‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16)
The Lord Christ has been giving Nicodemus a crash course in the fundamentals of Christian theology. First, He speaks with Nicodemus about the absolute necessity of the new birth for seeing and entering the kingdom of heaven. This is the most essential Gospel truth. Without a new birth, though you have all knowledge, though you are the most religious person on earth, you remain dead in your trespasses and sins. Only the Spirit of God can create true life and faith within your heart. That is why the Lord Christ says, ‘You must be born again’. You will never understand the truths of the Gospel without a new heart. Good Friday and a crucified Christ will forever remain a mystery to the unregenerate. ‘You must be born again’. He then turns our attention to the love of the Father and the need to believe upon His beloved Son, whom He freely gave to be the Saviour of lost sinners. Now these are the most basic principles of our faith. There is no Christianity where these doctrines are not preached and believed. Nicodemus is the teacher in Israel and yet he is ignorant of the first principles of true religion (vv. 9–10). Good Friday is a day when we remember that the eternal God gave His beloved Son to suffer and die upon the cross for lost sinners. To be ignorant of this great truth is to be on the path to eternal misery. The word of the cross stands at the heart of Christianity.
A Christless cross is no refuge for me;
A Crossless Christ my saviour cannot be;
But, O Christ crucified! I rest in Thee.
The Gospel is a word to us from another world. Only one man has come down from heaven to make known these glorious truths — that man is Jesus Christ. He is the Man of Heaven; the One who had been with His Father and delighted in His glory from before the foundation of the world; the One who was with God, who was God, and who is God; the One who was there in the beginning when all things were first made; the One who spoke light into being with a word. He is the ‘gift of God’. He is the Son of the Father’s love. In Him there dwells a treasure all divine. ‘In Him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form’ (Colossians 2:9). He is the brightness of the Father’s glory, the exact representation of His being, the One who sustains all things by His powerful word (Hebrews 1:3a). ‘He is the richest token of the Father’s love to us’ (Matthew Henry). There could be no better person to reveal to helpless sinners the love and the mercy of God than His dearly beloved Son. He is the Man of Heaven who assumed our nature, who took a body, dwelt among us 2000 years ago, and was crucified for sinners of lost mankind.
The Lord Christ is God incarnate (God in the flesh). He is the God-man, our Immanuel — God with us. This is what the Lord Christ says: ‘No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ (v.13). ‘The Lord Christ who is in heaven has clothed Himself with our frail humanity, so that by stretching out His brotherly hand to us, He may raise us up heavenward along with Him to glory’ (ad. Calvin). Who else was fit to make known the heavenly glories of the Gospel? Who but Christ could condescend to rescue sinners? Who but Christ could rise again and take us to the Glory? He is God and so mighty to save us. He is man and so gentle to sympathise with us and fit to represent us as our substitute. ‘He is not a humanised God or a deified man, but a true God-man — the Man of heaven — the One who is all that God is and at the same time all that man is; upon whose almighty arm we can rest, and to whose human sympathy we can appeal. We cannot afford to lose either the God in the man or the man in the God; for our hearts cry out for the complete God-man whom the Scriptures offer to us’ (ad. B.B. Warfield). This is our Saviour who came to rescue us from our plight and desperation in sin and bring us back to God.
1] Firstly, the Lord Christ wants us to see the gospel in Numbers (vv. 14–15). John 3:16 is the most well known verse in Scripture. It is the Gospel in miniature; the Bible in a nutshell. What is less well known is the immediate context of this verse where the Lord Jesus expounds a passage from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament. This is a lesson for us: the Old Testament no less than the New is a book about Jesus Christ. He is the sum, the centre, the fabric of the Old Covenant. It is often said that we understand the Old Testament using the light of the New. Now that is true, but it’s not the whole truth of the matter. It is equally the case, that we understand the New Testament against the backdrop of the Old. John 3:16 makes no sense whatsoever without Number 21:4–9. In chapter twenty-one, we encounter the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. God has mightily delivered them from the oppression and cruelty of the tyrant Pharaoh with signs and wonders. These people wandering in the wilderness had seen God move in great and mysterious ways. They had seen God part the waters of the red sea as if He were merely opening the curtains. And yet we find them grumbling against God. They became impatient and angry with God. They spoke up against Him and against His servant Moses saying, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?’ (v. 5). The wrath of God is therefore kindled against them and He sends fiery serpents among the people, to bite them, so that many of the Israelites died (v. 6). You must understand this. The wrath of God burns hot against the sin of His people. He is a holy and a righteousness God. Sin is an abomination to Him. It is utterly contrary to His being and nature.
