What Wondrous Love is This? The Lifting Up, Sending Down, and the Judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:14-21)

Around the time where we observe the Resurrection Sunday, many churches sing a wonderful chorus that begins:


What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down
Beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb,
Who is the great I AM,
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free
I’ll sing His love for me,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.

It is a wondrous love, an amazing love—but what kind of love is this that we speak of in this passage? When we begin to look at the different ways not only the world speaks of God’s love but also the way the Scriptures speak of it, no wonder that D.A. Carson penned a book based on lectures entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God.

Why difficult? Carson outlines the different types of love God expresses in Scripture:

  • The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (John 14:31).
  • God’s love for all things he has made as Creator to His creation (Genesis 1)
  • God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world (not the bigness of the world, but of the badness of the world).
  • God’s particular love to his elect (Ephesians 5:25)
  • God’s love toward His people in a provisional way –provisioned on obedience (Jude 21).

As you can see, we must take time to look at what wondrous love is this God displays and speaks of in John 3:16. Remember how Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler and teacher of the Jews. He knew the Word of the Lord—but he did not know the Lord of the Word. He could not be born by affiliation with a group or race. He could not be saved by his status. He could not be saved by his intellect and knowledge of the Scripture. It’s a wondrous love because His love is not displayed merely to one group

1. The Son of Man must be lifted up so we may live.

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).

When we use the term ‘lifted up’ in our day is usually used in the context of worship. We sometimes hear worship leaders say, “Let’s lift up the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But we must understand what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. Remember how the Pharisees were ones who sought to preserve and protect the Law, that is, the Scriptures. They knew the Scriptures backwards and forwards. So when Jesus said basically in passing, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Nicodemus immediately connected. However, we may not, so let’s connect it to see what Jesus means.

Turn with me to Numbers 21:4-9:

4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6 Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze[a] serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

What we see here is a rebellion against the protection and provision against the very God who made them and delivered them! But there’s more to it. The people of Israel could not go through Edom, so they went around, turning their back on the Red Sea that, had they crossed it, would have put them in the Promised Land. They grew “impatient–” and let it flow in their grievances. George Matheson once noted, “The hardest thing is that most of us are called to exercise patience, not in the sick bed, but in the street.” The people of Israel struggled with this—and so do we. The fact is, patience is not something with which we are naturally endowed. Patience is a part of the fruit of the Spirit. It’s not about being patient when things are going your way, but when things are not, when the timing is not, when the plans are not.

And so they spoke! Notice a number of things: (1) they lamented being delivered by God’s grace out of their slavery; (2) they bemoaned that they had no food or water, but they acknowledged there was some food, but they deemed it worthless. It was the manna and quail that God provided, without them having to lift a finger to make it. They rejected God’s grace.

So God sent fiery serpents on the people. God was powerful enough to demonstrate mercy, but also powerful enough to send justice! And here we see a subtler message Jesus gives to Nicodemus—don’t reject the message and provision that God has provided in the message Christ was giving them.

But God also gave them a remedy: put a bronze serpent on the pole, which all that looks up will go from death unto life. As they looked up in the wilderness and received physical life by God’s grace, so they could look up to the Christ lifted up and have eternal life.

2. The Son must be sent down so we may be lifted up (John 3:16-18).

16 “For God so loved the world,[a] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“For God so loved the world.” For many of us, this begins the most treasured verse in all of Scripture. But for many others, this is brand new.

When one looks at Tim Tebow’s stat line in the playoff game against Pittsburgh, he was 10 of 21 for 316 yards, averaging 31.6 yards per game. The Steelers’ time of possession was 31:06. CBS’ final quarter-hour overnight ratings were, yes, a 31.6.

But as a result of this, millions of fans Googled John 3:16, causing this verse to spread all over, with ESPN writers like Adam Schefter printing it out in full on an article dated January 13, 2012.[1]

I pray with further understanding, we may give even more glory to God.

What does this phrase mean? Does it mean intensity—God loved the world sooooo much? While God does love those whom He created with great intensity, there is better way to look at this. Suppose you’re teaching your child how to folk a pair of pants. I showed my boys the other day, “You fold them in half, then in half, and in half.” I could have said, “You fold it just so!” In other words, you fold it in this manner.

The point? Jesus is telling us, “God loved the world in this manner.” He demonstrated His love in this way! Other versions have translated this verse in this manner, and some have objected to it. May we not treasure a translation so that we neglect the meaning!

As we saw last Sunday when a dear sister came to recommit her life to Christ, we were reminded that we cannot climb a ladder of our own righteousness to get to God, but we do understand that Christ came down! God gave His Son (v. 16) and God sent His Son (v. 17).

The phrase that is translated, “that whoever believes in him” needs our attention as well. In the original, the word ‘whosoever’ is not there, but in essence it says, “all of the believing ones.” The word ‘whosoever’ is misleading—not just anyone could have everlasting life, but in connection with what Jesus said earlier, only those who have been born from above, born of the Spirit. We are dead spiritually, and can only be made alive if God makes us born again. Paul lets us know this, that “God, being rich in mercy, made us alive in Jesus—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4). Though we were dead in our sins, God raised us up! This is why God sent His Son!

