John 3:16-21 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
In the way of a reminder, during Advent we’ve been working our way through this passage in John’s Gospel a few verses at a time. Two weeks ago, we looked at John 3:16, The Love of God Is Shown through Christmas. Last Sunday was 3:17-18, There Is No Condemnation through Christmas. And finally, this morning we’ll work through 3:19-21, The Light of the World Has Come through Christmas.
This whole passage is John’s explanation of Jesus teaching in the first half of chapter 3. The gist of his message through the first three verses (those we’ve already covered), is that God loved the world and His love took a particular form. That is, God loved the world in such a way that He sent His only Son Jesus into the world to put an end to the condemnation, sin, and death that was already upon the world. And that love-driven salvation is available to everyone who would believe/trust in Jesus.
The remaining problem, as you know, is that not everyone believes in Jesus. And within those who do not believe is a group of people who wrongly believe they believe. They think their hope is in Jesus, but it isn’t. They have what we’ve called unbelieving belief. John talked about a group of unbelieving believers and one man in particular among them (Nicodemus).
The question, then, is how do we know if our belief is genuine or fake. In the final three verses of our passage John offers a bit of help to discern between unbelief and belief; and therein between condemnation and salvation. In 19-21, then, John explains more fully the marks of condemnation and salvation. He does so in relation to Jesus, who is the light of the world. And in particular, he explains that those who remain condemned are marked by love for the darkness and hate for the light. While, on the other hand, those who truly believe in Jesus and are saved are marked by doing what is true, coming to the light, and giving God the glory for everything good in them.
And with that, we see that God gave Christmas to save the world from its condemnation, but that, that is only good news for those who acknowledge the condemnation we deserve for our sin and believe in the Son whom He sent. For everyone else it remains a declaration of sin and death. Let’s pray that God would cause us to turn to the light in faith, hope, and love.
MARKS OF THE CONDEMNED (19-20)
Christmas is a reminder that our default condition as human beings is one of condemnation. Due to the sins of our first father, Adam, we are born into sin. And because we are born into sin, we sin. This means that we are not basically good people. In other words, as we saw last week (in 17-18), Christmas is always about our condemnation before it is about our salvation and celebration. And in that way, we have some work to do before we know whether Christmas is the worst or best news for us.
In a culture like ours being able to tell the difference is not as easy as it might seem. For all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is our tendency to water down of the gospel and redefine Jesus into our own image, there are many people who mistakenly understand themselves to be right with God. That is, there are many people in and out of the Church who wrongly believe that they are not condemned—either because they deny they ever were or because they think they’ve somehow already escaped it.
For that reason, these few verses in John 3 are really, really helpful. They provide for us another diagnostic tool in the form of a few key marks of both condemnation and salvation. These will serve the Church well when we press them against our own hearts, against the hearts of one another, our kids, and our neighbors. As we work through these lists, then, let’s ask for the Holy Spirit to help us recognize whatever marks are in us.
May all of that serve as a reminder that the job of a preacher/teacher of God’s Word is not simply to offer comfort and hope, but to also state plainly the means by which God gives them. One huge problem in many churches today is the tendency to talk about the grace of God apart from the God-given means of receiving it. It is rightly proclaimed that there is hope in God, comfort for the hurting, and salvation for the lost. But such proclamations ought to always be accompanied by the truth that they are available only to those who would receive them with penitent hearts and trust in the only Son of God. Do you want merely to know that there is a cure for your sickness or also how to go about getting the cure? Those who are given only the promises without the means of receiving them are often worse off than those without either; for they have been given a false assurance of their right standing before God and, therefore, no longer feel the need to seek it.
At a time when many people simply want to be given comforting words, to be told that everything is going to be OK for them, to be given God’s stamp of approval on their lives, ironically, the words of John 3:19-20 can seem awfully un-Christmas-like.
May we fight together against such hollow and deadly thinking and lean fully into God’s Word for genuine grace and help. Hear the Word of God clearly, therefore, Grace Church. The love of God has been given to you in the person of Jesus who came to take away your sins. It is for you and for everyone who would receive it in humble, repentance. But how do we know if we have received it in humble repentance? John gives us two main marks of condemnation and three of salvation. Let’s consider them all.
Loves Darkness (19)
The first mark of remaining under condemnation is also the cause of our condemnation, John wrote. Jesus didn’t come to judge the world guilty because the world had already been judged guilty. And one aspect of this condemnation was a love for the darkness.
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.
In several ways John’s Gospel is a spiritual parallel to the physical creation recorded in Genesis. We find another example of that in this verse. Genesis records God’s creation of physical light (Genesis 1:3) while John speaks here of Jesus as Spiritual light coming into the world. It is a remarkable thing to learn to recognize the ways God has made physical things and earthly practices to give us categories for their spiritual fulfillment. Physical light exists, Grace Church, ultimately to help us understand Jesus’ goodness and holiness. Christmas is the celebration of both becoming incarnate and visible!
