Is God a bully? Did Jesus have to come and die on the cross to rescue us from an angry God? Some think so. Did Jesus have to come to rescue us before God wiped us all out? Some say “yes”. But that’s not what we find in the passage before us. Let’s look together at John 3:16-21.
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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Some say God is an angry God. Some might think of the famous sermon by Johnathan Edwards in 1741 that lead to a great awakening in England. The title of that sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God”.
Some say God is an angry God who must be appeased. But our passage and all of Scripture says otherwise. And even though Johnathan Edwards used in his sermon some vivid imagery to depict the just wrath of God on sin, I don’t believe he was suggesting that God is mad at us and is out to get us to clean our clocks.
Pastor and Author Ray Stedman says it well:
God does not wait with a stick behind his back when we want to come to him. He is not angry at us. He is not waiting to talk to us first about all the awful things we have done and said in our lives. His arms are open; he is ready to receive us. We can come just as we are. (Ray Stedman, The Best Possible News)
God doesn’t come looking for us with a big stick does he? Certainly not. It’s very clear from this much loved verse 16 that God loves the world. So much so that we’re reminded here that He sent his only son.
Note as we begin here at verses 16-21 that some think these are Jesus’ words. But it’s more likely that this is the Apostle John’s explanation of what we saw in previous weeks when Jesus had shared with Nicodemus about his need to be born again and how he could be born again.
What’s the only way possible for Nicodemus, or anyone else, to be born again? You can only be born again by looking to Jesus Christ, the one and only Son of God — you must look to Jesus alone and believe in Him for salvation. And verse 16 makes that very clear here doesn’t it? “…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”
As we read the text this morning we see clearly how God accepts us. He welcomes us with open arms. He doesn’t come chewing us out for all our sins, does he? No, he stretches wide his arms and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Mat. 11:28)”
For God so loved the world, it says. The love of God for mankind is clearly seen throughout this passage.
Now I think there’s something very helpful for us here. I think that one of the implications of this passage is that when it comes to sharing the Gospel with unbelievers we ought to follow God’s example, we ought to follow the example of Jesus Christ.
Here’s what I mean. You ought not come to an unbeliever in the name of the Gospel with a judgmental attitude. You ought to come to an unbeliever with the love of Christ, sharing the Gospel of Christ. Yes they may be living in an awful state of sin. But Jesus Christ receives them with open arms. If you need an example let Jesus be your example. It’s interesting that we never find Him in the gospels condemning those who are living in sin. And I think we do the Gospel no favors when we condemn sinners thinking that that in some way will set them straight.
Don’t misunderstand this. Sinners certainly need to realize that’s what they are. Jesus is certainly concerned about sin. Sin is why he came. Sin is why he willingly suffered. He came to take the punishment for our sin.
But we never see Jesus dealing with people, even those living in blatant sin, with condemnation. Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)” Sin does not keep you from the Savior. Your sin makes it clear that you need the Savior.
In fact 1 John 4:9-10 makes this clear when it says that,
9 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. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Quoting Ray Stedman again, who illustrates this well:
Years ago I read a moving story about a young man who had quarreled with his father and left home. He continued to keep in touch with his mother, and wanted very badly to come home for Christmas, but he was afraid his father would not allow him. His mother wrote to him and urged him to come home, but he did not feel he could until he knew his father had forgiven him. Finally, there was no time for any more letters. His mother wrote and said she would talk with the father, and if he had forgiven him, she would tie a white rag on the tree which grew right alongside the railroad tracks near their home, which he could see before the train reached the station. If there was no rag, it would be better if he went on.
So the young man started home. As the train drew near his home; he was so nervous he said to his friend who was traveling with him, “I can’t bear to look. Sit in my place and look out the window. I’ll tell you what the tree looks like and you tell me whether there is a rag on it or not.” So his friend changed places with him and looked out the window. After a bit the friend said, “Oh yes, I see the tree.” The son asked, “Is there a white rag tied to it?” For a moment the friend did not say anything. Then he turned, and in a very gentle voice said, “There is a white rag tied to every limb of that tree!” That, in a sense, is what God is saying in John 3:16 and 17. God has removed the condemnation and made it possible to come freely and openly home to him. (Ray Stedman, The Best Possible News)
Paul says it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”
That’s all good news. And verse 18 starts this way: Whoever believes in him is not condemned. This is wonderful news. But there’s a serious note that’s sounded next. Here’s the seriousness of sin. But whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. Yes, sin is a deadly problem. So deadly that the Bible makes it clear that without Christ we’re already condemned.
The world is living under the just condemnation of God because of their sin. But it’s not as if God is out to get us. Verse 18 makes that clear when it states that those who do not believe are condemned already. And they are because that’s what those who don’t believe have chosen.
So, what’s the alternative? The answer is to “believe in Jesus Christ and be saved”. Sadly, there are many who don’t believe and many who won’t believe. That may seem unbelievable if you’re a Christ follower. Why would anyone want to remain condemned?
We have the answer in verses 19 and 20.
19 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
J.I. Packer in his well known book, Knowing God, explains:
…God’s wrath in the Bible is something which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which a person himself opts by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to himself. When John writes, “Whoever does not believe [in Jesus] stands condemned [judged] already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son,” he goes on to explain himself as follows, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:18–19). He means just what he says: The decisive act of judgment upon the lost is the judgment which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ. In the last analysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action toward the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show him, and lead him into, the full implications of the choice he has made. (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, Electronic Edition)
In verse 19 John says, “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil”. It’s a plain fact here that mankind loves the darkness — and we’re not talking about nighttime here. Yes there’s a lot of sin that takes place in darkness or at night. But John isn’t pointing to a time of day. He’s making a statement about the condition of the heart without Christ.
This truth is easily illustrated by the fact that none of us likes to admit it when we are wrong. Who likes to admit they’re wrong. Not me. Not you. It’s the same for sinners who need to admit they are sinners. They need to repent and believe in Christ. But that’s not what we are naturally inclined to do.
And this darkness in which the unregenerate heart resides is a universal problem. It’s not just that some people prefer the darkness of sin — it’s that in our fallen nature we all prefer the darkness of sin. That’s why God gives us a new nature when we’re regenerated by a work of the Spirit.
The heart without Christ is dark. It’s sin filled and can’t be any other way until it’s made new by the Spirit. And that’s what we see in verse 21.
21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
This is not suggesting that there’s something different about some people that makes them good or better than others. This is making clear the fundamental difference between those who remain in darkness and those who have come to the light, come to the truth through faith in Jesus Christ.
Only the soul transformed by Jesus Christ, “The true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), only that soul longs to do what is true, only that soul longs to be obedient to God. Only that person regenerated by the Spirit of God longs to show that his obedience is only by the work of God in him.
The message for us from this passage is that without faith in Christ we already stand condemned. But God’s desire is that we look to His one and only son, high and lifted up, the only way to forgiveness for our sin, and believe in Him, and live.