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“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
This most beloved verse in all the Bible was spoken by the Savior himself to Nicodemus. As we might expect, it contains many mysteries of the faith. One of its great teachings is not apparent to the readers of its English translation, but is very apparent to readers of Greek. The original language is highly inflected, which means that it can communicate emphasis by irregular word order. John 3:16 has one of its words in the emphatic position — the very first word in the verse. What do you imagine is the most significant word in perhaps the most significant verse in the Scripture? What word among so many powerful words is most emphasized?
The English text has God in the first emphatic position. God is the subject of the active verb. Surely, we would think, God is the emphatic word in Greek. But to our surprise, God is not that word. Then surely, we would surmise, the word loved must be the focus of the emphasis. What love could be like God’s incomparable love? But it is not the verb love. Then perhaps whosoever, the word throwing open the very gates of heaven to all — surely that is the emphatic word of the greatest gospel verse. But it is not. We might next imagine that it would be the word world, for what other word could summon up the massive extent of the gospel offer to embrace all mankind? Surely it must be the word world. But no. Then it has to be what remains; it must be everlasting life — the promise to be delivered from perishing and given the hope of heaven forever. Surely the gospel promise of eternal salvation ranks as the one phrase to be emphasized by the Lord. But that word, too, is not what Jesus emphasizes. The emphatic word spoken by the Savior, in truth, is the little word so! “For God so loved the world…”
Why is this small word among so many other great words given the place of preeminence in the Savior’s message of salvation? The adverb so is a word of measure. It is a word that invites us to calculate the greatest mystery of all, namely the extent of the love of God for us. That God could give his only Son, the precious darling of his very heart, for us — to rescue us in the desperation of our depravity and sin — surely this is the greatest mystery on earth, if not in heaven itself!
Who can measure so great a love as that! “God so loved the world” brings together the infinite love of God for a vast and indefinite multitude of people, a measure that breaks down all mathematical modeling. The word so brings together the infinite and the finite, wrapped in the greatest mystery imaginable. How can the human heart imagine such a love? How can we measure the immeasurable love we have been given? Who can tell the depths of the mind of God, of God the Father who could love us in our sin enough to save us at the price of the life of God the Son? As the Apostle Paul reasons, if God loved us in our sin so much that he gave us his Son for our ransom, what could we imagine will be the measure of his love for us when we stand before him sinless, clothed in the very righteousness of Jesus himself (Romans 5:6-10)? Such a calculation opens the immeasurable doors of heaven itself!
The Gospel of the Universal Particular Where the Infinite Meets the Finite
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
If we consider the nature of Adam’s sin against God in the garden, we must conclude that his disobedience is the most terrifying revolt imaginable in all the Bible. The Creator made man and then, after giving him all the fruit trees of Eden to satisfy his hunger, forbade him from partaking of only one tree, the tree of knowledge. Genesis portrays God in his infinite grandeur, the eternal Lord who spoke all things into existence by the word of his power (cf. Romans 1:20). God then made man, the imminent and finite image of his own transcendent and infinite being. We must keep these categories in mind to understand the significance of the sin of mankind.
When Adam and Eve reached out to take a morsel of the forbidden fruit, their rebellion was against an infinite Creator. Their sin was an offense against an infinite God. Consider what they were doing — a finite man and woman were daring the wrath of an infinite Creator! What does their sin so measured inform us about the gospel? It means nothing less than that the sin of Adam and Eve gave an infinite offense. Their sin was the renunciation of all God’s infinitely holy law (James 2:10). The just punishment of their sin demanded not only their own personal deaths, it implied the death of all their progeny. They instinctively covered their genitals in the recognition that they had brought condemnation to all their descendants.
The Savior said that it profits not a man to gain the world at the cost of his soul. But Adam and Eve lost not only their own souls, but those of all of us who are descended from them. It is the Christian doctrine of original sin. Adam’s sin brought death to all. All of this was lost by Adam — not to gain the world, but for a mere morsel of fruit.
The gospel of the apostles is the good news of salvation by grace alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace is counted for salvation. Human works are not. We cannot be saved by works of our own merit. This grace salvation of the apostles is derived by the nature of the first sin. If a finite creature offends an infinite Creator, that sin is infinite, not finite. All our works, howsoever wonderful and good they might be, could only ever amount to finite merit. But finite merit could never satisfy an infinite debt. No one, not Adam and Eve, not any of their descendants, could ever accumulate a righteousness sufficient to satisfy an infinite offense.
