"god So loved the world that He gave Hia only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."—John iii. 16.
SUPPOSE many of you, like me, learned these words at your mother's knees, and have been familiar with them all your lives. Perhaps familiarity has dimmed their wonderfulness. The child that knows them knows more than, without them, the wisest could have conceived, or heaven, with all its angels, have expected. They are inexhaustible, and one shrinks from taking them as a text. And yet, though I know that my poor paraphrase can only weaken them, they contain so fully and completely the message which it is my desire to press upon your acceptance that I venture to do it. If I might fall back upon a metaphor, we have here the fountain-head, the love of God; the stream, the gift of Christ; the act of drinking, "whosoever believeth "; and the life-giving effects of the draught.
These great words begin in the heart of God; they end with a quickened world; and the links between the beginning and the ending are, on the Divine side, Christ, and on the human, faith.
I.—I ask you, then, to look, first, at the fountainhead, the universal love of God.
"God . . . loved the world." In these words there is the most wonderful apocalypse of the Divine nature that ever has been or shall be made. One knows not which thought is the more stupendous, that God loves, or that He loves the ivorld.
"God loves." Where, outside of Christianity, does anybody dare to say that as a certainty? Men have hoped it; men have feared that it could not be; men have dimly dreamed and strongly doubted; men have had gods cruel, gods lustful, gods capricious, gods good-natured, gods indifferent or apathetic, but a loving God is the discovery of Christianity. Neither the gross deities of heathenism, nor the shadowy god of Theism, nor the unknown somewhat, which, perhaps, makes for righteousness, of our modern agnostics, presents anything like this—" God loved."
Do not let us be afraid of attributing the likeness of human emotions to the Divine Being, nor be frightened from accepting the whole blessed consolation and enlightenment which lies in this wonderful thought, by any solemn warnings- lest we degrade the Divine nature by supposing it to be altogether like ourselves. The spectrum has taught us that the metals in the sun are absolutely identical with the metals in this earth. Christianity teaches us that since man is Deiform, made in the Divine image, we have the right to argue the other way, and say that God and man are sufficiently alike to make it perfectly reverent and safe for us to believe that there is in God that which answers to love in us; separated and purified indeed from limitations, removed from the possibility of chill and change, but yet alive with all the tenderness of yearning, with all the sweetDess, with all the capacity for affording rest to another heart which we find in human love at its best.
We speak of that great Divine nature as being infinite, and that is an awful word; as being eternal, and that is a tremendous and sometimes a chilling thought; as being infinitely righteous; as wielding almighty power. But all these things that men call Divine attributes are but the fringe of His character, the halo round the orb, of which the central blaze is love. The only way by which a poor, finite, sinful heart can venture to grasp the awful thoughts that lie in these great words, Infinitude, Eternity, Omnipotence, Omniscience, Purity, is to regard them as characteristics of love, and say, "Yes! God's love is infinite, is eternal, is omnipotent, is omniscient, is all righteous and pure."
But thon, on the other side, we have not only the revelation of the heart of God, but we have the wonderful word which declares the universality of the sweep of that love, "God loved the world."
Now, I want you to observe particularly that this designation of the object upon which the Divine love rested and rests eternally is to be interpreted according to the usage of this Gospel, and that usage distinctly gives to the expression "the world" not only the meaning of the total of humanity, but also the further meaning of humanity separated by its own evil from God. And so we get, not only the statement of the universality of the love of God, but also this great truth, that no sin nor unworthiness, no unfaithfulness nor rebellion, nothing which degrades humanity even to its lowest depths, and seems all but to extinguish the spark within it that is capable of being fanned into a flame, has the least power to deflect, turn back, or alter the love of God. That love falls upon " the world," the mass of men who have wrenched themselves away from Him, but cannot wrench Him away from themselves. They never can prevent His love from pouring itself over them; even as the bright waters of the ocean will break over some grim rock, black in the sunshine. So, brethren, all the outcasts, criminals, barbarians, degraded people, that the world consents to regard as irrevocably bad and hopeless, are all grasped in His love. And you and I and every soul of man have a place there; and my sins and your sins do not prevent His love from circling about us, and longing after us, and wanting to bless us and bring us back to Himself. "God loves the world," the whole mass of sinful men. Do you believe that? Do you believe it about yourself?
