About This Episode
We live in a wonderful world! A wonderfully flawed, sometimes violent, totally unpredictable, and definitely unsafe world. It’s broken and beautiful. Whatever you might believe about Jesus, he was definitely bold about his claim that God’s desire is to save this broken world through him, God’s Son, Jesus.
But what does that mean?
Millions of Christians can quote John 3:16, but our finite human minds can’t even begin to comprehend the magnitude of God’s love for his creation, much less understand the ways in which he is saving, redeeming, and renewing the entire cosmos.
So let’s have a conversation about that. What did Jesus really mean when he said we couldn’t see the kingdom of God unless we were born again, or that God loved the world by sending his son to save it? We have to start by removing many of our wrong assumptions and approaching Jesus in a fresh way.
Hello and welcome to the Walk Humble podcast! I’m your host, Brandon Cox, and this is an ongoing conversation about life, faith, and relationships among people who don’t claim to have life all figured out. We walk, implying we want to grow, make forward progress, and be healthy, holy, and happy. But we walk humble, meaning we get to drop the pretense, take off the mask, and realize that we have nothing to prove.
Maybe someday I’ll have fancy intro music and interview experts and celebrities, but for now, it’s just me sharing inspiration passionately about topics I’ve been wrestling with my entire life.
Today I wanted to tackle a tiny little subject. Nothing major or heavy. I just want to talk about how God is saving the world, according to Jesus.
Before I get to that, I want to consider the question of whether or not the world needs saving, to begin with. And my own quick answer is YES. We need help!
At our wedding, we played Louis Armstrong’s famous song, What a Wonderful World. That song would later become pretty problematic for me because of some poorly formed theology, some of which you may be familiar with.
- The world is bad and evil, as are all the people living in it.
- The world is temporary and disposable and will burn up someday.
- The world is the plan God scrapped when he created heaven.
- Don’t get too attached to this world. Focus on the next one.
Those aren’t healthy thoughts, but they’re what millions believe.
Louis Armstrong was actually right to say this is a beautiful world. Even the Bible says that after each part of the world God created, he looked at it and declared that it was good. You have goodness in you by virtue of your origin story.
But, it’s also a world with problems and the responsibility for most of the world’s problems lies a the feet of human beings. Though we’re all beautiful and valuable, we’re also a bit selfish and we keep proving that over and over.
We keep hurting and killing each other. We keep grabbing power and privilege wherever we can. We tend to ignore all the warning signs that we’re messing up the planet’s physical condition. We’re depressed and disconnected and unhealthy. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
So if there is a God who created everything and he is out there watching us, I want his help. And personally, as a Christian, I believe God has involved himself in the messes we’ve all made of this planet by coming to earth in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ.
You may not believe that or understand that, and that’s okay. Keep listening.
God Has a Plan
When I was 7 or 8 years old, in Sunday school, I remember creating Vacation Bible School art with the most famous verse in the entire Bible – John 3:16. Perhaps you know it?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV)
This verse does, indeed, tell us how God is saving the world. BUT, this is also one of the most misunderstood passages in the entire Bible. So I wanted to look at it today with fresh eyes. Let me read this passage…
John 3:1-18 NRSV
 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just 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.
 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believe in the name of the only Son of God
There are two pieces of this text with which most Christians are quite familiar. And while being familiar with scripture is a good thing, we can sometimes miss out on the real meaning of passages because we’re so committed to our understanding of them. For example…
- When Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (verse 5, translated as “born again” in most translations).
- John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
10 Assumptions Christians Make About John 3
We bring a lot of baggage to our interpretation of these texts, and of the larger passage as a whole. Some of the most common assumptions made about the text include:
Assumption #1: Nicodemus came “by night” to avoid the embarrassment of being associated with Jesus.
But the text doesn’t give us Nicodemus’ reasoning – perhaps he was just busy.
Assumption #2: Being “born again” refers to the experience of conversion to Christianity, the spiritual regeneration that happens the moment we trust Jesus.
But Jesus was using this terminology before the cross, before the resurrection, before the empowering of the church by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Assumption #3: When Jesus says a person cannot “see” or “enter” the Kingdom of God, he was talking about whether or not a person would go to heaven upon their death.
But the kingdom of God isn’t just “heaven” the way we think of heaven. The kingdom of God encompasses all that comes under the rule and reign of God and includes people and value systems that exist here and now on earth.
Assumption #4: To be born “of water” has something to do with baptism.
But Jesus was speaking before the church started baptizing at all. The context suggests that Jesus is using multiple ways to contrast that which is purely natural with that which is divinely supernatural in origin. Nicodemus seems to get the water picture as referring to natural birth.
