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Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Promise You Can Count On

We've all seen the crazy-looking guy wearing the rainbow-Afro and holding up a sign with John 3:16 emblazoned on a sign in bright marker or paint. Most of us know the verse by heart. It's one of those verses we hear in church and around "church people" all the time. It's right up there with "In the city of David, a child will be born..."

The problem with some of those verses that become too familiar is that we tend to water down the verses meaning or drain it of its punch, its very significance. In church today, we weren't even studying the verse at all, but the sermon hit me between the eyes with the fact that God's word is true and that we need to take God at His word. And BAM, there was John 3:16, staring me right in the face. So here are some thoughts on one of the most uncommon "common" verses in the New Testament.

"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 begins with God. He is the catalyst for all that is to come, the source, the producer, the doer of it all. God is all powerful, all knowing, and everlasting. The Bible makes it clear that with God, nothing is impossible. NOTHING. He made the world. He made the stars and the sky. He made you and He made me. Since He made us, He is intimately familiar with every cell in your body. He knew the day of your birth and the day of your death before there ever was a you. And He knows all about what you've done with your time on this earth. That's right, that secret you've been hiding...He knows it more clearly than you can even remember it. Sounds frightening, doesn't it? Actually, it is reassuring. I'll explain why in a bit.

"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 continues by revealing a truth about God: He LOVES the world. Do you love anyone? What's it feel like? Does someone love you? Well, what's that feel like? Can you feel it? Okay, but isn't love more than feelings? After all, feelings can be impacted by all sorts of things, right? Sleep, diet, weather, busyness, pollution, etc. all affect how we feel. Love is more than feelings, more than words…it is action. To quote DC Talk, Love is a verb. God loves with action. He created the world as a playground for us. He gave us beauty in forests, in mountains, in sunrises, in people--all for us. He gave us physical bodies, the ability to see, to speak, to run and play. He gave us the ability to think, to create, to recreate.

God feels love in its purest form and God loves in its purest form. God loves you like the mother cradling a baby, like a father hugging his son after a knee scrape, like that but more. You might be thinking, no, He can't love me like that. We'll see about that later.

"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 and many other verses talk about salvation (that is, being saved from hell and given heaven) as being a gift. Wrap your brain around the word "gift." A gift is something one person delivers to another person. It is something special and meaningful. It is something the receiver should appreciate and/or need. And most importantly, a gift costs nothing for the one who receives it. It may cost the giver dearly, however. But focus on the gift--do you get that it's free? You do not have to clean up your behavior to accept it. You don't have to give something in exchange. It is absolutely free or it is no gift at all. God does not bait and switch. When He offers a gift, you just take it. That's all.

"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 tells us that the gift is actually God's Son Jesus. Now, I'm a father of four. I love my kids like nothing else in this world. Even when they are just as frustrating as they could be, I'd never dream of giving one of them away. But there's much more to this story. God didn't just give us His Son like say someone would give up a child for adoption. God gave us Jesus knowing full well that we would kill him.

It was not to be a quick death. It was a horrible torturous death. Jesus was scourged, he was whipped, he was pierced, he was hung on a cross. He was cursed, he was spat upon, he was jeered and mocked, and he was denied by his closest friends. And worse than all of it, for an agonizing period of time, Jesus was cut off from His father. The weight of his body on that cross pulled him down so that he suffocated. The weight of our sin was even more brutal. He who knew no sin became sin for us.

Parents out there, what would you do if someone murdered your child? It's a sharp, poking question. I'd be tempted to seek revenge, to go after the killer. God didn't do that. He didn't stop it from happening either. For those of you who like to blame God with all the terrible things that happen in the world: why didn't God stop it (fill in the blank) from happening? Why!? Just remember, God didn't stop wicked people from killing Jesus. But He did redeem the tragedy. God gave His Son Jesus for us. In war, when a soldier dies, we call it the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus made the ULTIMATE sacrifice.

Why? Have you ever thought of why? Well, the short answer is: Sin, any sin separates us from God eternally. One lie, one cheat, one failure to love as we ought…that's all it takes. God is holy perfection. Think of the purest white paint. Let one drop of red fall into it. Not so pure any longer. God will not allow one drop of imperfection into His presence. One sin will do it, but most of us blow it daily if not by the hour. Our sins earn us death and hell forever, except for Jesus. Jesus died to pay the price of our sin.

