We live in a time when the question that needs to be asked of every professing Christian is not if they believe in Jesus but if they believe in the right Jesus. Now, I know this may sound absurd to some, but I assure you that it is simply the truth. John 3:16 is probably the most memorised verse in the whole of the Bible among Christians around the world. It is the go-to verse that summarises the gospel. We use it in our sermons, our books, our bible studies, to evangelise and to teach our children the gospel.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son,
that whoever believes in Him shall not perish,
but have eternal life. -John 3:16
One can say that the Christian community stands largely united on their acceptance and use of this verse. It would, I think, be uncommon to come across churches or Christians who would refuse to believe in John 3:16. And if there are those who refuse this, I believe most of us would not consider them Christian, simply because if you remove this fundamental gospel of Christ, we have no basis for our faith. Although it is joyful to know that we as Christians stand united in this statement of our hope and salvation, I am afraid that many a times it is more a facade of unity that keeps us from seeing fundamental differences easily overlooked. Whatever shape or form these differences may take, it can ultimately be classified under one of two categories – a man-centred approach or a God-centred approach. Let us explore these two categories and then carefully examine John 3:16 within the Biblical context.
A MAN-CENTRED THEOLOGY
I grew up in a Christian home where, if my memory serves me right, the first verse I ever memorised was John 3:16, maybe even the only one my lazy mind was willing to accommodate. It was, for me, the key verse in the Bible. It still is but here is how I understood it back then.
God loves me. In fact, He loves me so much that He came down to die on the cross for me so that I would be spared, and all I need to do is believe in Him. He offers me eternal life in Heaven with Him forever. So, if this God loves me so much to die for me, then that means that there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me. He would never let me have pain, never let sickness come upon me, never let me fail. My dad would do the same for me if he could. So why not God the Father? I could always succeed in everything I did as long as I had faith. I could chase my dreams and build my future and grow my life to any heights. I could live my better life now. All I had to do was to believe.
John 3:16 taught me about my worth and value in the eyes of this loving God who thought of me, above all. It created in me this man-centred theology where I became the focus of all things that God did. Many Christians, maybe even some reading this right now, believe this. You’re probably wondering what’s so wrong about believing this way. My dear brothers and sisters, I want to encourage you today to take a closer look and recognise that this is not the truth. It may be the most popular version of the gospel you hear out there but I assure that if you feel that any other way of seeing John 3:16 is lesser, like I used to, it is truly quite the opposite. This man-centred theology is a low view of the Gospel and it takes away from it all that is beautiful and precious. This kind of theology is the birthplace of the famous beloved prosperity gospel. This is the gospel that teaches that God does not want you to be poor, or be sick, or to fail. But we know that this is simply not true. We see sickness, poverty and failures in the real world, all around us. And among them are many faithful brothers and sisters in the faith who are going through severe financial crisis, many who are sick with all kinds of diseases, and many who fail. There are some in our local churches, our neighbourhoods and even in our own families. Those who advocate this alternate gospel would say that this pain and suffering is caused by a lack of faith or that God has a higher (material) purpose – to “reward you after you overcome this struggle”. Untrue! So very false. It is not in order to sound pious that Jesus asked us not to store up riches on earth but in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20). Whatever the argument, we simply cannot elude the real struggles that Paul, the other apostles and the disciples, both in Jesus’ time and down through the centuries, had to endure for the sake of the Gospel. Acts 5:41 tells us that the disciples walked away rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name, when they were beaten by the order of the Sanhedrin for preaching the Gospel. None of them, not even Jesus our Lord, lived on this earth in a manner that supports the prosperity gospel. When a man told Jesus that he would follow Him anywhere, Jesus responded to him in Luke 9:58 saying, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
The teaching of the New Testament does not promise us a comfortable and painless life. It offers us a life of peace amidst all of the pain and suffering. James 1:2 asks us to consider it all joy, brethren, when you encounter various trials (paraphrased). This shows me a mindset that does not seem to be man-centred. They don’t see themselves as being the centre of God’s purpose but instead, they see God as the centre of His purpose in our lives. God equips us to live our lives for His glory. They rejoiced in being considered worthy to suffer shame for His name? That’s astounding!
