Even though I attempted a sermon on this text nearly thirty years ago, it is still not without fear and trembling that I attempt to make an explanation of it now. Because under the surface of these beautiful and memorable words which have brought comfort and peace to untold thousands of penitent sinners, there lies the never completely penetrable depth of God’s mysterious dealings with a race of men estranged from Him. To consider this text at all is to confront that mystery, and to confront that mystery is to be rendered nearly dumb. Yet I have undertaken to comment on it and I bid you look then with trembling gaze on God and his redeeming love. God no man can comprehend and his love no man can measure, but neither are we allowed to look away, and so I invite you to attend to the amazing love of God.
First, let us consider the subject of that love, the agent of that love–God; secondly, the object of that love–the world; thirdly, the measure of that love–the giving of Himself in his Son; and fourthly, the intent of that love–that believing we may have eternal life.
First, then, the subject or agent of this amazing love–God. It is worth noticing that this verse speaks centrally of God and not of the God-man Jesus Christ. Christ is of course referred to but only in a dependent clause. God is the subject of the text. In more technical terms the text is a theological rather than a Christological statement. The light is focused on God, the reference is to His attitude, His disposition, to His nature, to His character, not to Jesus Christ merely. God, who was known to his ancient people as Jahweh, is under discussion in this text. So we have here a revelation concerning the creator and the sustainer of this vast universe. That should be of interest to men since they have always wanted to know what God is like.
But no man ever saw Him and it is hard to deduce His character from the multifarious appearances of the world. The evidence of these appearances seems to most observers to be ambiguous, conflicting, and in any case hard to construe aright. But here in this scripture we have a firm and definite declaration of the essential attribute and attitude of God. God, John tells us, is love. This is a full and pregnant statement and gives fuller meaning when read in the context of the whole witness of God. From John’s witness we learn that God not merely loves, but that He loved, and that He will love. More than that–that love is the very essence of His being. God, says John in his first epistle to the churches, is love. It is of His very nature. It constitutes His being. This is to say that it is not a passing and momentary disposition which may be interrupted and then recur again. It is a constant and enduring quality in Him. It defines His very God-ness.
I think it is important to remember this when we speak of God’s anger, God’s wrath, God’s judgment. These latter words do not define essential attributes of God. They describe attitudes in God that are conditioned, conditioned by a temporary and sinful world. They have meaning only when viewed against the background of the absolutely unconditional love of God. Love is first in God, and his wrath is but his attitude to that which would impede and restrict love’s effective exercise. This therefore is the primary fact that is the Gospel, that God is love. It is the truth that Christ taught, which is exemplified in His life, and which He rendered efficacious by His death.
We touch here upon the heart and, by that token, the wholly unique and singular character of the Christian religion. I say unique because the best of pagan thought has not been able to attain to this insight into the very nature of God. The great Greek thinkers thought of God as an impersonal ideal, able to be loved but Himself incapable of love. Their God had no heart. In Christ, however, the truth about God has been revealed. From Him and in Him we know that God is neither swayed by conflicting passions nor an impersonal principle indifferent to mankind, but that he is an ever-loving person, His heart flows out in love, a love made firm at the price of His death.
Having spoken, then, of the agent or subject of the love referred to in the text, we must now consider its object. That is, quite simply, the world. The message is unmistakable that God loved the world. That means the sinful and the fallen world. That is the only world there is. Now the world was the object of God’s love when it came perfect from His creative hand. It is also the object of His love when it lies shattered and spoiled by sin. Nothing, nothing that has occurred in the history of the world since the day when God declared all things good has been able to change God’s nature. But of course the object has changed. The object was good. It became bad. It was blessed. It became wretched. And this, the Scriptures tell us, was man’s own doing. By an act of pure rebellion, man repudiated God. In tragic pride men went into voluntary exile from the God of love. Man sinned.