The practical result of this awesome reality—of Jesus, the light of the world, coming into the world—is that everyone who encounters Jesus responds in one of two ways. Either they will love the light of Christ and be drawn to it as a mark of salvation (which we’ll consider in just a bit) or they will love the darkness and remain in it as a mark of their condemnation.
But what does it mean exactly to love the darkness? John makes an important distinction here between darkness and evil/evil deeds. Evil deeds are the sinful acts we commit. Darkness is for John here, more of a location; one in which we mistakenly believe is hidden or secret. But Grace Church, kids, as you know, we might be able to sin outside of the view of people, of our parents or siblings, but we can never sin outside of God’s view. In that way, darkness is merely an illusion. But it is an illusion loved and longed for by those who do not truly believe in Jesus.
People who remain condemned, prefer evil, and prefer to do it away from the watching eye of anyone who would condemn them for it. This is what John meant by “people loved the darkness…because their deeds were evil.” Those under condemnation find a twisted pleasure in sin and a longing to do so without scrutiny.
Again, those who remain condemned in sin aren’t drawn to the light of Jesus, they are repulsed by it. They stay away from it. They don’t hate their sin. They love their sin and hate anything that exposes it.
Do you want to know if Christmas is a message of good news or bad news for you, a message of salvation or condemnation? John has provided marks of both for us. The first mark that Christmas is bad news for someone is that they are characterized by loving the darkness rather than light.
That leads to the second mark of condemnation.
Hates Light (20)
Those who remain condemned don’t merely prefer darkness and generally avoid the light, they genuinely love darkness and hate the light.
20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
As we just saw, it’s a fairly universal rule that people choose to sin in the dark. In v.20, John gives the primary reason for this: true light exposes the sinfulness of sin. No one wants to be seen doing evil things so they take cover in darkness. You can’t do that in the light where all your deeds are exposed.
Imagine being engaged in your most egregious sin (whether in thought, word, or deed). It is the thing you are most ashamed of, but you still do it, believing you’re doing so in secret, where no one else can see, in the dark. And then, suddenly a light comes on and you realize you’re being live streamed for all the world to see. You would most definitely hate the light in that moment. You’d want it turned off immediately.
That’s what John is talking about. Those who remain condemned before God do only wicked things (for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin). And everyone who does wicked things hates the light, tries to avoid it, and seeks to flee from it whenever it comes upon them to avoid revealing the true nature of their hearts.
Ultimately, those who hate the light, hate Jesus, who is the light of the world for all mankind (John 1:9). It is not merely that sinners hate having their sin exposed (although it is that). It is that they hate to be in the presence of the One who is perfectly holy and good and pure and right. This, of course, is a terribly serious thing.
There’s another piece of this that is important for us to consider. In our current culture there’s a diabolical twist that’s being put on all of this. When you love wickedness, sin, and evil, you have to live in the darkness as John wrote…or attempt to redefine wickedness, sin, and evil as virtue, righteousness, and goodness so that you can do what you do in ‘the light’. When ungodly people seek to repackage abortion as choice, rebrand disordered sexual desires and practices as love, and redefine basics elements human biology as nothing more than personal feelings, they are attempting to do just that. And when mass delusion sets in to the point that pushing back on those redefinitions, that rebranding, and that repackaging is portrayed as mean, intolerant, and arrogant, those things can be done in the light of day without shame. Light becomes darkness in their eyes and darkness, light.
Romans 1:32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
But Grace, let’s settle carefully and securely on the simple fact that no one but God has the power to name; to define. Darkness is what God has called darkness and evil is what God has called evil no matter what people may call them. Likewise, light is what God has called light and good is what God has called good, no matter what other name people may give them.
The second mark of remaining in condemnation is hating the light and the exposure it brings to our wicked deeds. When you hate your sin being found out more than the sin, you bear this mark and Christmas is bad news for you.
All of that ought to sound pretty ominous and discouraging. The thought of being condemned by God must not rest comfortably on us. It ought to terrify us to find these marks in us. And wherever that’s the case, celebrating Christmas is the most ridiculous thing imaginable. It’s like throwing a party for your coming execution or terminal cancer diagnosis.
But it need not be that way, Grace. John was not writing to declare immutable marks of death. He was writing to name them so that if we find them, we might turn to God from them. This means that no matter how many bad-news Christmas’s have past, this one need not be so for you. If you will, as John has clearly and repeatedly written, receive the love of God and believe in the name of Jesus, His only Son, your condemnation will turn to salvation and then celebration. The saving work of God in the person of Jesus is for everyone who believes, immediately when they believe, and forever. And you might remember that the entire purpose of John’s Gospel is to help the world believe that Jesus is the Christ that we might have life.
OK. We’ve just seen the marks of those who do not believe in Jesus and remain condemned before God (loving darkness and hating the light of Christ), but what does it look like when someone truly does believe in Jesus? That’s where we’ll turn to now—the marks of the saved.
