Lesson 1: Sacrificial Love

On that day this must be the message to Jerusalem: Fear not, Zion, let not your hands hang limp in despair, for YHWH your God is in your midst, a warrior to keep you safe; who will rejoice over you and be glad of it; who will show you love once more, and exult with songs of joy.

– Zephaniah 3:16-17

In a way, we have been exploring God’s love for many weeks. The three forms of grace show how God’s love draws us into union with our Creator. The humility of Jesus celebrates how God’s love leads to self-emptying incarnation and submission in service to others. This week we examine the depth of God’s love, which embraces that call to serve even when it leads to the cross.  

Devotion: Read John 3:1-21. Nicodemus admires Jesus but cannot understand his spiritual metaphors. We are left wondering how he responds to the invitation to believe in the Son of God (7:50-51; 19:39). Many consider John 3:16 the greatest declaration ever made on God’s love. John connects a number of theological images to those words: new birth, Spirit/flesh, the reign of God, descent from heaven, judgment, and light/darkness. God’s love is the hub around which all these revolve. Just as love is the driving force behind God’s activity in the Hebrew Covenant (Ps 136), it is the motivation for the incarnation and life of Jesus. To love is to be committed to the good of the other. What are bad definitions of love? Real love leads to various levels of sacrifice. What are examples of sacrifice driven by love? Is all sacrifice driven by love?

Personal Worship Option: Read and ponder Psalm 139:1-18. You are not an accident. God formed you and is with you still. When you come to the end of your life, God will be with you.

Dig A Little Deeper:

3:2 “By night” suggests Nicodemus is afraid of being seen with Jesus. Read John 2:23-25. The Pharisee becomes an example of one who believes but is held back by fear. In this gospel, calling Jesus “rabbi” is a sign of incomplete faith. What code words do we use to communicate loyalty to or rejection of Jesus? What makes following Jesus hard for people in powerful roles?

3:3 Confusion results from the Greek “anothen,” which can mean born “again” or “from above.” How different are those two translations? Nicodemus is thinking literally; Jesus is metaphorically describing how entering the reign of God requires complete transformation, like a new birth.

3:5 “”Water” and “flesh” refer to a literal birth. “From above” and “of the Spirit” refer to birth-like transformation. Scholars disagree whether this is a water baptism image. If it is, what is being communicated about baptism? If not, what is assumed about the Spirit’s work within us?

3:8 Here is another word with two meanings. The Greek “pneuma” means “wind” or “Spirit.” Perhaps words with multiple images are the best way to discuss the mysterious power we call the Holy Spirit. What is wrong with attempts to confine the Spirit to one definition or image?

3:14 Jesus refers to Numbers 21:1-9 which reports Moses lifts up an icon of a bronze serpent as a sign of God’s presence for those needing healing. Here is more word play: “lifted up” (Greek, “hypsothenai”) refers to the snake, Jesus on the cross, and Christ exalted in the resurrection.

3:15 The goal of new birth is made clear: to gain eternal life through the Son of Man.

3:16 What begins as a conversation about new birth ends by pointing to Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Sin does not limit God’s love for us; it limits our ability to receive that love.

3:17 God desires and works toward salvation, not condemnation. People cause their own condemnation when they choose darkness over light (3:19).  

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