Now the mystery of sin is very great and cannot be explained. But this at least we know–that God is not its author. It is the work of a creature, of a fallen angel and of man. And this too we know–that sin is an estranger. Sin hides the face of God. Sin shuts God out. Now we have no alternative when we speak of these hard matters but to resort to metaphor and to analogy. Let it then be said that when man sinned man did not extinguish God’s love. He built a wall to shut out the inextinguishable love. When man sinned he did not turn off the lights. He turned his back on the ever-present light and he stood in his own bleak shadow. When man sinned he did not turn God into a hater. He only drew down the curtain of his heart and he lived in the cold blackness of his stygian night. He closed his eyes and he shut out the surrounding sun.
Now, in that self-imposed exile, in that loneliness, in that dread isolation, exists what we call God’s awful wrath. It is not God in hate who banishes man. Man banished himself. And all the wretchedness and all the gloom he endures in his exile, he endures as the consequence of his own willful act. It is not so much God who in anger at his rebellious creatures builds Hell for their confinement, as man who creates for himself a habitation that excludes the only source of light and life that the universe affords. It is not God’s unmitigable wrath that the lost will be able to finally blame for their estate. They will know that what we know as God’s wrath is but His love arrested, turned upon, and spurned.
Now the tragedy of man’s natural estate is not merely that he barricaded himself against God, but that he cannot escape his self-imprisonment. Man has built a wall that he cannot break down. His predicament is not merely that he has shut his eyes against the love that constantly surrounds and upholds him but that having shut his eyes he cannot open them again. He has gone blind and it is only a miracle that can restore his sight. Sheer power won’t do it. Not even an omnipotent God can, without more, cut off the scales from man’s eyes. Were he to do that He would run counter to his own perfection. He would compromise and destroy the very love that is appealed to for the operation. To do that would be to destroy the moral order and to disassociate sin from its consequences, thus throwing the world off balance and rendering it evil instead of good. For God to do that would be to introduce a moral chaos and to make life meaningless and vain.
This, then, is the tragic predicament of mankind: surrounded by love, to be doomed by man’s own impotence on the one hand and by God’s inviolable righteousness on the other, never to enjoy and to bask in that love. Now it is to man and that predicament that the gospel comes. And this is the gospel: that what the creature could not do and what sheer omnipotence could not effect, that love did bring to pass. Love paved the way back to God and love.
And see in the third place the measure of it. What happened, we are told, is that God ga
ve his only begotten Son. What does that mean? Who can rightly tell what that means? Here something is said that we can only dimly apprehend. But what we apprehend fills us with terror and amazement. What burning, what awful love is here! Some moments ago I had to resort to metaphor and analogy and said that when man sinned he went into voluntary exile, that he stood in his own bleak shadow. What did God do to rescue us from our impasse? God quite simply and quite amazingly took our place. He stood where we stood. He contracted our blindness. He shivered in the loneliness of our exile. He cringed behind our black, cold wall. God did that. What his nature demanded of us He laid upon Himself. He separated, alienated Himself from Himself and put Himself under judgment. He emptied, denied, negated Himself.
He did that to his Son, who, you will remember, is not some lesser God, some demiurge who volunteered to render to a demanding and adamant God separate from himself some satisfaction that would appease him. Jesus Christ was God Himself. And in Jesus Christ we have the amazing spectacle of God turning upon Himself. When God gave Christ, God gave Himself. And when God gave Him He abandoned, he surrendered, He forsook Himself. To hear Jesus say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” is to witness the paradox of divine self-negation. Here God calleth unto God, here deep crieth unto deep, and in its presence all our thoughts are ashes, and we can only fall down and worship.
I have come now to my last point–the intent of that love. All this was done that believing ye might be saved, that believing ye might not perish but have everlasting life. This means that nothing objective need be done any more. It has been done! God took our place. God bore His wrath. God suffered our punishment. It is done. There is only one thing. Believe it! Accept it! Acknowledge it! Accept your acceptance. Acknowledge Him as Savior and that means of course as Lord. So the story is that love is again available, the walls are down, the light has free access. Only don’t hide. Don’t freeze. Accept! Believe! Believe and you will be whole. Of course after we believe and after we accept we will know that even in our belief it was not we that chose, but God. Again, amazingly, God broke through our defense.
So, believe, but believing we will remember, after we have believed we will know:
“I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Saviour true,
No, I was found of Thee.
I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee.
For Thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always Thou lovest me.”