Bring in the Woodchips
When writing sermons you're supposed to be like a woodcarver. You're to bring the finished product to the pulpit and leave the woodchips in your office. Well sometimes you need those woodchips especially with a text many know by heart. Sermon chips can be like the woodchips people add when they cook with propane. They can enhance the flavor of the text.
Jesus says, "God so loved the world." You were probably taught by a pious Sunday School teacher, as I was, to say this, "God so loved the world" emphasizing just how much God did. In recent years, people have argued the "so" in this verse is to be taken as it is in the verse before. "As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up." "So" means "in this way." Therefore, Jesus says in John 3:16, "God loved the world "in this way" He gave His only begotten Son."
How informative, how factual, yet how antiseptic and cold. Woodchips are needed. The Greek can mean either "in this way" or "to such an extent." Here it means the latter; your Sunday School teacher was right. God so loved the world, God loved the world to such an extent that He gave His only begotten Son.
Here the illustration of the man operating the railroad bridge fits. The bridge is normally kept open for boat traffic, but he must close it to let the train cross safely. He brings his 8 year old son to work. He looses track of the boy, and it's only when he hears the train in the distance does he look for him. There the boy is; playing amid the giant gears of the bridge. If he closes the bridge, he crushes his only son. If he doesn't, the train full of people plunges into the river to certain death. He pulls the lever; God so loved the world.
Yes, that's what it says, "God so loved the world." Count up all the times the word "world" is used. 5 times in 4 verses. No limited atonement here; no giving His Son just for believers, just for the elect. World means world. World means everyone and anyone in the world. If you're in the world, you're loved. God loved the world; God sent His Son to save the world, and in the last use of the word "world" it's paired with "men," described as loving darkness. So what you have is God loving the world so much that He gives His only begotten Son for a world loving (same Greek word) darkness rather than light.
Use these woodchips to season the train illustration. As the gears are crushing his only son, don't see the father looking at the faces of smiling mothers, laughing babies and fathers holding the hands of their daughters. No, see him looking at a train full of thugs, of pedophiles, of haters of God and haters of men, of people who had they seen the boy being crushed would've laughed. God so loved that world.
God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son." If you know this verse by heart, how many times have you said gave' but were really thinking sent?' God, of course, did both, but there is a difference between giving and sending. In the verse following, it says "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through Him." Send' emphasizes a commission, and it's comforting to think that God didn't commission His Son to condemn but to save. Still woodchips are needed.
Jesus says in John 3:16, God "gave" not "sent" His only begotten Son. "Gave" emphasizes gift, grace, and sacrifice. You only see the sacrificial aspect when you remember what God gave His Son to. Not to a one time crushing by bridge gears. No, the Father gave this Son to judgment, to condemnation, to damnation. The Father treated His Son as if He was one who loved darkness though He was Light itself. Though the Son did no evil, ever, the Father treated His Son as if He had. Though the Son not only was the Light but loved light and did all that He did in the light, the Father treated Him as one who sought darkness for fear that His evil deeds would be exposed.
Let's put these woodchips on the fire. There's the Father's innocent Son playing carefree and joyous as only little boys do. He could care if the whole world sees him running about the gears, climbing up and jumping down. He's not doing anything wrong. He's the love of His Father's life. His Father is in control of the bridge. Here comes the world full of people who really are afraid of the light because their deeds are evil. Here comes a train full of people like me and you who aren't innocent but darkly guilty.
God has given and does give so much to us. Not just life but family, friends, health, wealth, and what have we worked with these gifts? How have we used them? We've used them to our glory not His, for our benefit more than others. Moreover, like the church in the Old Testament, we have been impatient because God didn't give us as much as we wanted when we wanted it. We have accused the holy God of not doing right by us, of treating us evilly. Did the Son ever do anything remotely like this? Yet, the Father gives the Son over to suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying that ought to be done by us. On Good Friday the Father gives His only beloved Boy into the hands of sinners, over to Satan, and to the temporal and eternal punishment we poor, miserable sinners on the train deserve.
"God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." I want to focus on the second that' in this sentence. Let's bring the woodchips in early. This word can either express result or purpose. If you translate it as result it reads like this: God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son with the result that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, etc. True enough, but not very spicy. We don't see the heart of God in that translation. It's like unseasoned meat: unattractive, undesirable yet still nourishing.
However, translate that as a purpose clause and smell that mouthwatering, aroma. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son in order that, for the purpose that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." Here's the answer to the modern atheists who say if there is a God who gave His only Son over to torture and death, it would be divine child abuse. Tell that to the father operating the bridge. He gave his son to bone crushing, flesh ripping gears not for the purpose of hurting him but saving the train. For that purpose the heavenly Father gave His only Son.
Purpose clauses abound in the verses surrounding John 3:16 so that we can't miss this. In the verse before, Jesus says the reason the Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross is for the purpose of everyone who believes in Him having eternal life. In the verse after the text, Jesus tells us God didn't send His Son into the world for the purpose of condemning the world but for the purpose of saving it through Him.
The last of the woodchips are going on the fire, and it was really for these that we had this little cookout in the first place. Jesus tells us, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son in order that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." The woodchips here have to do with that word believe,' and I hope they're not too big to throw on the fire because they are so important.
Many think that a person is saved through faith because faith is such a good work. Faith makes a man pleasing to God. A man becomes acceptable to God because faith is active through love, because faith regenerates, purifies, or sanctifies a person's heart. A man is saved because faith unites a person to Christ or because faith brings forth good works or a changed life. It's true; faith has all these wonderful characteristics, but it's not true that faith makes a person righteous before God because of them. The Bible never says that a man is saved on account of faith, for the sake of faith, or because he believes. No the Bible says a man is saved through faith. According to the Bible faith is not a cause of our being saved but the mode, the means, the way the salvation Jesus won for us gets to us. The open hand doesn't cause the savory food to be there; it's the means of receiving the food (Walther, The Word of His Grace, 3).
Why does this distinction matter? If you think faith is the cause of your salvation, that's what you focus on. Do I believe enough? Do I believe hard enough? More importantly, if faith is a cause of salvation, then it really wasn't finished on the cross. Then God loving the world and giving His only Son remains incomplete till you believe it; your choosing to believe, your asking Jesus to come into your heart completes the work of God. That's wrong. How so?
Go back to the train. What is needed to save the train? Does the father only give his son, does it really only matter if and when someone believes it? No, the father saves the train when he gives up his only son. The train sails across the bridge whether anyone believes in his sacrifice or not, whether or not anyone believes he gave his son for them. But the passenger who looks down, sees the broken, bloody body of the Son, and believes what happened receives the love of the Father and the gift of His Son.
Faith receives what the Father did. Faith is the mode, the means, the way that the bloody, beaten, Savior of the world becomes yours. The actions of Father and Son are the cause of your salvation. The more you focus on their actions the more your faith grows. At a cookout you are moved to eat more not by someone telling you "Eat, eat," but by the smell and sight of cooking food. Likewise, you are moved to believe not by me urging you, "Believe, have faith," but by the smells and sights of Jesus living, suffering and dying for you. The woodchips from John 3:16 are like hickory chips at a barbeque. They make you long to dig into the love of the Father and the gift of the Son for the purpose of you living eternally. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (20090322); John 3:14-21