What hope is there for those who are not perfect and never will be in this life?
I want us to understand the significance of faith in Christ.
We will examine the discussion of condemnation and salvation in John 3.
The Exalted Cross
Our natural inclination is to think of suffering as one of life’s low moments. John 3:14 seems to suggest just the opposite. Just as Moses lifted up a snake on a pole, so was Jesus to be lifted up on a cross. The words “lifted up” are elsewhere translated as exalted. We think of the cross as ignominy not exaltation. We think of money, power and fame as exaltation. Jesus views his suffering with his creation as an exalted privilege. We don’t want to suffer. That’s why preachers who emphasize material prosperity are popular. It’s not fashionable to teach that to be truly exalted, we must follow Christ, and if so, are we also willing to be truly exalted by suffering? Do we come to the light of the cross, or the dark and deceptive world of materialism?
Problem, Cause, Solution
Ancient Israel was often critical of God. One one occasion, God punished them by sending poisonous snakes into their midst (Numbers 21:4-9). The people regretted their whining and Moses prayed and following God’s instructions made a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bitten and looked on the bronze snake, they lived. The immediate problem was snakes. The cause was their lack of faith in God. The solution was to stimulate them to repentance and faith. In similar fashion humanity is in trouble and we are mostly to blame (John 3:14-15). Just as the solution to a snake problem came via a snake, so has the solution to our human dilemma come through the man Jesus Christ. He too was lifted up on a pole and those who keep their eyes on him will also live.
How God Loved the World
“God so loved the world” means what? It means he loved the world "in this way," or "like this." So our famous saying from John 3:16 could be translated “God loved the world in this way.” What way? He lifted up Jesus in the same manner that Moses lifted up the snake for the healing of Israel. The snake on the pole was meant to remind Israel to trust God for healing but it later became an idol and had to be destroyed. Church traditions can be like that. Invented to point us to God, traditions degenerate into idols which need to go. We too need to constantly lift up Jesus, ahead of our traditions and denominational pride. Does Jesus take second place to our cheap human politics? Do we show love to the world by lifting up Jesus?
Ri Hyon-Ok (ree hyon-ow, Ri is the family name Lee in South Korea) was a 33 year old mother of three in North Korea, probably the worst place in the world for a Christian. In 2009 she was executed for a crime against the state. What made her a criminal? She was caught giving away a Bible. She died for her love of God in a place where loving God is a crime. Her husband and three children were sent to a slave labor camp after her execution. Why do 30,000 North Koreans love God so much that they are willing to risk the death penalty? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Jim Elliot graduated from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He developed an interest in translating the Bible into native languages and later joined a group of missionaries to reach the Woadani Indians in Ecuador with the gospel. Discovering a sandbar on the Curarai River barely long enough for their plane to land, they gave the natives gifts. On their return, they were attacked and killed. Jim’s famous quote tells his story best, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." Why do missionaries all over the world love God so much that they are willing to risk death? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed the Nazis. His was one of few voices with the courage to speak out against them. After a time in Britain and the USA, he decided to return to Germany, before all civilian transport was closed, to be with his German people during this difficult time in their history. At home he worked tirelessly in the underground resistance movements. He was imprisoned and discovered to have connections with the plot to kill Hitler. He was hanged just two weeks before Americans liberated the area. Why do people like this love God so much that they are willing to die? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Ignatius of Antioch
Highly honored in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Ignatius may have been one of the children that Jesus took in his arms and blessed. A disciple of John he later became pastor of the church in Antioch. During a period of persecution under Roman emperor Trajan, he was arrested and condemned to death because he professed Jesus. He was thrown to the lions. Ignatius replied to his condemners, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.” Why do people like this love God so much that they are willing to die? Why does God love you and me so much that he allowed his one and only son to die (John 3:16) so that you and I who believe in him may live?
Loving the Hateful
Think of a group of people who absolutely hate us. Maybe it is a country that hates ours. Maybe it is a group of hate-filled and demented terrorists whose only plans are our destruction. Maybe it is another class of individuals who despise us. Imagine then that we decide to die for that group out of love. That is what it means when the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16-17). Amazing! The word world just about everywhere else in the Bible refers to those who hate God, yet "God with us," Jesus Christ died to save that same God-despising world. While many use faith to divide, God teaches us one simple rule, love that unites.
