31 Dec God So Loved
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.
John 3:16 (NIV)
I don’t know that I really understood this verse when I first heard it at six or seven years old. But its weighty words left an impression on me. God. Love. Belief. Eternal life. I couldn’t wrap my head around how these ideas related to each other, but my young mind registered a central message: God loved me and somehow the ultimate expression of that love was Jesus. This thought of the Lord’s love shown in Jesus stirred up gratitude and love in my own heart.
But my vision became warped somewhere along the way. As I grew up and studied the Bible, I learned many truths but also more than a few lies. And these lies corrupted even some of the truths so that I eventually began interpreting John 3:16 to mean something like, “God had to punish His one and only Son on the cross so that He could love the world.” The message still elicited something like gratitude: a sense of indebtedness; it still lay the grounds for a promise of salvation. But this feeling was now coupled with fear rather than love.
I envisioned Jesus shielding humankind from a very angry Father. This Father, in His heart of hearts, wanted to destroy us forever. But He would acquiesce to our existence so long as we believed that Jesus had suffered in our place. Love, if it was even a part of this dismal picture, was redefined to mean God’s refraining from punishing us and tolerating our presence in heaven.
True vs. False Images of God
What a distorted picture! Jesus—the one speaking in this verse—says, “God so loved the world,” not “God so hated the world!” So, where had I gotten this idea about God hating the world and needing to sacrifice His Son first in order to love it? The answer is that I had come to see the reality of sin while staying blind to God’s heart toward sinners.
As a teenager, I was growing ever more acutely aware of my inability to live up to God’s good standards. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to break off habits of procrastination, dishonesty, and lust. But it wasn’t just the sins I committed; there were also the sins people committed against me. It seemed we humans didn’t have to learn how to do the wrong thing; we just knew! But learning to do the right thing was evidently impossible. So, I had come to see—I think correctly—mine and the world’s sinfulness. And well, the Bible is clear that God hates sin, right?
The problem was that I had completely misunderstood a central reality of the Bible’s narrative. I had misjudged God’s character. Contrary to our intuitions, sin in the Bible doesn’t cause God to run away from us in disgust; it causes God to chase after us in love!
When men and women sin in the Bible, they will often run away from God in their guilt, shame, or fear. Think, for example, of Adam and Eve, hiding after they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But remember, God pursued Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8-9)! It was the same with Jacob: the Lord appeared to the sneaky patriarch as he was making his escape, after he had cheated his brother Esau out of the firstborn’s blessing. And it was the same for all Jacob’s descendants after him. The people of Israel failed countless times to live up to their calling, but God never gave up pursuing them.
The pattern of God’s pursuit spans the entire Old Testament before culminating in the New Testament with the arrival of Jesus. This is the Christmas miracle we celebrated a week ago and the beginning of what John 3:16 is talking about. Jesus doesn’t arrive to appease or replace the “angry God of the Old Testament;” He comes to represent and embody the actually quite merciful God of the Old Testament. As “the exact representation of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:3), Jesus never shied away from even the most notorious of sinners. He associated Himself with those seen to be the lowest of the low—He befriended prostitutes, tax collectors, and Samaritans.
Still, God’s love for sinners doesn’t mean God ignores sin or neglects justice. I don’t pretend to comprehend exactly how all of this works, but the Bible speaks of both God’s holy mercy and God’s holy justice in the same context of the Messiah’s suffering. This doesn’t mean Jesus, by dying, placated an angry Father God; again, this image just doesn’t accord with Scripture. In fact, I would suggest that when we pit the Father and the Son against each other in this way, we’re splitting the one true God into two lesser gods with separate agendas.
The critical truth I’m only now beginning to grasp is that the Messiah’s suffering is God’s suffering. It wouldn’t make much sense for God to show His love through Jesus’ death on the cross, if Jesus is viewed separately from God. No, Jesus, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), dealt with the problem of our sin by Himself becoming one of us. Mercy and justice were both fulfilled as the Creator became the representative for His own creatures. God, in Jesus, substituted Himself for us and experienced the consequences of our sin.
So yes, God hates sin, but He loves and pursues sinners like us. All of this points again to the crucial fact that Jesus didn’t die to make God love us; God gave us Himself in Jesus precisely because He loved us.
John 3:16 Love for the Year 2022
It has taken me years to unlearn the lies I had believed about God. I know I haven’t reached the goal yet; there are still more falsehoods to discard and more truths to discover. But if my journey so far is any indication, I’ve got a rewarding adventure ahead. I want to invite you to join me in this quest as we enter the year 2022!
As we press into the truth of John 3:16 love, we’ll be set free from the dead ends of guilt, shame, and fear. At the same time, God will demolish the proud illusion of our own abilities. God wants to lead us in a better way: the way of trust. This trust isn’t just intellectual assent to God’s salvation plan; it’s relying on the Person who has achieved our salvation. And just what is the substance of this salvation? It’s rescue from perishing, certainly, but so much more! In a later prayer to His Father, Jesus defines eternal life: “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
What we’re talking about here is so much bigger and better than just getting to a place called heaven. In fact, heaven without the loving presence of God wouldn’t be much better than hell! No, we’re talking about experiencing the life of God’s Kingdom. This is all about intimacy with the Lord, where His joys become our joys. It’s all about new heavens and new earth life. This is Jesus’ own resurrection life! Eternal life has already begun for those who are trusting in Jesus.
But we are still waiting for the fullness of eternal life to come. I have a keen sense of this reality as I reflect on the past year: it has had moments of genuine joy, but there were also moments of profound regret. In these moments when we face up to our failures, we need to be reminded that God has Himself already fully borne their consequences. Trying to punish ourselves at this point would only demonstrate doubt in the sufficiency of God’s redemption. If you or I prepare an apology speech to bring ourselves back into God’s good graces, we should also prepare to be interrupted by His grace; the Father is more eager to embrace us and restore us to the full privileges of a son or daughter than to listen to us verbally whipping ourselves (Luke 15:17-24).
As we welcome 2022, we may also have a sense of anxiety: what new trials might be lying ahead in the new year? The struggles of life become signposts of doom when we have an image of God being angry with us. But when we’re confident of God’s self-giving love, we have a comfort even in the midst of our challenges. If “there is now no condemnation” for us (Romans 8:1), the difficulties we face simply can’t be punishments. Rather, we can know that God’s committed love will redeem even our painful experiences to make us more like Jesus (Romans 8:28-29). And when we realize that our sufferings are united to Jesus’s sufferings, we can be assured that we will also share in His future glory (Romans 8:17).
I need John 3:16 as I head into a new year. I’m so glad that I’ve been able to rediscover the message I took away when I first encountered this verse. God has indeed loved me and the ultimate expression of that love is Jesus. In Jesus, He has given me Himself! I can trust Him and live into the reality of eternal life, knowing the Father and knowing the Son. On this eve of the new year, I pray that you would also be encouraged and strengthened from the inside out by a revelation of God’s love!
Aogu Fujihashi (YWAM Tokyo Staff)