"We never hear the Gospel until we've been made uneasy by it"
-- Ravi Zacharias
This week we are going to look at one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture, John chapter 3. I say that because so many people, Christian and unbeliever alike, can probably quote John 3:16 from heart:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
Because this passage is so familiar, I'm guessing that there is a good chance you didn't read the entire verse above, or give it serious thought. Which brings us to the old saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt". Although contempt might be too strong a word, at the very least, familiarity does breed a level of apathy. I believe John 3:16 is too often dismissed by unbelievers as well as Christians. It is dismissed by unbelievers as foolishness, and it is often dismissed by Christians as mere milk, or a starting point from which we should quickly move beyond. But in reality, there is so much theological richness in this verse, we will be mining its treasure into eternity. In this verse we see the nature of the Triune God and His many attributes such as wrath, righteousness, mercy, grace, love, and holiness, working in perfect harmony to redeem fallen humanity.
In fact, because we live in a culture that has a church on every corner, and because a lot of silliness is done in the name of Christ, we tend to view the entire Bible with a kind of "been there, done that" complacency. That being the case, sometimes it can be a challenge to come to the Bible (especially familiar passages like John 3) with a fresh set of eyes, and a heart of anticipation that is ready to receive from God's Word. It is my hope and prayer that, as we read this familiar passage of Scripture, we will be able to see it with new eyes and grow in our understanding of the person and work of Christ.
In John 3, we are introduced to a man named Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, and we are more like him than we realize. When Jesus began teaching Him about salvation and the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus did not understand. The teachings of Christ were shocking and unsettling to Nicodemus. Jesus replied, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?" (John 3:10).
There is a gentle rebuke from Jesus in those words to Nicodemus, and by extension, there is a rebuke to you and me as well. How is it that Nicodemus could be a highly esteemed teacher in Israel who spent his life studying the Scriptures, and yet, he did not understand what Christ was saying to him? It was because his heart was dull and glazed over with sin, self-righteousness, and a poor understanding of Scripture. But I won't be too hard on Nicodemus, because we will soon discover that the disciples of Christ had similar problems. And guess what, we do as well. It is the human condition.
Part of the problem with modern "churchianity" is that we have tried to file down the hard edges from Scripture and fashion a god in our own image. We've tried to explain away difficult passages that pierce the heart and shock our sensibilities. We are guilty of wrapping the Gospel in a user-friendly media package that is sure to offend no one. But when that happens, the Bible is no longer being taught.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. -- Proverbs 27:6
Here's the reality, the claims of Christ are shocking and unsettling, regardless of the era and place in which you live. They were shocking in Jesus' day, and they are shocking to our generation as well. Great kingdoms have come and gone, but the Word of Christ remains. His words echo through time, and they continue to confront us to this very minute.
If the words of Christ do not, at times, unsettle us and rattle our shaky foundations, we are not reading them correctly. Christ does something that makes us all uncomfortable; He is the faithful friend that tells the truth about our condition, and wounds our foolish and self-righteous pride. As a result, fallen cultures will tend to deal with the Bible in a few different ways; it will change the message to fit the culture, ridicule the Bible, or ban it all together. But it has proven to be a hard book to ignore.
C.S. Lewis wanted to breakthrough that cultural blindness when he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. He wanted to awaken our hearts to awe and wonder so we could better understand the true nature of Christ. In Chronicles, Lewis wrote about a Christ-like figure named Aslan, a mighty lion who sang the world of Narnia into existence. When a little girl named Lucy first heard about Aslan, she was frightened and wanted to know if Aslan was safe. To which Mr. Beaver replied, "Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you."
What we've tried to do is make God "safe" and easy to manage. Or, to put it in the vernacular of Lewis, we've tried to "tame" God. We want a God that we can control. We've tried to change Christ, whom the Bible calls the Lion of Judah, into something as benign and innocuous as Barney the purple dinosaur. But that is not the Christ of Scripture. To truly read Scripture is to encounter Christ, and that is like walking side by side with a lion. We can only do that by the good graces of the Lion, we are not in control.
Like Nicodemus, we become unsettled, and begin to discover that everything we thought we knew about God, and even what we thought we knew about ourselves, begins to change when confronted with the person of Christ. (That is not only true before we are Christians, that continues to happen after we are Christians.)
John 3 is both comforting and unsettling. It is shocking to our sensibilities, because we learn that we are alienated from God by our sin and abide under His wrath (John 3:36). We learn that it is our nature to run from the light of Christ because our deeds are evil (John 3:19-20). We also learn in Romans that we are perishing under a sentence of death, both physical and spiritual (Romans 6:23). It is against this backdrop of despair that we learn about an amazing hope, and the Gospel shines like a brilliant sunrise after a long dark night of the soul. We read, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
In John 3, we see the eternal vistas, ranging from deep chasms of despair and alienation from God, to the mountain peaks of hope we find in the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel means good news, but we can only understand the good news in light of the bad news about our true condition. And with that truth, Jesus brings grace upon grace (John 1:16-17) and love that is beyond comprehension (Romans 5:6-8, Romans 8:38-39).