Condemnation or Grace
Can condemnation and grace coexist? Do we treat sin with grace or judgmentalism? We all sin. Grace does not mean that we approve of sin. It means that we know that we have no right to condemn. Jesus did not come to condemn the world (John 3:16-17), but to save the world. Of course, there are things in this world that are wrong, even in the church. But, does that mean that we Christians ought to play Satan, the accuser. Conservative and liberal wings of churches love to criticize, condemn and cause division. God hates division. Are our disagreements so bad that we who have faith in Jesus can no longer have communion together? I don’t think so. Perhaps Instead of a graceless approach of condemnation we should all realign ourselves with the mission of Jesus Christ, to save.
What would Jesus say?
We are creatures of extremes, either condemning adultery, homosexuality, divorce and fornication or approving them all. Jesus did neither. On one sexual sin, he said that in the beginning it was not so, but due to hardheartedness Moses allowed it. Jesus did not condemn a woman caught in a sexual sin, but told her to sin no more. He did not come to condemn the world (John 3:17). It does not mean that Jesus could not condemn the world, or that he will not at the judgment, but that he does not now. We also know that it is also not our business now to judge. So, what would Jesus say to any sexual relationship that is different than it was in the beginning? Are we here to condemn the world or join Jesus in saving the world?
Running away from God
Humanity runs away from God. Do we hate him? Are we ashamed and think that he will want to condemn us for all of the bad things we have done to each other? Is John 3:17 saying just the opposite of that? Rather than wanting to condemn the world, God sent Jesus into the world to save it. An example is Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8). Those caught up in Pharisaic religion condemned her. Jesus told them that if any of them was without sin, they ought to cast the first stone. None dared and Jesus said he did not condemn her. Instead of running from God, it is condemning religion which we should run from. God and the true religion of Jesus do not exist to condemn but to save.
The Evangelical Sin
Is the Evangelical sin that of self-righteous judgmentalism? Has Evangelical Christianity become unfriendly, condemning and uninviting? Whatever happened to the welcoming Jesus? Whatever happened to the words from John 3:17, that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? How can Evangelical Christians return to being the inviting Church? Perhaps we ought to leave judging to the Judgment Day. Perhaps we ought to focus more on healing and salvation than on the sins which necessitated both. Rather than criticize those who are hurting, perhaps we ought to invite them to be healed. Rather than condemn those in a prison created by the sins of the world, perhaps we ought to invite them to freedom. Perhaps we need to invite them to come and see Jesus (John 1:29-42).
Non-judgmental yet discerning
Are Christians judgmental if they disagree with sinful behavior or heretical doctrines? Some may be, but that does not mean that everyone is. Can a Christian be non-judgmental yet discerning? In John 3:17 Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world. Unfortunately some Christians do just the opposite, condemn. Does that mean that we may not disagree or discern that a particular sin is wrong? Of course not. In the same chapter where Jesus taught us not to judge (Matthew 7:1, 15) he also said to watch out for false prophets. There is a big difference between a condemning, hypercritical attitude and having an opinion that something is wrong. Jesus Christ is the final judge, not us. Our judgment now is to be righteous — not a damnation, but a discernment of right from wrong.
Agapé is not Divine Love
The Greek word agapé does not mean divine love. This is an urban legend perpetuated by poorly educated preachers and televangelists with bad research. Ask any Greek scholar and you will find out that agapé just means love or affection. In the Bible it sometimes even refers to a negative love. Men “loved” darkness (John 3:19), some “loved” the praise of men more than God (John 12:43), and one “loved” this world more than Paul (2 Timothy 4:10). The context clearly shows in three cases that word agapé was not a divine love. And that is the clue. Just like the words love or affection in English, the meaning depends on the context. A preacher's volume and enthusiasm are not always a sign of divine inspiration and quiet preaching may not indicate that truth is absent. Separating truth from hogwash sometimes involves digging a little deeper like the Bereans.
A heretical doctrine is that of universal salvation. It contradicts biblical passages that show how some will choose hell over heaven. However, the concept of universal atonement is quite orthodox. It suggests exactly what John 3:14-21 writes when he includes words like “everyone,” “whoever” and “the world.” We understand by this that salvation is available to all, but that not everyone will take God up on the opportunity. God’s attitude in the Bible is clear. He wants everyone to choose life, but gives us the freedom of choice. Does what we choose in this life have any bearing on our eternity? The words “stands condemned already” indicate that our eternity is determined by what we choose now. Can that change? Can stubborn hearts still repent? Judgment Day is not today. We still hope that our loved ones will repent.
God wants everyone to desire salvation. However, he will not make us into robots. He grants us free will. The choice for salvation is ours alone and the way to salvation is found in looking to Christ.