The most recognizable reference seen at sporting events, concerts, and other events has got to be John 3:16. It’s one of the first verses that our children memorize. We can quote it without even thinking about it – and maybe that’s the problem. It’s so ingrained in us that it’s practically lost all meaning.
This is our key verse for Vacation Bible School this year. As part of the team that wrote the curriculum, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this verse for several months. The truths that are in it are amazing, awe-inspiring, and life-changing.
Because we quote it on it’s own so often, I think we can easily forget the context. It’s found where Nicodemus is talking to Jesus at night. Afraid of the Pharisees, he was also deeply curious about what Jesus had to say. He wanted to know more. He had questions that needed answered. There must have been something in what he had heard Jesus say in the past that had intrigued him, maybe stirred him, into needing to know more.
As they spoke, Nicodemus became more confused. This concept of being ‘born again’ was new and difficult for him to understand as he tried to interpret it literally. Jesus goes to an area where Nicodemus would have excelled – Moses. He would have been very familiar with the stories of Moses, and when Jesus gave a brief account of when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent, he would have immediately understood the context of the account. But Jesus was trying to get at more than a remembrance of what had happened. He was pointing at what was to come, because the story of Jesus was carefully woven throughout the Bible, but Nicodemus and the rest of Pharisees couldn’t see it, couldn’t understand. So Jesus tells him that just as the serpent was lifted up, He would also be lifted up – a sacrifice to save the world.
And then comes the verse we all know. John 3:16. The Gospel in one verse.
For God so loved the world . . .
Not a particular race, ethnicity group, gender, nationality or any of the other things that divide us. He loved the world – all of us. He loved us so much that from before creation, He knew what He would do to rescue us. And He set that plan in motion. When He promised Abraham a child, a nation, it was so that all the world would be blessed. The entire world would be blessed through Abraham not because he was an amazing person, because Abraham was flawed, but because God loved us.
. . . that he gave his only Son, . . .
Through the generations God used faulty human beings to continue Abraham’s lineage. If you look at the lineage of Jesus it includes four women who were a bit of a scandal. Tamar who dressed as a prostitute to seduce Judah because he hadn’t kept his promise to her. Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho. Ruth, the Moabite widow who had nothing and no claim to Israel except that she clung to Naomi. And Bathsheba, who had an affair with King David. Yet God used them to eventually cause one more scandal – a virgin found with a Child.
. . . that whoever believes in him should not perish . . .
Belief, faith, that’s it. No works involved. As Martha learned, when she worked and was frazzled trying to please Jesus all she got was His rebuke. But later, when He came after Lazarus had died, He promised her life if she believed. She responded with one of the strongest statements of faith in the Bible, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:27) It was her faith that gave her life. And it’s the same for each one of us.
. . . but have eternal life.
Through faith in Jesus we will live forever with Him. Think of someone like Peter who in his arrogance boasted that he would never leave Jesus’ side only to deny Him three times that same night, and yet this man was able to preach a powerful message that brought thousands of people to Christ. It was Peter who told the Pharisees that he would obey God rather than man. And it was Peter who died for Christ, refusing to back down. How could someone like Peter have that kind of strength and courage to face such a horrific death? He knew it wasn’t the end, but that he had eternal life through Jesus.
It’s the Gospel in one verse. God loved us and gave His Son so that we could be with Him if we believe on Him. Beautiful, wonderful, amazing. We didn’t deserve it. It was only because of His love, grace and mercy.
And Jesus gave this message to Nicodemus. We don’t know what Nicodemus’s reaction was that night, but we do know that when Jesus was crucified he was one of the men who prepared His body for burial. Those words of Jesus have power, they give life, they change people, to anyone who believes.
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