Believe:879. How far will you go to find the truth? A journey through the gospel of John with Skip Heitzig.
Happy Valentine's Day. February 14th, one billion cards have been sent around the world on Valentine's Day. Did you know that Valentine's Day is the second largest card-sending event? It's only next to Christmas. Who gets the most Valentine's cards? Teachers. Second, students, giving them to each other. Third, mothers. Sweethearts are fourth or fifth, it's like they don't even count almost.
But I wonder how many of you realize that Valentine's Day has Christian roots. That it was actually named after a martyr, one of two martyrs in the early church who would not abandon their love for Jesus Christ. It's either named after Valentine of Rome, Valentinus Romanus who was murdered on February the 14th, this day, in the year 269 AD, or another one by the same name, Valentine, who was the Bishop of Terni, who was martyred by the Emperor Aurelian. We don't know exactly which one but it goes that far back.
But over time, the secular culture has reformed this day to make it a celebration of purely romantic love, and included on the day has been the adding of cupids that comes from Rome. Cupid is the son of Venus, the mother or the goddess of love. The idea of a red rose, since the rose was the favorite flower of Venus, the goddess of love, roses were given. But the original concept comes from the love of God or, more directly, the love of people for their loving God.
Now, there was a group of professionals who decided to ask kids ages four to eight what the definition of love is. What does love mean? And as you can guess, there were some pretty cute answers, even a couple of profound ones. One child said, "When a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne, and they go out and smell each other, that's love." You can picture that. "Love is when you kiss all the time," said another, "Then when you get tired of kissing, you still want to be together, and you talk more. Mommy and Daddy are like that, and they look gross when they kiss." Another one writes, "Love is when you tell a guy that you like his shirt, and then he wears it every day." Just talk about smelling each other.
"Love is what's on Valentine's Day cards. It's the stuff we'd like to say, but no one would be caught dead saying it." Here's the best. "When my grandma got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toe nails anymore. So my grandpa does it for her, even when his hands got arthritis too. Yeah, that's love," she writes. And that's right. That is right. No subject has been so universally treated as the subject of love. No subject has had more songs written about it than love, love songs. Why is that? It's simply because all of us, we all crave love. We want love more than we want anything else, and we would do almost anything to get it.
Today, I want to talk to you about the highest expression of love found in the most famous verse in the Bible: John 3:16. This verse has been called "the Bible in a Nutshell." Martin Luther called it "the Bible in Miniature," noting that all of the great central doctrines of Christian truth are embodied in this single verse. I'm calling it "God's Valentine" because it just happens that it's Valentine's Day.
The verse John 3:16 is the most famous verse in all of the world; everybody knows it. One of the reasons, it has become popularized over time. The Gideon's Foundation, that wonderful group that puts Bibles in hotel rooms across the world, has John 3:16 translated in 27 different languages at the front of each of their Bibles.
If you go to the burger chain In-N-Out burger, next time look in the inside rim at the bottom of all of the paper cups and you'll see it written: John 3:16. The clothing manufacturer, Forever 21, at the bottom of all of their bags, John 3:16.
But a lot of us will remember that there was one person that made the verse extremely famous back in the 70s and 80s. His name is Roland Stewart, also known as the "Rainbow Man." He was the guy that showed up in all of those sporting events wearing the rainbow colored wig and holding up the sign John 3:16, and always positioned himself so that the cameras would pick it up, remember that guy? He had the places wired. At the NFL, he was always positioned in the audience between the goalposts. So when the pig's skin was flying over and the camera panned and up and up, and down, and down, they'd nailed John 3:16 in their lens. At all the baseball games, he made it behind home plate for the same reason. The camera is always there and people would see John 3:16. At one of the master's tournaments, one year, he held John 3:16 just over the right shoulder of Jack Nicholas as he was teeing off. Everybody saw it. A lot of people were also teed off because of it.