We lose in the depth of our love in proportion as it gains in breadth, and the sentiment, when it comes to be spread over a race is very thin. We generalize and classify. In order to get a conception of the whole we lose sight of the individuals. But there are no classes or masses with God, and when the Bible tells us that He loves the world, that does not mean a diffused sentiment that grasps the whole and is almost oblivious of the individuals, as it would be with us. But He loves the world because He loves each unit that composes it. Just as in the heavens each star is set in its place, and all are included in the great arch that sweeps above them, and yet each is separate, so
The glorious Bky, embracing all,
Is like the Maker's love,
Wherewith, encompassed, great and small
In peace and order move.
He loves all because He loves each. He loves the world because He loves me and thee and every single soul.
II.—Then note secondly the stream; the gift which proves the love.
"God so loved the world that He gave His . . . Son." Mark that collocation of words, in the next verse, where the same subject is dealt with, a different expression is employed. There we read, " God sent His Son." But in my text, where the matter in hand is the love of God, sent is far too cold a word, and gave is used as congruous with loved. It must needs be that the Divine love manifest itself even as the human does by an infinite delight in bestowing. The very property and life of love, as we know it even in its tainted and semi-selfish forms as it prevails amongst us is to give, and the life of the Divine love is the same. He loves, and therefore He gives. His love is a longing to bestow Himself, and the proof and sign that He loves is that " He gave His only begotten Son."
I need not remind you, I suppose, of the allusion, obvious in the language of my text, to that wonderful story in Genesis of the sacrifice of Isaac. You remember how, when the patriarch's trial was over, the approbation was spoken from heaven in these words, "Now I know that thou fearest God because thou hast not withheld thine only son from Me." And we can reverently turn to Him and say, "Now know we that Thou lovest us, because Thou has not withheld Thine only Son from us."
Ah, brethren, there is more in that word "gave" than a bestowment. There is a surrender in it, and there is a surrender to death. "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up to the death for us all; how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" I venture to believe that we may be warranted even in the thought that something not altogether dissimilar to the surrender of his only son to death which wrung the heart of the ancient patriarch is conceivable within that infinite Divine nature that spared not His Son, but gave Him up for us all
Is not that the one proof of God's love? Creation, indeed, is the consequence, and therefore the sign of a Divine love; and we shall never understand why it was that God made worlds at all, unless we have pierced to the depth of the grand psalm which says, "To Him that made great lights, for His mercy endureth for ever."
But whilst Nature is the outcome of the Divine love, its witness is all uncertain and broken. The harp was once tuned by a Divine hand, but rude fingers have been swept across it, and it is now "like sweet bells jangled, harsh and out of tune." And there is no place where a poor soul can be sure of the love of God except here, in sight of Calvary, on the Cross of which it recognizes the Son of God dying for the sins of the world. I feel as much as any pessimist or agnostic of them all, the burden and "the weary weight of all this unintelligible world." I know, as clearly as any man does, and I do not think I feel it less than most men do, how
Nature, red in tooth and claw,
With rapine, thrieks against the creed
that God is love. But I believe in Jesus Christ and His Cross as the governing fact; and in the light of it it were folly and treason to doubt that all discords are capable of resolution into harmony; and that when the end comes we shall know what to-day, by that light, we are heartened to believe, that "God is in heaven, all's right with the world." "God so loved the world that He gave His . . . Son."
III.—Notice (and here I slightly alter the order of my text) the purpose of the gift that proves the love.
God so loved the world that He gave His Son in order that there might be escape from perishing and the possession of eternal life. Now here the one purpose of the gift—which is also the one longing of the love—is stated negatively and positively—" should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Now there are a great many people who would like to put the whole middle part of my text into a parenthesis, and bring together directly the first clause and the last, and say, "God so loved the world that everybody shall have eternal life, and nobody shall perish." But my text does not make such short work of it as that. It recognizes—and I wish to press upon you the recognition—that in order that the Divine love may reach its longing there must be a process; and that that process, looked at from the Divine side, lies here, that God must send His Son if the world is not to perish; and looked at from the human side it lies here, that men must believe in the Son that is sent if they are to have eternal life.