The people realise that God is deeply offended by their sin and so they cry out to Moses to intercede, to plead with God, on their behalf. God listens. The Lord hears their cry and answers them. ‘The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake a put it upon a pole; anyone who is bitten can look upon it and live” (v.8). Yes He is a God of wrath and of judgement, but He is also a God of love and of compassion. You remember when Moses renews the covenant with God and God writes the Law upon the tablets of stone with His own finger. The living God appears to Moses. He descends in thick cloud and proclaims His name: ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, and forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty’ (Exodus 34: 6–7). This is our God. It’s not a matter of either/or. He is both righteousness and merciful. He is both holy and compassionate. He is both just and kind. The Gospel reveals both His love and His justice. He rescues His people from the punishment He Himself had imposed upon them. The context for John 3:16 is one of wrath and deliverance. He is both just and the justifier of the ungodly. The hymn writer captures it beautifully:
Heaven's peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.
This is what the Lord Christ has in mind when he says: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life’ (vv.14–15). Do you see the parallel here? The backdrop is wrath of God against sin, the means of salvation is provided by God, the sinner must simply look and find life. One theologian explains it like this: ‘The Israelites stood under the sentence of death in the desert, but any who looked at the snake were granted life; in similar manner, according to Jesus, all humanity is liable to ‘perish’, but anyone who looks upon Him and ‘believes in Him’ will be granted ‘eternal life’ (v. 16). It is from wrath and condemnation that the Israelites were saved by looking to the serpent lifted up. ‘It is thus from wrath and condemnation that Jesus’ death saves us’. All who look to Him shall be saved.
He was lifted up to die for sinners. This death alone could appease the wrath of a holy God. Sin had brought the curse upon us. Our first parents having rebelled against God in the Garden brought the curse and judgement of God upon the world. Now all mankind is made liable to the miseries of life, to death, and to the pains of hell forever. God’s wrath against us for our sin burns like the venom of fiery serpents. He is angry with the wicked every day. Yet there is hope. There is a remedy. There is a cure. The Lord Christ came to save us by healing us from our sin. He came to remove the venom of God’s wrath by facing His fury in our stead. The Son of Man was lifted up like the serpent of brass for the sake of sinners; that they may look upon Him and live. The serpent was a cursed creature; ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is He who hangs upon a tree”’ (Galatians 3:13).
The righteous requirements of the Law of God necessitate the punishment of all our wickedness. The Lord Christ came to face the curse of a broken Law in our stead. He was lifted up in death to be the Saviour of the world. He was raised upon a cross of wood in history, in the reality of space and time, to be exalted forever as the One who freely died for sinners. He was lifted up between heaven and earth to reconcile God to man and man to God. He bore upon Calvary our sin in His own body. He faced our curse. He suffered our punishment. He died our death. Just as the brazen serpent was lifted up in Israel to cure all who looked and believed, so also was Christ lifted up that all who look upon Him might find everlasting life.
Lifted up was He to die;
‘It is finished!’ was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Saviour!
