The Greatest Verse in the Bible
July 5th, 1964 @ 7:30 PM
THE GREATEST VERSE IN THE BIBLE
Dr. W. A. Criswell
John 3: 6-16
7-5-64 7:30 p.m.
With us who are here in the auditorium of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and you are sharing this service over WRR, open your Bible to John chapter 3, and we shall read together verses 6 through 16. This is the pastor bringing the evening message entitled The Greatest Verse in the Bible. And just to announce the text is to know what it is, the greatest verse in the Bible, John 3:16.
And I cannot help but remark upon the remarkably large attendance upon this service tonight. We have three services in the First Baptist Church in Dallas every Lords Day, one at 8:15 o’clock in the morning, one at 10:50 o’clock in the morning, and one at 7:30 o’clock in the evening. And of the three services, this is, I suppose, the largest in attendance. What a marvelous, marvelous thing that on a Fourth of July weekend, when most people are higher than the proverbial flag, here we are in God’s house, worshiping our living Lord. Ah! It gives you confidence that God is with us. We have not lost this battle, nor have we ultimately lost the war, not for Jesus. Not for Him.
Now out loud, all of us reading it together, John chapter 3, verses 6 through 16. Now together:
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said unto Him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that We do know, and testify that We have seen; and ye receive not Our witness.
If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe,
if I tell you of heavenly things?
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
And whether you read that text in Hottentot or in Hindu, in Afghanistan or in Japanese, in Indonese, in aboriginal Australian, in Latin, in Greek, in Spanish, in French, in German, or in American, it is still the greatest verse and the greatest sentence in human literature.
I was amazed one time to read of an old chief who was a kingpin in the Hottentots, and he said, “I feel sorry for the whole world that doesn’t speak Hottentot because they will never be able to read the most beautiful verse in the language, John 3:16.” That is the impression all of the people have; in whatever tongue, among whatever tribe, in whatever language, it speaks of the incomparable, marvelous visitation of God among men.
I have here some of these things that the preachers say. I have here two of them:
Why, this is the greatest text in the Bible; the greatest Being in all the world, God; the greatest power in all the world, love; the greatest gift in all the world, Jesus; the greatest act in all the world, belief; the greatest tragedy in all the world, perish; the greatest inheritance in all the world, everlasting life.
Then I copied from another one:
For God, the greatest Lover; so loved, the greatest degree; the world, the greatest company; that He gave, the greatest act; His only begotten Son, the greatest gift; that whosoever, the greatest opportunity; believeth, the greatest simplicity; in Him, the greatest attraction; should not perish, the greatest promise; but the greatest difference, have the greatest certainty; everlasting life, the greatest possession.
In that time, don’t you wish your pastor could preach like that? Out of all of the marvelous things that have been said, endlessly said, for two millenniums said, about this incomparable text, I have taken one: God’s greatest gift, Jesus our Lord.
In the [fourteenth] chapter of the Book of Acts, there is a sermon by the apostle Paul. And he says in that sermon, he says that this “Lord God in heaven is Someone who made heaven and earth, and the sea and all the things therein . . . Who did good and gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” [Acts 14:15, 17].
Speaking to those people who were pagan, he described God, not in terms of an image made out of gold or silver or stone or wood, but of a living God who bestowed upon us mortal creatures in this earth the fullness of the blessings that we enjoy every day.
I heard one time a mountain preacher, way back up in the heights of those mountains in eastern Kentucky. I heard a mountain preacher in a foot washing, primitive, old time Hard Shell Baptist Church, and he took a text in the one-hundred fourth Psalm, in the twenty-fourth verse: “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy glory” [Psalm 104:24].
He couldn’t read, and yet as I listened to the eloquence of that preacher, who had all of his life lived up there in those mountains, I was amazed as he delineated for us, listening to him exhort and preach, the goodness of the favor and blessings of God. He spoke of the mountains. They were gifts of God, he said, to break the force and the power of the thundering storm. And he spoke of the trees; God gave the trees that we might have wagons, and that we might have houses, and he spake of them finally, as being the material out of which they made their coffins in which they were laid in the dust of the ground, awaiting the great resurrection day of the Lord. Then he spoke of the coal that was in those mountains that God gave for fuel for warming in the wintertime. And he spoke of the very rocks that God had given to the creatures that He made in the earth to be used for foundations and for bridges and for making roads.