There is, then, a danger which only the mission of Jesus Christ averts, that men may perish. That is a danger which is as universal as the love of which I have been speaking, for it is "the world" that is in danger of perishing, and that is a danger which is as individualizing and specific as the love of which I have been speaking, for "the world" that "perishes" is made up of single souls that do. In that category you have a place, and I, and all our brethren. Whoever stands in the great class of the objects of Divine love, belongs also to the class of those who are in risk of destruction. Oh! dear friends, it does not become me to fling about the thunderbolts of God, or to threaten and lighten as He has the right to do; but I do believe that much of the preaching of this generation is toothless, impotent, unblessed, because men have got too falsely tender-hearted and sentimental to talk about the necessary issue of alienation from God. Be you sure of this, that in whatever form it may be realized—and that is of secondary importance—the world, and especially you that have heard the Gospel all your days, and are hearing it, however imperfectly, again to-night, stands in peril of destruction. "To perish," whether it mean to be reduced into non-being, or whether it mean, as I believe it means, to be so separated from the one Source of life as that, conscious existence continuing, everything that made life beautiful and blessed and desirable is gone—to "perish" is the necessary end of the man who wrenches himself away from God. You may continue to be, you may exercise many of the functions of life, you may go through the world with a tough skin and an indurated conscience, as some of you are doing, but destruction, in the awfullest meaning of the word, is the fate of the man who has turned away from God manifest in Jesus Christ. And I should be a traitor to my own convictions and a cruel friend to you, dear friends, if I did not warn you, and pray to God that the warning may get to some of you that need it, that you are upon an inclined plane, and the inclined plane will stop and you will not; and where will you be then? There is only one Hand that can put the break on. There is only one way by which God's love can stop a man from going down the slippery slope. "God so loved the world that He sent His Son that the world should not perish." It is going to ruin without Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone, comes in to arrest the necessary tendency downwards, and to substitute for it the motion upwards towards the light and the life.
But arresting is not all. "Should have eternal life." And what lies in that? Surely something a great deal more than the unending continuance of being. I do not know how you feel, but to me many a time the prospect of living for ever and ever, on and on and on, seems to be infinitely awful. And so it would be, unless eternal life meant something a great deal more than that, meant the fulness of purity, of peace, of energy, of love and wisdom and joy all flooding into our souls with the possession of Jesus Christ. Life eternal lies in union with God, and the only link that so binds men with God as to secure for them the possession of life eternal, with its inconceivable blessednesses, is "Christ that died, yea! rather that is risen again; who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us."
If heaven were only what some of you think it, a condition of blessedness that could be bestowed upon men at the arbitrary will of God, then be sure of this, that everybody would get it. For God desires to save the world; and, as my text tells us, "loves the world," and "sent His Son" that there should be no 'perishing "; and, as the next verse tells us yet more emphatically sent Him with this design, that "the world "—that is, everybody—" through Him might be saved." But future—ay! and present—blessedness cannot be given away in that haphazard fashion, as some prince from his throne may toss coins into a crowd indiscriminately. And just because it cannot, God's love has no other way of reaching its desire than the mission of Jesus Christ. He sent His Son that none should perish, but that all might have eternal life.
IV.—Lastly, to return to my metaphor, note the act of drinking, or the condition of receiving eternal life. "Whosoever believeth on Him."
Now I am not going to weary you now by talking theologically about what this condition is. You know what it is to trust one another. You have a husband or a wife or a father or a mother or a friend beloved on whom you rely implicitly. You trust the person, and you are at rest.
Now faith is just that. It is simply that act of trust which cements all human society together, and which we are constantly exercising to those who are dear to us, transferred to God. It does not seem to me that there is any mystery in it at all. People have talked very learnedly, "and darkened counsel by words without wisdom," and the continual, parrot-like repetition of the cry to men, "Faith, faith, faith," has deadened to a great many of you the beautiful clearness and simplicity of the Gospel.
The old message is perhaps freshened by using a good old word, and saying, "Trust Jesus Christ." That is all. Trust Him, of course, for that for which God sent Him—to die for you and all of us. Since it was impossible for the downward tendency to be arrested without Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ must have been the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, which took away their guilt and broke their power. And for my part I do not believe that faith in Jesus Christ means anything less than this, the trust of a sinful soul on Him as the only Saviour, because the only Sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Note the simplicity, but note also the rigidity of the condition. And note that the same individualizing universality of which I have been speaking, in reference to other parts of my subject applies to these conditions. "Whosoever." Very well, you can run your pen through "whosoever," and write your own name over it. It is not exactly a blank cheque, but you can endorse it if you like, and then it will be paid.
Ah, dear friend! it is an awful power which we have of rendering God's love of no effect to us, and of thwarting His purpose of love. This fleece has power to repel the dew, and so to be bone-dry amidst the most refreshing showers.
You can make Christ worthless to you if you like. You can make God's love of no use to you in regard of the highest purposes which it contemplates and the deepest desires which it cherishes. "Whosoever believeth." What is the use of the fountain pulsing up through eternity in the deep heart of God? What is the use of the stream running broad and deep and life-giving—a true river of water of life close by your feet—if you lock your lips, and will not put your pitcher in. You will die of thirst whilst the water is rippling past your dying body. "Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely." "If any man thirst"—you, and you, and you, and I—" If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink."