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. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. John 3:16-17 KJV (For a moving and exquisite choral rendition of these words, click here.)
There is no verse better known to evangelicals than John 3:16. There is no scripture reference better known to the world than John 3:16 after having it displayed on signs in prominent view at major sporting events, even printed on the black eye patches of leading athletes. That’s because it is the most complete, concise statement of the gospel in the scriptures. It’s really all you need to know to be saved.
Yet the clear message of the opening few words of this most familiar declaration contains what should have been a controversial concept had anyone noticed: God loves the world. The conflict I’m referring to here is the fact that in contrast to this, we were taught, growing up in evangelical churches and homes, to hate the world, maybe not in those words, but the distaste was strongly implied, and much of this sentiment is still clinging to evangelical Christianity today. The world is full of sinners — bad people who will lead you astray if you get too close. The world is not only full of bad people, it is a bad place, to be avoided as much as possible. It is a secular world and we are to be separate from it. “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” (2 Corinthians 6:17 KJV) This was preached to us consistently. And yet our most famous verse in the church and the world begins with the fact that God loves the world. What could this possibly mean?
I don’t know how we missed it, but we did. I’m sure we must have taught that God’s loving of the world amounted to no more than His loving of the people in the world that He wanted to save, but this is sorely inadequate to explain God’s relationship with the world.
I asked our guest last night on BlogTalkRadio, Dr. Stephen Garber, Professor of Marketplace Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, what it means that God loves the world, and how can we love the world as He does? He pointed out that loving begins with knowing. To love someone means that you first come to know them, and then you love them, and in some cases, you love them anyway. God loves the world the same way. He knows the world and loves it anyway. He knows the sadness, the loss, and the tragedy of the world; He also knows the beauty in the world and the victories and successes of those who overcome. He loves the world He created, and the people and animals and fishes in it. He embraced the world as it was when He came here — the good, bad and the ugly of it — and He died to save it. So when the verse says God so loved the world, it means just that. God loves the world and found the world worth saving.
We must love in the same way — first by knowing the world — all of it — and then by loving what we know. This is why we study, listen and observe the world. This is why we are in the world. This is why we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. This is why we learn to see all of life as sacred, and why we seek to find God everywhere, because, indeed, that is where He is.