What we see presented to us in these few verses is the image of rescue mission. Christ, the Son of God, is sent to those who are perishing in order to bring them eternal life. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned” we read “but whoever does not believe is condemned already...”. The love of God is shown in his response to people in peril. It is not a benign emotion, but an act. An act which cost Jesus his life. This is love.
I wonder if I might give you an illustration of what the passage is describing. Imagine, if you will, a shipwreck. There, you can see, is the boat taking on water and beginning to sink beneath the waves. Already the sailors are scrambling to leap to safety, and their orange life jackets begin to dot the ocean. It is dark, with just the pale white reflection of a slender moon playing on the waves. There is a crispness to the scene which is given by the deep cold of that part of the globe. The sea itself is barely above freezing, and those sailors are more in danger of death by exposure than by drowning. They are lost. Their fate is already sealed, they are already condemned to a cold death.
Yet this is not a scene of utmost despair, for as you glance up towards the horizon you can see the raking searchlight of a lifeboat. As it sweeps the scene it picks out the waving sailors, and you hear the noise of the engines rise as the boat begins to carefully pick its way through the wreckage. It enters the stormy waters alongside the crew, and draws close.
And there, at the helm, reaching over the edge with arm outstretched Christ offers his hand to those who will reach out and grab him. He promises safety, warmth and bread. Those who place their trust in him, who reach out and grab him, are dragged up to security. He has been sent so that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”.
Yet some refuse to believe this offer, and scorn the outstretched hand. And so they remain in the hostile waters. What anguish it is to see this! The love of God refused.
For here is the love of God: Jesus comes alongside us in our danger. Here is the love of God: an action and not simply an emotion. This is the way in which God loved the word. He sent his only son. We face death, and Jesus comes to offer us a way to life
And so the question comes: will you accept the offered hand of Jesus? Will you trust him and enter the safety of the lifeboat? And when there, will you shout to the other sailors to join you? Here is the love of God. Do not scorn it.