Introduction: Based on John 3:16, this sermon on love teaches about the gift of God’s love and its meaning in our lives. By understanding how God shows his love to us, we can gain a deeper relationship with him. Use this sermon outline plus illustrations to prepare to preach on God’s love.
John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the Bible. Its ability to pop up anywhere and everywhere—from lips of little children to signs in football stadiums—distinguishes it as the most well-known passage in Scripture; rightfully so, for John 3:16 succinctly summarizes the central message of the Bible. It is the little Bible. It is the gospel in a nutshell.
In a real sense, if you edited down the Bible to this one verse, you would still have enough gospel to save the world. John 3:16 declares what every human heart—whether it knows—wants to hear and needs to hear: God loves you! In fact, as Augustine said, God loves each of us as if there was only one of us to love.
The fundamental point of John 3:16 is that God loves you. Or is it? If the point of the most famous verse in the Bible is that God loves you, why is it that many unsaved and unchurched people live as if there is no God, but quickly and confidently claim God still loves them? At the same time, many sincere, God-fearing and committed followers of Jesus Christ often question God’s love for them. In spite of all the publicity that John 3:16 gives to this truth, how is it that so many of us do not really know the true love of God?
Let me offer an answer. Some years ago, I read Gary Chapman’s bestseller The Five Love Languages. Chapman argues that people communicate love differently, that each person has a natural and distinct way in which he or she gives and/or receives love. Physical affection, verbal expression, acts of service, providing, giving gifts, opening opportunities, and spending time are some of the common love languages.
This concept helped me minister to couples. I have ministered to couples who obviously loved one another; but they both complained, in essence, they felt unloved. It is because they didn’t know one another’s love language. He gives love by slaving at a job he hates. She receives love by how much time he spends with her. So, he feels unloved because she doesn’t appreciate his breadwinning efforts. She feels unloved because he doesn’t spend more quality time with her. They love one another, but they are not speaking the same love language. Could this be why we do not understand the love of God?
I suggest we can come to a passage such as John 3:16 and leave it without understanding the love of God, because we don’t know God’s love language. We listen to John 3:16 to hear about the fact of God’s love, but the verse speaks to us about the manner of God’s love. The truth of God love is hidden with the nature of God’s love. So you cannot really know that God loves you until you know how God loves you. You can live under a dark cloud of divine abandonment while the light of John 3:16 shines the light of God’s love in your face if you do not know how God communicates His love for you.
I acknowledge it may seem as if I am setting up a homiletical straw man for me to knock down. After all, John 3:16 plainly makes one of the most awesome claims of the New Testament: God loves the whole world. This statement is remarkable for several reasons.
The Divine Source of the Love
John 3:16 declares God is a lover. This goes against the prevailing notions of God. Many people think God is angry. We correctly view God as a God of wrath, but we misinterpret that wrath in terms of our humanness rather than His holiness. Thus, we view God as a tyrant, a cosmic killjoy, an angry parent sitting in His heavenly living room with His divine belt in hand waiting for the disobedient sinner to come through the door. Others view God as indifferent. They think God does not and cannot care about the world or anyone in it.
Others view God as temperamental. They view God’s love esoterically and spend their lives trying to earn it. This produces a legalism, which results in either despondency or pride, but never reveals the true love of God. John 3:16 stands against all these misinterpretations of God’s attitude toward us and declares God loves us. First John 4:8 says, “God is love.” God personifies love. If fact, if it has to do with God, it has to do with love.
Mercy is God’s forgiving love.
Grace is God’s undeserved love.
Peace is God’s comforting love.
The will of God is God’s unerring love.
Providence is God’s caring love.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s proven love.
Sanctification is God’s nurturing love.
Heaven is God’s rewarding love.
Eternity is God’s unending love.
The Universal Scope of the Love
The Old Testament makes it clear God loves Israel. It makes this point so regularly and dramatically that you can misread it to say God loves only Israel. That’s how Israel itself read the Old Testament. So this statement recorded in John 3:16 absolutely must have blown Nicodemus away. It claims God does not love just certain groups, races or nations. God loves everybody. God doesn’t exclusively love Christians. God loves the world. What a truth!
Romans 5:7-8 says: “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loves the world.
The Unworthy Subjects of the Love
This statement is remarkable not only in terms of how big the world is, but also how bad the world. The world is so bad that 1 John 2:15 commands, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Yet the same writer who says the world is so bad that followers of Jesus must not love it says although the world is so bad, the Father of Jesus Christ loves the world. Think about that in personal terms. There are people who love and respect you; but if they knew certain things about you, they would change their minds about you. God knows everything about you there is to know, yet God loves you anyway. This is the true basis for self-esteem. God loves you. Martin Luther said it well: God does not love us because we are valuable; we are valuable because God loves us.