You see, the prosperity gospel is not the Gospel. It is not even a gospel. It is a lie, an anti-gospel, that takes away from us the truth that God is the centre of the Gospel and not us. God is the focus of John 3:16 and not us.
A GOD-CENTRED THEOLOGY
It was much later that a friend shared with me a preaching by a man named Paul Washer, titled ‘The Shocking Youth Message’. You can find the video on YouTube. Many of you may have already been changed by it. God used this one sermon to change my life. I’d been suppressing a lot of spiritual and theological tensions caused by the man-centred prosperity gospel and all of it were dragged out by the scruff of the neck and cut down by the truth of the real Gospel this man preached. I still remember that day, and oh how wonderful an experience it was! It was as though my blind eyes were beginning to see real beauty in God’s word. I heard the Gospel, through John 3:16, for what it truly was, and I believed. Not like before. Not with conditions of blessings but with a conviction, as though the truth were being inscribed in my heart. All of the darkness that once blocked my view fled before the light of the truth.
What is this truth? Well, the key word to understanding it, is context. Pulling John 3:16 out of the context of the entire biblical narrative is like pulling a headline from the news and adding your own take of the events it highlights.
EXAMINING JOHN 3:16
Take a look at John 3:16. We find three persons explicitly and one implicitly being addressed here.
- There is God, the Father, who loves us.
- God, the Son, who is given for our sins
- There is man, us, who believe in the Son
- And from the rest of the Bible, we know that all things God does by His Spirit. It is the Spirit who quickens us to believe and guides us into all truth. This is the One implicitly present in this salvation process.
Now, both the man-centred and God-centred gospels make assumptions of each of these persons. These assumptions then form the basis of how we understand John 3:16. How? Let me explain. I am not a very tall man nor am I a very strong one. But, imagine if you, being my friend, met a stranger who claimed to know me and described to you how incredibly strong and tall I was, what would your reaction be? Either they are making a sarcastic joke or they have me confused with someone else. Or they have very poor eyesight. In any case, the person they are describing is not me. Any other version of me that is not me is simply not me. Now, suppose that these assumptions that you make are of the triune God and is not true. It must either mean that we are confused or joking, right? Any version of God that is not God is simply not God. Any version of the Gospel that is not the Gospel is simply not the Gospel. Paul reacts quite harshly to the Galatians, in the very first chapter, for deserting the true Gospel for another, which he says is not really another but just that some were trying to distort it. So, for even the slightest of distortions, Paul calls them fools.
That leaves us with the question,
what is the true Gospel message?
God created a good and perfect world, a world with no sin and no pain, a world of joy and pleasure, a world of peace and harmony. He created man and woman to rule over the earth and they were the most privileged of His creation, for they were created in His very own image. This man and woman, the very first generation of all our ancestors, disobeyed God and broke the one command that God gave them and through their disobedience, brokenness entered into the world. Sin entered into mankind. All that was once beautiful was now filling with evil. It wasn’t anger that prevailed in the moments that followed the fall of Adam and Eve, but mercy. Mercy that stayed the hand of God from wiping them out permanently. Instead God, even though He warned Adam of the consequences before the fall, acted in mercy and banished him to work and toil on the earth till the day he died. All that remained for humanity was to await the judgment of God where all men would perish under His wrath in the flames of His just anger for He is a Holy and just God who would never let the guilty go unpunished. Justice demands our lives and we deserve it. The sin we carry is sin against an eternal Holy God and such a sin deserves an eternal punishment. Yet, He abounded in love. Whose mercies are new every morning. God is perfect and this perfection is reflected in all His attributes including love and justice. Perfect love and Perfect justice can be met in the destruction of mankind. Hard to believe? You see, it is quite simple. If one must love, then one must also hate. A love for all that is good has to hate all that is evil. In fact, the greater the love for good, the greater the hatred for evil. Hence, the destruction of humanity would fulfil justice in the punishment of our guilt and it would fulfil love by our death because we are all evil born into sin as sons and daughters of Adam. There is none among us who desire God, no not one (Romans 3:11). If He destroyed Adam and all hope of a future for mankind, He would be perfectly just and perfectly loving. On the other hand, if He spared us without punishment, then He would not be perfectly just or loving. And in here lies the question, why are we still alive? What is the purpose of life without any hope of salvation? Wherever we go, whatever we achieve, they greatest of these are still filthy rags before this Holy God (Isaiah 64:6).
