I don’t believe I have ever done this before, but it seems fitting today. Below is a slightly-edited transcript of a message I preached last Sunday, entitled God’s Love Is.
British evangelist, pastor and Bible scholar G. Campbell Morgan said,
There is a text that I have never attempted to preach on, though I have gone around it and around it—John 3:16. It is too big. When I have read it, there is nothing else to say. If we only knew how to read it, so as to produce a sense of it in the ears of people, there would be nothing to preach about.
David Jeremiah, in his book God Loves You, writes this:
John 3:16 has long been regard as our greatest, most direct, and most concise statement of the Gospel. With almost miraculous precision, it places the good news of the love of God in the smallest of packages. When you say “John 3:16,” even many unbelievers either know what it means or know the verse itself. It is the most famous chapter-verse reference in the entire Bible. You’ll see it on a banner at a sporting event, emblazoned on a t-shirt, or scrawled in graffiti on an underpass. It’s a shorthand way of saying, “God loves us all.”
Throughout history millions of words have been written about John 3:16. Yet none of them are necessary to grasp the meaning of the verse. God communicated the heart and meaning of the Gospel—the most profound, far-reaching message of all time—in only twenty-five simple words of English text. When translated into any language, this verse is supremely easy to understand.
Yet Jeremiah goes on, just a few paragraphs later, to say that John 3:16 is “a statement of the Gospel so simple that a child can understand it and so profound that a scholar could never fathom its depths.”
Max Lucado, in 3:16—The Numbers of Hope, writes, “If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here. We all need the reminder. The heart of the human problem is the heart of the human. And God’s treatment is prescribed in John 3:16. He loves. He gave. We believe. We live.”
It’s simple, yet profound. Everyone knows it, but no one completely understands it. I am neither arrogant enough nor stupid enough to suggest to you that in the next few minutes I am going to accomplish what G. Campbell Morgan never attempted or that I am going to somehow gift to you a full and complete understanding of this most famous of verses. I cannot. However, on this Sunday before Valentine’s Day, I think it is fitting that we take a look at what some have called God’s Valentine.
You can see from your outline that I am going to make six points. Don’t panic, I will endeavor to make them relatively quick. In fact, you can be grateful that I pared the list back a bit, because as I was preparing I generated a list of at least a dozen points. What I want to do this morning is provide us a glimpse into the incredible love of God. The six points I will make are six adjectives of God’s love, each of which, I trust, will enlighten us on a facet of that love.
John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
First, God’s love is Unspeakable. This word means “exceeding the power of speech; indescribable.” The love of God defies words. There are no words we could come up with that would adequately describe God’s love. Frederick Lehman in 1917 used to words to describe just how insufficient words are to describe God’s love. His classic hymn, entitled “The Love of God,” begins this way: “The love of God is greater far/Than tongue or pen can ever tell.” Lehman wrote the first two stanzas of that great hymn, but the third stanza, the one that is perhaps the most poetic and descriptive of the depths of God’s love, apparently has its origins in a Jewish poem written in 1050 AD. The original poem, called the Haddamut, was concerned with the liberty of man rather than the love of God. Later, the words were found scrawled on the wall of a cell in an insane asylum. Whether it was the asylum inmate or Frederick Lehman who changed the words to describe God’s love I don’t know, but I do know that it is a beautiful lyric, one I am sure you have heard:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
John 3:16 begins “God so loved the world…” We use “so” in the English language when we do not know how else to indicate the extreme level of something. When there are literally no words capable of expressing the depth or level of what we are trying to communicate we find the closest word to it and stick “so” in front of it.
When my daughter was just an infant I made up a little song that I would sing to her. I still sing it to her once in a while but now that she is 10 years old apparently it is not very cool for your dad to sing to you, and I am sure she would not approve at all were I to sing it for you today…so I won’t. But the words are simple. It ends like this—“that’s how much I love you/so much.”
2 Corinthians 9:15 in the KJV says, “Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.” The ESV says “inexpressible” gift. The Living Bible puts it this way: “Thank God for His Son—His gift too wonderful for words.”
God’s love is indeed unspeakable.
Second, God’s love is Unearned. John 3:16 says “God so loved the world that He gave…” God gave His Son. It was a gift. There was nothing that I did, nothing that you did to earn it. There is no way that we could ever deserve God’s love or the gift of His Son. His love, His unspeakable love, is so deep, so powerful that it motivated Him to give His Son on our behalf.
Romans 6:23 presents this clearly; it reads, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I like to give gifts. My wife says it is my love language. We all like to receive gifts. But the very idea of a gift is that it is unearned and undeserved. If, when payday comes around, the boss says, “Hey I have a gift for you,” and he hands you a paycheck for the amount of money that you earned, you don’t consider that a gift do you? Of course not. When we receive what we have earned no one is giving us anything. We have not earned God’s love; we cannot earn it.
Third, God’s love is Unimaginable. God’s unspeakable love motivated Him to give us something unearned, and what was that? His Son. His only begotten Son. His one and only Son. There is no greater gift God could have given. There is no way to imagine a love so awesome that He would give His own Son to die in our place so that we would not have to. I am not God, not by a long shot, and for that, by the way, we can all be exceedingly grateful! But I have one son. He is my only begotten son. And I can tell you right now in all honesty and sincerity that there is not one person on the face of the earth that I love so much that I would give my son to die in their place. That is because my love is limited.