Ah! I listened to him with joy and gladness and wished that I could forget all of the schooling that I had, if I could preach like that eloquent mountaineer— the goodness and the marvelous of the remembrance of God.
But the finest and the richest gifts of heaven are not monetary or temporal or physical or material. The richest gifts of our Lord are always of the heart and of the soul. We are like that. Did you ever notice in your own life, as well as in the lives of others, did you ever notice how we place a value upon some things far beyond their intrinsic worth simply because somebody we loved touched them or possessed them or bestowed upon us a ring, a bracelet, a trinket, a remembrance? And we treasure it and fondle it and love it just because of the remembrance of someone who gave it to us. That’s human nature. For the finest gifts are never monetary or fiscal or material. They are of the heart and of the soul, and they come out of the fountains of the deep of love, devotion, and affection.
I was talking to a man one time whose house had burned down. And as he was describing it to me, and the loss of it, his wife broke in and said, “But, pastor, we don’t mind the furniture, we can buy it again, or the silverware, we can buy it again, but all of the pictures of our little baby and the lock of hair.” And on and on she described things that were destroyed that could never be replaced, things that for me would have been worthless, but to them was the very heart and symbol of love and life.
You know, I could easily imagine, I could easily imagine, a man who owned the universe and lost a boy in the World War. I could easily imagine that man saying, “I own fifty million stars, I own five oceans, I own seven continents, but I’d give them all, I’d give them all, if I could have the boy back home again.”I could understand that. I could understand that.
And I can understand how John, the inspired apostle, picked up his pen and wrote, “For God so loved the world, that He gave . . .” All of the food and the clothing and the shelter and the materialities that enhance and make glad our life, but the greatest gift and the most infinite and the most precious, “His only begotten Son,” that we who turn in faith to Him “might not perish, but have everlasting life.” The greatest gift: the Lord Jesus [John 3:16].
Several things that are concomitants and corollaries of it: first; His coming [Matthew 1:20-25; John 3:16], the gift of God in Christ forever hallowed this planet, this little speck of earth on which we dwell. How often do I read, and how often does a student that attends school, how often does he hear the cynicism of a professor, who in scoffing, sardonic delineation describes the infinitesimal size and proportion of this little globe upon which we live? And he describes the billions and the millions and the trillions of light years to these others planets, and then he speaks of their immeasurable size, and he speaks of the vast infinitude of the world around us, and then he sarcastically asks, “And do you think, and could you imagine, and would you suppose, that that infinite God, if there is such a God, would deign to come down to an infinitesimal speck, such as this earth on which we live?” He just thinks he has that argument sewed up and nailed down, and he is sure, he thinks, to make atheists out of everybody who listens to him, and especially out of those students who sit there in his class.
Why, I could not imagine, I could not conceive of a philosophy or a reasoning or a rationale that was more folly wide the mark. For example, for example, suppose there was a man in this congregation tonight and he lived in a beautiful $500,000 home in Preston Hollow; and suppose, while he is away on a business trip the wire should come to him, over a telephone, the message should come to him, and the messenger said, “While you were on this trip, your house burned down!” “Your house burned down!”
Well, in that house, there are marvelous paintings. In that house, are rich tapestries; in that house, glorious furniture; in that house, marvelous silverware; in that house, so many things that wealth and affluence can afford. And also in the house is a little baby boy, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, life of his life. Then he hears the message over the telephone, “Your house just burned down.”
All right, what do you think? What do you think, in the light of what the professor thinks, what do you think? Will the man say over the telephone, “My house burned down! My house burned down?”Would he say, “What about my tapestries? What about my paintings? What about my furniture? What about the accouterments and embellishments?”It all depends upon whether there is in this universe such a thing as a heart to care, and a love of concern.