MARKS OF THE SAVED (21)
As I mentioned in the beginning, there are three marks of genuine belief in Jesus in this passage and all are found in v.21.
21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
The three marks are doing what is true, coming to the light, and giving glory to God. Let’s briefly consider each.
Does What Is True
Doing what is true is portrayed by John as the opposite of doing evil (that’s what the “but” means). The first mark of salvation is that instead of doing and delighting in evil, there is an increasing delight in and doing of that which is good, beautiful, and true. Let’s remember how John has told us that works.
When we experience the new birth of the Spirit and place our hope in Jesus, we are acknowledging Him as the ultimate standard of goodness, beauty, and truth. And the same Spirit who opened our eyes to real goodness, beauty, and truth, also helps us to see how far short of it we fall, also causes us to throw ourselves before God for mercy, and also begins to transform our desires and actions; increasingly conforming them to Christ.
In other words, the first mark of genuine salvation is a change in thinking, that leads to a change in affections, that leads to a change in actions. Convinced that God is God, that we are sinners, and that God has lovingly offers us saving grace in Jesus, we turn our eyes to Him and He forgives us and changes us, such that we begin to hate what is evil (and stop doing it) and love what is good (and start doing that).
Remember, this is a mark, not a cause. We are not made right with God because we do what is true. We do what is true as a mark that our belief in Jesus is genuine and we have already been made right with God.
Is Christmas good news or bad news for you? It is good news if you find yourself growing in doing that which is true, because you find yourself growing in your love for that which is true, because you find yourself growing in your conviction that God alone is that which is true.
Comes to the Light
And when all of that happens, we will be eager to come to the light, to come more and more and more to Jesus. Rather than hating the light for its exposure of our sin, we love the Light. We love it because it is what we were made for. And we will even love it because of the very reason we used to hate it—it reveals our sin. When we don’t believe in Jesus, we want our sins hidden so we can keep doing them. But when we believe in Jesus we want our sins revealed so that we can turn from them to that which is infinitely better.
21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light…
Again, coming to the light isn’t merely being consistent and non-hypocritical. It is not merely acting in public in the same way we act in private. Coming to the light is ultimately to come to Jesus. To love Him above all. To want what He wants us to want. To love what He loves. To hate what He hates. To do what He does. To delight in His person and work and commands and grace and love.
Is Christmas good news or bad news for you? It is good news if you long to have your heart exposed and you are growing in your belief that Jesus is the greatest treasure and to love Jesus above all things.
Seeks to Glorify God for Everything Good
The final mark of salvation is a further clarification of the last one.
21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
Apart from believing in Jesus, we want credit and glory for anything we do that is praised by men. We brag about our sports or grades or music or salary or intelligence. The Christmas program is about us, our evangelism is about our courage, our quiet times show our piousness, our offerings show our generosity, etc. But when we truly believe in Jesus, we want God to get the credit and glory for every good thing, for, as we’ve seen in John, we know that every good thing comes from God.
As we just saw, it is the Spirit who grants new birth, the Spirit who grants eyes to see and ears to see, who grants understanding and conviction and repentance, and who grants a change in thinking, feeling, and actions. We must choose and yield to those things, but it is the Spirit’s work that causes us to want to and do so. In other words, it is a fact that our good works “have been carried out by God.” And when we truly understand that, we want the world to see and delight in that along with us.
Do you want to know if your belief in Jesus is genuine? Look carefully for the mark of recognizing God as the only true source of goodness and the desire for the whole world to acknowledge that and give Him the glory that is His due.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
What are we to do with all of this, this Christmas? Let me quickly suggest three things in closing.
First, learn to understand and receive the love of God. Let God define the nature and fruit of His love. Focus on what it is according to John and ask for the Spirit’s help to be strengthened and encouraged and comforted by it.
Second, consider carefully the marks of condemnation and salvation. Again, ask for the Spirit’s help to discern which you truly bear. Where it is the marks of condemnation, thank God for revealing that and turn to Jesus. Repent of your sins. Come into the light. And where it is the marks of salvation, thank God for saving you and give Him all glory. Repent of your sins. Walk in the light. Praise Him for loving you and sending His So to you while you were still His enemy.
And third, tell someone about Jesus. Really tell them. Ask them good question. Listen carefully to them. Pray for them. And then be clear about what God offers, how to receive it, and what’s at stake if they do or don’t. Find creative ways to do this where one doesn’t obviously present itself. With God’s help, focus more on bring them the words of life than how comfortable it will be. Whether it feels like it or not (to you or them), this is the most loving thing you can do and certainly one of the most obvious ways to honor God during Christmas.
Let’s be a people who are filled with thankful hearts, who walk in the light, and who are marked by continually helping one another follow Jesus wherever He leads and whatever it costs—at Christmas and always.