If you grew up in the church, or have hung around it for any length of time, or even attended a football game for that matter, you’re familiar with John 3:16. This is the most famous verse in the Bible. “For God so loved…”
It’s #1 on Bible Gateway’s most read verses. It’s been memorized and recited and emblazoned on mugs, posters and T-shirts. All that familiarity means that sometimes we don’t really stop to listen to what it actually says.
But if you’re needing to be centered, if you’re trying to build a life that doesn’t rest on striving and performing, if you’re feeling alone, stopping to listen to this verse is one of the most important things you can do.
Just listen to the words as they proceed in sequence.
Truth, One Phrase at a Time.
It starts with God. Nicodemus, the guy Jesus is talking to in this verse, thought He was pursuing God. After all, he sought out Jesus. But really, God was pursuing him. You may have worked hard to chase down God. You may have read books and memorized scripture and engaged in spiritual practices, but you didn’t chase down God. God’s been pursuing you.
“For God so loved…”
Some people know God as judge. Some know God as creator. Some think of God as an untouchable ideal. But here Jesus tells us that God is a lover. Whatever happens next in this sentence is motivated by God’s love.
“For God so loved the world…”
Maybe God’s motivation is love, but love for whom? The chosen? The good, clean, shiny people? Nope. Jesus tells us that God’s love encompasses the world. That’s everyone. That’s chosen people and not-chosen people. That’s devout careful followers of the law, and flagrant willful sinners. That’s people like me, and people not like me.
“For God so loved the world that He gave…”
See, God’s love isn’t just an ideal. It’s a moving force. It caused God to act. Can you imagine God being moved? (Does God even have emotions?) Love moved God to give. This isn’t a picture of a God waiting around for sacrifices and worship. This God is acting because of love.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.”
What gift was God motivated to give? In some amazing, gracious, unfathomable way, God gave His Son–a part of Himself–to all of humanity.
Perhaps this seems elementary to you. But consider this:
These fourteen words open a window into God’s heart that humanity has missed and misunderstood and mischaracterized and misrepresented for generations and generations. Tweet That.
God’s Primary Motivation
God’s primary motivation is love. That’s not what most of the world thinks about God. I’m not sure that it’s even what most Christians think about God. We know that God can love. We want God to love us. But when we think about God acting in the world, do we really think that God’s love shapes His every action?
Maybe we think that God acts because of justice, or mercy, or truth. If we’ve got baggage, we think that God acts out of spite or anger or vindictiveness. If we accept that God loves us, I think sometimes we feel like God loves us in the way an inventor loves his invention, not in the way a mother loves her only child.
And yet, when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, this is what He was saying: God’s motivation towards us, the reason for everything God does towards us, is love. It was only ever love.
Think through the story of God and His people as told in the Bible.
It was because of this love that God created in the first place–because love needs people to love. It was because of this love that God gave us free will and the opportunity for an authentic and meaningful existence. Love does not manipulate.
It was because of this love that God put a plan in place to rescue us from the destructive path we chose with our free will. Love sent Jesus into our world. Love was Jesus’ model. It was His method. It was His message. Love motivated His words of compassion for the hurting and wounded. Love shaped His words of reproof for those blinded by their pride. Love put Jesus in direct conflict with the powers of His time.
Love put Him on the cross and love kept Him there. Because of love He bore the sins of all humanity. Because of love He took upon Himself our shame. Because of love he was separated from the father. Because of love he was crushed physically and spiritually, and died.
It was love that raised Jesus from the dead, showing that only love is more powerful than hate and selfishness, greed and fear. God’s love is more powerful than even death!
In love, Jesus commissioned His followers to create a new kind of community. It would be a community that not only spoke about love, but also that lived it out–in painful and practical ways, never quite getting it right.
Because of God’s love those first followers carried the story of Jesus to the known world and beyond. Because of God’s love that story eventually came to you.
Because of love, God has not manipulated in your circumstances, allowing your choices and consequences to play out, so that you would have the opportunity to mature and grow. Because of love, God is reaching out to you in every way possible, so that you could come to know His heart. Because of love He is present in your pain.
Even at the end of all things when there is final judgment, that too will be motivated by love. Those people who have chosen to receive God’s love will receive it for eternity. Those people who have chosen in the depth of their soul to reject God’s love, will be allowed that choice. This won’t be vindictive punishment. It will happen with tears as God acting in love, allows them to have what they finally desire, because in the grip of their own prideful self-love, they cannot be loved by another, or love another back.
It is not that God can love. It is that God is love.
See, there has only ever been one motivation in the heart of God. Love.
It’s not that God is loving. It’s not that God will love the people who obey Him. It’s not that God will love you and bless you, if you accept him. It’s that God IS love and God’s relationship with you is love.
- Some of us think that love is tribal: God loves those on His team.
- Or that God’s love is a consequence: God loves those who obey.
- Or perhaps that this love is a reward: God loves those who perform.
But here’s the truth: Whether you’re a hard-working clean-living devout Christian, or if you’re a ragged rebel; if you’ve kept every moral standard, or shattered every commandment a hundred times; no matter what your parents said, no matter what some Christian told you, no matter what you think of yourself–right now, this moment, the way you are today–God loves you.
That is God’s only motivation toward you.
Note: This post is the core of a sermon of mine. If you’d like to hear more, including more of the Biblical background, you can watch it here, on Youtube. September 9, 2012, “For God So Loved”