Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Unfamiliar with the familiar. . .
The familiar things of life are familiar because we know them so well or so we think. They have become familiar to us because we use them all the time. But sometimes the thing most familiar to us is a stranger. We are accustomed to it and it has sentimental meaning but that does not mean we know it well. It may only mean we think we know it. Nearly everyone on earth can quote John 3:16 but that does not mean we know what Jesus is saying or understand. It is familiar to us what it actually says may not be. We only think we know it when in reality we don’t know it at all.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. I don’t need to quote it to you. That verse lives in the minds and hearts of most people and even non-Christians. But because we know it and even love it, does not mean we understand this verse. Take, for example, the word so. We think that this word amplifies the lengths to which God would go to love us. Why God loves us so much that He would give His only begotten Son. No, indeed. The little word so does not amplify God’s love but rather directs us to how and where that love of God is revealed and made known.
So, God loved the world by giving His only begotten Son. God’s love is not some theoretical love that lives in scribbling on paper or ideas that live in the imagination of the mind or even in the tear jerking sentiments of the heart. No, God’s love is revealed by Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross. John is telling us bluntly that if you want to know the love of God you must know that love as God has revealed it – in the gift of His one and only Son, begotten of the Father, enfleshed in the womb of the Virgin by the Spirit, and born in time as a man under the law to redeem those caught by the law in the guilt of their sin.
We spend half our lives putting words in God’s mouth and ideas in His mind and sentiments in His heart. We are forever saying “God would not want us to have to do or suffer this” or “God would surely want us to enjoy that” or “I cannot believe in a God who do this or say that.” Our misunderstanding of John 3:16 only tries to put more words into God’s mouth. Yet that is exactly the thing we cannot do. The Word is the Lord’s and not ours. It is not given to us to manipulate but to hear and hearing believe. The love God has for us is not magnified by what Jesus did but revealed by what Jesus did. It is not that God chose to go to such great lengths to save us but that He had no choice. If He was to save us, it had to come at the cost of His only begotten Son and that Son had to be lifted up on the cross for sinners to be saved from sin and death.
We all know John 3:16 but you cannot know John 3:16 without also knowing the verse that follows it. John 3:17: For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. Jesus was not given to us to replace the Law. He was not given to us to tell us how to live a god-pleasing life so that we could all please God with our words and deeds. Jesus was given to us because you and me and the whole world was mired in dirt of sin, stinking of death, and blind to it all. Jesus was given to us because you and me and the whole world had made peace with death and were content to live a short life if it was a good life. Jesus was given to us because you and me and the whole world has grown so accustomed to bending the rules that we actually thought we were almost holy without any help at all from anyone. Jesus was given to us because we could not die the death to save ourselves but could only die the death that lead us into hell’s eternal torment.
Jesus came for the cross. He came not to be lifted up upon a throne but to sacrifice Himself for us on the altar of the cross. He came not for the joy of living but who, for the joy that was set before Him enduring the cross and scorned its shame to save us. Jesus came not for the hosannas of the crowds or palm branches waving of organ pipes blaring “A Mighty Fortress.” No, He came to suffer and shed His blood and die the agonizing death of the cross in our place and as our substitute. This is what justification means. Jesus did not come to suffer and die for the good or the righteous or the healthy or the holy but for sinners. This means that we meet Jesus on the knees of our humble confession and in the hoarse voices of those who have been taught by the Spirit to say: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
And there is one more thing about this verse we think we know so well. It is not all Gospel. It is not all good news. There is a sharp cut of the Law that none of us can afford to miss. We do not proclaim that God has to save us or that He has chosen to save us no matter what. No, we proclaim a God who saves those who believe in Him, who believe in the words of the prophets, who believe in the Word made flesh, and who believe that there is a body strong enough to hang upon the cross and redeem our bodies from all the death we carry around inside of us because of sin. And the flip side of that we dare not miss. Whosoever does NOT believe in Him will perish.
Hell is not some occasional possibility but the ordinary end that awaits all people. It is not the exception but the rule. Only because we stand in Christ, washed by His blood, given new life in His water, and called to faith by the voice of the Spirit that there is any destiny awaiting us OTHER than death and hell. But the grace that bypasses the ordinary end called hell is grace that is accessed not by works or intention that earns or merits it but by faith – faith planted by the Spirit into our dark and fearful hearts.
God is not nice. And God does not save us because we are nice. God is justice that has been tempered with mercy. God loves what is ugly and dirty and dead and gives His only begotten Son to clean us up, clothe us with righteousness, save us for everlasting life, by taking on that ugliness, dirt, and death. God is not sentimental. God does not back away from justice because He does not have the stomach for it. God has to answer justice and instead of answering it with you suffering death, His mercy has sent His one and only Son to suffer in our place and die the death we should have died that we might be saved. Yet this is not some wide open gate but the narrow door that is Christ alone and through which we pass by faith alone.
You think you know John 3:16 but as familiar as the words are, the meaning of that verse is hard. It means that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves. It means that we are guilty and that our sin cannot be justified or excused. It means that salvation will cost somebody suffering and death. It means we have done nothing to earn or merit this gracious gift of a Savior. It means that God is not tame or safe or anyone’s pet. It means that there were not options on how sinners might be saved but only one choice and one path and that was the suffering of the cross and the cold darkness of the grave.
John 3:16 does not mean that we have come up to God or that we could ever ascend to Him on high. Rather, it means that God has come gone down to us, walked among us as one of us yet without sin, and died alone upon the cross to spare a guilty and undeserving people. I am not sure that after today John 3:16 will be your favorite verse still. It is no cliché. It is not greeting card sentiment. It points to the cross. It admits our great need. It calls us to repentance. It requires faith from us – even a faith which itself must be given by God. It does not mean God loves you in a special way but that God loved you as only He could love you – by lifting up His one and only Son upon the cross that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
Nicodemus thought he could understand God, reason with God, and meet God as an equal. What shocked Him was not simply the idea of baptism but that he needed to be baptized, not simply the idea that He had to be born anew from above but that His life was worthless and marked for death, and not simply that Jesus saves him but that He saves him as one rescues an unworthy, undeserving, and common piece of trash. So if you struggle with this, you are in good company. Nicodemus was a great teacher in Israel and he did not get it either. The Spirit had to intervene, tear down the walls of fear and unbelief, and plant the seed of faith with Nicodemus’ heart so that hearing he might believe and believing he might live. It is no different for you. The Spirit must intervene for you, destroy the unbelief in you, and plant faith in you. It is a good verse, don’t get me wrong. But there is nothing warm and fuzzy in it. Only salvation that costs Jesus’ life to save ours, only blood that must be shed, and death killed by dying.
Like Nicodemus, we wonder: “How can this be?” How can this be that I was not saved by a sweet love but by a love willing to die? How can this be that I was saved not because I was worth it but because He loved even in my unworthiness? How can this be that this salvation requires faith or it will save no one? How can this be that sin has so tainted me that even this faith must be given to me by the Spirit? With Nicodemus we are pointed to the cross where Christ is lifted up, to the blood that cleanses us from all our sin and death, and to the faith that says “amen” to this mighty act of salvation. This is how God has loved you, loved Nicodemus, and loved me. Amen.