(This devotion, in a slightly modified form, was preached in the chapel of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary on Monday, March 12, 2018. The video of that chapel service can be found here.)
About the last word you would ever expect John to write about God loving would be… “the world” (τὸν κόσμον)!
John uses the word κόσμος far more than any New Testament author. In John’s gospel, the Spirit directs John to use κόσμος 78 times. In his brief first epistle, John adds another 23. Of the 184 uses of κόσμος in the New Testament, 105 are in John’s handwriting!
And it is not just the mere frequency of John’s use of the word that makes it so stunning when we read about God loving the world in Sunday gospel (John 3:14-21). John uses κόσμος as the epitome of God’s perfectly ordered human world gone sinfully mad and disordered as it rages against its Creator.
It is “the world” that when its Creator took on flesh and tented among us refused to recognize him (John 1:10). It is “the world” that is so in love with its foul darkness that it votes hands-down in favor of their darkness rather than God’s light (3:19-20). It is “the world” that hates those who belong to Christ (John 17:13) so much that Jesus must pray for his Father to take aggressive action to protect his own. It is “the world” that is the constant threat of dislodging love for God from our hearts as it appeals to us with its passing desires (1 John 2:15-17).
And yet it is right there at the intersection of “the world” and God’s kingdom that God declares his active and saving love for just that world. You see, God knows better than we the horrible reality that “the world” is already condemned for its rebellion (3:17-18). He knows full well that if “the world” continues to stand against the light of his Christ the already-now-condemnation will become a forever-condemnation. And while God will judge “the world” without apology on the Last Day for its brazen rejection of its Messiah, God is never satisfied until that day dawns with allowing “the world” to just go to hell.
So has he loved “the world.” Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert to allow the snake-bitten rebellious to look up and live, so God has lifted up his Son on his cross so that all the serpent-infected rebellious might still look up and live. It is his gift to “the world,” to everyone!
And so he calls his Church, until the day that he individually takes our breath away from us or until the day when darkness finally falls on “the world” as a whole, to point with a unique combination of vigor and patience to the one lifted up on Calvary’s cross for all that world to see!
But will it matter? Won’t many – most – who this day love darkness instead of light continue to delight in what is foul rather than in what is God’s light and salvation? Won’t so many who stand condemned already enter unprepared into judgment where that condemnation will be rendered final?
It is not our business to act in such a way as if to judge matters before their time. Our business is to imitate our God who loved such a rebellious world. Our business is to imitate Moses whose task it was to lift the bronze snake upon the pole and not to waste even a moment wondering how many snake-bitten victims would bother to look and live. Our business is to lift high the cross at every opportunity before “the world.”
But if you crave evidence that all of this will matter in the end, allow me to offer Exhibit A and Exhibit B.
Exhibit A: there is a man I know well who has known the gospel his whole life and yet his heart still so easily resonates with what is foul instead of what is fair. There is a man I know who is Israel’s teacher (like the one to whom these words were first spoken) who yet can amaze Jesus with how much he still doesn’t fully grasp despite having been taught these things his whole life! There is a man I know who is still dumbfounded each day by how much his natural heart still inclines toward darkness instead of light! For him, daily he is confronted with the reality that “the world” is not just “out there” but “the world’ is all too well represented “in here.”
And yet the gospel of the Son of God lifted up on a tree has brought him – a natural born part of “the world” – comfort! That gospel of the Son of God lifted up on his cross is his objective proof of his Creator’s intense saving love for him. That gospel has given him courage in a daily return to his baptism of being more and more unafraid to come into the light which has removed his sin and which reveals that everything good in his life “has been done through God” (John 3:21).
I am Exhibit A. I will allow you to echo for yourself whether this is the story of the gospel’s power in your life as well!
And Exhibit B is right in the text. Allow me to point to that man whose clueless questions during his midnight Bible Information Class sparked these awesome words John records. There he was, a PHD level teacher in Israel needing to learn the ABC’s of the kingdom of God. There he was, belonging fully to “the world” that was not accepting Jesus’ testimony (3:11).
But for all the Pharisees whom Jesus loved and yet lost, this one was not lost! The day came – on this evening or later we don’t know – when the gospel won Nicodemus’ heart and his transfer papers from “the world” to “the kingdom of God” were signed. And John makes sure we don’t miss that by painting him at Joseph of Arimathea’s side burying the corpse of the Messiah when so many of Jesus’ other followers were nowhere to be found.
If the gospel can win in the conflict against “the world” in such a one as Nicodemus, and against “the world” as it is found in the darkness of our hearts, then we have a small glimpse of what wonderful things it can do as we still send out that message to do battle with “the world.” Yes…it is” the world’ that God loves.