Assumption #5: Jesus was telling us, in John 3:16, just how much God loved us.
But the point isn’t how much God loved us, but how he loved us. A better translation might be “God love the world in this way, that he gave his only Son…”
Assumption #6: When Jesus says that God “gave his only begotten Son,” he was referring to his death on the cross for the sins of mankind.
But that’s more narrow than what is implied in Jesus’ words and in John’s usage of the imagery of Jesus being “lifted up.” It isn’t just about the cross. God gave his Son Jesus to the world and then Jesus was lifted up in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement as King forever.
Assumption #7: The phrase “whoever (or whosoever) believes in him” is referring to our embracing of the theological meaning of Jesus’ atoning death.
But the text doesn’t say, “whoever believes that his death paid for our sins should not perish…” It just says, “whoever believes in him…” And the word translated “believes” conveys the idea of trust, not just assent. It’s not so much about having a certain understanding of the cross or acknowledging a particular theory of atonement. It’s about having a heart that trusts in Jesus and all that he is.
Assumption #8: To “perish” means to go to hell. Forever.
But “perish” just means to die. To cease. To no longer be alive.
Assumption #9: To “have everlasting (or eternal) life” means to go to heaven upon one’s death.
But we tell people all the time that eternity begins now and that what Jesus promised us was an abundant, eternal kind of life, not just a life that never ends.
Assumption #10: Those who do not trust in Jesus are “condemned already,” meaning that they are guilty of sin, deserving of God’s wrath, and bound for hell without Jesus. (This is from verse 18, just outside the Lectionary text, but belongs to the text we’re studying.)
But that’s a lot to read into Jesus’ usage of the word condemned. Further, Jesus (or the writer, John, depending on who is speaking in verse 18) doesn’t say “condemned by God,” just “condemned.”
What would happen if we really read this passage with fresh eyes? Without our prior theological training and Sunday School understanding of what Jesus is talking about.
It could be that, instead of Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus a very modern, evangelical understanding of the gospel message or “plan of salvation,” he was really telling Nicodemus about the BIG picture of what God is doing about a lost and broken world.
The Real Point
Everything about life on earth and in heaven, both now and forever, looks different when you finally come to understand how God loved the world in all of its brokenness and decided to save it through the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of his Son, Jesus Christ.
To be “born again” is to have your eyes opened to what is true about the world on a cosmic, spiritual, even supernatural level. It’s to get out of the rut of black-and-white, all-or-nothing, in-or-out thinking and it’s to see the world how God sees the world.
And God sees a world that, in spite of all of its brokenness, is a world worth saving because he made it to be good.
This is how I summarize this whole passage:
God, who made the world,
and who loves the world he made,
including everything and everyone in it,
is saving the world he made and loves,
by sending his Son, Jesus Christ,
rather than leaving the world to die.
You might see this all differently than I do. That’s okay. There’s room for you and your perspective in this conversation.
Some of you may see all of this according to a traditional Christian and evangelical perspective. You believe what Jesus was getting at is that there is a way for individuals to get saved from a world that is lost and bound for hell and that only those who believe Jesus died for their sins will ever escape.
Others of you might not believe any of it. You believe the world is simply a product of nature and we’re on our own – that there is no god out there who is ever going to step in and save us.
Here’s why I am a Christian and why I believe there is a God who is saving the world through Jesus…
Because he has saved me. I’m not referring to that moment as a kid when I “got saved” after a church service and was later baptized. I’m talking about how my life has gone, day in and day out, when I’ve trusted that Jesus is saving this broken world versus life when I have tried to run away from Jesus and do life my own way.
And I can tell you, personally, that I’m too broken to do this on my own and life only works and it only makes sense when I see God and his saving work as reality. And coming to that place of faith, that place of believing God is fixing it all over time has been a powerful experience. You might even say it’s like being born all over again.
That’s it. That’s the episode. I’m so thankful you listened all the way through and I’m happy to take feedback and questions at walkhumble.com, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d also be VERY happy and thankful if you’d consider sharing this episode with someone who might need to hear it.
And if you believe in this work and appreciate what I have to say and want to support this podcast, just visit walkhumble.com/support. You can drop a small one-time gift or become a monthly supporter. I’m just glad you’re here!
Let’s make progress, but let’s do it without all the pretense. Let’s walk humble!
Links & Resources
- Download the Episode Transcript
- Read the Blog Post: What John 3:16 Says About a Wonderful World Worth Saving
- Message Notes for Preaching: How God is Saving a Broken World