140824 John 3:16

Last Updated on Monday, 25 August 2014 Written by Pastor Pagels


Text: John 3:16
Theme: The Greatest Story Ever Told

From very humble beginnings as a half hour radio series inspired by the gospels, it eventually grew into a major motion picture. It took two years to write the screenplay, and budget overruns threatened to kill the project, but the film was finally released in 1965.

The Greatest Story Ever Told tells the story of Jesus from his birth to his resurrection, and it boasts a cast of Hollywood icons including John Wayne and Charlton Heston. The original running time was four hours and twenty minutes, and even though that time was cut in half for its U.S. release the movie received mixed reviews. The film did receive five Academy Award nominations, but critics complained that it was too long and too boring.

Long and boring are common complaints about church too, and there are times when those criticisms are valid. I can't make any guarantees about today, but I can tell you this. This service will not be four hours and twenty minutes long, and this sermon did not take two years to write.

This morning we will focus our attention on just twenty six words, words that were a part of an intimate conversation, words that are filled with comfort and hope, words that prove whoever it was who came up with the title of that movie, they got it right. And at the end of the day I pray that you will agree that within this single verse lies...


I. The greatest gift
II. The greatest miracle
III. The greatest promise

Chances are that most of you have heard John 3:16 before, probably dozens or hundreds or maybe even thousands of times before. But imagine for a moment that you haven't. Imagine how Nicodemus must have felt when he heard those words. Imagine that you were there with him when Jesus uttered those words for the first time.

Nicodemus was a respected leader and a member of the Jewish Council. He religiously followed the dictates of his religion, a religion that was based on personal performance. Under this kind of spiritual system, the motivation to do good and avoid evil is very strong because your eternal destiny depends on it. If you do what God wants, he will reward you. If you do what God forbids, he will punish you.

By all outward appearances, Nicodemus was doing quite well. So why did he come to see Jesus at night? Why did Nicodemus feel the need to see Jesus at all? Nicodemus needed Jesus because he could see what the people around him couldn't see. He realized that even though he looked good to everyone else on the outside he didn't feel very good on the inside.

Nicodemus is not unique. Many people, including many religious people, are convinced that their hope for the next life depends on what they do in this life. God may be the judge who will make the final decision, but he doesn't get all that involved in the soul-saving process. That is up to you.

This might sound fair. This might sound reasonable. At first, it might even seem possible. There is one major problem, however. Sin. Sin destroys friendships. Sin breaks up marriages. Sin devastates families. But even worse than any of those things, sin separates people from God.

Nicodemus was probably a good person. Nicodemus might have even been a very good person. But it didn't matter because Nicodemus was not a perfect person. God doesn't ask people to do just a little more good than bad in their lives to tip the scales in their favor. God doesn't tell us to do the best we can and that will be good enough. God isn't even satisfied with 99%.

God demands total obedience. God's law demands complete perfection. God's holiness demands 100% purity in our thoughts and words and actions. And Nicodemus couldn't do it. No one can do it. No matter how much we do, no matter how hard we try, we still fall short. We still sin. And the wages of even one sin is death.

I don't know what was going on in the mind of Nicodemus when he sought out Jesus that night. Perhaps he saw the futility of trying to earn his way to heaven. Maybe he was deeply troubled by his sins. If Nicodemus came to Jesus hoping to be comforted, he received comfort and much more when Jesus said to him: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son..."

Even though we are unlovable sinners, God loves us anyway. And it isn't just a matter of saying the words, "I love you." God demonstrated his love for us when he sent his Son to save us. Jesus lived a sinless life on this earth. He never cheated, never lied, never lusted, never hated. Jesus obeyed the commandments perfectly for us, but that is only half the story.

Jesus also died for us. Even though he was the only person in the history of the world who didn't deserve to die, he did. Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. Not just the sins of Nicodemus. Not just the sins of the so-called "good people" in the world. Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of every person who ever lived.

Whether Nicodemus realized it or not, he was looking at the greatest gift of all time. It wasn't wrapped in colorful paper. There were no shiny ribbons or bows. It looked rather plain on the outside, but it was priceless. Jesus Christ is God's gift to a sinful world. And Jesus is God's gift to you.

