John 3:16 (The Extended Cut)(John 3:16-21)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: John 3:16–3:21
I. Even on My Burger Cup
Question: what is the best-known verse in the entire Bible? Genesis 1:1 has to be in the top five. Maybe Psalm 23:1, or Matthew 6:9, the opening verse of the Lord's Prayer. But I think the number one slot has to go to the first verse of our study passage this morning... John 3:16. From football games and country songs, to bracelets and tattoos, this verse (at least the 'reference' itself) is found in all sorts of interesting places. In fact, if you didn't already know, it's even printed right here on the bottom of this In and Out Burger cup.
But while lots of people are familiar with the reference itself, thankfully, many, many others have actually heard the entire verse. Some could probably recite it from memory. But fewer people know anything about the context of this well-known verse. And as most of you know, the context is critical when trying to understand what a verse means.
So let's look together this morning at John 3:16. But let's also look at what I'd like to call, “John 3:16, The Extended Cut”, that is, John 3:16 in its original, fuller context. Turn to John 3 if you haven't already, as we continue our study in the Gospel of John.
II. The Passage: “Whoever Believes in Him” (3:16-21)
Let me simply read through the passage this morning, which runs from verse 16 down to verse 21. Even though Jesus just spoke in verse 15, beginning in verse 16, we have the Apostle John offering theological/pastoral commentary on the previous verses or stories involving Jesus. John breaks in like this a number of times throughout the book. In fact, John does this again in verses 31 through 36 of this same chapter. So listen to what John tells us here. Verse 16...
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 [or practices] what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
Now, as we think about verse 16 in light of the context, one of the things that becomes apparent is the emphasis on faith in this passage. If we include verse 15, the verb is used five times in three verses: verses 15, 16, and 18. And in verses 20 and 21 we find belief being talked about in this image-laden language, coming to “the light”. So let's use this theme of faith or trust or belief to work through John's teaching here.
But before we do that, it's incredibly important that none of us miss the import of John's opening phrase in verse 16: “for God so loved the world”. Our familiarity with this verse, specifically the wording of this verse, can lead to assumptions and even neglect. The stunning declaration that begins verse 16 is a declaration concerning the extent of God's love; the magnitude, the depths of God's love. It could be rightly translated: “for this is how much God loved the world”.
Not only is the object of God's love stunning (i.e., the world), but also the lengths to which his love was lavished. To think about the wording here we could simply change the main nouns:
“For the mother so loved her daughter, that she gave her heart for transplant, that if the daughter accepts this from her, she will not experience cardiac failure, but will have chance to live a healthy life.” OR...
“For the rich man so loved the poor man, that he gave all his money, that if the poor man accepts this gift, he will not be taken to jail, but will be able to pay off his astronomical debt.”
Or as John puts it: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
1. Whoever Believes in the Son (v. 16)
But please don't miss how John points us to Jesus, the manifestation of the magnitude of God's love for the world. We are called to “believe in him”... and if you do, you will “have eternal life”. Now, that almost sounds too simple, doesn't it? So I think we need to ask, “What does John mean by 'believe in him'?” And the “him” here is referring to Jesus, since he spells that out in verse 18, where he talks about belief “in the name of the only Son of God”.
This question about belief is one the context can help us with. Remember that John, the writer, is interrupting the account here. Why? Because he feels it's vitally important to elaborate on what Jesus just stated in verse 15. You may recall that Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus, pointed this Jewish leader back to a story from the OT book of Numbers, chapter 21. After complaining once again about God's timing and provision in the desert we read:
Then the LORD sent fiery [i.e., poisonous] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:6-9)
No look again at how Jesus explains the relevance of this story in verses 14 and 15: 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.
The Israelites were saved by gazing upon that which was lifted up. As I said in the previous message, they were called to look and live. Undoubtedly, the relevance of this OT story is not simply the fact that something was lifted up, but that the people were called to trust what Moses told them and look upon this bronze serpent, believing it was God's means of rescue.
I think that's exactly why John breaks in here, to unpack this OT reference for his readers. John doesn't want them to miss the same idea Jesus didn't want Nicodemus to miss: we are saved only by trusting in that which God has provided... that which is “lifted up”. For Nicodemus and for us, that... is “the Son of Man”, Jesus. And it means trusting him in light of the Roman cross on which he was lifted up... for us, and on which he died... for us.
Did you notice how this idea of the “Son of Man [being] lifted up” helps clarify the word “gave” in verse 16? In what sense did God give his Son? He gave him over to death, even death on a cross. Of course, “gave” also includes the idea of sending, as we see in verse 17. In another of his writings, John touched on both these sending and sacrificing expressions of God's love...