God loves the world. Yet you still will misunderstand the love of God if you don’t know how God communicates His love. The text bears me up. The verse does not simply say God loved the world. It says, “God so loved the world.” That little word so (houto) means “in this manner.” Our English translations obscure this term somewhat: “God loved the world so much,” but it literally speaks of how God loved us, not how much God loves us. The message of the text is this: “In this manner God loved the world” or “This is how God loved the world.”
John 3:16 is about how God says, “I love you.” What’s the answer? Here it is: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son.” John 3:16 does not teach that God loves us so much that He would do anything for us. Rather, it teaches us that God loved us by doing something specific for us: He gave! You cannot know the love of God without embracing it in terms of the gift He gave to communicate His love for us. So let’s unwrap this text and examine this ultimate Christmas gift God has given to us.
The Infinite Worth of the Gift
It is bad manners to give a gift to someone and leave the price tag on it, but this is exactly what God did when He gave us His Son, Jesus Christ. God wanted us to know what it cost Him to purchase our salvation. So he left the price tag on the gift. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son.” That is, He gave His only begotten Son. This term translates the word monogenes. It means “the one and only.” It is used nine time times in the New Testament. Luke used it three times. Luke 7:12 used the word to tell us the dead boy of the widow of Nain was her only son. Luke 8:42 used the word to tell us Jairus’ dying 12-year-old was his only daughter. Luke 9:38 used the word to tell us the father of a demon-possessed boy pleaded with Jesus for help on the basis that he was his only son. The term is also used in Hebrews 11:17 to tell us Isaac was Abraham’s only begotten son, although Abraham had another son named Ishmael.
The other five times monogenes occurs in the New Testament, John used it in reference to Jesus; John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth”; John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known”; John 3:18 says, “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
First John 4:9 says, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.” John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
All human beings are God’s children generally through creation. All Christians are God’s children specifically through regeneration and adoption, but the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s Son uniquely because He is the only begotten Son of the Father. Colossians 2:9 says, “For in Him the world fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Jesus Christ is the unique One, the One and only, the One of a kind.
In other words, there is nobody like Jesus. Nobody was born like Jesus. Nobody lived like Jesus. Nobody died like Jesus. Nobody got up like Jesus. Nobody is coming again like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only Son. When John 3:16 says God loved us by giving His only begotten Son, it is telling us Jesus Christ is what God sent when He cared enough to send the very best. How did God say I love you? He gave His only begotten Son.
He who had glory before the world began, came down from glory…down from the heights of divinity to the depths of humanity.
An uncreated, divine Person, who had eternal pre-existence, took on the form of a created being and became what He was not in eternity—flesh.
He who in eternity rested on the bosom of the Father without a mother, in time rested on the bosom of His mother without an earthly father.
He who in Eden’s garden took from the body of a man a motherless woman, in Bethlehem’s barn took from the body of a woman a fatherless man.
The Ancient of Days became the Infant of Days, a baby as old as His heavenly Father, ages older than His mother, Mary. He who made man, yet was made in the likeness of men.
He who created the angels was made a little lower than the angels.
He who said, “Before Abraham was, I am,” was born 2,000 years after Abraham died.
He who was Abraham’s seed was Abraham’s Savior.
He who was David’s son was David’s Lord.
I know God loves me because I know He gave His only begotten Son—Jesus Christ. Second Corinthians 9:15 says, “Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!”
The Redeeming Purpose of the Gift
John 3:16 is the gospel in a nutshell, but you cannot correctly interpret it outside of its proper context. People are similar to words: They are known by the company they keep. This applies to John 3:16, as well. In order to understand it, you must consider its context. The text itself demands you look at its context. It says, “For God so loved…” The preposition for introduces a purpose clause. It introduces a clause that is going to tell you the reason for something.
John 3 records a late-night conversation with a civic-religious leader named Nicodemus. Nicodemus wanted to talk religion, but Jesus confronted him with a spiritual imperative: “You must be born again.” Nicodemus responded by asking, “How can these things be?” So Jesus explained. John 3:14-15 says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
This is a reference to Numbers 21:4-9. As the children of Israel passed through the wilderness, they became impatient and complained against the Lord and Moses. The Lord sent fiery snakes into the camp that bit many people. Many died, but the children of Israel repented and asked Moses to pray for them. The Lord instructed Moses to make a fiery serpent, put it on a pole, and lift it up before the people. Moses obeyed and made a bronze serpent, put it on a pole and lifted it up before the people. Anyone who looked to the serpent was healed. This is Jesus’ explanation of what it means to be born again: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
There are some who take this to mean the nature of Jesus changed on the cross from divine to demonic, but that is not the point at all. The Bible is not saying Jesus took on the nature of the serpent on the cross. Rather, there are two points of comparison that are being made.
