“I just love that outfit.” “I love this recipe.” The examples are legion. We use the word love in so many different ways and contexts, that it seems as if we have forgotten exactly what it means, or even what it implies. Even when it comes to the love of God, we tend to speak of it the way we do most anything else: tritely and overwhelmingly shallow. While we may acknowledge God’s love as something that is real and perhaps present, why does it often seem to move us so little? One of the most profound truths found in the Bible is that God loved us enough to give Himself for us. One verse in the Bible sums up the gospel truth of God’s love like no other verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16. This verse is widely known and often quoted, yet it seems as if we have missed what God’s Word is saying to us.
Most people know this verse by heart, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Many Christians quote it, and many preachers preach it, but the question is, do we really understand what John is saying? Having a proper understanding of John 3:16 will shape how we understand the ministry of Christ, the love of the Father, and the power of the gospel.
For many, when they read John 3:16, they read it with the understanding that the focus is on whom God loves. Now, no doubt God’s love does reach the world—which I certainly think is a point to be made here—but that is not the main point of John 3:16. The primary purpose in John 3:16 is to tell how God loves. The word “so” is a Greek word that is more appropriately translated, thus or in this way. So, when we look at the verse we should actually read it as follows: “For God love the world in this way: he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” As we see, John’s focus is not to show the width of God’s love—to whom it is extended. Rather, John is showing us the unfathomable depth of God’s love.
The gospel is not merely a call to faith, it is a call to live in the reality of the deep, rich love of God. We must understand that God did not merely say I love you, He demonstrated His love by giving His perfect Son as a sacrifice to atone for sin. Humanity was separated from God by the curse of sin, and God restored our relationship by giving us Jesus. Both the faith and the life that flow through the power of the cross are the result of God’s love. Why do we trust God? Because He showed us His love and trustworthiness through the cross. Why do we enjoy eternal life? Because God’s love for us through the cross has given us new life in Christ. What John gives us here is “love in action.” That is, God has not only confessed to love us, He has proven how much He loves us by giving His Son as a ransom for the souls of His people. This is the vertical side of the equation-the aspect dealing specifically with our relationship with God. There is, however, a horizontal aspect as well-how God’s gift of love effects how God’s people reflect that love to others.
God’s sacrificial love must be the pattern for how we love others. Jesus makes that clear in John 15:13, when He says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay his life down for his friends.” What makes this statement so remarkable is that Jesus was about to lay His life down for His people as His own expression of love. Naturally, we will never make the same sacrifice Jesus did because His was redemptive and unique. We are, however, called to show love primarily in sacrificing for the good of others. God the Father laid down the life of God the Son that He might redeem us and call us His friends.
Why do we serve or sacrifice? Will it merit God’s love? Will it make us more appealing to God? Absolutely not! We serve and sacrifice, we love because we are the recipients of the richest, purest, most effectual love of all. To lay down our lives for the good of others is to humbly serve them before we serve ourselves. It is to shoulder their burdens and enter into their struggles with no thought of being repaid. Why is the church called upon to love in this way? Simple, it is the example that has been set before us. The sacrifice of God is the seal of His deep love for His church. Likewise, the church shows that she is God’s by seeking to reflect His love to all people.
The gospel is the message of hope and redemption. It is the good news that sin and death have been crushed by the power of the cross. The foundation upon which the gospel is built is the deep love of God. His love saves us, His love empowers us to trust, and His love liberates us to serve and love others.