John 3:16. Probably one of the most well known verses in all of the Bible especially after Tebow made it a fashion statement in his time at Florida. It says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s the Gospel in one sentence. It is the ultimately description and depiction of LOVE for us and to us.
It’s the crux of our faith in a lot of ways – but it’s not an original statement.
There is a really cool principle that many scholars use in studying scripture called “The Principle of the First Mention”. Essentially it says, to understand a particular word or doctrine, we must find the first place in Scripture that word or doctrine is revealed and study that passage. The reasoning is that the Bible’s first mention of a concept is the simplest and clearest presentation; doctrines are then more fully developed on that foundation. So, to fully understand an important and complex theological concept, we start with its “first mention. The principle is also often used to demonstrate God’s consistency of Character. What God demonstrates as Truth in the first mention, should hold as Truth in all other mentions.
So what does all of this have to do with John 3:16 and our Garden to City reading plan?
John 3:16 is a resounding declaration of LOVE. It demonstrates the depth of God’s love for humanity, the sacrificial love of God through his son, and the saving love of God to eternal life. So if there is so much talk of love – maybe we should look at the first mention of love in the Bible.
Love is first mentioned in a passage we read just last week in our Garden to City reading plan. Ironically, it’s not found in a passage describing a passionate relationship between two lovers or in a declaration of someone’s love for God, or even in the love a mother has for her children, rather it’s found tucked away in a passage about a father, his son, and an agonizing command.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you LOVE—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Genesis 22:2 (emphasis mine)
Sound familiar? It follows an eerily similar structure as John 3:16 doesn’t it? Take your son, whom you love and sacrifice him for others.
When we hear a story like this, it pulls on our heart strings. As a father of two amazing sons, I know for a fact that if God asked me to choose between my children and anyone of you, you are all hosed. Absolutely out of luck. My kids win every time. Such is the love of a father for his son.
But check this out – we are just getting started.
The first mention of love in the New Testament is found in Matthew chapter 3, right after Jesus is baptized God speaks from heaven and say,
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I LOVE; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17, emphasis mine)
In fact, out of the 4 recorded Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) – the first mention of Love in the first 3 gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) is at Jesus’ baptism when God calls out and declares his love for his son.
And then we get to the Gospel of John. And the first mention of love in John’s gospel is found in John 3:16. When it declares that God LOVES the world so much that he was willing to sacrifice his son.
This is what makes the Bible such an amazing story, journey and invitation.
We see the first mention of love in the bible in the story of a father being asked to sacrifice his son. His only son. Yet as we read the story we see that God provides a ram at the last second so the father doesn’t have to sacrifice his son. We all sigh a sigh of relief, because no father should ever have to sacrifice his son. The love in that relationship is too great.
Then the first mentions of love in the New Testament are God shouting to the whole world, from the heavens, how much he loves his son. And then we get to John 3:16.
And we see that despite the depth of a father’s love for his son, despite God’s declaration of love for his own son, he loves us more…he loves us enough to sacrifice his son, so we may find life. So we may be made new. So we can find value. So we can find hope. So we can more fully love others. Dang, what a powerful picture of God’s love.
See, this is why we are walking through the whole bible together this year. Not just so you have more biblical knowledge, but so we can have more knowledge of God and his love for the world. We get a more complete picture of who God is. We could read John 3:16 on its own and it’s a beautiful message of love, but read it in the context of the whole story of scripture, read it in its proper place in the grand arc and journey of scripture and it is given more depth, it is given more meaning.
When we read scripture this way, we see deeper depths of God’s character – we see God’s faithfulness and consistency. This becomes a more full story. One that has been tested. One that has endured. One that was relevant then and is relevant now.
I hope you are coming to know God more through our journey in the scriptures and in turn coming to know yourself more.
I’ll leave you with this. John would talk about the Father’s love again in another one of his letters to the church, but this time would challenge us to love as well.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (I John 4:9-11)
May you know God’s love completely and make God’s love complete.