What would he say? “What about my furniture and my furnishings?” Or would he say, “Oh! Tell me, sir, tell me, sir, first, and above all, sir, is the baby well? Is the baby all right, and is my family safe?” Wouldn’t he? Or am I mistaken in my judgment?
If he had a heart in him, and if he cared, and if there was love in his soul, his first question would be, “What about the child? What about the baby, is he safe? When my house burned down, is he safe?”
All right, you tell me; in God’s universe there are His oceans, but oceans cannot think God’s thoughts! Here are His mountains and His mines, but mountains and mines don’t love God! And here are the starry heavens above us, but they can’t bow down and name His name. I can. I can. I can bow and pray. I can bow and adore. I can bow and name His name. I can think His thoughts. I can love the Lord God.
Am I not saying it correctly? The greatest possessions are not monetary and they are not material. They are of the heart and the soul, and the coming of our blessed Savior forever hallowed this planet because He walked on this dust; He breathed this air; He died on this little speck, and it makes it dear and precious in the sight of God who made the universe.
A second avowal: it forever consecrated human life, a man for whom Christ died, any man, anywhere, anyhow [1 Corinthians 15:3]. Did you know when the Lord came into the world, the entire Greco-Roman civilization approved the exposure of children? One of my friends in the seminary is here tonight listening to me preach. When we were in the seminary, I remember a papyrus that we read. It was from a man who was also on a business trip, and he had been told that a little baby girl had been born to his wife while he was away. And he wrote—and I read the writing, one of the papyri: he said, “I want you to expose the child!” What did he mean by that? In the Greco-Roman civilization, it was an accepted thing that any man who had a child, and he did not want the child, should give orders and the child could be exposed! That is, it could be put on a highway where somebody would pick it up. Or it could be put out on a desert, where the sun would scorch it and burn it. Or it could be put on a mountainside where a wild beast and wolves and jackals would eat it. It meant he wanted the child destroyed!
And it was a common thing in the Greco-Roman world that when a child was exposed, and they were exposed all over that civilized Mediterranean earth, that when a child was exposed some uncaring couple would find the little baby and would break every bone in its body, its legs, its arms, its hand, its feet, and let it grow up in that horrible deformity, in order that they might place it on the side of a road to be a receptacle for coins as its pitiableness sought the compassion on the part of the people who passed by, beggars. Think of that. That was common in the Greco-Roman world in which Jesus was born.
I remember reading a book called The Philosopher. And that man, the philosopher, is in the Coliseum, and he is watching the gladiators as they spill one another’s blood in the soil, in the sand. And the philosopher says, “What is needed, what is needed is the heart that would make it impossible to look upon such bloodshed, and the future would belong to the force that could create that heart.”
That’s what Jesus did; He forever consecrated human life. And to us who are Christians and brought up in the Christian faith, it would be unthinkable to take a little darling child and break its bones that it might grow up deformed to be used as a beggar. It would be unthinkable for us to put in an arena gladiators who fought one another unto death.
The Christian faith is, as you see in the life of Dr. Goldie, our physician in Nigeria, who gathered together all of the lepers cast out of the compounds and out of the villages, and he ministers to them. I called for Dr. Goldie when he was ready to leave one of those leper settlements. I said, “Dr. Goldie, before you go, just come and look at this man.” As he walked, as he walked, the leprosy in his right foot, in his right foot like an unhealing, unhealable ulcer, every time he’d step, the force of the weight of his body on that right foot, into that artery that had been hurt and diseased by leprosy, when he would put weight upon that right foot, the blood would squirt clear over his head, clear over his head. And when he would walk, every time he would step with that right foot the blood would squirt clear over his head.
I said, “Dr. Goldie, I don’t think you have seen this man.”
He said, “No. No.” And he came back and he watched him and ministered to him. Who bought that medicine? Who sent that missionary? Who gathered that flotsam and jetsam of diseased humanity into compounds and settlements where we could minister to them and heal them and love them. It was for Jesus’ sake. It was for Jesus’ sake. He forever hallowed and sanctified human life.