First, Moses made a bronzed serpent. That is, it had gone through the fire. Likewise, Jesus went through the fire and was proven to be blameless before God. In Revelation 1:15, John saw the glorified and exalted Christ with feet as “burnished bronze.” This does not mean Jesus was a black man. It means He was a perfect man. He had gone through the fire and was blameless before God.
The other comparison—the main point—is that as was the serpent, Jesus was lifted up. John 3:14-15 says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Then John 3:16 adds: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
God demonstrated His love for us by sending His only begotten Son into the world. The reason He gave His Son is so He would be lifted up on the cross for our sins. So you cannot know the love of God without knowing Jesus is God’s only begotten Son. You also cannot know the love of God without knowing Jesus came to die on the cross for your sins.
One day, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth was asked what he thought was the most important word in the New Testament. He answered, huper. Huper is a preposition meaning “on behalf of” or “in place of.” So when Barth called huper the most important word, he meant the most important of all truths is that we are significant because Jesus took our place on the cross that we may be saved. Jesus did not come to make you rich, wealthy or happy. He came to be lifted up on the cross so your sins can be forgiven.
There are three things you need to know about God. First, God is holy. This is the defining attribute of God. It means God is not like us. God is set apart, completely unique, totally different, morally excellent and without any speck of darkness whatsoever.
Likewise, God is just. That is, God judges on the basis of a righteous standard. God judges by the standard of His own holy character. These first two attributes of God are big trouble to us. God is holy. We are not. One day, you will have to answer to God for how you have lived your life. There is nothing about you that you can commend to God in order to merit salvation. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Here is the good news: God is love. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Imagine you are a criminal. You have lived your life breaking the law. It finally has caught up with you. You have been arrested, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced. Your penalty is death, which is a just punishment for the crimes you have committed. So there you sit on death row, waiting for your day of execution. You play games to keep your mind occupied, but nothing can hide the reality you face. You feel it every time you hear footsteps outside your cell. However, one day, the footsteps stop outside your door. It swings open, and in walks the judge who sentenced you to death. He has come personally to let you know you are being released. You don’t understand, but you don’t argue. You get your stuff and get out of there. While they are leading you out, you notice them leading someone else in. You ask who he is. The judge explains, “Well, when I tried your case, my heart went out to you. I know justice has to be served, but I wanted to help you. When I told that man about your situation, he shared my concern and volunteered to take your place. So, here he is; but know he is not here because he has done anything wrong. As a matter of fact, he is the best person I have ever met; and I should know because he’s my son.
The Eternal Benefits of the Gift
The closing portion of John 3:16 states the eternal benefits of God’s gift to us: “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The benefits of God’s gift are only received through faith. Jesus makes this point with His references to Numbers 21. The story of Moses, the children of Israel and the fiery serpent is our story. It is a story of sin as the children of Israel rebelled against God. It is a story of judgment as the Lord sent fiery serpents into the camp. It is a story of grace as God provided an undeserved way of salvation, but it is also a story of faith as those who obeyed the word and looked to the uplifted serpent were saved.
Do you see yourself in that story? Have you disobeyed and displeased God? God’s judgment already has bitten you. You eventually, inevitably will die; but God in Christ has provided an undeserved plan of salvation. As the Israelites looked to the serpent, you must look to Jesus Christ if you are going to be saved. God’s gift is for the whole world, but the only people who will enjoy the benefits of this great love gift are those who believe in Jesus Christ.
You cannot know God’s love if you do not believe in His Son, Jesus Christ; and I do not mean mere intellectual assent. Saving faith involves knowledge of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, agreement with what the Word of God says, and trust that Jesus is who Scripture says He is and that He accomplished what Scripture says He did. You must trust in Jesus. If you do not, you will perish. You will spend eternity under the holy wrath of God in hell.
Do you perish because you do not believe? No. John 3:18 says, “Whoever believers in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because He has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Did you get that? Those who do not believe are condemned already. In Numbers 21, those who did not look to the serpent did not die because they did not look to the serpent. They were dying already! It was only by looking to the serpent that they could live. You only can be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. If you believe in Him, you will have eternal life.
Eternal life begins the moment you put your trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. It introduces you to a new quality of life. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If you are a believer, you have eternal life right now.
Yet, at the same time eternal life is yet to come. Your present life on earth is getting you ready for your eternal life in heaven. It’s like a baby in the mother’s womb. It has eyes, but sees nothing. It has ears, but only hears muffled sounds and the mother’s heartbeat. It has legs, but goes nowhere apart from the body carrying it. Yet it has these things because it is getting ready to go to the brand new world. In this life, we go through dangers, toils and snares; but they are just to get us ready to go to a brand new world. There, the wicked shall cease from troubling. The weary shall be at rest.
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.