"What Was the Point?"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts April 18, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Scripture Reading: John 3:13-17
13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The Fame of John 3:16
"John 3:16" may be the most well known of all Bible references. Not only has this verse been memorized by millions of Christians throughout the world, but also the reference has been seen by billions of people who watch sporting events. You know the drill. You're sitting there minding your own business watching the Super Bowl when all of a sudden somebody in the crowd holds up a sign that reads "John 3:16."
Not everyone gets the point, however. One man, perplexed by the omnipresent "John 3:16" at football games, once asked, "Am I missing out on something? What in the heck does John 3:16 mean? Is it a hex on the kicker? Is it a riddle?" Actually, it's the best news you'll ever hear in life. But before we examine this verse, let's first look at its literary context.
The Context for John 3:16
In John, chapter 3, Jesus is conversing with Nicodemus, a leader among the Pharisees. When Jesus explains that one must be "born again" in order to see the kingdom of God (3:3), the conversation turns to Jesus' credentials as a revealer of divine truth. He claims to be a trustworthy witness to heavenly realities because, as Son of Man, Jesus has actually been in heaven (3:13). But then, having mentioned the Son of Man, Jesus continues with this theme, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (3:14-15). If we're going to get Jesus' point here, I need to unpack a couple of fundamental allusions.
First, the Son of Man. In recent sermons I've explained that this is Jesus' preferred title for himself. It comes from Daniel 7, where one "like a son of man" comes before the throne of God to receive glory and an everlasting kingdom (7:13-14). This "son of man" is exalted above all peoples, who serve him as God's chosen ruler.
Second, Moses and the serpent. In Numbers 21, as Moses is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, they become impatient and complain against God. So God sends poisonous snakes among the people to teach them a lesson, and many who are bitten die. When the people repent, the Lord tells Moses to make an image of a serpent and to set it up on a pole. Then, if a real serpent bites someone, that person can look at Moses' upraised image in order to live (Num 21:4-9). There's obvious irony in this story, because that which saves people is, in fact, a symbol of death.
Jesus elaborates upon this irony in verse 14. As Son of Man he will be lifted up, but, unlike in the vision of Daniel 7, Jesus' "exaltation" as Son of Man will be, first of all, upon a Roman cross, one of the most terrifying images of death ever designed. Yet, like Moses' raising of the bronze serpent, Jesus' being lifted up on the cross will lead to life for all who look upon him in faith. Thus his death will lead, paradoxically, to eternal life.
This picture of the dying Son of Man is consistent with what we've seen elsewhere. You may recall that in Mark 10, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man who will "give his life a ransom for many" (10:45). He is the one who will drink the cup of God's judgment so that we may enjoy life in the kingdom of God (10:38).
So, in the context of John 3, Jesus, as Son of Man will be lifted up, not at first into the glory of God's throne, but rather into the shame of the cross. Yet, paradoxically, in this way he will be the source of eternal life for all who believe. Later in John Jesus explains further that, as the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, he will draw all people to himself (John 12:32). The cross of shame will become, in God's plan of salvation, the cross of glory.
In this context we come to John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
Notice that Jesus is not only the Son of Man, but also the "only Son," the unique and beloved Son of God. God has given him to the world, not merely to reveal divine truth, but also to fulfill his calling to be "lifted up" on the cross so that the world might be saved through him.
Salvation, in this verse, is described as "eternal life." This expression refers, not so much to life in heaven after death, as to the life of the age to come, the age when God's kingdom fills the earth. But, as the Gospel of John makes clear elsewhere (e.g. 5:24), eternal life is something we begin to experience in this life, even as we wait for the fullness of eternal life in the age to come. Eternal life is the abundant life of God, both now and forever.
Why did Jesus die? Because that was his divine calling as Son of Man. Because his death led to eternal life for humanity. But, at an even deeper level, Jesus died as an expression of divine love. "For God so loved the world that he gave . . . ." As we consider various reasons for Jesus' crucifixion, here we come to bedrock. Jesus died because God loved the world.
If you've paid attention to the complaints of those who have not like The Passion of the Christ, this is where many get people hot under the collar. What kind of God, they object, would demand the death of Jesus? Listen to how one reviewer criticizes this sort of theology:
Well, for one thing, this is a God who takes sin very seriously, and who takes the vileness of sin very seriously. But this is also a God who loves so much that he sends, not just some poor human victim to the cross, but his only Son. Jesus is not merely a human being who chooses to do God's will. He is also the Son of God, or, might I say, God the Son. God sends, not just a pure human being, but a pure human being who is also fully God. It wouldn't be incorrect to say that God loves the world so much that he came, in the person of his Son, to bear our sin upon the cross.
So Complex Yet So Simple
All of this can get pretty heady, I'll admit. After all, we're dealing with some of the most profound theological truths here. We're plumbing the depths of the unfathomable nature of God. You could spend a lifetime studying how the Triune God bears the sin of the world and still only begin to grasp it. Little in life is more complex than the truth of John 3:16.
Yet, from another perspective, John 3:16 is also quite simple. You don't need to have a Ph.D. in theology in order to get the main point. It's something that even a child can believe. I know, because I once was such a child.
In early September 1963, Los Angeles was baking in heat wave. But that didn't stop my family from packing up a picnic dinner and heading off to the Los Angeles Coliseum for the Billy Graham crusade. There we sat, packed in with about 75,000 other people, to sing, listen to testimonies, and hear Dr. Graham preach the gospel. Though I was only six years old, I was greatly impressed with what I saw.
The next evening we returned to the Coliseum for another night of music and preaching. At the end of Dr. Graham's message, he invited people to come forward to receive Christ as their Lord and Savior. I promptly announced to my parents that I wanted to go forward. At first they were concerned that I was merely caught up in the excitement of the moment. But apparently I explained to them quite clearly that I wanted to go forward to accept Jesus into my heart, so they consented to my request and accompanied me to the field.
In September of 1963 I had no idea what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of Man who would be lifted up like Moses lifted the serpent. And I really had very little idea what it meant for Jesus to be the Son of God, or what eternal life was all about, or why Jesus had to die. Yet I believed that God loved me and that's why Jesus came to die for me. And I put my trust is Jesus as my Savior and my Lord. At that moment my life changed forever.
Our Response: Trusting in Jesus
So how should you respond to God's love given in Jesus? John 3:16 explains: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." The right response to God's love in Christ is to believe in him.
I must hasten to add, however, that believing in Jesus is more than simply believing the facts about him. You can believed that he is the Son of God, and you can believe that Jesus died for human sin, and you can believe that he rose from the dead, and you can believe everything I've said in this sermon and far more - and still not believe in Jesus. Believing in him includes believing the right facts about him, but far more. Believing in him means trusting yourself, your very life, to Jesus. It is putting you faith in him as your Savior. It's putting your life in his hands.
When I was in college, my roommate Henry decided to get his pilot's license one summer. So, while I was out in California and Henry was in Florida, he invested all of his spare time and lots of his spare money in flying lessons. By the end of the summer he had earned a license to fly two-seater planes.
When we were reunited in the fall, Henry told me about his accomplishment. He was very proud. I congratulated him and felt quite happy for him, until he extended a fateful offer: "So, do you want to come flying with me?" Now this was tricky. It was one thing to believe that Henry had earned his pilot's license, which I did. And it was another thing to believe that Henry was probably a pretty good pilot, which I did. But to get into a rented Piper Cub with him and go flying, now that wasn't just a matter of belief. That would require real faith, real trust, a biblical sort of faith. I could believe all I wanted that Henry was a fine pilot, but I didn't really believe in him until I stepped into a plane with him and took off. In the end, I truly did believe that Henry would be a fine pilot, so I did indeed put my life in his hands, and we did indeed go flying together.
Have you put your life in the strong, safe, healing, nail-pierced hands of Jesus? Have you trusted yourself to him?
I know that many of you have done this already. For you, my word of encouragement is to live each day trusting Jesus. It's so tempting, once we accept him as our Savior, to go back to trying to earn God's favor. But grace cannot be earned, by definition. It's a gift of God. So if you've begun your Christian life by trusting Jesus, then don't stop now. Trust him each day. Live in his grace. Claim him as your Lord. Follow his guidance. Submit to his authority. Live for his glory.
If you haven't put your life in Jesus' hands, I would urge to do so, even today. Now I can't prove what I've been saying about Jesus today. Certainly I could point you to hundreds of Christians who would gladly tell you how the truth of John 3:16 has changed their life. And this verse comes from the Bible, which claims to be inspired by God. So at least you know that I haven't made all of this up myself. But we're still not dealing with the stuff of scientific or logical proof. In the end, though there is a certain logic to what Scripture teaches about the death of Christ, we called to put our faith in that which we can understand, but not completely, in that which we can believe to be true, but cannot fully prove. Biblical faith, however, is not merely saying, "Yes, I think this is true." It's also saying, "And I put my trust in Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I put my life in his hands."
Is this something you need to do today? If you're waiting for conclusive proof that all of this is true, the bad news is that such proof won't be forthcoming. But the good news is that if you rely on God's help, his own Spirit will convince you of the truth of what I've said today. Moreover, the Spirit of God will help you to know that you need this truth for yourself. You need Jesus to be your Savior and your Lord.
Once you have put your faith in Christ, you'll want to tell others. Evangelism - sharing the good news of Christ - won't be a burden, but a joy. We who have been transformed by the love of God in Christ will want to multiply that love by giving it away to the world.
Why did Jesus die? What's the point? The point is salvation from sin. The point is going from death to eternal, abundant life. The point is God's love for the world. Jesus, who was God in the flesh, died because God loves. That's the point!