16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.
Do you remember when you first heard John 3:16? I don’t. It’s been part of my spiritual vocabulary since I was a baby. Because I’ve heard this passage so long, I admit I tend to gloss over its power. Moreover, because I memorized John 3:16 as a young boy, I tend to think of it as a freestanding idea. Yet upon studying the context of this verse, I can more fully appreciate the power of its message.
John 3:16-18 is the culmination of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is trying to figure out who this Jesus is and how this idea of eternal life really works. Nicodemus isn’t being difficult—he is just hearing some rather strange things. Just like we should, he is trying to make sense of it all. I mean, really, who wouldn’t be at least slightly confused to be hearing for the first time, “You must be born again“? I can imagine the look on Nicodemus’ face. He just doesn’t get it.
So Jesus takes another angle as he explains eternal life in an Old Testament context. After all, Nicodemus was a learned Jewish leader. Though not stated in the passage, I’m guessing the look on Nicodemus’ face told Jesus that angle wasn’t working either. At this point in the conversation, we reach John 3:16, where Jesus explains eternal life as simply as possible. Jesus says man is born eternally condemned, so the only way to have eternal life is to believe in Him. In 21st century language, we’d say either you are in or you are out.
Sounds kind of judgmental, doesn’t it? Let’s face it: there’s no gray here. Either you believe in Jesus and have eternal life, or you don’t and stand condemned for eternity. We have all known people who miss this message because of its simplicity. The idea of eternal life in heaven, something so profound, comes down to something so simple.
We don’t know how Nicodemus reacted. I choose to think it registered with him, and one day I will meet him in heaven. I look forward to hearing his side of the story. He might tell me he got the power of that simple message right then and there. Or he might tell me he had to wrestle with it for a while. Of course, we can only speculate, but don’t we see this same confusion all around us today? The simplicity of the message can be confounding!
What’s harder for the non-believer to understand—that he comes to the world condemned to live in eternity separated from God, or that the only way to avoid this eternal separation is belief that Jesus is the Son of God? I think it’s the first part, that we come to the world condemned for a life in eternity separated from Jesus. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m a good person—surely God wouldn’t keep me out of heaven”? I’ll be honest in admitting that it’s hard to tell a good person that God will not reward them with eternal life unless they believe exactly as I do. I feel judgmental, and that can create a wedge in our relationship.
Fortunately, I have the power of God’s Word on my side, so I let the passage speak for itself. The essence of our faith comes down to these two simple factors: we recognize that we are separated, and we accept that Jesus is the only way to close that gap. Really, either you are in, or you are out.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Do you believe you were born separated from God, and that Jesus was sent by God to be our link back to a relationship with God and life in heaven?
- Do you know how to respond when someone says to you, “I’ve lived a good life, and I haven’t hurt anyone. Is God really going to allow me to spend a life separated from Him”?
- Do you think this simple message makes it easier or harder to witness to your friends?