For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Today’s verse is quite possibly the most quoted verse in the Bible. It exists at the very heart of our faith and is central to everything we believe. New Testament Christianity exists because God so loved. Old Testament faith existed because God so loved. Every action, reaction, and event contained within the covers of the Bible exists within the context of God so loved. Even creation cannot be excluded, because we know that God called into being that which He already saw and knew, and said ‘it is good.’ These three words are the stage and the plot of sweeping drama of human history and existence. They launched this world into being and will bring it to a close. Whether we were in the times of ‘alpha’ or find ourselves in the times of ‘omega,’ we can be sure that this truth is immutable: God so loved.
We cannot measure God so loved in finite, tangible human terms.
As we move closer to Good Friday, our celebration of the sacrifice of the Son of God who was and is the perfect manifestation of God so loved, I’ve found my heart and mind turning to this truth. Inherent in every human being is the need to love and be loved. The Bible reminds us in 1 John 4:19 that We love Him because He first loved us. It is the truth that God so loved which draws us to Him and turns us from our sin to His grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Ironically, this may be the reason why so many reject Him while they have all they need. When other things crowd out the need for love, while there is no hardship, struggle, or sense of aloneness and desperation, many can simply ignore or brush aside the reality of the love of God.
So many come to God in moments of deep and dark desperation and trial. They are drawn by this single truth that God so loved like a beacon or a lifeline for a drowning man. His is an immeasurable, infinite, everlasting, and utterly consuming, and can penetrate the deepest darkness, bridge the widest chasm, and fight the strongest enemy. It is the kind of love that the romantic writers and poets dreamed of and tried to capture in their work – a sweeping, transcendant passion against which everything else paled into insignificance. Even now, if we try to capture the essence of God so loved, we find ourselves searching for words that do not exist. That is because we cannot measure God so loved in the finite and tangible human terms that we have at our disposal. It cannot be reduced to human understanding.
The reality of this is encapsulated in the little world ‘so.’ The Word does not read ‘God loved.’ It reads ‘God so loved.’ There are three implications to this. First, ‘so’ indicates the magnitude and reach of the love – exceedingly, abundantly, far more than we could ever ask or imagine. It indicates the immeasurable vastness of a love that has the power to transform, restore, and create. Second, ‘so’ indicates the nature of the love – it means, essentially, ‘in this way.’ It reminds us that the kind of love is beyond our human capacity to love. It suggests the characteristics of agape love we find in 1 Corinthians 13. Thirdly, it implies purposes. God so loved is dynamic and active, not passive. It’s not a love that watches but a love that acts. It is a love that contains the very essence of life.
We can, then, very truthfully say that God so loved is infintely complete. It has all that is needed for every person in every situation and it is utterly unchangeable and eternal. This is hardly surprising, because 1 John 4:8 tells uss that God is love. This is a wonderful truth that we need to take hold of. God so loved is the very nature and heart of who and what God is. While there are few other truths that have the power and the ability to transform us and our lives with the same magnitute, it is also sadly true that many of us too easily use this truth for our own purposes, diminishing it – and God – in the process. Perhaps, as we remind ourselves of that long walk to Calvary, we can take a moment to relook this incredible blessing of God so loved and see it as God intended.
The truth behind God so loved is that, while it may be infinite, all-encompassing, complete, and eternal, it is never ‘unconditional.’ We fall into this error when we try to apply human understanding and definition to God so loved. It sounds good to say ‘I love you, no matter what,’ or ‘I love you just the way you are,’ but is it really true? If we were to be completely honest with ourselves, we would all have to admit that the little word ‘despite’ needs to be inserted. We cannot love someone just the way they are. It’s humanly impossible because no one is perfect. We can, however, love them despite the way they are, which is very different. Truth be told, that’s also how they love us – despite the way we are. That’s a sobering truth, and while it doesn’t sound as dramatic or liberating, it really requires a lot more courage, commitment, and sacrifice. A whole lot more loving.
If God’s love were totally unconditional – just the way we are – there would be no reason for Christ to go to the cross. His sacrifice was in no way unconditional. In fact, it happened in order to fulfill the conditions – all those things laid down by God for His people through the Old Testament to show them how they should live and how to love and worship Him. Of course, we know that it wasn’t and isn’t humanly possible to meet those conditions. We also know that all the Old Testament accomplished in reality was to make us aware of the impossibility of meeting the conditions. Jesus did not come to do away with the Law but to fulfill it. That is not unconditional love. It is ‘despite’ love – one that met the conditions for us despite who and what we are. It’s a far greater revelation of God so loved than the narrow, human, ‘unconditional’ version we cling to because it fees our need to validate ourselves.