God’s love, however, is Unlimited, and that’s the fourth point. There is no limit on God’s love. He gave His one and only Son; there was nothing more He could have given. Unlimited means, at least in one aspect of its definition, that there could never be more. Why? Because the existence of more necessitates a limit. It is very difficult for us to fully comprehend the idea of “unlimited” because everything that we know, everything in this life, has a limit. There is a finite amount to everything. There is an end to everything, eventually. But not to God’s love. There is no more than Jesus Christ. There was nothing more that God could have given.
God’s love is unlimited in another aspect, too, of course. John 3:16 says “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him…” Now I am not going to get into the finer points of Calvinism here; we are not going to talk about limited versus unlimited atonement; if that’s a conversation you want to have I’d be happy to talk to you about it later. The verse says “whoever” and the beautiful thing about whoever is that it has no limit. There is no one not included in whoever. Now the verse does present a condition, right—it says whoever believes in Jesus—but within that condition there is no limit.
Max Lucado puts it like this:
Whoever invites the world to God. Jesus could have so easily narrowed the scope, changing whoever to whatever. “Whatever Jew believes” or “Whatever woman follows Me.” But he used no qualifier. The pronoun is wonderfully indefinite. After all, who isn’t a whoever?
The word sledgehammers racial fences and dynamites social classes. It bypasses gender borders and surpasses ancient traditions. Whoever makes it clear: God exports His grace worldwide. For those who attempt to restrict it, Jesus has a word: Whoever.
I mentioned a few minutes ago that we can all be exceedingly grateful that I am not God, and here is a really good reason why—if I were God, there’s no way there would be a whoever option. Those eligible for my love, my grace, my mercy, my gift, my heaven—that would be a very exclusive list. But not God’s love. His love is unlimited.
Fifth, God’s love is Unfair. At first that no doubt sounds wrong; it does not seem to fit at all with what I have been saying. That’s because we tend to think of unfair as a bad thing. But in our case it is a really, really good thing! We mentioned earlier that God’s love is unearned. That goes right along with it being unfair. After all, if God’s love was fair what would we get? Death. Romans 6:23, remember, says that the wages of sin is death. Death is what we deserve. If God was fair, death is what we would get.
There is another way in which God’s love is unfair. In the first 16 verses of Matthew 20 Jesus tells a parable about the laborers in the vineyard. You probably know the story; the estate owner went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard and he agreed to pay them $1 a day for their labor. We went back out at 9:00 a.m. and hired some more laborers. He did it again at noon and at three o’clock in the afternoon and at five o’clock in the afternoon, not long before quitting time. And when it was time to stop working the laborers presented themselves to receive their wage—what they had earned—and the owner gave the ones who started first thing in the morning one dollar and he gave the ones who he hired at 5:00 one dollar too—and everyone in between. Our immediate human reaction to that parable is summed up in three words: “That’s not fair!” That was the reaction of those guys who worked hard all day, too. And if you want to get hung up on fairness, you’re right…it’s not fair. The owner at the end of Jesus’ parable says, in essence, “I can do whatever I want with my money. I hired you guys at the crack of dawn for a dollar and you willingly came to work. I hired these guys at 9 and these at noon and these at three and these at 5 and I promised them all one dollar. There is nothing unfair in the way I dealt with you…you just don’t like the conditions.”
And the reality is some of us don’t like those conditions, either. I got saved when I was five years old. Someone else could get saved five minutes before they died at age 95 and we would both receive the same grace—we would both be spared from hell and would receive eternal life. That doesn’t seem fair, perhaps, but it’s God’s prerogative and He can dispense His grace and mercy and love as He sees fit.
One last way in which God’s love in unfair. God gave His Son to die in my place and your place. God placed the sins of the world upon His Son, His perfect, sinless Son. Jesus did not deserve that. There was nothing fair about that. One of the greatest promises of the Bible, one of the first ones we turn to in our times of need, is this: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And yet when Jesus was hanging on the cross, suffering excruciating pain because of our sin, Scripture says He called out with a loud voice… Jesus Christ was forsaken by God. Only temporarily, granted…but He was forsaken nonetheless. That’s not fair.
Finally, God’s love is Unbreakable. John 3:16 says that “whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life.” There is no question, there is no condition, there is no fine print or exception, there is no hope so when it comes to the eternal life God has promised to those who accept His Son as Savior.
Paul makes this very clear in Romans 8:38-39:
For I am sure that 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is nothing…absolutely nothing…that can separate is from God’s love. It is truly unbreakable. And if you want to discuss eternal security or the preservation of the saints, we can have that discussion later, too.
So…God’s love is Unspeakable, Unearned, Unimaginable, Unlimited, Unfair and Unbreakable. We could go on, but those six adjectives give us an incredible glimpse into the awesome love of God.
Lastly, in closing, notice this. God’s Love Is. It just is. God’s love exists because God exists. There was never a time when it wasn’t and there will never be a time when it will not be. The apostle John, the same one who wrote John 3:16, also wrote 1 John 4:16:
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love….
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.