In the song that Grover Wilkins just sang, he sang the first stanza. The last stanza of that song, The Love of God, the last stanza was written by a wretched inmate on the side of a narrow cell in an insane asylum. And do you remember it?
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.
Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
[“The Love of God,” Frederick M. Lehman]
“For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son” [John 3:16]. He hallowed and sanctified forever human life. He breathed our air. He walked in our dust. He lived in our flesh and blood. He was tried in all points as we are, a great High Priest, who bids us come, for He understands, for He understands [Hebrews 4:14-16].
A third corollary: He forever revealed the nearness of heaven to earth, the nearness of heaven to earth. When He came down, like a scroll the heavens opened and parted, and the angel chorus announced the birth of the Savior in little Bethlehem, the City of David [Luke 2:10-14].
And when He was baptized, the Spirit as a dove came upon Him, and a voice was heard from heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son” [Matthew 3:16-17]. How near, how very near. And when He was transfigured, there appeared to Him, Elijah and Moses, speaking to Him about His death [Luke 9:30-31]. When He was tried in Gethsemane, an angel comforted Him [Luke 22:41-43]. And when He was raised from the dead, two men from glory, in white apparel, announced that He was risen. “He is not here” [Luke 24:4-6]. And when He was ascended into heaven, a cloud, a cloud, took Him out of their sight [Acts 1:9-10].
Ever think about where Jesus is? He arose, and He arose, and He arose, and then a cloud received Him out of their sight [Acts 1:9]. Where is the Lord? Where is the Lord? In Boston, at Trinity Church where the great preacher, named the name of Christ, there is a statue of Philips Brooks in the yard of the church, and right back of him, the sculptor has carved a figure of Jesus, and He has His right hand on the shoulder of His preacher.
Where is Jesus? Just as near as heaven is. And how near is heaven? Just there, just there, right there, forever revealed the nearness of heaven to earth.
And hastily, and a last corollary and avowal, and forever, and forever, it places in the grasp of men: salvation, and forgiveness, and life, and healing now and forever. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: That whosoever looks to Him, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have eternal life” [John 3:14-15; Numbers 21:8-9]. Forever it places in the grasp of a man life, and healing, and health, and forgiveness, and salvation, just to turn and to look and to live.
How shall I merit the favor of God? Shall I buy it like Simon Magus? [Acts 8:9-24]. Shall I? Shall I seek the merit by my righteousness? God says they are like filthy rags [Isaiah 64:6]. Shall I do penance for it? Shall I suffer for it? “Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” [Micah 6:6-7].
How shall I come? Just by appearing, just by looking, just by receiving, just by taking; for the forgiveness, and the salvation, and the love, and the mercy, and the gift of God is without cost and with price. “Ho, every one, ho, everyone that thirsteth, let him come; let him eat; let him drink without money and without price” [Isaiah 55:1]. It is a gift of God. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” [John 3:16]. Don’t buy it, we couldn’t, couldn’t merit it; just taking it. As the serpent was lifted up, whosoever looked could live [Numbers 21:8-9]. So with us today, whosoever will look, whosoever will take, whosoever will receive and trust; it is for him [John 3:14-15]. Life and forgiveness, it is in his grasp; it is close-by, nearer than hands and feet, nearer than the breath that we breathe, this God-appointed salvation [Romans 10:8].
I had in my church one time a man, who in the days of his youth, in drunkenness, had killed his best friend. For years was a refugee; belonged to a family, well-to-do—they spent their fortune in clearing him through the courts. He had accepted the Lord as his Savior, baptized and a member of the church, and one time said to me, “Preacher, oh, for these years you’ve been here, I have wanted to asked you a question. Could God forgive a man who killed his best friend? Could He? Would He? Could He? Could He?”
Then he described to me the nights he lay awake and agonized before the Lord, “O God! O God!” Could God do that? Could God do that? “For God so loved the world, that whosoever trusts in Him should never perish, never come into condemnation, but have everlasting life, everlasting life” [John 3:16].
