Awesome Dimensions of Love
The most familiar text in the Bible brings it all together.
By Lawrence G. Downing
John 3:16. It’s perhaps the most well-known text in the entire Bible: “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.”
What follows below is a simple reflection on this familiar scripture.
Love that rests quiet within a private reserve does little for anyone other than the person in whom it resides. Quiescent love may offer comfort when held close, but true love—the love that is from God—is of a different kind. The love we find in John 3:16 brooded deep within, broke forth, and was made manifest. It’s a love that has been nurtured and charged. The dynamic of God’s love was evidenced in a specific Person at a specific time in a specific place for a specific purpose.
“That He Gave”
God gave His Son. “The wonder of it all!” wrote the poet. The wonder of it all that God should give! We cannot fathom the intricacies that led to the decision to leave heavenly places and share our earthly life. How could this be? We have no comparison to try out our theories of what we call Incarnation. There is but one answer: God’s love—agape in Greek. What power, this love!
The fate of our world depends upon this love. And when it fills and envelops us, we have the courage and the faith to face tomorrow and the endless tomorrows that will follow.
Love defines God’s character. God gave. We receive. And in this gift is life, now and forevermore.
“His Only Begotten Son”
The mystery of God’s person: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost! No word or metaphor, no turn of phrase nor stretch of mind, can make it simple for us to understand the Godhead. God’s only begotten Son, God’s unique Son—how does one put into a tidy package the notion that an eternal Being has an eternal Son? Explain this if you can. What comes before forever? What comes after everlasting? In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God (John 1:1). God gave this Word to our world.
Our knowledge and comprehension are built on the development of a relationship between existing things. One thing follows and is related to another. We know that when a switch completes an electrical circuit to a bulb, the result is light. We turn a knob and a picture forms before our eyes. We know the elemental laws that govern such things. Electrons are not foreign to us.
But now this! How can we put words or thoughts around the statement that proclaims God gave His unique Son? Our logic ends before it can begin.
“That Whoever Believes in Him”
Believe! Only believe. At the root of belief is trust. So this is a trust statement. But what are the boundaries of your trust?
Suppose a person on the street comes up to you and announces that they have in their pocket a check for one million dollars, given them, they say, by some strange fate. And this unknown soul tells you they are ready to endorse the entire sum to you, giving you no reason for such generosity. Saying only that you look like a good person, they hand over the check, signed right and proper. Would you rush to the bank and demand payment? A check for a million dollars from the hand of a stranger likely exceeds your trust boundary.
But suppose a friend gives you a check for five dollars, what are the limits of the trust between that person and you? Would your trust boundary extend far enough for you to deposit that check?
The belief system we’re talking about in John 3:16 does not involve money, of course. Life is the issue here—your life and mine. And the question is: how wide is your trust boundary? How wide is mine? Do you trust—do you believe—that God will save Simon Peter or the apostle John? How about Moses or Abraham? Do you believe that Jesus’ mother, Mary, will be in the kingdom? If you have no doubts about these, then why not?
So then, does your trust boundary extend to the point where you believe that God will save you? That you are included in God’s kingdom? The text before us asks us to accept that God in His love gave His Son, so that you and I could be citizens of the kingdom.
God’s integrity is at stake. It’s a contract. It does not come with complications and legalese. Rather, it’s a simple, straightforward, declarative sentence: “Whoever believes in Him….”
It does not say “Whoever believes and promises never to sin again.” Or, “Whoever believes and lives the kind of life a good Christian should.” No, Jesus simply says, “Whoever.” This means anybody—anybody and everybody who believes on Him.
Is this cheap grace? No. We don’t have a permission slip to live whatever life we please. The statement in John 3:16 is a statement of cause, a statement of process. We’re saved through faith, by our belief—our trust—in Jesus Christ. Period! Additions to this statement are unacceptable. Amendments to it are overruled. We must take it as it is: God loved the world and its creatures so much that He chose to give His Son so that anyone who makes the choice to believe will have everlasting life.
Think of this promise as God’s bond.
“Should Not Perish but Have Everlasting Life”
Here we have two mutually exclusive words: perish and life. We cannot have life and, at the same time, perish.
From all that we know about God’s plans and purposes for His creation, perishing was not part of the original deal. We were created with life and everything necessary for its continuance. But we know what went wrong. We have a notion of the events that broke the life-chain, but exactly how it all came about is more complex.
What we can say, however, is that at the point where God’s plans for the human family went awry, at the point where our first parents chose to violate their Maker’s explicit command and go their own way—at that point a new factor appeared, the reality of perishing. Before this the idea of perishing was only a distant option.
To separate from the source of life is to perish. But God was prepared—with the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. And now life is again possible. The text does not extend an invitation. Rather, it’s a collection of statements describing an action, namely, what God has done. We learn why the action was taken and we’re told about its result.
We call it God’s great salvation plan! “For God so loved, that He gave.”
Lawrence G. Downing was the senior pastor of the Ellen White Memorial Church in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A. when he wrote this article. He now teaches at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS) in the Philippines.