Charley Reeb: The Gospel in Miniature


For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  John 3:16

Martin Luther called this verse, "The gospel in miniature." In just 27 words it sums up the gospel. It has become the "mantra" of our faith.

But this verse has a problem. It suffers from overexposure. It has been quoted so often that many of us no longer feel its power. Perhaps for some this verse is connected to bad evangelism. Maybe some obnoxious fire-breathing preacher quoted it trying to cajole you into becoming a Christian. Ever since then John 3:16 means "Turn or burn!"

Or what about the well-meaning but tacky guy on TV holding up a sign of John 3:16 behind a professional golfer? And, of course, how can we ever forget seeing John 3:16 written below the eyes of football stars as they run out on the field.

Again, this verse suffers from over exposure. Its impact and meaning have diminished for many people.

I want us to experience the power of John 3:16 again--to push aside all the baggage and experience it anew. I believe if you allow yourself to experience the truth of this verse today it can set you free. Whether you are a Christian seeking renewal or a skeptic seeking more in life, the truth of today's verse can you set you free from whatever is holding you back. It can give you the peace you are craving.  

Jesus spoke about the freedom and peace we crave in the 8th chapter of John when he said:

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. John 8:31-32

I don't know what you need to be set free from today, but I know Jesus can set you free from it. Maybe it's shame or guilt. Maybe it's resentment and bitterness. Maybe it's a bad habit. Maybe it's hatred. Maybe it's anxiety. Maybe it's some heavy burden you have been carrying. Whatever it is, Jesus can set you free.

But what is that truth that will set us free? Jesus said we will know the truth and once we know it, it will set us free. What is this truth?

I believe John 3:16 expresses the truth that sets us free. The context of this verse is someone seeking to be free. His name was Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee who followed the law rigorously. He sought to earn God's love through following a bunch of religious rules.

Maybe you can relate to Nicodemus. Perhaps you've always seen faith and religion as a bunch of rules and "thou shall nots." Maybe you grew up with that idea drilled into you, and it's hard to break free from it.  

I imagine Nicodemus was also tired of religion as rule following and wanted to be set free. I imagine when he heard Jesus teach and preach his heart was moved. He sensed something different about Jesus. He was unlike any other rabbi he had ever heard. He had this overwhelming love about him.

Nicodemus was curious about this truth Jesus was preaching about. So Nicodemus met Jesus and asked some questions. Jesus told Nicodemus that when he is lifted up he would understand. Jesus was referring to his crucifixion.

  It is then that the writer of John reveals "the gospel in miniature":

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16

This verse says " For God so LOVED."

So many people see God as a power hungry deity who demands submission. Some think God is not satisfied until we feel terrible about ourselves. That is not the God revealed in Jesus Christ. And that is not the God revealed in John 3:16. God loves you. God created you. You are God's child.

I like what Max Lucado says: "God loves you so much that if he had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it." But God's love goes deeper than a Hallmark card. And God's love wasn't just lip service. God demonstrated his profound love for us by giving us his son.  

The verse says "He GAVE."

God held nothing back in demonstrating his love for us. God wooed us back to him by giving us his son. Now this is when this verse gets tricky for some of us. Did God give himself or did God give his son? If you have ever felt that way, you are not alone.

Think of the Trinity. The Trinity is a way of expressing the three main ways God expresses himself in the world. God is the Father who creates, the Holy Spirit who guides and sustains, and the Son who is with us and loves us intimately. So one way to understand this verse is that on the cross God gave the most vulnerable part of himself to us. As Philippians says, God "emptied himself" to us in Christ. It was the ultimate display of love.

The cross is God's poetry of love. See the cross not as a legal event but as poetry. On the cross God in Christ is saying, "You want to know how much I love you? I love you this much."

And John 3:16 tells us this love is for everyone, for the whole world. The verse doesn't say, "God so loved the perfect people" or "God so loved the religious people." It doesn't say, "God so loved the United Methodists or the Presbyterians."  It doesn't say, "For God so loved the bold and the beautiful." Nor does it say, "God so loved America" or "God so loved Europe." It says God so loves the whole wide world he created.  

And this God desires everyone to believe in him. In this verse believe doesn't mean intellectual assent. It doesn't mean doing a bunch of mental gymnastics. There is a mystery to God that we could never wrap our finite minds around. Believe means to invest. Whenever you invest your heart and life into God, you will experience life as you were destined to live it. And this verse calls that life "eternal life."

"You will not perish, but have ETERNAL LIFE."

When you invest your life in God, you will not perish by living a meaningless life. You will live an "eternal life." This literally translates "life of God." It is a life filled with love and joy and hope and peace and purpose and adventure. It is eternal, but it begins now!

So I believe John 3:16 can be summed up in five words. Here is the truth that will set you free:

God is crazy about you.

Augustine said, "God loves each one of us as if there is only one of us to love." God held nothing back to show you how much he loves you. God became vulnerable in Christ to seek a relationship with you. God is crazy about you.

Believe it or not, convincing people of this is one of my toughest jobs as a pastor. Sometimes it feels as if I cannot preach on the love of God enough! There are so many voices tearing people down. There is so much violence and hate in the world. There are so many people with toxic faith presenting God as an angry judge. And on this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, we are too aware of how much hate and bigotry there is in the world. We know God's love is stronger than hate, but it can get discouraging with such unspeakable bloodshed and violence all over this world. So I will preach in season and out of season of the love of God! I will never stop preaching that God's love is greater than hate, stronger than death and more powerful than evil.  

I know some of you need to experience God's love in the worst way. You have been beat up, put down, knocked out, pushed aside. Perhaps you are thinking, "Does anyone love me? Does anyone care? Does anyone understand? Does anyone know how I feel?" Christ reaches out to you with nail scarred hands and says, "Oh, I do. I love you. I understand you. I care about you. I am crazy about you. I am here to love and empower you."

"** For God SO loved the world..."**

I remember preaching at a youth camp several years ago. The worship service went really late. I didn't get up to preach until about 11p.m. It didn't help that I had the flu, but it was the last service of the week and I had to finish. I don't know what I said. I was so sick. I was just trying to get through it.

After the service a teenage girl approached me. She looked very angry. She said, "I have to find out if something is true." I replied, "What's that?" She said, "You mentioned tonight that God loves me. Do you believe that? I don't believe anyone has ever loved me. My dad left me, and my mother abused and neglected me, and you are telling me that God loves me?"

I looked into her eyes and said, "That's right. I know this for certain. God loves you. You know how I know? God got up on a cross and said, 'This is how much I love you.'" She paused for a moment and tears began rolling down her cheeks. Then she said, "Well, if God loves me, then nothing else matters. If God loves me, that's all that matters." I said, "Sweetheart, you have just learned something it takes some people a lifetime to learn."

God is crazy about you. Open your heart to God's love. It will set you free. 

Let us pray. Lord, we open our minds and hearts and lives to your transforming love. Free us, forgive us, renew us, and empower us. Enable us to love you and our neighbor with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Help us to love as you have loved us. Amen.