God so loved is powerful because it’s utterly honest. When we truly look into His love, we see ourselves as we really are. The trimmings, the masks, the pretenses, and the whitewash, are all stripped away and we’re confronted by the raw, ugly truth that we are, beside God’s holy beauty and perfection, in all honesty ‘unlovely.’ If we haven’t yet come to this place, then we have not yet fully understood and experienced the real depth of God so loved. Christians all to easily assimilate the worldly focus on self, promulgating concepts like ‘King’s kids’ and ‘we’re special’ and even ‘God wants you to be you.’ While on the surface these seem good and positive, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the sentiment or the scriptural basis behind them, it’s all too easy to twist them to fit our own perceptions of God so loved in a way that we remove the necessity for absolute honesty and for change.
The reality of salvation – that great gift that Jesus purchased through His suffering and His blood – means being saved. It means being saved out of something – sin and self. It means being taken out of one place and put into another. It means becoming a new creation in Him. If God loves us just the way we are, why would the New Testament be so chock-full of imperatives to be transformed, to die to self, to crucify ourselves with Christ, and to live as a new creation? ‘Just as we are’ makes all of these foolish. If God so loved us just as we are, why not simply keep that ‘just as we are’ and get on with life? Jesus died to fulfill the conditions in order to enable us to move from the ‘just as we are’ to the ‘just as God intended us to be.’ There is a world of difference between the two.
God so loved that He gave His only begotten Son. These words remind us of the stark beauty of the measure of God’s love. To fully understand and appreciate – as far as it is humanly possible, of course – the truth of God so loved, we need to look at the cross without or romantic preconceived notions of love and sacrifice. The harsh reality is that the cross was cruel, inhumane, an instrument of torture that manifested man’s extreme depravity, and the most excruciating and humiliating death known to man. There is nothing pretty about the cross. There is nothing ‘romantic’ or beautiful or even remotely inspiring. It is a picture of the utter darkness of human nature and the violent suffering of extreme judgement. The cross is the unembellished truth that mankind needed the despite implied in God so loved. It is the focal point, the backdrop, of both the Old Testament and the New, the place where eternity meets reality in the revelation of God so loved.
True liberty only comes when we look full into the face of the suffering Saviour and recognise ourselves. We use the expression ‘come to the cross’ so lightly, ignoring the real truth it implies. The cross is the place of life, the place of transformation, restoration, and resurrection. But it is, first and foremost, the place of anguish and death. I believe absolutely that to see only the suffering Saviour and not the risen, resurrected King is a half Gospel. God desires that we see the cross in full, as it really is, so that we can move beyond it into new, everlasting life in Jesus. But we cannot be the new if we don’t first shed the old. We cannot become the person God intends us to be if we cling to the pretenses and coverings of the old. In order to see the risen Lord, we must first see the suffering Saviour who epitomises God so loved with such potent, stark, and horrifying beauty.
If we have any doubt at any time about God so loved, this is the image that holds the answers. It may seem contradictory, even self-defeating, to come to that place where we acknowledge that, at best, we are nothing and, at worst, we are utterly unlovely. The world certainly teaches us differently with the growing trend in psychological counseling that focuses on our ‘specialness.’ Remember, nothing exists in the world that did not first exist in God and in His Word. Chase down the source of every teaching and you will find the Word of God at its root – that’s why so many of them are so seductive and deceptively logical and believable. But humankind takes what is God’s and twists it to meet our own needs for self-gratification and validation. We are ‘special’ because God made us ‘wonderfully and fearfully.’ But we are special not because of who we are but because God so loved. Period. He doesn’t love who or what we are, or who or what we could or should be. He loves, and that’s the beginning and the end of it.
It comes down, perhaps, to the human tendency to ‘why?’ We laugh when our children go through the why stage, yet somehow find it satisfying. For some obscure reason we may possibly never understand, human beings must always attach a why to everything. We must have an explanation, a reason, a logic, a something that puts it all into neat little boxes over which we have control. If we can answer the inevitable why, it makes us feel secure and satisfied. But, with God so loved, there is no why. It simply is. God so loved is alpha, and omega, and everything in between. It is eternal and unchanging, active and not passive, complete and immeasureable. This is the truth reflected in the face of Christ on the cross, and it’s a truth that must, at some point, bring us to our knees and stip away the pretensions of the world.
There is utter joy in coming to that place where why or how no longer has a place in God so loved. It is the place where striving and struggling cease, where the broken heart and the battered spirit find liberty in a truth that is beyond measure or understanding, but which sweeps away the petty imaginings of the world. If we have the courage to look the suffering Saviour in the eye and see in Him the unlovely that we really are, we are able to take hold of God so loved as He intended we should.
Sweet Jesus, as we remember Your loving sacrifice, grant us the courage to come to the cross and to look into Your face. Help us to move beyond our pretensions and expectations and see ourselves as we really are. Give us grace, Lord, to understand the truth of God so loved without needing to understand the why, only the reality, so that we can truly be transformed into the new creation You desire and intend us to be.