What Is Love?

Numbers 21:4-9 | Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 | Ephesians 2: 1-10 | John 3:14-21

Jeremy Richards

Today we hear one of the most famous verses in Scripture, if not the most famous verse in Scripture: John 3:16. Many of you know it I’m sure. If you do, say it with me now: “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.” This verse has become so rote that we probably don’t even stop to think about what it says.

I’m so familiar with John 3:16 that initially I didn’t even really think about v. 16 when I was preparing for to preach on this passage. Instead, I was drawn to the troubling verses that come after 3:16-17, especially the second half of v. 18, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because [they have] not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” I think it’s just human nature that my attention would go straight to those verses. It’s so much easier to focus on the things we don’t like or understand. For example, we can hear 20 compliments about a new haircut and only one negative comment, and all we’ll remember is the negative comment.

V. 18 seems like it throws the whole passage off. It starts with God loving the whole world, and Jesus saying, “God did not send [God’s] Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him,” but that verse is directly followed up by a word of condemnation. Whoever doesn’t believe is condemned. No wonder the signs people hold up at football games say John 3:16, not John 3:16-18.

I had begun to think about this passage a week ago when Brie and I turned on the Oscars. I didn’t used to care about the Oscars, but last year Ryan and Kristine got us hooked. I guess viewership for the Oscars was down this year, which is too bad because I thought they were awesome. One of my favorite parts was when Sufjan Stevens performed. I’m a huge Sufjan Stevens fan. Prior to turning on the Oscars I didn’t even know he was going to be performing, so I was pleasantly surprised. When the time came, they announced him and the lights dimmed, and a platform rose up from underneath the stage and there he was in a black and pink suit, with a band hidden in shadows behind him, and he began picking his guitar in a way that was so distinctly Sufjan, and then he started singing in the way that only he can, and it was…magical. And the song was called, “The Mystery of Love.”

And as I was listening to Sufjan’s beautiful voice I thought, maybe this is the key to unlocking this passage that is a weird mashup of a verse that is so well-known it’s become cliché, and some troubling verses that follow it – maybe the key is love. Or more accurately, the mystery of love. We use the word “love” so much, it’s hard to really nail down what it even means. In the words of another musician, Haddaway, from his 1993 hit, we might ask, “What Is love?”    

Love is, ultimately, a giving of oneself to another. As Jesus says in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that [God] gave [God’s] only begotten Son….” For God, love is giving Godself, in the person of Jesus, the second member of the Trinity, the Son, to the world, the whole world, the cosmos.

And isn’t that what love is between people as well? When we love someone, we give ourselves over to them without condition.

Love is, by definition, unconditional. If you say, “I’ll love you if...,” then it isn’t love. Love says, “I love you” period. Hard stop. Love says, “I’ll give you all of me.” That’s what makes it so terrifying.

And that’s what God says to us, to the whole world, in John 3:16: first, God says I will give you all of me – period.

For God so loved the world, that God gave Godself in the person of Jesus, to love the world unconditionally, to love the world to the point of death and beyond. This kind of love is all consuming, all encompassing. It’s unavoidable. It’s like a sunrise. It’s like light, Jesus says, “This is the verdict,” he says, “light has come into the world.” God’s love is like the sun breaking over the mountains on a clear morning, covering everything. The only way you can not receive the light is to purposely draw the blinds, to hide under a rock, to cut yourself off from the light. The only way you can not be loved by God is to choose not to receive the love God is extending to you. God will never withhold love, but we can always refuse it.

Love is not coercive, it never can be. So love always leaves room for rejection. And so God also leaves room for us to reject God.

This is the nature of love, to offer oneself wholly and completely, vulnerably, to another and to place the outcome in the hands of the other. That’s what makes requited love so wonderful, the other person turns around and gives themselves to you in the same way, and it’s also what makes unrequited love so painful, you’ve laid yourself out there, and they don’t accept you.

God’s love for the world is no different. In sending Jesus to us, God risks rejection. Jesus is, in a sense, at our mercy. And we all know that Jesus will be rejected. Just a couple weeks ago we heard these words from Jesus, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…” (Mark 8:31).

The Gospels tell the story of God’s love for the world – a world that, for the most part, does not return that love, but instead rejects it. Jesus would understand the lyrics to “What Is Love?” when Haddaway says, “I don’t know why you’re not fair, I give you my love but you don’t care.” Or he might sing with Sufjan Stevens, at the end of “The Mystery of Love,”

“How much sorrow can I take?
Blackbird on my shoulder
And what difference does it make
When this love is over?”

The condemnation that Jesus speaks of in v. 18 is a consequence of rejecting the love he came to bring. It’s a rejection of him. The love of God has broken over all the world – through the “gracious gash in the universe” we talked about awhile back – like a light shining in a dark place Jesus says, but some people will choose to reject this light, and instead live in the dark, “because their deeds are evil.”

