Rev. Woudenberg is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
If the proclamation of the gospel is to go forth to all men, is it God’s desire that all men should be saved? And if not, why does God send His word to them? This question concerns the purpose of God; and it is important for us to seek to understand it.
We find it dealt with somewhat negatively in the well-known text, Ezekiel 33:11: “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
We are told here of that in which God has no pleasure, the death of the wicked. God is not a sadist who sends people to death and destruction because He enjoys seeing them suffer. It happens; God does send people to hell. That the Scriptures clearly tell, as in Hebrews 10:26: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries,” and II Peter 3:7, “But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved into fire against the: day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” But God does not send them there because He has pleasure in their suffering; He has a higher purpose than that.
Ezekiel brings that out as he goes on with his text, “But that the wicked turn from his way and live.” This is God’s positive pleasure; He is pleased when sinners repent from their sins. Of that we read also in the rest of Scripture, as in Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise,” or as Jesus put it so impressively, Luke 15:7: “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.” And so that it may be, God sends his gospel into all the world, “Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” Many, of course, don’t care; it’s meaningless to them. They know not God, and will die. But there is the Israel of God who do; and to them by this the strongest motivation for repentance is given.
But perhaps we see this more positively if we turn to the even better-known text, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Here we have a text which is known by many, but understood by very few. And the reason is that they read it out of context, they don’t follow the thought of Jesus through.
The thought of the passage has its roots back in the preceding chapter, John 2:23-25, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man.” This was one of the great wonders of Jesus; no one ever fooled Him. He had just performed some miracles, and as a result a number of people came desiring to be disciples. It would seem to have been a wonderful thing, but apparently Jesus did nothing to encourage them; and John explains why. Jesus was able to tell if people were sincere; and apparently these weren’t. They were interested in His miracles, but not in His word.
As it was, however, there stood in His audience that day a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, named Nicodemus. He too was impressed—until, that is, that last move of Jesus. That he couldn’t understand. He was himself a leader of people; and he knew, after all, how difficult it could be to gain a following. How could a prospective leader turn people so ready to follow Him away? To him it just didn’t make sense.
That night as he went home he couldn’t get it off his mind. There was something about Jesus he couldn’t ignore; but how could a leader deal with prospective followers like that? Perhaps he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. In any case, he couldn’t wait. Regardless of the hour, he had to find Jesus and lay out his problem directly before Him. This he did.
Finding Him at His residing place, and still awake, Nicodemus approached Him politely, John 3:2: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him . . . .”
But Jesus didn’t allow him as much as to finish. Perhaps He had seen Nicodemus in the crowd; and perhaps He had marked him as one who would certainly come to Him some day. In any instance, He knew what was on Nicodemus’ mind, and interrupting him said, John 3:3, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again he cannot: see the kingdom of God.” Unless people understand what the kingdom of God is, they can have no part. But that requires a new and different outlook on life, one for which a person must be “born again.” Nicodemus, and all who would follow Jesus, must understand this. And that was what those who had wanted to follow Him that day did not. They weren’t interested in His message, and in what He was seeking to illustrate with His miracles. Their only concern was with the crowd; and that didn’t interest Jesus at all. To His kingdom they did not belong.
But Nicodemus didn’t understand any more than they. He sensed that Jesus knew what He meant; but he didn’t. “Born again?” . . . “Born again?” It sounded strange and bizarre, so that impulsively he blurted back, John 3:4, “How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” And sarcasm hung heavy over what he said.
But Jesus, as short as He had been with the inquirers of the day, now was patient and kind. Carefully He explained, John 3:5, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”
Here was the heart of the matter: spirit and flesh are not the same, even as are not the kingdom of God and the world. It was something Nicodemus should have known, for the whole of the Old Testament was built on it, as in I Samuel 16:7, “The LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD Iooketh on the heart.” But he also had to realize that this was not something a person does simply by himself; it takes a miracle of God, a miracle of newness which only Gods Spirit can bring about. It’s like the wind. We know it’s there; but we can’t explain from where it comes, or where it goes, nor can we tell it what to do. It’s a work of God, the breathing of His Spirit.
But to Nicodemus it made no sense, and he snapped back, John 3:9, “How can these things be?”
And gently but firmly Jesus answered back, John 3:10, “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” This, after all, was one of the basic teachings of the law; should not one as well studied as Nicodemus know that?
And so He went on to add, John 3:11, 12, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” Nicodemus’ failure was crucial. If he could not grasp the difference between the flesh and the spirit, that which was written all through the history of Israel, how could he possibly grasp those things which Jesus was about to bring down from the Father above.
After all, John 3:13, “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” Here was the basic truth that had to be received. He, Jesus, was not just a miracle worker; He was not just “a teacher come from God”; He is the Son of God who came from God and is at the same time with God. He is God; or as Peter was later to express it, Matthew 16:16, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is a confession which comes from God, and a truth only God can give (Matt. 16:17).
And it was for such that Jesus laid out the greatest wonder of all, John 3:14: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Here was the wonder of it all, the highest fulfillment of divine love. Gods own Son would be lifted up on an accursed cross, like the wretched snake of the wilderness curse. No earthly understanding, short of a new birth from God, could ever receive that. And it is for them, the “whosoever believeth”—literally “those believing in him”—that God has given His most precious Son, that they may live. This brings us to John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” So often bantered about, it is a text to be read slowly, carefully, and with reverence.
“For . . . so.” That is the emphasis of the text. The original Greek sentence is so laid out that the full emphasis falls on the little word so. Usually it is interpreted to mean, so greatly, or to so great an extent; but that isn’t actually what it says. The word properly translated means, in this manner, or in this way. Thus the meaning of the text is, “For in this wayGod loved the world.”
The word “world” too is worthy of note. In the Greek it is kosmos, or as we would say, cosmos. It literally means, a harmonious arrangement, or universe. By derivation it has often come to indicate the world of men; but the difference is indifferent. The point is that God shows His love in a very specific way.
God has given His Son, to be raised upon the accursed tree, so that “whosoever believeth in him”—that is, those who have been born again by the Spirit to believe—”should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is the purpose of God. His is not a universal love which would like to save everyone, but cannot do so by itself. God, like Jesus that day on the streets of Jerusalem, has a very particular people to whom His love is directed, and whom He will surely save.
This is God’s purpose; and this is the goal for which all things serve, as John 3:17 goes on to say, “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved,” which brings us right back to Ezekiel 33. God’s purpose is not condemnation; He has no pleasure in that. His purpose is to save His people; and also the condemnation of the wicked must be there for that, as the remainder of Jesus’ discourse goes on to bring out, John 3:18-21, “He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. . . . But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” It is the dividing force of the Gospel, Jesus separating His people from the world that they may live.
Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die, O people of God?