The long answer is more sticky. God is creative, right? He could have come up with some other way to save us, couldn't He? I've heard sermons explaining that sin requires blood payment, death to pay it back. That could very well be. But God could have come up with something else to satisfy the debt. Thing is, He didn't. I suspect that God gave us His Son, so that we would know the depth of His love for us. The God of the universe, the most powerful being who ever was or ever will be...He came down and put on our sorry flesh, got himself born in a pigsty, slummed with people for 33 years, only to be tortured and killed like a common criminal.

And don't think He couldn't have called the whole thing off. Jesus told Pontius Pilate (the Roman procurator who eventually sentenced Jesus to die) that with a word, he (Jesus) could call down a legion of angels and lay waste to the Romans. No, God wanted to show us unfathomable love and devotion. He was willing to go to the most extreme lengths to show us love.

"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 uses the coolest, most spectacular word here: whoever. Do you get that? You, yes you. Wake up. Snap out of your guilt and self pity. Whoever--that means you. You think you've been so horrible that you can out-sin God's grace? Guess again. Paul called himself the worst of sinners. You know what God did with Paul? God saved Paul and used him to transform the world. Not to mention God used Paul to write 2/3 of the New Testament. God loves to take broken people and make them amazing.

I don't know what secret horror you're holding on to. What devastating thing you did. What act of cowardice, malice, or dreadful premeditated depravity. You cannot out-sin God's grace. Remember, God is all powerful, and with God, all things are possible. You may as well have been one of the Romans hammering a six-inch spike into Jesus' hands...that's still not enough to out-sin God's grace. You just cannot do it. Remember, we said that God knows you intimately. He knows everything you ever did or will do. And that's reassuring because He knows all about you, you can't surprise Him. You can't mess up the equation. You can't CAN NOT out-sin God's grace. Fuh-gedd-abow-dit!!

"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 tells us there's one condition for being saved: believe. Well, what does believe mean? You know, for the most important question of eternity, that's a pretty stupid question. Believe means believe. To be convinced, persuaded, assured of. No offense to my brothers and sisters who want to read something else into it like: repent, choose, decide, etc. But that's not the way believe is used in the New Testament. Each and every time it's used, it simply means believe. You take God at His word.

Have you ever felt like someone didn't trust you? You told him the truth, and there was that horrible hesitancy…you just knew he didn't trust you. Ouch, that hurts. But when someone trust you, takes your word for it, you feel good. Well, for a lot of folks, they're looking at God like He's a used car salesman. What's the catch? There is none. God says, believe. Take me at my word, and I'll save you. Believe what? Believe this verse! God loves you. He gave his Son to pay for your sins. Believe it.

"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 promises us that we will not perish--not physical death here. We all will die. The death rate in the world is still 100%. The perishing here is worse that physical death. This is hell, spiritual death. Eternal separation from God and anything else. I've written on hell before. You can click here if you want more of that picture. God is saving you from a never-ending terror that you couldn't imagine, not in your most detailed nightmares. That's what God saved you from.

"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 uses this wonderful present tense verb here. HAVE. The moment you believe, you are IN. The transaction is complete. When Jesus breathed his last, he said, "It is finished." That means your salvation is a done deal. If you have believed you have eternal life guaranteed for you. God even puts a deposit into our soul: The Holy Spirit. The Spirit in you will do lots of cool things. But for starters, He's like the King's seal stamped permanently in your heart.

"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 not only tells us what we've been saved from, but also what we've been saved for. Eternal life means forever in heaven with God and it means life while we're here on earth. But take the phrase apart. Eternal. You cannot lose it. No apologies to the brothers and sisters who preach that Christians can lose their salvation. Look, if eternal life can be lost, then we'd better call it something besides eternal. Can God be trusted? Of course. In fact, that's what this is all about: Take God at His word. Once saved, always saved. Count on Jesus, not yourself. You couldn't do enough good things to pay for your sins. You couldn't save yourself. You cannot blow it bad enough to lose your salvation either.

So, you might ask, does that mean, once I'm saved, I can go sin? Uh…yes, that's right. You can go sin. God gives you free will. But you just may not like the consequences of your sin. Sin hurts us or others or both. ALWAYS. That's why God tells us not to do certain things. And when we do the things God tells us TO do, we will be the most fulfilled people on earth.

"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."

Life begins here…and it lasts forever.