He was lifted beyond the tomb of death. He was lifted beyond the veil of space and time. He was lifted in resurrection power on the third day. He was lifted to the Father’s side where He now sits, and rules and reigns over all. He has the victory over sin, and death, and hell. And He now calls sinners from the throne of mercy to humble themselves in repentance and come unto Him that they might know life eternal. ‘Look unto me (He cries), and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else’ (Isaiah 45:22). Charles Spurgeon has a sermon on that verse from Isaiah called ‘The Life-Look’ preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London in 1876. This, many of you will know, was the text which God in His mercy used to save young Spurgeon. He opens the sermon with a narrative of His conversion:
I have preached a good many times from this text. I hope to do so, if life be spared, many more times. It was about twenty-six years ago — twenty-six years exactly last Thursday — that I looked unto the Lord, and found salvation, through this very text. You have often heard me tell how I had been wandering about, seeking rest, and finding none, till a plain, unlettered, lay preacher among the Primitive Methodists stood up in the pulpit, and gave out this passage as his text: ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth’. He had not much to say, thank God, for that compelled him to keep on repeating his text, and there was nothing needed — for me, at any rate, — save his text. I remember how he said, ‘It is Christ that speaks: “I am in the garden in an agony, pouring out my soul unto death; I am on the tree, dying for sinners; look unto me! Look unto me!” That is all you have to do. A child can look. ... However weak, or however poor, a man may be, he can look; and if he looks, the promise is that he shall live’. Then, stopping, he pointed to where I was sitting under the gallery, and he said, ‘That young man there looks very miserable’. I expect I did, for that is how I felt. Then he said, ‘There is no hope for you, young man, or any chance of getting rid of your sin, but by looking to Jesus’. And he shouted, as I think only a Primitive Methodist can, ‘Look! Look, young man! Look now and live!’ And I did look; and when they sang a hallelujah before they went home, in their own earnest way, I am sure I joined in it. It happened to be a day when the snow was lying deep and more was falling; so, as I went home, those words of David kept ringing through my heart, ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow’. And it seemed as if all nature was in accord with that blessed deliverance from sin which I had found in a single moment by looking unto Jesus Christ.
Have you looked? Have you seen the Lamb of God dying for sinners? Have you found life? It is freely offered to you by the Lord Jesus. His arms are spread wide to welcome sinners of mankind lost. May God give you the grace to look upon the Crucified Christ even as Spurgeon looked and found everlasting life!
2] Secondly, the Lord Christ wants us to see the Father’s love for sinners (v.16). ‘For God so loved the world’. The first clause of the greatest verse in Scripture reveals to us a God of boundless compassion. He is a holy God. He is a righteous God. He is a God of wrath and judgement. But He is not a cruel God. He is not a tyrant. He is a God of love. There is in contemplating the love of the Father, a balm for every wound, a comfort for every sorrow, a quietus for every grief. I know of nothing better for comforting the sinner and soothing the terrors of his soul than the love of God. It is not some charming or pleasing sentiment. It is powerful. It is majestic, godlike, and divine. This love is free, sovereign, spontaneous, infinite, eternal, and unchanging. It is the free and gracious exercise of divine goodness towards the undeserving. It is a love for the unlovely and unlovable. It is a love for the down and outs; a love for the helpless and the hopeless. It is a love for sinners of mankind lost. And nowhere is the strength and power of this love made more manifest to us than in that Father giving His Son to be the Saviour of helpless sinners. Now there are two lessons to learn from this verse about the love of the Father in sending His Son:
1] Firstly, the source of our salvation is the unmerited and undeserved love of God. The Lord Christ came into this universe; He brought life to sinners, He faced the agonising death of Calvary, because His heavenly Father so deeply loved the world. Scripture everywhere extols the love and mercy of God as the wellspring of salvation. We are prone to think that there was something special within us which caused God to save us. ‘We form diabolical imaginations about our own merits’ (Calvin). We imagine that there was some merit, some good work, or some virtue within our own nature which moved God to give His Son to die for us. Scripture knows no such notion. ‘For God’ – that’s what Jesus said. God is the author of salvation. He stands at the back of redemption. It is His work. It is His grand prerogative. So great was His love for lost sinners that He did not spare His own Son but gave Him up to die for us all (Romans 8:32). The heart of God beat in the depths of eternity for fallen men and women with a zealous passion to save a people for His own glory. At the back of the work of redemption, stands a God of deepest compassion and boundless love. Here is such a profundity of love, a love that is beyond human comprehension, a love forged in the fires of eternity past. There has never been a single moment where God has not loved His elect people in Christ. ‘For God so loved’. There is an ocean of comfort for believing sinners in these words. He ‘so loved the world’. What depth! What magnitude! What magnificence! He loved so great, so much, so dearly, that He gave – He gave His Son. It’s outrageous. It’s unthinkable. It’s scandalous. The living God gave His own Son for sinners. Such love! Our eyes are drawn from self and sin to look upon the love and mercy of the One who gave His one and only Son to die in the sinner’s stead.
