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
What’s the most important part of this well-loved verse? Not that unbelievers will perish. It’s that God loved the world–not only the chosen few, but all of the cosmos. God wants the world to live–not only the chosen few, but all of creation.
It’s not about how much God loved the world, but about how God loved the world. God’s love is a saving love, a living love, a complete and holy love, a love that makes us new and brings us from darkness to light, from death to life, again and again. Jesus is the living example of this love, a love that reaches across social and geographical boundaries to gather all to himself, a love that ultimately gives all of itself on the cross.
We may view God’s love as demanding, a love that commands instant faith decisions on our part–or else. Yet we need to remember that throughout the gospel of John, Jesus plods along beside characters who make slow, unsteady entrances to faith. Nicodemus is mysteriously absent after his encounter with Jesus in John 3 and we’re left to wonder about his heart. It isn’t until John 19 that we find him reverently covering Jesus’ body with spices before placing it in the tomb.
Yes, there are real consequences to turning away from God’s love. But John 3:16 is not meant to make us despair of our unbelief, but to make us fearlessly confident in the power of God’s saving love. Walking with assurance in that love, we can open our eyes to the paths we tread and the choices we make, knowing Christ shuffles beside us on our winding roads of faith, roads that bring us to all corners of God’s creation, where we find God’s love displayed in new ways.