In mercy, God vents his just wrath on Christ as our substitute and does not give us what our sins deserve saying, “‘whosoever believes in Him shall not perish,’ for Christ perished in your place!” Though mercy is a gospel all by itself, worthy of the endless praises of men and angels, in Christ, God gives more grace saying, “whosever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life!” You see, if mercy is not receiving what is deserved, then grace is receiving that which is undeserved.
One day, during my senior year of high school, I noticed someone in the gym I’d never seen before. He was a juggernaut of a man I assumed to be a trainer, brought in to work with the football team. Turns out, he was brought in to work with the team but as the new quarterback. It was a 16-year-old named Timmy Tebow. Nobody knew him then, but we all know him now! We know him for championships, broken records, Heisman trophies, NFL highlight reels, and bestselling books.
But I think his greatest feat took place on January 8th, 2009, when he led the Gators to a championship victory with “John 3:16” written in silver sharpie on his eye blacks. He later told reporters that he chose John 3:16 because it was “the essence of our Christianity and the essence of our hope.” Astonishingly, 94 million people Googled “John 3:16” during the game and read the good news for themselves: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Luther agreed, hailing John 3:16 as “the Gospel in miniature,” and Spurgeon called it “the North Star of Scripture.” It’s one of the first verses we teach our children at the start of life and one to which we cling at life’s end. We see it everywhere from billboards to bumper-stickered tailgates and tattooed forearms. But frequent handling causes callouses. Perhaps, John 3:16 has become to you like the patinaed engagement ring with a dusty diamond, worn everyday but scarcely looked at. How beneficial then, to shine the gem and remind our forgetful hearts that God gave his Son for us because he loved us.
The God of Love “For God so loved the world…”
This good news wasn’t trumpeted by Jesus during a mountain-top sermon but late one night after Jerusalem’s Passover crowds had ceased, to a pharisee named Nicodemus. To Pharisees, God was chiefly a master who commands, an inspector who scans, a judge who renders a verdict, an executioner who punishes, not a Father who loves. But the love of God and the God of love was first and foremost in the heart of Jesus.
There are four Greek words translated as “love”: philia, the love of friends; storge, the love of family; and eros, the romantic love of a spouse. But here, Jesus chose the greatest, agape love to express God’s divine motivation in the salvation of sinners. The Bible says God’s agape love is: a sovereign love in which, “God predestined us for adoption to himself” before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:5); an unbreakable love which “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can sever (Romans 8:38-39); a great love by which he “made us alive together with” Christ when we were dead in sin and trespasses (Ephesians 2:4); an infinite love whose breadth, length, height and depth surpass all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19); and an unconditional love shown in that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).
There are two tragic mistakes we make regarding God’s love. First, we misprioritize God’s love and see it as one grape in the cluster of his attributes, forgetting that “God is love” (1 John 4:8 & 16). Harry Ironside said, “[Love] is his very nature. We can say that God is gracious, but we cannot say that God is grace. We can say that God is compassionate but we cannot say that God is compassion. God is kind, but God is not kindness. But we can say, God is love.” Can you say that? Or have you exchanged the Bible’s God of love for the cold, grey deity of the pharisee? Yes, we must press on to know God’s eternal power, holiness, and justice but we must remember that it is only by God’s love that he is these things for us! God’s love is the bridge by which he comes to us to rescue us from our sins for himself.
We also misplace the love of God, putting love at the end of the salvation equation as a product; believing that Jesus bled and died for our sins to make God love us. But Christ puts God’s love at the beginning of the equation as the chief factor, saying, “For God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son.” That means the cross of Christ is not the place God started loving his people, but the ultimate sign of his love for them which had been burning in his breast for all eternity. “Love,” wrote Thomas Watson, “made Christ suffer for us, love was the chain that fastened him to the cross.” This love Spurgeon said, “flows from its own secret source in the eternal Deity, and it owes nothing to any earth-born rain or rivulet; it springs from beneath the everlasting throne, and fills itself full from the springs of the infinite. God loved because he would love.”