2] Secondly, the cost of our salvation is the Father’s beloved Son. ‘It is the Lord of Glory, the beloved Son, who hangs upon the cross; and it is the divine Father who has given Him up [to die]’ (Donald Macleod). The cost is unthinkable. It is unimaginable. The Father has not merely given His Son to assume our nature and to walk upon this earth, but to stand in the place of sinners. The Lord Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, was given as a sacrifice. He was given to die. He was given to die the death of sinful men. There is an agony of love here. The One whom the Father had treasured and cherished from all eternity was given for sinners. He was given into the hands of lawless men. He was given to weep in Garden and sweat drops of blood. He was given to be beaten, given to be whipped, given to be scourged. He was given to be mocked, humiliated, and scorned. He was given for a crown of thorns and a cross of wood. He was given to the nails, given to the pain, given the shame. God gave Him up to horror of Golgotha. He was given to face the angst of Calvary and the death of the cross. He was given to rasp for breath; given to slowly asphyxiate; given to bleed; given to suffer; given to die. The Son, we must remember, is one with the Father by an eternal union. He is the same in substance, equal in power and in glory with the living God. The union they share is inseparable; it is so close, so tightly woven. They had been one with each other from the depths of eternity past. They are Father and Son. Even while the wrath of God is being outpoured from heaven upon His beloved one, the Lord Jesus is still the Son of His love. God incarnate hanging upon a tree. ‘[Even] in the darkness and desolation of Golgotha, He was still carrying the universe upon His shoulders [and upholding the cosmos by His word of power’ (Donald Macleod).
The Father and the Son are always with each other, beside each other, facing each other in bonds of an eternal love relationship. At Calvary, the Father sees the agony of His beloved Son upon the cross as He dies. He watches even as His own hatred for sin is outpoured upon His dearest one for us all. His heart is beating with love for His Son. He is watching as the nails are driven into His hands and feet, watching as He is lifted up to die, watching even as the Lord Christ cries from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me’. The Father is a God of deepest compassion; a God with such strength of love; a love which transcends human understanding; a love which holds His Son even as He dies bearing the sin of the world. The Father’s heart is in turmoil. He says of Israel through the prophet Hosea: ‘How can I give you up? ... How can I hand you over? ... My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender, I will not execute my fierce anger’ (Hosea 11:8–9). How much more is this true for His beloved Son? His compassions are in spasm. Here is love and agony.
The Father knows that this death is the only way to save sinners. This is the death ordained from eternity past in a covenant of redemption agreed upon by the whole Trinity as the means to rescue fallen men and women from their plight and desperation in sin. He knows that His Son must die in order for sinners to know the salvation God in all its fullness. In solemn equity the sword of divine justice falls upon the beloved Son. To prevent God’s people from perishing, the Son must perish in their place. Yet, this is Jesus; this is the Son of His love, the apple of His eye; this is His beloved one, the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley, the altogether lovely one. How that cry – ‘Eloi, Eloi’ – must have echoed painfully through time and eternity and moved like an arrow into the Father’s heart, causing Him to bleed with love for His Son. One commentator has said this:
If the depth of love is measured by the value of its gift, then God’s love could not be greater, for his love-gift is His most precious possession – His only, eternally beloved Son. He could not love any more. ‘The true looking of faith is placing Christ before one’s eyes and beholding in Him the heart of God poured out it love’ (Bruce Milne, quote from Calvin).
What words are there to express such love? And when this love is set against the backdrop of human sin and depravity, the grace of God abounds all the more. He didn’t give His Son for good men, but for sinners, so that they might be saved from the wrath to come.
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
3] Finally, we learn that salvation is freely given to all who believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 16–21). Faith alone delivers men and women from everlasting destruction. If men and women would be saved from the wrath to come, if they would know everlasting life, then they must believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. This overture of wonderful grace is freely offered to the ‘whosoever’. There is fullness and freeness in this gracious invitation. Unbelievers are therefore without excuse. They have the opportunity to come and believe even at this very moment. Our Gospel is message for the whole world of sinners. None are excluded. All are welcome to come and believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life’. This is a Gospel for the whosoever; a Gospel for the whole world. Nicodemus thought that the message of the Bible was limited to the people of Israel alone. Jesus wants to expand his vision: ‘Don’t you see Nicodemus? God so loved the world’. The Father desires to save a people for His own glory from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 7:9). There is no reason for any sinner in this world to perish in his sin.
