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The Great Escape and the Greatest Gift

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: John 3:16–19

The moving force behind Jesus’ coming into the world was God’s love for the world. Ultimately, Jesus demonstrated that love by dying as the Substitute for sinners, but He also displayed it by taking time to carefully explain the way of salvation to individuals like Nicodemus.


In 1867, the famous evangelist D. L. Moody was pastoring a large church in downtown Chicago. He invited Henry Moorhouse to preach every night for one week.

To everybody’s surprise, Moorhouse preached every night on the same verse of Scripture. His seventh and final sermon was delivered to a packed auditorium. Everyone was wondering what his text would be that final evening. D. L. Moody’s son wrote that as Henry Moorhouse stepped into the pulpit, he spoke these words:

“For an entire week I have been trying to tell you how much God loves you, but I cannot do it with this poor stammering tongue. If I could borrow Jacob’s ladder and climb up into heaven and ask Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Almighty to tell me how much love the Father has for the world, all he could do [is repeat this verse which I have been preaching].”[1] 

Moody confessed later that throughout this week his heart had begun to thaw out, as he put it, as he drank in this wonderful text. Moody would later credit those sermons to changing his perspective of God and his own heart for the lost.[2]

We arrive today in our Wisdom Journey at this great text—no doubt the best-known verse in all the Bible. And I am going to slow down our sailboat today and take a closer look at John 3:16. Here Jesus tells Nicodemus the way of salvation. It isn’t a list of rules or religion; it’s a love relationship between God and His children through Jesus Christ. The apostle John records Jesus’ words:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Let’s break this verse down and take a closer look.

The verse begins with “For God.” We could say that God is the greatest giver. It all begins with Him.

This phrase takes me back in thought to the first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Everything began with Him. God is the source and creator of physical life, and He is also the source and creator of spiritual life.

Then we are told, “For God so loved the world”—this is the greatest degree of love. You might tell someone that you love them—or you might say, “I love you so much.” That is the idea here—this is the greatest measure of love there is.

The word for love here is agapē. This word does not describe so much a feeling as it does a fact. This was the Greek word for “making up your mind to love.” When you walked down that aisle to marry your bride, you did not do it because you had fallen in love with her but because you were choosing to love her. And that is a big difference. This kind of love leads to loving action. And just look at the action God took.

The text goes on: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” God is the greatest giver, and His love is to the greatest degree. Now we can add that His Son is the greatest gift ever given.

The Greek word for “only” is monogenēs. Some versions translate this “only begotten Son.” But monogenēs  means Jesus is the “unique, one-of-a-kind, Son.” It does not mean that God the Father had some heavenly mistress and they had a son; it means that Jesus is uniquely the Son of God.

God the Father loved the world so much that He gave His Son. This great text then goes on to say that God gave His only Son, “that whoever believes in him”—stop there. That is the greatest invitation ever given—whoever believes, whoever places his faith and trust in Jesus—and that invitation includes you and me.

D. L. Moody, the evangelist I mentioned earlier, used to say that the world can be divided into two groups: the whosoever wills and the whosoever won’ts. Let me ask you, Which one are you?

And notice that Jesus says, “Whoever believes in him.” He does not say whoever believes in the church, in some religion, or in some other supposed god or goddess, but whoever believes in Him.

There is an urgency to this invitation. Jesus says that God gave His Son so that “whoever believes in him should not perish.” Unless you believe in God’s Son, you are going to perish. This word does not refer to death but to judgment.

The greatest Giver, who loves the world to the greatest degree and has given the greatest Gift, now offers you the greatest escape. You can escape the judgment of God and the torment of hell by receiving the free gift of salvation. However, those who continue in unbelief will suffer eternal judgment—they will perish.

Nearly every week I meet with people, and many times I listen as they pray to receive Christ and the gift of salvation. When my kids were young, I would come home and tell them about those people who came to the Lord. I wanted them to understand the urgency of this most important decision in life.

While still in elementary school, one of my twin sons wrote a little paper for an assignment in school; he decided to explain the gospel in a few sentences. He then concluded by writing, “Now if you want to be saved, you need to call my dad.” Imagine that teacher getting a paper from some child saying, “You need to be saved.”

Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is telling Nicodemus, this high-ranking religious leader in Israel.

  • For God—that’s the greatest Giver
  • So loved the world—that’s love to the greatest degree
  • That He gave His only Son—that’s the greatest gift
  • That whoever believes in Him—that’s the greatest invitation
  • Will not perish—that’s the greatest escape

Now the verse ends with this: “but have eternal life”—that is the greatest promise.

Can you know for sure you have eternal life in heaven? John wrote this later in chapter 20, verses 30 and 31:

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Do you have that certainty today?

I remember as a boy visiting the home of an elderly couple. The man was confined to his chair, and very weak; death was not far away. We were in Wisconsin, I believe, traveling through on our way to Minnesota where my grandparents lived, there in Minneapolis. This older man’s children supported my missionary parents, but he was not a Christian. We sat in the living room and listened as my father shared with this man the plan of salvation and then asked, “Would you like to receive Christ as your own Savior?”

The man thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t believe I will.” I remember my father simply pulling his chair up closer to this man and with kind urgency, he started over again as that old man sat there wrapped in a blanket to keep warm. Here was a man who had lived a good life, raised wonderful children, and attended church regularly, but my father was telling him, like Jesus told Nicodemus of old, he would never be good enough!

Finally, my father asked him again, “Would you now place your faith in Christ and ask Him to forgive your sin and become your Savior?” The old man paused, and we held our breath; he then said, “I believe I will.”

How about you? Have you responded to this invitation? Have you received Him as your Savior? Salvation is free, but you still must ask for it. Maybe you need to ask today.

[1] William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody (Fleming Revell Company, 1900), 139.

[2] Ibid.

Add a Comment


Meryt Wilson says:
Thank you for this message! My husband and I are teaching a series on love to our 5th graders at church. You have some very helpful insights. Question: Why is the word "begotten" omitted in the ESV, when this word particularly describes the "uniqueness," the "one-and-onliness" of Jesus, as you mentioned, which would seem to be very important? We often compare Scripture versions and have noticed many questionable changes and omissions in the ESV, since it arises from the RSV/Alexandrian text and not the Textus Receptus. Thank you!

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