This verse tells us about God's plan of saving people. Let's read it together and then we'll just consider it, unpacking it phrase by phrase. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
Notice the first two words. It tells us the origin of this plan, "For God." Notice the verse does not begin "For man was so looking for a way to improve himself that God sent His Son." It didn't start with us and God didn't leave it up to us. He took the initiative. First John 4:19, one of the other famous verses, "He loved us or we love Him because He first loved us." Ours is a response to Him taking the initiative.
Go all the way back to the garden in your mind when Adam blew it. What do we find Adam doing, as soon as he sins, he runs, he hides. God comes into the garden and says, "Adam, where are you?" Not because God didn't know where he was, but to accentuate for Adam the fact that he was lost and running the other direction. God was the one searching for Adam.
Malcolm Muggeridge used to refer to God as the Hound of Heaven, that's where the term originated. There's no other hope unless God searches for us. Every now and then, somebody else will say, "Well, I'm still searching for God." News flash, he's not lost. He's been looking for you for a long time. He's the one that started it. Isaiah put it this way: "All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned everyone his own way." And then Paul, in the New Testament, puts it this way, "For we are dead in trespasses and sins."
Last time I checked, dead people don't improve their own condition. Dead people don't buy self-help books in how to be less dead as the days go on. If you're dead, you're helpless and it requires the origin of the plan, not starting with the dead person but somebody on the outside, and that's God. "For God."
The next two words, look at those, this shows us the motivation of the plan: "For God so loved." Please again notice it does not say, "For God was so angry at this world that He sent His Son down here to punch everybody out." Some people have that picture of God in their minds. "For God so loved the world." Why? Because love is the essence of His nature. John, in another book, puts it this way: "God is love." It's the very essence of who He is. It is so simple to say that. And yet, it is so hard to grasp that. Some of you have sung all of your lives in church songs about the love of God and here you are sitting today as adults still doubting it, that God loves you.
Dwight Lyman Moody, the preacher from Chicago. You've heard of D.L. Moody. He was so intrigued with this concept that he embarked on a study by going through his concordance and looking up every reference in the Bible on the love of God. And when he was all done, he simply said, "There is no truth in the whole Bible that ought to affect us as the love of God." It affected the author of this book: John. John wrote in 1 John, chapter 3, "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called children of God." Maybe a better way to put that is, what kind of love is this, that God would do that?
Now, here's the reason that God's love is so hard to grasp. Okay, it's pretty simple actually. Here's why it's so hard: because it's so different from what we do as humans. Human love is object-oriented. That is, a human being sees an object and says, "I like that object. It's beautiful. It's attractive." Or a person, "She is or he is attractive to me." That's how it all begins. It's object-oriented.
God's love is wholly different than that. God's love is subject-oriented. God's love is based on His character, His nature. He is love. So it's indiscriminate. Now what it means is, God doesn't love you because you earn His love or because you deserve His love. God just loves you because---because God is love. And thus, it's a stable, consistent kind of love. And God doesn't have favorites. He didn't love Billy Graham more than he loves you. Billy Graham starts praying and you're praying; God didn't say, "Shhh. Billy is praying. Hold on. This is Billy Graham." No favorites.
There was a woman talking to a psychiatrist. And as they were talking, the psychiatrist thought he'd spring a question on her. He said, "So which of your kids, [she had three children] which of them do you love most?" And she answered predictably, "I don't love anyone most. I love them all the same." Well he pressed her a little bit on that. He said, "Ma'am, it's psychologically impossible to regard three human beings as completely equal." Then she started crying. She said, "You're right. When this one is sick, I love him the most. When she's in pain, I love her the most. When that one's in trouble, I love that one the most. But besides those exceptions, I love them all the same."
God has the ability by his very nature to love us all the same. Speaking of that, notice the next two words as we unpack it. Here's the destination of the plan: the world. "For God so loved the world." Are you part of the world? If you wonder, try this, if something comes out, you're part of the world. If you breathe, you're part of this world.
Now here's love at its widest. It's not that God loves one group. "God so loved the Americans, God so loved people on the western world, God so loves the middle class" or as some would like to say, "God only loved the elect." It doesn't say that. And that drives some people nuts, that it doesn't say that. And I love it when it drives them nuts.
"God so love the world." Who were these words spoken to originally? Nicodemus. Nicodemus was one of those Jewish elders who believed God loved the Jews, the good Jewish sons and daughters of Abraham. They were the elect. They were the special chosen ones. Jesus blew that out of the water saying, "For God so loved the world." Later he will tell his disciples, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, not just to the western culture, to everyone."
And there's a simple reason for that. We all have a disease. We and the world, everyone in the world, every person who's been born in the world has a disease that has a single universal cure. It's like heart disease. If a person has heart disease who's an American, it's the same cure for an American as an Argentinean, as an African, as an Australian, it's universal. It'll work anywhere. It doesn't matter the culture, the language, the soil. If a person has lung disease, same cure is universal. Hansen's disease, same thing. We are all S-I-N positive. Every human being, every person a part of this world is infected with a disease, and there is a single universal cure. And that is blood, the blood of God's flawless, perfect Son.
Now I wonder what we would think if the verse read something like this: "For God so loved all of the good people of the world that He gave His Son." Most of us would say, "Okay, I can hang with that. I can actually---I understand that a whole lot better." But if it did say that, we would all immediately be eliminated, wouldn't we? Because we're not always on our best behavior. There's some days we're good and some days we're not so much. And so, it's going to be very unstable. Or if God said, "Well, you know, I love you today. You, not so much because I know what you've been thinking this week."
So here we have this broad, brushed statement: "For God really loved the world." It's the widest possible embrace. His love isn't precarious. His love is not moody. It is not selective. It includes everyone. But do you know that some people don't experience it? Do you know that some Christian people don't experience it? You can press a Christian and they'll say, "Oh yeah, God loves me." But to be around them, you'd never know it. You'd never know that they really believe it. It's sort of like the sun. The sun is shining but you could walk outside with an umbrella over your head and you wouldn't enjoy the warmth. It's still shining. It's just not affecting you.
Notice the next little phrase in our verse. Here's the demonstration of His plan: that He gave His only begotten Son. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. He gave His Son. Imagine that, moms. Imagine that, fathers. He gave His Son.
You know sometimes I think that I love people. I'm pretty good at it. Sometimes, I think I love them pretty deeply until I think of this. Then I think differently. I wouldn't give my son for any of those people and neither would you. God gave His Son for everyone. He gave His Son for everyone.
Why did He give his Son? He gave His Son because love, to be love, can't be passive. It has to be active. You can't just get by, going, "I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you." You've got to do something with that. You got to demonstrate it somehow. And marriages will deteriorate right at this juncture. Here is where the chasm is. They stopped giving. They stopped giving time. They stopped giving energy. They stopped giving care. And it disintegrates into a formal legal cohabitation, domestic partnership, not what it used to be. God so loved that He gave His Son, active love.
And when God gave, God gave His best. It says in Greek monogenés, only begotten or the unique, one of a kind Son of God was given. He gave the very best. I read an article some years back about an astronaut. Last week, I talked about a cosmonaut. Now I'm telling you about an astronaut. This astronaut was an American who was one of the first ones who walked on the moon. And so, the magazine interviewed him and said, "Okay, when you were walking on the moon and you are looking back at the earth, what thoughts went through your mind?" The astronaut said, "Well, it's crazy. But, um, when I was on the lunar surface and I'm looking at the earth and there's my spacecraft, the thought that kept coming to my mind is that my spacecraft was built by the lowest bidder." That'd be a bit unsettling, wouldn't it? Travel all of that distance in something that went out to the lowest bidder.
Well, when God needed to fix the world, He didn't give it out to the lowest bidder. He paid the highest possible price. He gave His one and only unique Son. And here's the invitation, the next two words: "that whoever." That whoever. Who is salvation offered to? Whoever. Sounds like God isn't too picky.
To the Samaritan woman, Jesus will say, "Whoever drinks of the water that I give will never thirst." Revelation 21, same thought. "The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' Let him who hears say, 'Come!' Whoever is thirsty, let him come, and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life." Who can get into heaven? Whoever. Who can live forever? Whoever. And here we are on earth, and on earth, we have exclusive places that not everybody can get into. You have to be a member. You have to have credentials. You'd be stopped by the guards. You have to own property in the club. You have to make so much money or whatever.
Think of it. It's harder to get into a Christian university than it is into heaven. Isn't that interesting? You have to pass tests. You have to prove worth and character. Whoever. You know what the biggest surprise is going to be in heaven? Who's there. You're going to find---you're going to see somebody and you're going to go, "I can't believe it. They let him in." And you'll walk up to him and say, "What ever happened to let you in?" And he'll say, "I was thinking the same thing when I saw your face." The other big surprise in heaven is who's not there. Probably a lot of people that thought they'd just be there and they're not.
But there is a qualification to that invitation: "That whoever believes in Him." Now let that word just sort of soak in. Here's the qualification: believe in Him. You don't have to clean up your life. You couldn't do it if you try it. It's called the gospel. It's good news. Here's the qualification: believe. "Well what do I have to do?" Believe. "I got to do something." Yeah, you got to believe.
Now, we discovered last time and the time before, that the word belief though means more than to acknowledge, just "I agree that there's a God up there somewhere and He's got a Son named Jesus." Because there was a group in chapter two, verse 23 that believed in His name and Jesus did not commit Himself to them because he knew what was inside of them.
And so, we discovered the word in Greek pisteuó, to believe, means to rely on, to trust in, to stick to or adhere to, or to put your weight upon. That's a better way of looking at it. In fact, there was a translator in a tribal situation who was translating the Bible. He found out that the language, the receptor language of the tribe didn't have a good word for the word believe. And so he was trying to describe what biblical faith is. And one of the elders stood up from the campfire, ran into the tent, and lay down on a cot and said, "You mean like this?"
And so, I've been told that in that language, for that tribe, John 3:16 has rendered something like, "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever puts his full weight on Him will never perish but have eternal life." It's beautiful, isn't it?
Sometimes somebody will say to me, "Oh Skip, Jesus is your crutch," and I say, "Oh no, no, no. Correction. I don't just lean on Him. He's my stretcher. I have to---He's got to carry me through. I don't just like 'Yeah, I'm a little bit rough to lean on Jesus.'" It's a complete carry me through. Carry me through.
Some of you have heard a great story of a tightrope walker many years ago called "The Great Blondin," who could stretch a tight wire across buildings, and once, across the Niagara Falls, and he would walk the tightrope and walk back. People would applaud him. On one occasion, he put a blindfold on, walked across, walked back, more people applauded. He got on a bicycle, road across and road back, louder applause. He then went across with a wheelbarrow full of bricks, across and then back, more applause and then he asked the crowd, "How many believe I could do it again with a person in the wheelbarrow?" And they said, "We believe." And then he asked for a volunteer. Not a one stepped forward to get in that wheelbarrow.
Can Jesus Christ save people? Yup. Will you get in the wheelbarrow? Will you get in the wheelbarrow? It's one thing to look at a parachute and acknowledge its greatness. It's another thing to strap it on your back and jump, right? Whoever believes in Him.
We'll close with a final, little phrase. This is the ramification of God's plan. "That whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." The South Africans call the Bible, "The Book of Beautiful Words." One of the reasons they will tell you is because of the promise in this verse, "If I believe in Him, I won't perish. But I will, like Him, have everlasting life." Jesus perished so I wouldn't have to perish. He died so that you wouldn't have to die. He gave His life so that He could give you eternal life. But notice there's a flip side that's built into this. Because if by believing in Him, it means that I have eternal life then it would also mean if I don't believe in Him, I would perish and I wouldn't have everlasting life.
And so the guy who was considering Christ and said to his friend, "You know, I'm just not sure I can pay the price to be a Christian." His friend was right when he said, "Have you considered the cost of not becoming a Christian?" Perish and not have everlasting life.