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [the satisfying sacrifice] for our sins. (1 John 4:8–10)
2. Whoever Believes is Saved, Not Condemned (vs. 17-18)
But look at how, in verses 17 and 18, John emphasizes and expands on these ideas of love, perishing, and eternal life. For those who were inclined to think that most people (esp. those 'other' people) could and would only face the wrath of an angry God, John emphasized God's love for all. “...God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world”, but to save it.
But we cannot exaggerate the emphasis on love and rescue here to the extent we miss how John talks about condemnation in verse 18. John 3:16 does emphasize God's love, not in order to do away with condemnation, but to highlight God's path out from under condemnation. The man or woman who trusts in Christ and his death for sinners “is not condemned”. Why? Because Jesus was condemned... for us, when he was “lifted up”.
But according to John in verse 18, the man or woman who “does not believe is condemned already”. How do we know that? Because John provides evidence of that pre-existing condition of condemnation. When offered eternal life through faith in Christ, such a person “has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John was clear about this rejection in the opening chapter of this book: He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (1:10, 11)
So when John talks about perishing in verse 16, he's not saying we're like milk. We're not ‘perishable' because we're just prone to spoil. We're ‘perishable' because the perfect justice of God deems us condemned. We stand guilty as sinners. But don't forget how that also informs the phrase “eternal life”. Among other things, “eternal life” is a life free from that condemnation.
3. Whoever Believes is Drawn by Light, Not Driven by Darkness (vs. 19-21)
So what drives these responses of belief or unbelief? That's what John explains in the final three verses of this passage. Remember, John's commentary here is not just tied to the story of Nicodemus, but probably to all of the events he records about this Passover in Jerusalem, beginning in 2:13. Not only did we learn about the resistance of the religious leaders to Jesus, but also about the crowds to whom he would not entrust himself, because he knew what was “in” all people. In light of that, look again at John's assessment in verses 19 and 20:
And this is the judgment: the light [i.e., the Son—1:9] 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.
What drives the unbelief John describes here? The fact that we, as fallen sinners, love the darkness rather than the light. Why do we love the darkness? Because the darkness hides our sin; it hides our me-centeredness in a God-centered universe. We do not want our works, or our thoughts, or our desires, to be exposed. We do not want to face the reality that we are rebels. We do not want to be honest about our sin. We do not want to stop sinning.
If that's true, how can anyone “have eternal life”? John answers that in verse 21: But whoever does [or practices] what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. Now at first, it sounds like John is saying that people already walking in the light come to the light. That's not what he's saying. Remember, 'coming to the light' is just another way of talking about coming to Christ in faith. Sinners don't come to faith in Jesus to get a pat on the back. No. They come as a result of what God has already been doing in them. As we saw in the first half of this chapter, God, through his Holy Spirit, is the one who gives that new birth we desperately need.
III. Does It Shape You?
So what does 'the extended cut' of John 3:16 reveal about this well-known verse? I think we could say this: “Though we loved the darkness, God loved the world; so much that he shone his light, the light of his Son, into our darkness. Though we stood condemned, God loved the world; so much that he gave his Son, to bear our condemnation. Therefore we are called to faith in Jesus, the One lifted up; not to doing, but to believing He did it all on our behalf. And as we receive that gift of eternal life, we can rejoice that even our saving faith is his gift, evidence of a new birth.”f
The main question you need to ask yourself this morning is this: does this true story shape my everyday story with its truth? Does it undo me? Does it stir me? Does it comfort me? Does it motivate me? Does it guide me? Does it feed me? Does it shape me? If it doesn't, then we need to consider the healthiness of our faith. If it does, then think about one way it should shape us: we should love as God loves; specifically we should love the world as God loves the world... to the extent that God loves the world; not that we ever will, but we strive toward that end. Our lives should be a reflection of John 3:16, so much so that people could say, “For Bryce so loved the world that he [use others' names]... lived a life of Christlike sacrifice... of godly grace.”f
To love the world is not to love the world without exception, that is, it doesn't mean loving every single individual in the world, since that is not even possible for finite creatures like us. No. It means loving the world without exclusion, that is, loving every single person we meet along the way, no matter who they are... whether we like them or not; whether we agree with them or not; whether they look and talk like us or not; whether they help or hurt us; whether they are hard or easy to love; whether, in our estimation, they deserve it or not.F
We do this because that's how we've been loved according to John. We do so hoping that those we love will know the truth of John 3:16. It's one thing to hold up a sign with that verse or wear a t-shirt with that verse. It's quite another thing to embody that verse in someone's life. Again, is this true story shaping your everyday story with its truth? Let's take a minute to thank God for his gift, and ask him to shape us according to his love. Let's pray.