On Easter Sunday last week we looked at John 3:16, a passage that everyone knows. This week we continue on in John 3 coming to the verses directly after, John 3:17-21, which ironically is a passage no one knows. As you can see, while John 3:16 speaks of the grace and mercy of God in giving Jesus to save those who believe, John 3:17-21 speaks of the judgment of Jesus. Perhaps this is why these verses are largely unknown to many, and perhaps it reveals an error in us – that we’re very eager and willing to accept the grace and mercy of God but very unwilling to accept the wrath and justice of God. This is normal among the unbelieving world but rejecting the wrath and justice of God must not happen within the Church. When we come to God and when we come to His Word, we come on His terms not on our own. We must not treat Christianity as if it were a kind of take what you like and leave the rest behind, supermarket kind of religion. God is who He is, God is who He has revealed Himself to be – the opinion of man doesn’t change who He is. With this said, let’s see what the judgment of Jesus is all about here in John 3:17-21.

Salvation Not Condemnation (3:17)

Remember the context here. Jesus has already given a detailed explanation of the nature of the new birth, drawn a metaphorical parallel in earthly wind, even illustrated what it looks like to be born again using the incident in Numbers 21 with the fiery snakes and the bronze serpent. After giving us the famous summary statement in v16, John continues to expand on this thought in v17-21. We know he’s expanding on v16 because he starts v17 with the same phrase he used in v16 ‘For God…’ which means what he’s about to tell us is an implication of v16. What then is the implication taught in v17? John tells us clearly that mankind is like the bitten Israelites needing rescue and that God sent Jesus into the world as the greater bronze serpent to save people who’ve been poisoned by the venom of sin.[1] Jesus, therefore, came into the world for the express purpose of saving, not condemning. As in v16, v17 also leads to us witness the great love of God in sending Jesus to do this. How so? The word ‘world’ is mentioned three times, which is meant to remind us that Jesus wasn’t sent into a world that was neutral to God, He was sent into a fallen world already condemned and hostile to God with the purpose of saving those who believe. He came to save, not to condemn, or judge. This does not teach that Jesus will never condemn or judge men, not at all. We know Jesus will judge the world one day. He will come like a thief in the night and will bring all to judgment at His second coming…but not yet. Here in His first coming, He came to save, not to condemn.

Condemnation Not Salvation (3:18)

The beginning of v18 is a restatement of v17, “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned…” while the rest of the verse shows us an alarming reality, “…but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” As with v17, what we learn in v18 is clear as well. Yes, salvation truly comes to those who believe. Faith truly saves, and the only thing that condemns is unbelief.[2] But, those who reject the free offer of the gospel, those who refuse to repent from sin, those who do not believe in the name of Jesus Christ are what? Condemned already. Here in v18 the word ‘believe’ is repeated three times. This reveals the main point being spoken of. Yes, Jesus has been sent by God into this world to die for men and in such an act of redemption we truly behold the wondrous love of God. But no one is saved by this loving act of redemption unless they believe. We therefore see a result of God sending His Son into the world. It’s as if Jesus is a fork in the road. Upon approaching Him and facing Him every person in the world either turns toward God or turns away from God. Because of this all people are now in one of two categories: those who believe and are already saved, and those who do not believe and are already condemned.[3]

v18 is one of the many places in John’s gospel where we must take caution. If we are prone to be the kind of person who goes along the tide of our time, this verse will likely cause us to shrink back in disgust because divine judgment, condemnation, and hell have no place in our modern belief systems. It is said that we can believe in anything we want to and act in any way we so desire so long as those beliefs do not make anyone else uncomfortable. See the truth of John 3:18 – our decisions, actions, and behaviors we live by today not only impact and govern who we will be tomorrow but will determine where we will be for eternity. Jesus does not shrink back in His teaching. There is a real place called hell, which is full of real people, who face a continual onslaught of real horror. Just as one who dismisses the Mona Lisa as a load of rubbish doesn’t tell us anything about the Mona Lisa but tells us much about himself, the one who dismisses Jesus Christ doesn’t pass judgment on Jesus, but passes judgment on himself. If such a person remains in their unbelief until the end, God will confirm that judgment by casting them into hell forever.[4]

We should not only take caution here, let’s pause real quick.

I get it. I do. I know believing in v18 might put you in awkward places with people these days, I get it. I also get it that most of you in this room would profess to believe in the reality of hell with your mouth. But…while we say we believe in hell with our mouths, I fear we live as if hell didn’t exist and everyone was going to heaven because of how little we share the gospel with our unbelieving neighbors.[5] v18 isn’t merely describing the doctrine of hell, it’s describing actual people who actually lived their lives around you and me. I get that sharing the gospel is hard, but in view of v18 aren’t you willing to endure some hard stuff in your life to get the gospel out there? Aren’t you willing to be thought less of, to be belittled, mocked, ridiculed, maybe even hurt, or possibly lose our lives for the cause of this gospel? If we’re not willing to live like this we’re not living the kind of Christianity the Bible gives us. The old hymn says it well, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness in the sea. God forbid, that Your mercy stop with me.”

So we’ve seen how Jesus was sent by God to save the world. We’ve seen how some reject Him and condemn themselves. Now, let’s turn to v19-20 to see the dark realities that lead people to reject Jesus.

Dark Realities (3:19-20)

If you asked someone about the state of man in the 21st century, what do you think they would say? Surely the answers to such a question would be broad and numerous, but I do think most of the answers would sound something like this, ‘Human beings do have some faults, we see some of the consequences of this in various wars and injustices present in our world, but by and large we are mostly good in nature and want to do good for others.’ When it comes down to it, when asked about himself man loves to proclaim his own goodness, this is true across the board. Even the vilest of offenders point to others who are worse than they are. While this opinion of mankind is very common outside the Church among unbelieving circles, it never ceases to amaze me that this opinion is easily found inside the Church as well because of how clear the Bible speaks to this.