Even if you don't know much about Jesus, you probably know something about his miracles. He changed water into wine. He made a lame man walk. He even raised people from the dead. Maybe Nicodemus witnessed some of those miracles. Maybe Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus because he saw the power of God at work in this man. No matter how many miracles he had seen, no matter how many amazing things he had heard, Nicodemus was about to hear about an even greater miracle.

Jesus said to Nicodemus: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish..." What could be more impressive than feeding 5,000 with only five loaves of bread and two small fish? What could possibly be greater than calling a dead Lazarus back to life after four days in the tomb? What is the greatest miracle of all? The miracle of FAITH!

How could anyone believe that a carpenter's son from Nazareth was the Savior of the world? It was a miracle. How could anyone possibly put their trust in a man who was executed like a common criminal? It was a miracle. How could anyone believe the disciples' reports that the tomb was empty on Easter morning? It was a miracle. How can we be sure that a man named Jesus lived and died and rose again two thousand years ago to save us? Our faith is nothing less than a miracle of God's grace.

"Grace" is one of those terms commonly used in church speak. There is even another church in Oconomowoc called Grace. By definition grace is God's undeserved love for undeserving sinners. That's what the word means, but what does it mean for us? What does it mean for our lives? Perhaps an illustration can help answer that question.

A couple years ago I served as a presenter at an evangelism seminar in Hartford. At the end of the day I packed up and got in my car, and after I left the church parking lot I turned left onto Main St. in downtown Hartford (right by the Mineshaft). It was two lanes each way, and as I was picking up speed at the top of the hill I saw two things almost simultaneously on the side of the road, a 25 mph sign and a police car.

The flashing lights were already turned on when I passed the police car, and I immediately pulled over. After a couple minutes the officer came up to my window and took my driver's license and proof of insurance, and then he walked back to his car.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity. I didn't know how fast I was going, and to be honest I didn't want to know. I knew that I was guilty and that I deserved to be punished. The only question was how much: How much would I have to pay? How many points would I lose?

I saw the squad car door open through my rearview mirror, and as the officer approached the vehicle I braced for the worst. But instead of giving me ticket, he gave me a warning: "Just watch your speed next time" he said. And he let me go. No fine. No points. No punishment. I was free.

It didn't expect it. I didn't deserve it. It was on the receiving end of an act of grace, but I am not the only one. Getting out of a speeding ticket was nice, but it doesn't even begin to compare with the grace that God has shown to every one of us. We have broken a much greater law. We deserve a much greater punishment. But instead of giving us what our sins deserve God has forgiven us. Not because we have earned it. Not because we deserve it. Because of his unconditional love. Only by his amazing grace.

The greatest story ever told is a story of God's grace. God has given us the greatest gift, the gift of his Son. God has performed the greatest miracle in our hearts, the miracle of faith. And in the final words of John 3:16 God gives us the greatest promise: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

In effect, Jesus was saying: "Nicodemus, forget about yourself. Nicodemus, look to me. Look to me, and I will give your rest. Look to me, and I will give you hope for the future. Trust in me, and I will give you eternal life."

With the same beautiful words, God makes the same beautiful promise today. To every person who is burdened by sin, to every hurting soul that is weighed down with guilt, Jesus says: "It doesn't matter what you have done. It doesn't depend on what you do. It really isn't about you at all. I love the world. I sent my Son. I gave you life. I give you faith. And because I made good on all my other promises, I will make good on this promise, the promise of eternal life on heaven."

Is John 3:16 the greatest verse in the Bible? I suppose that claim can be debated, but there is no doubt that in this verse our Savior tells us an amazing story, a true story, the greatest story ever told. And to close let's take one more look at this passage word by word, phrase by phrase, so that we can appreciate how great it is...

"God"...the greatest lover.
"So loved"...the greatest degree.
"The world"...the greatest number.
"That He gave"...the greatest act.
"His one and only Son"...the greatest gift.
"That whoever"...the greatest invitation.
"Believes"...the greatest simplicity.
"In Him"...the greatest person.
"Shall not perish"...the greatest deliverance.
"But"...the greatest difference.
"Have"...the greatest certainty.
"Eternal life"...the greatest possession.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Amen.

Our Mission Statement:

Compelled by the love of Christ, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School seek to reach out to our families, community and world, using Law and Gospel to make disciples, growing and nurturing them in their Christian faith and life.


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St. Matthew's Lutheran Church
818 West Wisconsin Avenue
Oconomowoc, WI 53066




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