The Gospel In Miniature
If I were to ask you today to write down what you consider to be the single greatest verse in all of the Bible, what would you put down?
Of course, I am sure that in all likelihood there would be a variety of answers given. However, I am just as sure that the verse most frequently mentioned would be John 3:16—”For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
That verse is the single best known and most loved verse in all of this Book. It is a magnificent summary of the Scriptures. It is the message of the Bible in capsule form. It is the Gospel in miniature. It is the story of God’s seeking, saving, redeeming, reconciling love in a single sentence. Here in twenty-five words or less, is the essence of the Christian faith.
You see, that verse reminds us that we are indeed loved, that God Himself is the one who loves us, that He seeks us out, that He values us, that He graciously reaches out to save us, and that when we in faith accept Him and His love, we can have a life which shall never end. We see this verse acted out dramatically in the last days of Jesus’ earthly life.
He rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to establish a kingdom the likes of which our world had never known—a kingdom built not on power and might and violence, but on faith and hope and love. Throughout the next days, He taught the people, healed the sick, helped the needy, cleansed the temple, and with amazing mental dexterity and spiritual wisdom, He deflected the loaded questions fired at Him by those who sought to entrap and ultimately destroy Him. He then tenderly took His disciples through the Last Supper, a love feast if ever there was one, and following that He went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. There He was betrayed by one of His closest friends, arrested on a trumped-up charge, rushed through a rigged trial, and sentenced to death by crucifixion by a spineless politico named Pontius Pilate. Then on Good Friday, which, by the way, was originally called “God’s Friday,” in the greatest act of sacrificial love this world has ever seen, He went to the cross and died there for you and you and you and me. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
No question about it, John 3:16 is one of the greatest statements ever spoken, because it describes, defines and outlines the fullness of God’s redeeming love. I have long been influenced by the comment made by John McNeile of Scotland. He was asked once why he never preached a sermon on John 3:16. He replied: “Aye, because I have that in every sermon!” Well, I have never before preached a sermon on John 3:16 either, but I have tried to have it in every sermon I have preached. In fact, before I ever step into a pulpit, I always carefully work my way through the sermon, looking for a reflection of John 3:16 somewhere in that sermon—and I do not preach until I find it.
Today, however, I want to preach a sermon on John 3:16. I tackle it with great trepidation. I do not possess a mind or a heart big enough to wrap a sermon around this incomparable verse, this Gospel in miniature. But I saw something recently in the verse which I believe to be worth sharing. The verse falls neatly into three parts showing us the width of God’s love, the depth of God’s love, and the height of God’s love. Let’s take a closer look, please…
The first portion of the verse shows us the width of God’s love.
Look at the opening phrase, “God so loved the world…” Not just one nation. Not just one culture. Not just one denomination. Not just one particular group of people. Not just one little corner of creation. The whole world. In a word, the reach of God’s love is as wide as the universe. One sad thing that happens to us as human beings is that we often forget the wideness of God’s love and consequently, we become so small and selective and narrow in our loving, limiting our love to only a favored few. Not so with God. His love leaps over every boundary to embrace every person.
Remember the Peanuts cartoon strip where Lucy announces that she intends to be a doctor when she grows up. Younger brother, Linus, is very upset by the prospect of this, and he says: “Lucy, it won’t work. You could never be a doctor.” Lucy retorts: “And just why not?” Linus says: “Because you don’t love humankind. You can’t be a doctor because you don’t love humankind.” Whereupon Lucy cries out: “But I do! I do! I love humankind; it’s people I can’t stand!” Not so with God. He loves the whole world and He loves all the people in it. He loves every person as if that person were the only one to love.
I have grown to cherish the writings of a Roman Catholic named Brennan Manning, particularly his book carrying the intriguing title, Lion And Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. There he tells the story of a man who was one of thirteen children. One day when this man was a boy, he was playing in his house, and he happened to overhear a conversation between his father and a neighbor. They did not know the boy was listening. The neighbor said: “Tell me, Joe, out of your thirteen children is there one that is your favorite, one you love just a bit more than the others?” The little boy could hardly wait to hear how his father would reply. “That’s easy,” the father said, “sure there is one I love more than the others. That’s Mary, the twelve-year-old. She just got braces, and feels so embarrassed about them that she won’t go out of the house. Oh, but you asked about my favorite. That’s my twenty-three-year-old, Peter. His fiancee just broke their engagement and he is desolate. But the one I really like the most is little Michael. He’s very uncoordinated and the other kids laugh at him. But of course the apple of my eye is Susan. She’s twenty-four, living in her own apartment and developing a drinking problem. I cry for Susan. But I guess of all the kids…” The father went on mentioning all of his thirteen children by name. The man ended his story by saying: “What I learned that day, listening to my father talk is that the child my father loved most was the one who needed him most at that time.”
