“God did not send His son into the world to condemn the world, …”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:4-10

John 3:14-21

The occasion of Jesus’ great proclamation of His most quoted words (John 3:16) was, oddly enough, a quiet conversation with an individual, under the cover of darkness and behind closed doors. Nicodemus may have been the first “closet Christian.” He was an influential Pharisee, described by John as “a member of the Jewish ruling council.”

Like most, if not all of us, Nicodemus saw himself as a self-made man. Being self-made is something of a contradiction in terms–especially for those who are looking for a way to be right with their Creator. Jesus reminded Nicodemus that we have absolutely no ability to control God or establish a right relationship with Him. Like the wind or our own birth, He is totally outside our control.

Similarly, on our own, we are without–outside of–salvation. But God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Our pride, our silly presumption about ourselves deserves condemnation, but we receive not condemnation: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world.” Luther said, “These are astounding words. God has every reason to be angry and to wipe out the world as a frightful enemy, and yet there is no greater love than God and no more desperate scoundrel than the world.

To love the world and wish it well is beyond me. If I were God, I would give it hell-fire. But instead of consuming the world in anger, God loves the world with such unspeakable and overflowing love that He gave His Son. My powers are not adequate to reach to the bottom of this tremendous affirmation. . . . Who will despair if God so loves the world?” (Quoted by Roland Bainton in The Martin Luther Easter Book.)

In His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus compared what would happen to Him–being raised up on a cross–with the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness. In the ancient case, the symbol of death became a sign of health and preservation. The cross, the symbol of the worst the world could do to God, becomes through God’s grace a sign of the best God can do for the world. God so loved … Sometimes people see God’s judgment of themselves in the cross. They see their own sin and feel guilt about what they have cost Christ. They look in reverse. Their sin is in the foreground and they look from it to the cross. When the cross is in the foreground and we look from it to our sin, it brings a message not of guilt, but of forgiveness. To Nicodemus and the rest of us who want to practice some form of religion to make ourselves right with God, the cross is a stop sign.

Kathleen Bliss once told of a visitor at the World Council of Churches Assembly who kept hearing the word agape (Greek for the inexplicable love of God), but had no idea what it meant. Eventually, he looked it up in an English dictionary and found, of course, “agape–with mouth wide open.” Obviously, he needed a Greek dictionary, but the definition isn’t too far off. When we see how God so loves us, how else can we react other than with mouths wide open?

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