Could a great intellectual trust his soul by a simple commitment to Jesus? I admired beyond any way I could say it the president of the university that I attended. He had died the week that I was graduated. For four years, every chapel service, I was there in attendance, listening to that tremendous giant before God. And once in a while, he would describe the great torments and doubts that would surge through his mind and his heart about whether God was, and Jesus was real, and sin was forgiven. And he would say, “Every time I would go through those terrible periods of doubt I would go back to that day when, as a young man, I knelt by the side of a road and gave my heart to Jesus, and the peace that passeth all understanding came into my soul” [Philippians 4:7]. And he said, “I base my hope and my soul and my life upon that commitment I made to God that night.”
Could he? Could he? Does Jesus? Does He? Does He forgive? Is He that close? Is He that near and dear?
Walking down the street last evening, walking down the street, I ran into Bill Medling and his wife and their little girl. When I was over there in Kumamoto, she was just such a little child, now a teenage daughter.
I said, “Where in the world have you come from?” He was going through Dallas to Atlanta, Georgia, had just come from Kumamoto, Japan.
And he said, he said “I haven’t but a moment,” but he said,” in this moment, I ought to tell you something that will encourage you. So many things discourage a man who preaches,” but he said, “I want to tell you something that will encourage you.”
He said, “Remember, you held a three-day revival meeting in Kumamoto?”
I said, “I would never forget.”
He said, “The first night that you spoke, there was one of those Japanese men who had come to the service just because he had seen advertised that a foreigner was going to lecture, they call it. A foreigner was going to lecture there at the church, and the man decided he would go see this foreigner and go listen to what he said.”
And he said, “That Japanese man who was a pagan, an unbeliever, that Japanese man came, and for the first time,” Bill Medling said, “he heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. He went home, and the next evening he said to his wife, ‘Dear wife, now I am going to keep the children, and I want you to go.’ She was amazed. ‘You are going to keep the children, and you want me to go hear that foreigner?’”
“Yes,” said that man. “I want to keep the children, and you go hear him.”
He kept the children. His wife came and heard me preach the second night. When she came back home, she said to her husband, “Oh! Dear, dear, I went to hear the man. I heard him preach, and dear husband, I have accepted Jesus as my Savior, and I have become a Christian.” First time in her life she had heard a man preach.
And her husband said, “And now, dear, I will tell you why I have kept the children and wanted you to go.” He said, “Last night, I heard that man preach, and I gave my heart to Jesus last night, and I also am a Christian.”
Bill Medling said his wife avowed never such a change in a man’s life, never such a change in our home as when Jesus came into our hearts. And Bill Medling said, “You know what that man is doing today?” “Preacher,” he said, “that man is one of our finest ordained pastors in the nation of Nippon, of Japan.” And then he added, “Preacher, I want you to realize they were converted the first time they ever heard a man preach the gospel. He was converted, the first time he ever heard the message, and his wife was converted the first time she ever heard the message.”
Forever, I say, forever, God has placed within the reach of sinking human hands the gift of healing, and salvation, and forgiveness, and everlasting life [Romans 10:8]. No wonder, no wonder the verdict of the whole world, in every tongue and in every language, “This is the greatest verse ever penned by human hand: For God so loved the world, us, that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus, that whosoever believeth in Him, turn, turn, should not perish, but have everlasting life” [John 3:16]; a gift for now, for now, for now.
And while we sing our appeal, while our people prayerfully lend intercession and love and care and concern to the appeal we sing, somebody you, give his heart to Jesus, down one of these stairwells at the front or the back, into the aisle on this lower floor, “Here, preacher, I come. I give you my hand. I give my heart to Jesus” [Romans 10:9-10]. Or, “Here, pastor, is my wife. All of us are coming into the fellowship of the church.” As God shall say the word, shall lead in the way, shall open wide the door, make it tonight. Make it tonight. Come tonight. If the Lord bids you come, make it now. Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.