“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV)
The Extent of God’s Love – “For God so loved”
Whenever I’ve preached or taught on this verse, I’ve always pointed out the debate on the use of the word “so”. The predominant understanding is that this term either refers to the measure of God’s love (he loved us this much) or the manner of God’s love (he demonstrated his love in this way). The measure is one of great love. He so loved us, or to be read, he loved us so much that he gave his only (or unique) Son. The manner is one of remarkable love. He loved us, and showed his love, by giving his only Son. The result of the debate is not to land on one or the other, but to fairly and effectively say that both are completely accurate interpretations. God so – both in manner and measure – loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.
The Target of God’s Love – “the world”
The target of God’s love is the entire world, whether elect or not. It’s not that he only loved those in the world who would at some point be saved, but that he loved the entire world giving every person in the world an opportunity to be saved from sin and eternal separation. His love extended to every person, whether humaly perceived as worthy or not, because he desires all to be reconciled (2 Peter 3:9). This is the heavy burden of those of us who are saved, to those still unreached. He gave his Son for those as well, and the burden of telling them to us. Anytime we sing one of those songs in church services that declares the victory and joy of God’s love for me, I always have this pang in my heart for those that don’t yet know it. Maybe they don’t know it because they’ve chosen to not experience it, even after given the opportunity. Maybe they don’t know because they’ve yet to hear. One day, that pang will be erased when every tribe and tongue fully experiences the presence of God, but until then, the world waits. They wait on the church, who isn’t the hope of the world, but is the vehicle by which the hope of the world (the gospel of Jesus) will eventually hear. But even to those who are seemingly unlovable, God gave his Son. To the good citizen and the loving mother, but to also the vile and violent. The ones who might be the target of our rage or fear, they also were given God’s only Son in hope of believing and finding forgiveness of sin.
The Cost of God’s Love – “that he gave his only Son”
I didn’t completely understand the weight of this before I had my own children. Certainly, I still don’t feel the fullness of it, because I’m not yet perfect, but I think I at least understand it more today than I did 13 years ago when I wasn’t a father. Can you imagine giving your child up to die for someone else? Or your friend’s child, or a niece? And to the death by which Christ died? I’ve known people who have lost children, even in my own family, and I can’t image what they feel, nor can I imagine a worse torment. The gift of salvation is indeed a “free” one to us (to the extent that we didn’t trade God anything for it, even if it costs us our very lives after receiving it), but it wasn’t free to the Godhead. In fact, it cost him deeply.
The Objective of God’s Love – “that whoever believes in him should not perish”
So why did God do this? Just a casual look through the Bible will give a clear answer. From the very beginning to the last words of the text, we see God’s intent. It’s an objective that pursues every human with relentless purpose. Even in our own salvation, we find God’s motivation of love toward the world. God is a pursuing God, and he is a sending God. One that sent Abraham, Noah, Job, Jonah, Peter, Paul and Jesus himself to tell the world; each unique catalysts of Hope, Jesus of course being the most unique. To know God is to be on mission with him. A life that pursues God yet not others is one that’s incomplete and doesn’t make a ton of sense. To love God is to love others, and to offer them the gift of greatest value. God saved you because he loved you, but also because he loves the whole world, and my salvation is not for me alone. Jesus prays not only for his disciples “but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (John 17:20). This is why God’s love is directed toward you, but not only for you. It’s why it’s a personal one, but never a private one. According to Paul, we are reconciled, at least in part, with the objective of implanting in us a ministry and message for the world around us (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).
The Endurance of God’s Love – “but have eternal life”
The word eternal, for me, is perhaps the most difficult word in the english language to understand, let alone to explain. Eternal isn’t not just forever, but is always. It extends into the future, but no less in the present or even the past. We are eternal beings, even if we once had a beginning. The Godhead had no beginning, nor does he have an end, and his love is one that extends just as far into the past as it does into the future, offering a life to be lived for an infinite measure of time. I’ve heard it said that to live with an eternal mindset means that we pray for issues that we need help with today, but also for issues that we will be still be impacted by in a trillion years. If life is a vapor, then what we deal with or are struggling to overcome is but a blip in the overall experience of our lives when measured eternally. Your pain today is an eye-blink – if even that – in the context of God’s eternal love, and the extent to which you will know it. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t feel what we do today. Not at all. We should feel it. We might even not try to rush through the discomfort of the horrible things we feel today. For in that intensity, we can imagine the multiplied joy of God’s love in our forever. I tease myself for my infatuation of the movie series Twilight. I like to say it gets me in touch with my inner 13 year old girl self. But the reason I love it, is because my mind longs to ponder eternity, and my imagination is not near enough vivid. It’s why the story is so compelling to those who enjoy it. To love forever is the most satisfying thought the mind could center on, yet we struggle to do it. And as difficult as it is to think of eternal joy, is it not more so to think of eternal torment? Our pain in this life is only bearable because we recognize that it has some sort of end to it. We will either recover or die. Our finite minds see the end, and hope for that at some point. But what for those whose horrible end is just as everlasting as our life in the presence of God?
If there’s no other reason behind God’s love for us which compelled him to send his only Son, this could be it. I don’t understand eternity – whether in joy or misery – but God does. He knows exactly what it entails, and for that understanding, he sent his Son. For that understanding he sends you and I to tell the world of a love that conquers all.