Under the shroud of this dark hopelessness, shines the perfect and righteous purpose of God in our lives that was purposed before the very foundation of the earth. Throughout history, God spoke of this, the hope of humanity, of the One who would come to save us from our sins, the Messiah. He came in human flesh, God incarnate, and He was called Jesus. He was born to die, a sinless and perfect man, truly human yet truly God. And thus, here is born a word called ‘grace’ – unmerited favour to an undeserving people. O the depth of God’s love that He has Himself come down to His own people to save them. O the depth of His love, that He has chosen to change the hearts of those who are called to believe in Him, by dying on their behalf, and restoring them to the place of life that Adam and Eve once enjoyed, by rising from the dead. On the cross of Christ, we see God’s perfect justice, that should have fallen on us, fall on His only begotten Son and we see God’s perfect love in saving a people for Himself, those who believe in this Son.
The cross is the display of perfect love and perfect justice, united. Now, we who are the fruits of His redemptive work are washed clean of our sins and set as lights for the world, to proclaim the hope of the Gospel of God in Christ Jesus. He does not promise us comfort or luxury in this life on earth. For who, now clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness, would ever pursue something as futile as material prosperity? Sadly, many. We who follow Him will be hated just as He was hated, but no longer can we consider these trials as sorrowful because we have received grace upon grace, hope that is imperishable, that we are His and He is ours. We trade in our earthly treasures, that moth, rust and thieves plunder, gladly and instead store for ourselves treasures in Heaven that none can take away. For to us, to live is Christ and die is gain. This is the purpose for which we were created, not to live for ourselves but to live for Him. So, we consider it joy to be humbled under trials and failures because we know that we are loved in spite of our flaws, and in Him we will grow more and more to be like Him. Therefore, we, who now believe in Him, who love Him and obey Him, must decrease, and He must increase, for He is the centre of our world, the purpose for which we live because all that was once lost has now been reclaimed. To this God who does all things for His glory, the lover of our souls, be glory and majesty and honour and praise forevermore.
You are not the centre of God’s universe, God is. I pray that you stay your pursuit of God for the sake of your earthly pleasures and pursue Him for Him, for His love for you is unlike any you can experience elsewhere. A day in His courts is better than thousand elsewhere. This is the Gospel of Christ and this is the Gospel that unites us.
John 3:16 makes no sense if you don’t know the supreme glory of the God who loves, the grace of His begotten Son who was given, the invincible power of the Spirit who quickens us to believe and the unbridled depravity of the man who is offered the imperishable hope of eternity. The Christian community at large agrees on the centrality of the gospel statement in John 3:16 without a unified understanding of what it means. If we don’t seek for deeper clarity among churches in this statement of faith, we would, in the name of unity forsake the very gospel that unites us.
John 3:16 is the headline to the story elaborated in 66 books that form the Bible which is God breathed where He explains the redemptive purposes of His will and reveals the very nature and character of who He is. Let us be careful not to read the headline and make baseless assumptions. Instead, let us pick this book up and read it and sing to Him with joy,
“…like a rose, trampled on the ground, You took the cross, and thought of You, above all.”