John 3:16 (Should God Send People to Hell for Not Believing Certain Things?)

Should God send people to hell for failing to believe certain things? Some will point to 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. John 3:16 (NRSV)

Some object that God cannot be very loving if failure to believe results in punishment. Does the punishment fit the crime? However, John 3:16 will help us respond to the objection.

Before we get to 3:16, it helps to look at verses 1-15 where we are introduced to Nicodemus. Being a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus would have believed certain things about the way things are. He was no doubt well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and was looking forward to the coming Kingdom of God. He would have held onto certain beliefs about who would enter the Kingdom and how. You enter this kingdom by being born into the right family, the Jewish family, and doing the right thing, keeping the Jewish law.

Jesus challenges Nicodemus on his beliefs about these things:

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” John 3:3 (NRSV)

Being born into the right family is not what is important for the Kingdom, but rather “being born from above”, or “born again”.  Nicodemus takes the latter meaning of the term but Jesus is referring to the same idea we were introduced to in John 1:

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:10-13 (NRSV emphasis added)

To boil this down to essentials, you will see God’s Kingdom, not because you were born into the right family, but because of God’s work in you no matter what family you were originally born into. Jesus continues:

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. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” John 3:5-8 (NRSV)

Nicodemus would have known where he, as a Jewish person ,came from; Jewish parents. However, with Kingdom people, you do not know where they come from. In other words,  a Kingdom person can be from any background or nation, as long as God is working in them. Nicodemus had certain beliefs about the Kingdom, but Jesus challenged him on them.

Jesus goes on to challenge Nicodemus on his beliefs about who he, Jesus himself, really is. Nicodemus already believes certain things about Jesus:

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.” John 3:2 (NRSV)

Jesus challenges Nicodemus to go deeper than that:

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Jesus is not just a prophet with God’s presence, but the Son of Man coming from God. Nicodemus would likely have had Daniel 7 going through his mind at this point. He also would have been thinking of the passage of Scripture from Numbers where Moses is instructed to lift up a serpent so that everyone who looked to it could be healed from the consequence of their sin. The inference here is subtle, but important; namely, that Jesus is not like Moses, but greater than Moses. While Moses lifted up the serpent, Jesus is the One lifted up, meaning that he was to be crucified as a means of healing. Jesus is the One through whom healing comes, the One through whom we receive forgiveness for our rebellion against God. Which brings us to verse 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.” John 3:16 (NRSV)

Jesus is challenging Nicodemus to move from belief that something is true, to trust in Someone. Nicodemus believed certain things, namely that you enter into the Kingdom first by being born into the right family. Jesus tells him that anyone can enter the Kingdom by trusting that God has done the best thing.

What does this have to do with our objection: “should people go to hell for not believing certain things”?

Even when I know where I am going, I like using my iPhone’s Maps voice guidance on Highway 401. It shows me the traffic and has occasionally led me off the highway in order to rescue me from an upcoming traffic mess. Now suppose I don’t listen to the voice guidance thinking that I know better. When I slow to a stop, would I then ask my phone why it sent me into a traffic jam? I chose that route, and I chose to trust my own judgement rather than trust my phone which offered a better path. God does not send people to hell for failing to believe certain things. People choose a path that leads to death and separation from God. When God offers forgiveness and a better path, they choose to not trust Him. Being separated from God for eternity is not punishment for disbelief. It is the natural consequence of a life of walking away from God. It is sin, not disbelief, that separates us from God. Eternal life is not about believing certain things, it is about trusting God. It is about trusting that God has dealt with our separation from Him through Jesus at the cross. It is trusting that through His grace, we are welcomed as children, born from above.

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To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and LOVE

(This is the final sermon in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

When we are going for a concise statement about what we are about as a church, why does love make the cut? In fact love does not just make the cut:

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NRSV) 13

Love is the “greatest of these”! Love makes the cut and is the greatest because love is central to Jesus. We often connect 1st Corinthians 13 and its message of love with romance and weddings. However, we ought to connect it with Jesus.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NRSV)

Though Jesus could and did work many wonderful miracles, if he had not love, where would we be? We would be in trouble! We would be dead in our sin. While love might seem like a luxury to some, it is essential to the follower of Jesus, because it is essential to who Jesus is.

The Most Rev. Michael Curry in preaching at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle spoke about love, and in doing so, spoke about Jesus:

 . . . This way of love, it is the way of life. They got it; he died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He sacrificed his life for the good of others, for the well-being of the world, for us. That’s what love is.

Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial and, in so doing, become redemptive. And that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love changes lives. And it can change this world. (The Most Rev. Michael Curry)

When we are told to “pick up your cross and follow”, we should not have in mind the idea of being weak in the will to live, but strong in the will to love.

So how do we walk with Jesus in love and help others do the same?