The Gospel is offered freely to all and eternal life is given to all who believe. So there is mercy for you in Christ. Though you are the worst sinner in the universe, yet Christ stands ready to pardon and forgive. Why perish when you can have everlasting life? Why, why will you die? ‘For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies’, declares the Lord God, ‘therefore, repent and live’ (Ezekiel 18:32). ‘His heart is open to you, His arms stretched wide to welcome sinners’ (Thomas Boston). There is sweetness and compassion in the heart of the Lord Christ for helpless sinners: ‘Come unto me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). He wept over obstinate sinners who refused His offers of mercy: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!’ (Matthew 23:37). There is a plenitude of grace for sinners. There is no sin too foul, no sinner to rotten for Jesus. Don’t stand in obstinate refusal at the offer of mercy. Come and welcome Jesus Christ! It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, how big a mess of sin and deception your life is, there is mercy for you in the heart of Christ, if only you would come.
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
True and saving faith lays hold of Christ, embraces Christ, and rests upon Christ alone for full salvation. This is what that Lord Christ means by calling sinners to ‘believe in Him’. Faith is an act of self renunciation. It is the denial of the power of self to bring about salvation. Faith looks away from the citadel of selfishness and sin; it looks away from our own merits and efforts. True and saving faith looks unto Jesus alone. Faith sees that we have no righteousness, no worthiness, no merits to call our own. Faith sees that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only hope for sinners. Faith is an act of total reliance upon the Lord Christ; the surrender of the soul to the power of the living God. Faith rests upon the person and work of Christ. It glories only in the cross of Christ and his redeeming grace. It sees that the death of this glorious man is the only way of salvation. Faith takes hold of Lord Jesus and says, ‘I am His and He is mine’. Faith is a warm embrace of the heart. It is the hand of the soul. It receives that glorious salvation which is freely offered in the Gospel. Faith embraces the Lord Jesus as the friend of sinners.
The alternative is unthinkable. Those outside of Christ will perish eternally in the fires of hell for their sins. Hell is a place of blackest darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the worm never dies and the fire never goes, where the smoke of torment rises forever. This invitation is therefore a matter of utmost urgency. The Calvinistic Methodist preacher John Elias once preached these words with tears in his eyes:
To be without Christ! Oh! Oh! The dreadful condition of a man without Christ! He is naked, and without anything to put on; he is sick and without a physician; he is famished but there is no bread for him; guilty, and no righteousness for him; vile, and no fountain to wash in; lost, and without a Redeemer; damned, and no salvation for him ... But blessed be God! Every man without Christ here, need not be so any more. He can have Christ this very moment. Thanks be to God forever!
The duty of the Church is to take the glorious Gospel out into the world. We must speak. We must tell others about Christ and Him Crucified. It is our responsibility to speak a word for Jesus Christ and our highest privilege. And the duty of the sinner is to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. You must not delay. You must wait until you are a better person. You must come now, today, just as you are in true faith and true repentance to the foot of the cross and find there mercy and pardon for sin. Don’t close your eyes in sleep tonight until you know Jesus Christ as your Saviour.
‘For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
References & Further Reading
I found the commentaries of John Calvin, Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, J. C. Ryle and Bruce Milne very useful when preparing this sermon.
Beeke, Joel, ‘The Puritans on Coming to Christ’, A Puritan Theology (RHB), pp. 507–524.
Gibson, D., and J. Gibson (eds.), From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Crossway)
Jeffery, Steve, et. al, Pierced For Our Transgressions (IVP)
Macleod, Donald, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (IVP)
Packer, J. I., ‘The Love of God’, in Knowing God (Hodder & Stoughton), pp. 132–144.
Spurgeon, Charles, 'The Life-Look', Sermon No. 2867 (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit).
Jones, John Morgan, and William Morgan, ‘John Elias’, in The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, vol. 2, (Banner of Truth), pp. 633–753. Translated from the Welsh by John Aaron.
 Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced For Our Transgressions (Nottingham, 2007), pp. 73–4.