Let's suppose I were to give you this book, this Bible, say, "I want you to have it. It's my gift to you, but I'm going to take this pen and put it inside the book. Now take it." When you take the book, you also get the pen. When you receive Christ, you also get life, it comes with Him. He's the author of life. He's the one who died to give us life. So when you receive Christ, you get life. Now if you were to say, "I want life but I don't want Christ," you don't get it. You got to receive Christ to get the life. If you don't, you will perish.
In just a minute, we're going to pass out these elements. We're going to ask you to take a piece of bread and a cup. One represents His broken body; the other represents His shed blood. If you're a Christian this morning, if you've received Christ, you take the elements. None of this nonsense, "Well I don't feel worthy today. I've had a bad week. I've said some bad things, so I'm not"---stop that utter nonsense forever. If you've received Christ, you have life. Whether you feel good about that life or not is totally irrelevant. You take it. You take it and you celebrate it. But if you're just a sweet, nice, religious, wonderful person who likes to go to church but you've never received Christ, don't take it. Let it pass you by, pass it on to the next person. Because what you do in essence is you raise a red flag. You go, "God, hey, over here. I'm the guy who's taken this stuff that speaks of something else that I never really did." And the Bible says all you do is heap condemnation on yourself.
So it's better to just say, "No, I'll pass it on." That's option number one. Option number two, better option, how about right now, in your heart, from your heart, believe in Him, trust Him, receive Him as your Lord and Savior. Let's bow our heads. You might be one of those. If so, right now from your heart to the Lord, meaning it, you simply say something like this to Him and do it now.
Lord, I know I'm a sinner. Forgive me. I trust that Jesus Christ died and rose again to pay for my sins. And now I turn from my sin and I turn, I turn to You. I trust You, laying all of my weight of trust completely upon You. I receive You as my Savior, I take You as my Master. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Give me Your power to live this life. In Jesus' name, amen.
Now you take those elements. You take them with confidence this morning. You take these elements that symbolize that you have taken Christ as your Savior and Lord. That He has taken your sins upon Himself and that's why we celebrate.
I want to read to you something before we take these elements. I have a hunch that there's just a bunch of folks that would say something to the effect of "I hear it. I hear what you're saying. But if you knew me like I knew me, if you knew the things that I have done or thought or said, I don't know who could love that."
Okay, I have a word for you. This is Paul's letter to the Romans as told to us by Eugene Peterson in his translation, The Message. "So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God's chosen? Who would even dare to point a finger? The One who died for us---who was raised to life for us!---is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ's love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture." Isn't that terrific?
Now in your darkest moment, when the bottom of your life falls out, you remember that. You remember how much God loves you.
I smile as I pass the elements out to these men. I love these men. I love serving with them. Some are on staff; some are on our board; some are volunteers. But I love them. I love you. I love this church. And moreover, God really loves you. He's crazy about you. There's a great, old song called "The Love of God" by F. E. Lehman. Here's just a sampling of the words: "The love of God is greater far than words or pen could ever tell. It goes beyond the farthest star, and reaches to the lowest hell. Could we with ink the oceans fill, and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above, would drain the oceans dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky." I think the guy who wrote that got it, and I think it made him really happy and confident and at rest. And I pray that you will be, as well. We're going to take the bread and pray for it, and then the cup after we pray for it. I'm going to ask these two guys on my side, Mike and Dave, to do that.
Lord, we thank You for Your commitment to us, and standing in the shadow in the light of the most beautiful words any of us could ever hear, that You loved us, and if we just believe in You and trust in You, and Lord, we thank You for taking the stripes upon Yourself, for Your body being broken in our stead, a true example of love. And we take this bread this morning, Lord, not only in remembrance of what You've done but with great appreciation for the visible manifestation of Your love as You died on the cross. We thank You, Lord.
Let's take it together.
Father God, I thank You so much for "whoever." Lord, I thank You that You made it so simple, a voluntary act of faith, of belief in a God that we've never seen with our own eyes, but, we believe and proclaim, died on the cross and shed all of His blood for us. Lord, we take this cup as Your body, letting You know that we believe and we thank You.