This still makes us uncomfortable, though. What about people who never hear about Jesus? Or what about people who never meet the real Jesus, but only hear the Gospel through a lens of hate and judgment, and so reject him? Or what about people who have been abused by pastors, parents, or family friends who are leaders in the church?

Are they condemned because they haven’t “believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”?

There are two things we need to look at to help us answer these questions, and to properly understand these verses: (1) the context in which this passage takes place and (2) the meaning of “believe.”

Have you ever had one of those pastors who always stressed how much context matters (“Context! Context! Context!”)? Well, if you haven’t, now you do. Context! Context! Context! Context matters so much. For example, everyone knows 3:16, but can any of you tell me, without looking at your Bibles, what the context for this verse is?

This verse takes place in the midst of a conversation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who comes to Jesus at night, which might shed a little light [no pun intended] on Jesus language about those who choose to remain in the dark. Nicodemus doesn’t want to come to him in the light of day. He wants to come in secret, at night.

The Pharisees had quickly become the greatest opponents of Jesus’ ministry. Right before this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus had gone into the temple and made a big scene. He’d overturned tables and insulted the money changers (remember, we read the story last week?), which really upset the Pharisees and other religious leaders.

The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were a religious group that has lost its way. They had become guilty of self-righteousness, judgement, greed, collusion with Herod and the Romans, and oppression of the poor and marginalized. These were the things Jesus confronted them with, or shed light on, to use the language of John 3:19.

These Pharisees weren’t getting a second or third hand version of Jesus. No one is misrepresenting him to them, like many people misrepresent Jesus today. They are seeing him face to face, and he’s telling them they’ve lost their way, and challenging them to believe in his way. Nicodemus admits at the very beginning of this conversation, “Rabbi, we (the Pharisees) know you are a teacher who has come from God. For on one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” According to Nicodemus, the Pharisees know Jesus is from God, but they still don’t want to believe it.

You might ask, how can they know but not believe? If you know something, doesn’t that mean you believe it? This brings us to our second point that we must understand: the meaning of the word “believe.” I want to begin by noting that I said the meaning of “believe” not “belief.” The Greek root word John uses for belief or believe is pistis, which can mean faith or belief, but the Gospel of John never uses the noun form, only the verb form. Belief is always an action, never a static knowledge, for John, so how one believes in the Son of God has more to do with action than cognitive recognition.

Beyond being a verb and not a noun, belief meant something different to Jesus and Nicodemus than it does to us post-Enlightenment Western readers. Barbara Brown Taylor says that prior to the Enlightenment, “‘to believe’ meant to ‘set the heart upon,’ or ‘to give the heart to.’”[1]

The Rev. Amy Butler, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York, says something similar. She says,

“When we post-Enlightenment, overly educated professionals talk about believing, we’re talking about assenting to a set of facts, something that we can prove, something that we can get our brains around…but when Jesus and Nicodemus were having that conversation in the middle of the night and talking about believing, they were thinking of something completely different than we are. For them, the act of believing was always directed toward a person. That is, I believe in you. Belief for them was not an intellectual exercise, it was a relational engagement…Belief as Jesus meant it here and in the practice of the Early Christian Church meant to hold dear. Belief then meant something like the English word ‘Belove.’ To give one’s heart to.”[2]

So, you see, when we get to v. 18, and Jesus says, “whoever does not believe stands condemned,” he isn’t talking about people in a remote location somewhere in the world who’ve never heard the Gospel, and he isn’t talking about people who’ve never been introduced to the real Jesus, or people who have gotten a twisted and corrupted version of Jesus. He’s talking about people who’ve come face to face with the real Jesus, but won’t give their heart to him, won’t return the love he offers them, won’t set their heart on the things of God, which is based in love for the world. Jesus makes this clear at the end of our passage. The reason they haven’t believed isn’t because of ignorance or misrepresentation, it’s because, “light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

The disbelief Jesus speaks of is disbelove. It’s a lack of love. It’s choosing evil over good.

To not believe in this context is to close the blinds or hide under a rock, to love the darkness instead of the dawn.

The question we are presented with this morning is not about what happens to others who never expressly confessed the name of Jesus Christ. It isn’t a question for other people, it’s a question for us, here today, a question that we can only answer for ourselves.

And the question is, will we believe that Jesus was sent into the world not for condemnation, but for love?

Will we accept the love of God and let it transform us?

Will we return God’s love?

Will we “set our hearts” on Jesus?

Will we believe – will we belove – in the Son of God who gave himself to us that we might not perish but have eternal life?


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Walking in the Dark, 143.

[2] Amy Butler, Sermon: “Cliché,” delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on March 15, 2015.