In verses 17-18, we see Jesus telling Nicodemus that God sent Him into the world not to judge the world but that the world might be saved. Again, remember what’s being said and to whom. He’s speaking to Nicodemus, and Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees thought and taught that only the Jews would be saved, and the Gentiles would be damned. But Christ came to rescue not just a people from one tribe, but from every tribe, language, people, and nation.

But isn’t this wonderful: whoever believes in him is not condemned. Why? Jesus took our condemnation! Romans 8:1 says, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus—for the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” If you are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation. You are free from sin and death. But there is condemnation for those who are not in Christ Jesus.

Just before the death of actor W.C. Fields, a friend visited Fields’ hospital room and was surprised to find him thumbing through a Bible. Asked what he was doing with a Bible, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

“On Him Almighty vengeance fell,
Which would have sunk a world to hell.
He bore it for a chosen race,
And thus becomes our Hiding Place.”

3. We must be held up by the Son we may not be sent down (John 3:19-21).

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

What is the essence of the judgment that Jesus defines here in verse 19? These words may sound familiar, since they echo John 1:10-11. The judgment is ultimately this, “What will we do with the light that has come into the world?” By nature, people love the darkness rather than the light.

Do we not truly understand this in fullness after Friday’s atrocity in Aurora? Alex Teves, Jon Blunk, John Larimer, Mikayla Medek, Alex Sullivan, Rebecca Wingo, Jessica Ghawi, Matt McQuinn, AJ Boik, jesse Childress, Gordon Cowden, and Veronica Moser-Sullivan. Twelve victims, shot down in a senseless act of violence at a time when many simply expected to go and enjoy a movie. Twelve murdered and 59 wounded! This news made it internationally—my Trinidad pastor friend, Roddie Taylor, e-mailed me to make sure I was OK. Yes, it made it that far. And yes, everyone was mortified.

Each of them the recipient of a senseless, ridiculous shooting. Listening to the survivors of this shooting, you could see the terror on their faces and hear it in their voices. Some expressed an array of emotions from fear to anger to despair.

Two weeks ago, Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator at Penn State University, was sent away for good after the abusing innocent boys. When the authorities found out about it, they smoothed over it—looked the other way. They did not report this to the authorities.

Everyone understands the evil of these two men who committed these heinous crimes. What most everyone does not understand is that this would be everyone of us without the restraining, efficacious grace of God. By nature, people love darkness rather than the light.

For instance, one man shot was lauded for being a hero for protecting his girlfriend and giving his own life. Yet, his wife from whom he was separated from still lived in Reno and is raising money to bring his body back. This man’s lifestyle is more acceptable in our culture than James Holmes’ or Jerry Sandusky’s—but it is still not the way God created us to be. It is still preferring light over darkness.

Jesus gave Nicodemus a definition of judgment: the light has come into the world, but it the object of their love that condemns them. We often believe that people are pounding on the door of heaven for God to let them in, but that is not so. Outside of Christ, we do not love him—we run as fast as we can away from him.

God has to come and rescue us. We cannot come to him on our own. Isaiah 5:20 says,

Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!

Romans 1:18-32 shows us the progression of this:

  • God’s wrath is revealed against mankind who suppress the truth of God in their unrighteousness.
  • God has made himself known in creation so they are without excuse.
  • People neither honored God nor gave thanks, and their hearts were darkened.
  • They exchanged the Creator for the creation, worshiping that which they could see.
  • God gave their over to their passions and desires to do unspeakable things.

But notice Romans 1:28-32:

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

When Jesus tells Nicodemus that people loved the light more than darkness—and by ‘light,’ we are not talking about particles or a physical property, but a person (John 8:12), rejecting Christ means we are doing what our depraved nature says.

We may say, “I’m not as bad as that murderer.” Jesus said, “If you have anger in your heart, you’ve committed murder already.” Well, at least I haven’t cheated on my wife. Jesus tells us if we have lusted in our hearts, we’ve broken the adultery commandment. Until we truly understand the depravity and sinfulness of our hearts, we will not appreciate nor be amazed at what Christ accomplished—He came to rescue us from our own hearts!

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous[a] will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,[b] 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Martin Luther once said, “Once upon a time the devil came to me and said, ‘Martin, you are a great sinner, and you will be damned!’ ‘Stop! Stop!’ said I. ‘One thing at a time. I am a sinner, it is true, though you have no right to tell me of it. I confess it. What next?’ ‘Therefore you will be damned.’ ‘That is not good reasoning. It is true I am a great sinner, but it is written, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,” therefore I shall be saved. Now go your way.’”

Romans 8:34 says, “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea, rather, that is risen again!”


[1]Adam Schefter, Tebow Phenomenon Gets Eerie. http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/page/10spot-divisional/tim-tebow-phenomenon-gets-eerie–adam-schefter-10-spot

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