For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 (NIV)
This is one of the best-known verses in the Bible. Many of you memorized it in Sunday school. The rest of you have seen on a sign in the end zone of a pro football game. The verse is John’s summary following the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus I wrote about two weeks ago. If you didn’t read that post, you can take a minute and read it now along with John 3:1 – 21.
When I was young, this verse seemed like a wonderful thing: God sent his son to die for our sins and that is why we can go to heaven when we die. As I got older, and learned more about Jesus’ life on earth, the verse began to trouble me. Jesus had a spectacular birth with angels and a light show. He even had important visitors drop by to see him with some very nice gifts. When we catch up with Jesus again, he is around 30 years old and living in a small town in a remote part of Israel. As the story unfolds, we learn that God has given him a big job, which involves choosing and leading a team of people who have little or no experience in mission work, teaching a message that is rejected and ridiculed by the religious leaders, and he knows the conclusion to his fruitless labor will be death in the most terrible way possible. As a young man, I remember asking myself “What kind of father would do that to his son?” (We watched NBC’s broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar last week and I saw the same depressing story set to song. The entire musical seems to ask why God would cause so much pain in the life of such a nice guy.) For a long time, I didn’t get the good news of the gospel because I couldn’t get past thinking how unfair God had been to Jesus.
The reason the gospel message sounded wrong to me is that no father, at least not a loving father like God is supposed to be, would put is beloved son through what Jesus had to suffer. So, what was I missing? My problem was the same as Nicodemus, I was trying to interpret the spiritual world by applying what I knew of the physical world and it didn’t work. I wrote two weeks ago about the metaphor Jesus used with Nicodemus. He described the process of being reconciled to God and entering eternal life as being “born again.” That didn’t make sense to Nicodemus because, in our world, people aren’t born twice. In this verse, John uses another word model, or metaphor, when he describes Jesus as “God’s one and only son.” John is talking about a spiritual reality that we have come to call the trinity, which is the understanding that, in the spiritual world, it is possible for God to be one God yet in three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is a difficult concept. It is like telling a single-celled creature that there are other creatures with tens of trillions of cells, yet the multi-celled creatures are still one creature.
We learn from the gospels that when God took human form, he took on human limitations. Jesus got hungry and tired. He felt pain and sorrow. Most importantly, Jesus’ relationship with God the Father was changed for the time he was on earth. Jesus knew that part of his sacrifice for our sins would require losing his close relationship with God the Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus begged God to take the cup from him, I don’t think Jesus was afraid of the physical pain he was about to suffer. I think Jesus was anticipating his separation from God the Father, which was something he had never experienced.
Back to today’s verse. If we read this verse through a spiritual lens and not through a physical lens, we get a completely different meaning. John isn’t saying that God sent his poor son to solve the problem of human sin by dying on a cross. John is saying that God himself did something for us that no one else could do. God, in the person of Jesus, accepted the limitations and indignities of becoming a human, loved the people he created even though they had rejected him and, finally, experienced physical death in the worst way humans could devise.
When I approach this from a spiritual rather than a physical perspective, the question changes. I no longer ask, “What kind of father would sacrifice his son to save the people who rejected him?” Now I ask, “What kind of God would voluntarily give up his position in heaven to take on a human body and suffer rejection and death at the hands of the people he created to make a way for them to spend eternity with him?” He did it because he loves us more deeply than I can imagine.
I have tried over the last 5 weeks to explain the Christian’s answer to the problem of death. Physical death does not make a Christian’s life meaningless because a Christian’s physical death is not the end of the story. God himself offered a sacrifice that no man could offer to pay the price for sin. I love the way that profound mystery is expressed in the song How Deep the Father’s Love for Us performed by Phillips Craig and Dean. If you have a few minutes, follow the link and listen to the words.