First, we define love as a decision and then we decide to love at every opportunity. Faced with a crucial decision, Jesus decided to love:

He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Mark 14:36 (NRSV)

Many sermons, I’m sure, have been preached on the obedience of Jesus to the Father in this prayer at Gethsemane. But it was not just obedience to the Father. It was love for you. Jesus made the crucial decision to love, and that has changed everything. Love as a series of decisions can change many a relationship, between marriage partners, within family or friends, and of course even between enemies.

Second, we love by growing into a loving character which reflects that of Jesus. When you read the Gospel accounts of Jesus, you don’t get the impression you are reading about an impatient, or unkind man who happened to make some loving decisions. Or an envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude man who insisted on his own way apart from a few decisions to love. Rather, you get the impression that Paul had Jesus in mind when he wrote about love:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NRSV)

In meeting Jesus in the Gospels you get the impression that love was central to his character. It still is! When people meet Jesus in the Gospels, then meet us, is it a huge contrast in character?

The best way to help others walk with Jesus in love, is to be walking with Jesus in love ourselves. But what if you feel far from being a person characterized by love? Then remember the Bible says

. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV)

It does not say “the result of my hard work is love”, but the “fruit of the Spirit is love.” Indeed, just as love is the “greatest of these”, love is the very first fruit. You can be and do whatever God calls you to be and do, including love and be loving. He calls you to love. He calls us as a church family to help people, to the glory of God, walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love. Our very first step is to pray!

To the Glory of God, Helping People WALK WITH JESUS . . .

(This is part three in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

One of the best “taglines” I’ve heard for a church is “To Know Jesus, and to make Him known.” So why would we go with something more wordy? Why walk with Jesus rather than simply know Him? There are several reasons:

When we walk, there is in mind a destination, a goal. We are implying that we are going somewhere, we are becoming something. We are on a journey of becoming mature in Christ:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 (NRSV emphasis added)

As a church family, we want to keep our eyes on this amazing destination. We want to keep this goal of becoming mature in mind.

If we are walking, then we have not yet reached our destination! We recognize that have not arrived, but we are making progress. This is an echo of Paul:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14 (NRSV emphasis added)

Walking with Jesus happens one step at a time. This should help keep us from a legalistic style of Christianity which assumes everyone should be equally ready to cross the finish line on the very next step. That is not the kind of church I want to be a member of. We all start at different times, and have different capacities. We are not all going to be at the same level of maturity, though we can have that same goal and do have the same Spirit helping us reach the goal.

It is a walk and not a run. The journey is long, the Christian life is not a sprint. Also, walking is an everyday part of life, rather than a special occasion. If you are a runner, you probably schedule in running. However, walking is something we do everyday very naturally. It might just be walking from the couch to the fridge and back, but it happens. Walking with Jesus is like that, an everyday thing. We might schedule in spiritual training like a runner schedules physical training. We schedule worship and times of devotion. But we don’t schedule in putting another person before ourselves, being patient, being generous, forgiving someone, having compassion, or spontaneously praying for someone.

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24 (NRSV)

Being clothed with “the new self” is an everyday thing, like walking, and not a scheduled thing, or worse, a good-intentions-to-set-aside-the-time-if-I-ever-get-the-time thing, like running! We want to be a people who walk the walk, everyday.

When we walk there is the possibility of stumbling. Christian celebrities, pastors and artists alike, face the pressure of being pretty-near-perfect. The band DC Talk came up with these lyrics:

What if I stumble, what if I fall?
What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble, and what if I fall? (Daniel Joseph / Toby Mckeehan)

The song goes on to speak about God not turning away from from us when we stumble.  But do we turn away from each other? What if a member of our church commits a terrible crime this week? There would be discipline and a statement that the perpetrator’s actions do not represent us. But will we go to that person and ask how we can help him or her take a step toward Jesus? “Walk with Jesus” recognizes the possibility of stumbling. It might be you. Or me.

Why walk with Jesus? Who else?! Who else can be an anchor for our souls? Who else sees us at our absolute worst and yet offers His absolute best? Who else does the evidence lead to? Who else has had such an impact on the world and on individuals? Who else walks with us in our suffering having endured suffering Himself? Who else offers His Holy Spirit?  Who else reconciles sinful people to a holy God?

let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.
11 This Jesus is
‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:10-12 (NRSV emphasis added)

When Peter said there is no name given under heaven by which we must be saved, he was not saying that the Christian religion is better religion than any other. He was simply stating a fact; there really is no one else through whom, or no other way by which, we can have a relationship with the Creator. There is no other way for the justice of God and the mercy of God to come together. Only God the Son could endure the consequence of sin so that justice could be served, yet people could be forgiven. Who else would we walk with?

As a church family, we have the privilege, the opportunity, the calling, to walk with Jesus and help others do the same.