That’s the way God is. God loves the whole world. He loves all people. But He loves those most who need Him most, who rely upon Him, who depend upon Him, who trust Him in everything. Do you see what that means? It means that you are the beloved child of God, that I am the beloved child of God, and that every person we meet in the world is the beloved child of God. He loves us all, but He loves most those who need Him most at any given time. Here, then, is the width of God’s love… “For God so loved the world…”
The second portion of the verse shows us the depth of God’s love.
God’s love is wide and it is deep. Look at what the verse says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…” Talk about the depth of love. He gave His Son. And Jesus Christ, as Paul puts it, emptied Himself and humbled Himself and came down into all of the sinfulness of the human experience for us.
I have to tell you that I get weary of the kind of religion that is always running down human nature and pouring out the unending litany of human sin. I know we have a dark side to our personality. I don’t have to tell you that. You know it. God gave you a brain. You are intelligent people. You know. I don’t have to stand up here and number off your sins; I don’t have to tell you how bad you are. You already know. But what I do have to tell you is that because of our sin, God has a choice. He can bash us or He can bless us. He can choose retribution or He can choose redemption. And just listen to what He says. He says: “I am not going to invade your life and knock you down and coerce your love. I am not going to turn you into little puppets or robots and force you to do what I wish. Instead I am going to woo you and win you. I am going to pour out a love so outrageous that you independent, self-sufficient, sin-hardened people will have your hearts melted until you will come home to me and my love.”
A California pastor, Ron Lee Davis, tells about a young woman named Marie who was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Europe. She was in a terrible emotional state. She had been reared by violent, abusive parents. At age 12, she saw her parents get into a drunken argument one night. They began to fight physically, struggling for a gun. The gun went off, and before young Marie’s eyes, her father fell dead.
Little Marie’s mind snapped. She retreated into a fantasy world of violence. She would scream, scratch, hit and curse anyone who came near her. The doctors tried every approach to her, but all to no avail. Then a nurse at that hospital, a woman named Hulda, said: “Let me try.” Every day, Hulda would enter Marie’s padded cell. For a full hour, the girl kicked and clawed and pummeled Hulda until all her strength was spent. Then exhausted, Marie would crouch like a frightened animal in the corner of the room. After each assault, Hulda would bend down to the girl while trickles of her own blood ran down her face and arms, and she would say over and over: “Marie, I love you. Marie, I love you.” Hulda subjected herself to this ordeal day after day until a subtle change came over the girl. The violence and hatred began to leave, replaced by tears and affection. In time Marie became a whole person again. She was healed by sacrificial love.
On a deeper level, that’s the kind of deep love God gives to us in Jesus Christ. How do the Scriptures put it? “By His stripes we are healed.” Here we see the depth of God’s love for us. “He gave His only Son.”
The third portion of the verse shows us the height of God’s love.
It is a love so powerful that it can lift us to the heights of glory—it can lift us to heaven. Listen to it again: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Walter Wangerin is a winsome preacher and story-teller. He takes us back to a time when his son Matthew was in second grade and got into trouble for stealing comic books from the grocery store. Walter decided he needed to get Matthew’s attention, so he took him into his study and he said: “Son, I have never spanked you before and I don’t want to now, but I’ve got to help you learn that it is wrong to steal.” So Walter spanked Matthew five times with his bare, open hand. Matthew’s eyes moistened. His father said: “You sit here for a few minutes and I’ll be back.” Walter, the father, then stepped out of the study and he just couldn’t help himself—he broke down and cried like a baby. Then he washed his face and went back to the study to talk to his little son. Years later, after Matthew had become a marvelous man, he and his mother were reminiscing about his childhood. They recalled the incident of the stolen comic books. Matthew said: “Mom, you know that incident changed my whole life.” His mother asked: “Was it because your father spanked you that day?” And Matthew replied: “Oh no, it was because I heard him crying.” It wasn’t the spanking that turned Matthew’s life around; it was the power of his father’s love.
God’s love is so powerful that it can sustain us all through this life—and then, in the end, it can lift us all the way to heaven. But please don’t miss this. The verse says: “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish…” That means we have to accept God’s love in faith. We have to believe in God and His love so much that we will stake our lives on Him and commit ourselves to him heart, mind, body, and soul.
Do you believe like that? If not, believe in Him today. Don’t waste another moment. Let Him into your heart now. Don’t miss out on the greatest gift this world has ever known…