“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
This verse from the Gospel reading (John 3:13-17) expresses in a few words the central message of Christianity. It is a beautiful and memorable proclamation of the gospel, the good news of salvation. It is also a summary of the history of salvation, the whole story of the relationship between God and mankind as told in the Old and New Testaments.
“For God so loved the world.” Why should God love the world? Is the world kind? Many people today view the world as totally unlovable. The world goes its own way. He seems to care little about God. It displays God’s will for justice, truth, love and peace in a myriad of ways.
And yet God so loved the world, a most surprising announcement! God loved the world despite its rebellion, its challenge, its sinfulness. Just as a loving parent remains faithful and loving to a difficult and wayward child, so God, and much more, remains faithful and loving to the world, no matter what evils and misery the world brings.
Sometimes we, too, do not feel lovable. We find it difficult to relate to others. We are frustrated with the political and social problems of our nation. We can be disappointed and discouraged because we have failed to live up to our own ideals. We have disappointed God by doing the same bad things many times. If we expect something from God, it may not be praise and love, but disapproval and judgment.
Nevertheless, God loves us. He loves us with an incessant and boundless love. Why does God love us so much? First because it is his nature to love. No religion other than Christianity proclaims that its God is a God of love. In the words of the Evangelist John “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). And again “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10).
God also loves us for another reason. We are His creation. We are his children. Saint Augustine taught that God’s love is personal. When God looks at the world, He does not see an anonymous mass of humanity but each person. God loves each person as if he or she were the only one on earth. Every person is God’s favorite.
We belong to God and our nature is to be connected to Him. Created in his image and likeness, we are endowed with incredible attributes of heart and mind. We have the intelligence to plumb the depths of DNA and explore the vast expanses of distant galaxies. We have the creativity to explore new discoveries and imagine new forms of beauty. We are endowed with moral sensitivities such as integrity and justice, sincerity and compassion. We are capable of the supreme sacrifice of our own life for the safety and well-being of others. All these attributes have only one source: the love of God.
“God . . . gave his only begotten Son. God’s greatest gift to us is his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is God Immanuel, the incarnate “God-with-us” (Matthew 1:23) The person and life of Christ are “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) to the whole world God has given us the most precious gift He has to give us, His only begotten Son .
As parents, Presvytera and I were blessed with two daughters and two sons. Would I consider giving one of my sons for the life of the world? I would find it very difficult, almost impossible, except for one probability. If one of my sons, voluntarily and for the love of people, decided to offer his life to save humanity from a deadly plague or a great war, I could probably consider it. It would be a most painful experience, but I would probably honor my son’s offer of sacrifice to gain a great advantage on behalf of others.
That’s what God did with His only begotten Son. The Eternal Son, out of love, decided from all eternity to offer his life for the world. God the Father, out of love for His Son and for the world, honored the Son’s offer to sacrifice himself for the life of the world. God accepted and received the freewill offering of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, for the redemption and forgiveness of the world.
It is true that sinful humanity deserved to have suffered the pains of the Cross rather than Christ, who was totally pure and innocent of sin. Christ took our infirmities and the burden of our sins. But that doesn’t mean he was forced to do it by a power outside of himself. He did it voluntarily and out of love for us. As he said, “I lay down my life…no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself” (John 10:17-18).
When the Scriptures say that Christ was to suffer and die as part of the eternal will of God (Mark 8:31; 14:36; Luke 24:46; 1 Cor. 15:3-4), it is not the case that God was angry with the beloved Son, nor that the justice of God demanded the death of the Son as satisfaction. Such notions would make God a cruel Judge rather than a loving Father. God is and always remains a God of love. God is not bound by any kind of notion of blind fate or blind justice, above the power of love and above the freedom of love.
The teaching that God sent his son into the world out of love is true and helpful. The Son voluntarily offered his life on the cross as an offering out of love for the world. God accepted the freewill offering of the Son as a sacrifice, in light of Temple worship, for the redemption and forgiveness of mankind. The salvation of the world is an act of divine freedom, just as it is an act of divine love from beginning to end. Divine love is the highest power in the universe and continues to work to save the world today through love.
“That whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. The gift of Christ by God accomplished a double blessing. On the one hand, it was God’s purpose that no beloved creation of God should be lost or perish. Salvation is a great rescue operation, a deliverance from the powers of evil, sin and death. We call this “redemption,” an act of liberation and release from the evil powers defeated by Christ through his death and resurrection.
On the other hand, the gift of Christ was also a gift of divine life. As he said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Elsewhere in the Gospel of John we read “In him [the Son] was the life, and the life was the light of the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). By his resurrection, Christ began a new messianic age, the age of the new creation, in which we live now and look forward to the fullness of the kingdom of God in the future.
The Church’s hymnology calls Christ “the sun of righteousness” [êlios tês dikaiosynês]. Just as the physical sun shines with light and warmth to give energy and life to the earth, so Christ shines with love and grace to give saving power and fullness of life to those who believe. in him and follow in his footsteps.
The physical sun releases immense amounts of energy per second according to astronomers. Christ has all the divine attributes. He is the Christ who governs all [Pantokratôr], the Lord and King, who is represented inside the domes of our churches. It shines with an unlimited energy of love and grace. And all this is a gift for those who believe in him and follow the path of love. “Love is of God, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). Love is the highest power in the universe: the love of God. Amen.
Reverend Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos is Emeritus Professor of New Testament at the Holy Cross School of Theology.