In v19-20 John gives his answer to the state of man, not just for his own time, but for all time. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world (‘the light’ here is a reference to Jesus who has already been identified in 1:4-5 as the light of life and who will later be identified in John 8:12 as the Light of the world), and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” John’s view of man, the Bible’s view of man, God’s view of man does not follow suit with man’s lofty estimation of himself. John proposes the exact opposite by stating three dark realities about mankind in v19-20.

First, in John’s own words, man rejects the light that has come into the world for a reason, and that reason is, at its core, an issue of love. Mankind rejects the light because we love something else more. What do we love more? Darkness. Man prefers, desires, fancies, and longs and yearns for darkness. Do you see here more of why our own actions condemn us? If given an option, apart from the saving and transforming grace of God lost man will, 10 out of 10 times, choose darkness over light, wickedness over righteousness, disobedience over obedience… ultimately this is a choice of Satan over Jesus Christ. Dark Reality #1: We Love Darkness.

Second, not only does John say we love the darkness, he adds that we hate the light. This hatred that is the sad and natural consequence of loving the darkness. The more we long for and live in darkness the more we’ll love the darkness. And the more we love the darkness the more we’ll hate the light. It’s as if our hearts become nocturnal creatures unable to survive in the light but able to thrive in darkness. Dark Reality #2: We Hate the Light

Third, why do we hate the light and love the darkness? John tells us its because our works our evil. So John’s argument in v19 is that we love the darkness and hate the light because our works are evil. In v20 he unfolds this a bit more saying, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” You see, in the light there’s something you can’t do at all with any measure of success, but in the darkness that very same thing is quick, constant, and simple – hiding. If we lived in the light our evil deeds would be exposed for all to see and everyone would know exactly who we are. If we’re honest, full exposure is man’s worst fear. We know this is true, one of the most common nightmares people have is being naked in a public place. We have and maintain various social media profiles where we present ourselves to the world, not as we truly appear, but as we want to appear before the world. One crazy fact I ran into this week is that 50% of adults are hiding something from someone they love in their underwear drawer.

We fear being exposed, and I think everyone knows why. We fear being exposed because we believe we’ll be rejected if people really knew who we were. If they really knew you, what you’re into, what you struggle with, what you can’t quit doing, no one would be your friends and no one would even allow you into the church building. So when Sunday morning or evening come around we shape up, try to look like our social media version of ourselves, and walk into church pretending everything is ok with other people who are doing the exact same thing. Martin Luther described it like this, “If my sins were announced to the world, what now is only known in my heart, the world would surely hang me. The world honors me, but if it knew who I really am, everyone would spit on me. I would deserve to be decapitated.”[6]

So who is man? According to the apostle John, we are darkness loving, light hating people who fear being known for who and what we really are. Like a sick person who slips into greater and greater sickness by believing themselves to be well and refusing treatment, we become more and more blind and cold to the blazing light of Christ by believing ourselves to be well and refusing the treatment of Christ, the Great Physician.[7]

That v17 has happened in a v19-20 world, is staggeringly gracious of God is it not?!

Bright Realities (3:21)

Thankfully, v21 begins with that hopeful word, “But…” which tells us that even though most of mankind can be summarized by the dark realities of v19-20, not everyone fits that description. Some people are summarized by the bright realities of the gospel. v21, “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.” John is not teaching salvation by works or by nature.[8] In v21 he is speaking of one who is true in contrast to those who are false and phony in v19-20. This true individual shows his true nature, or truthful nature, by the works he does in his life. Works that aren’t the root of salvation, but works that are the fruit of salvation. Remember we’re in John 3, where John speaks of the new birth and man’s inability to raise himself to new life by who he is or what he does. So when we see the person in v21 who is true and does what is true by coming to the light rather than loving the darkness and hating the light – we can conclude that the reason this person is true, the reason this person does what is true, and the reason this person walks into the light with no fear of exposure is because God has awoken their hearts by the power of the Spirit through the gospel of His Son.

Simply put, v19-20 describe those who are not born again while v21 describes the one who is, and the difference between the two is made clear in their life.

Conclusion:

So Church, see a distinction being made. Those who are false, those who reject the gospel, fear coming to the light lest they be exposed for the frauds they really are. Those who are true, those who embrace the gospel by faith, come to the light (come to Jesus, gather with His Church) so that their new nature is put on display for the world to see. We do not believe works save us, no sir. We believe we’re saved by faith alone, but Church – do you see that faith is never alone? Once we’re saved by faith and the Christian life begins, that faith begins going public through good works. These works are proof to the watching world that you are no longer living in darkness, but have come to the light of life.

 

This passage is calling you to do good works, and it doesn’t do so by saying “Do this, do that!” or “Try harder, do better!” No, it calls you like this, “Remember who you are. God has saved you, God has brought you to the light, live as children of light!”

 

 

Citations:

[1] R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrews Expositional Commentary, page 46.

[2] Johannes Brenz, John, Reformation Commentary, page 106.

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 233.

[4] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, page 91.

[5] David Platt, YouTube: David Platt on Universalism, Rob Bell, Love Wins, Heaven and Hell, accessed 4.19.17.

[6] Martin Luther, John, Reformation Commentary, page 107.

[7] Johannes Brenz, John, Reformation Commentary, page 107.

[8] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 233-235.

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