Human sin requires a human sacrifice. Hadn’t God warned Adam that in the day he ate of the forbidden tree he would die? (Genesis 2:16-17). But a mere man, even a sinless man, could offer a sacrifice sufficient for only one other human life. This is because man is finite. His sacrifice can only be reckoned as a finite sacrifice. How then can there be a gospel of salvation, freely offered to the multitudes of all mankind? Clearly that would require the sacrifice of another kind of man. He must be truly man to offer a human sacrifice (Hebrews 10:5). But he must be a man who is more than a finite man. He must be an infinite man! He must be a God-man. Only a divine man could offer a truly human sacrifice with an infinite value sufficient to satisfy the justice required by the offense against an infinite God. Only God himself could satisfy such a debt of sin. And only a man could offer a human sacrifice. For this reason, the divine Word of God was made flesh (John 1:1, 14). Jesus came as the God-man to suffer the infinite wrath we deserved on our behalf. Who can resist this love of God? freely offered, to all who believe. Jesus paid our personal and infinite debt. And in exchange, we receive his infinite and personal love!
The Gospel Asymptote of the Finite and the Infinite
“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
A geometric asymptote is a straight line that represents the eventual target or track of a curve: the separation between the curve and its asymptote shrinks ever smaller and smaller, yet no matter how miniscule the gap, neither may ever touch the other. It can serve as a construct for the relationship of the finite and the infinite; it suggests mathematical language useful to express the relationship between God and man, the Creator and the creature.
An arithmetical example of an asymptote in the Bible is probably represented by the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13:18. The number is 666, most likely a repeating decimal representing the fraction 6 divided by 9, which equals 6. The number is ever increasing the further out it goes (e.g., 0.6666 or 0.666666666666…), but in spite of always growing larger the more it is carried out, it can never attain 7 within finite space. If six is the biblical number of man and seven is the number of God, this number (6) depicts the impassable division, in a metaphoric sense, between the infinite Creator and the finite creature. It suggests the everlasting torment of the “beast” whose pride aspires to be divine. His (asymptotic) pride is eternally swelling up ever larger, yet he is simultaneously and perpetually frustrated within the impassable boundaries of finite space. Unending and ever increasing pride along with ever increasing and unending frustration — perhaps we are here given a dark window into the meaning of hell itself.
These examples however, also offer a window into heaven. How is that? What does it mean when Jesus offers us the gospel promise that he is even now preparing a place for us (John 14:2-3) that we might dwell in the house of the Lord forever? (Psalm 23:6). How can we imagine what it will be like for finite creatures to dwell forever (asymptotically) alongside their infinite Creator?
Let’s begin with the revelation that God has made us in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). As imaging creatures, we become like the God (or idols) we worship (cf. Psalm 115:4-8). This relationship between mankind and God is dynamic. We, finite creatures, will always, throughout all the uncounted ages of eternity, increase our imaging of God, always becoming more like him yet never exhausting him in his infinite goodness.
Share in the Joy of the Gospel
God has made us to share in the joy and love of Jesus (John 15:11, 17:13, 24-26). This means that in heaven we will be increasing in joy, always becoming more like Jesus, but never exhausting his divine heart. Our joy will be asymptotic, always increasing and approaching the reality of the Lord we have been created to image forth, but never transcending our nature as creatures. This is the promise of everlasting life, as the Lord offered to Nicodemus.
Our love of Jesus, too, will grow throughout all the ages of time! The more we see the absolute holiness of the Savior, the more we will understand the depths of the sin he overcame in our redemption, and the deeper will become our understanding of his redeeming love for us. Our happiness in him will grow throughout all the ages forever. Ever increasing love and a love that can never be exhausted! Heaven will be dynamic. It will be anything but static. That is the promise of “everlasting life” given by the gospel. Heaven, in other words, will rock!
“That you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height, to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
Dr. Warren A. Gage, Th.M., J.D., Ph.D. is president of The Alexandrian Form, which provides life-changing Biblical teaching. © 2020 The Alexandrian Forum
Dr. Warren Gage makes an in-depth analysis on why Jesus is called “the Light of the World”: goodnewsfl.org/jesus-the-light-of-the-world/