3:16: The Numbers of Hope
Master storyteller and popular pastor Max Lucado is at his best in his 130-page riff on one of the best-loved passages of the Bible, John 3:16, a verse he beautifully calls “an alphabet of grace, a table of contents to the Christian hope, each word a safe-deposit box of jewels.” Following the main text is a 40-day devotional study on the life of Jesus, excerpted from many of his widely-read books.
Lucado kicks off his book with a retelling of Nicodemus’s famous conversation with Christ, in which Jesus tells him, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (NKJV) The thought, Lucado says in his trademark prose, “coldcocks Nicodemus.” When he asks Jesus how anyone could possibly be reborn, Jesus responds with John 3:16.
The words of John 3:16, Lucado says, are to Scripture what the Mississippi River is to America --- an entryway into the heartland. “Believe or dismiss them, embrace or reject them, any serious consideration of Christ must include them.” They are “heart-stilling, mind-bending, deal-making-or-breaking.” Lucado’s anecdotes are warm, poignant, often funny, and help him make his points. Chapter by chapter he unpacks each piece of John 3:16, mining the treasures to be found.
One of Lucado’s trademarks is his ability to retell biblical stories in a way that refreshes them for Christians who may have heard them a hundred times before or that piques the interest of the first-time listener. He is not afraid to introduce scholarly terms (anothen) but always unpacks them for his audience in an informative, inviting way. His language is vivid and precise, and his writing reflects that of someone who makes it look easy because he has wrestled over every sentence. “Heart-breakers, hope-snatchers, and dream-dousers prowl this orb…. But God loves.”
Humility permeates his work and continues to endear this mega-selling author and his writing to his readers. When Lucado writes about himself, he pens lines like this: “Burger dependent. Half asleep….and sinless? I can’t maintain a holy thought for my two-minute commute.”
Yet there is a toughness to his theology. Lucado is quick to reach out with comfort, but also refuses to compromise his beliefs. His writing on the “in Him” portion of the passage emphasizes this. Looking at the popular belief that all spiritual paths lead to heaven, he takes a firm stand. “Salvation is found, not in self or in them but in him,” Lucado writes. “…Don’t believe in you; you can’t save you. And don’t believe in others; they can’t save you.”
In another uncompromising and passionate look at the word “perish,” Lucado writes a no-holds-barred short treatise on hell. “Hell, like heaven, is a location, not a state of mind…an actual place populated by physical beings.” He adds, “There is no point on which I’d rather be wrong than the eternal duration of hell…if God, on the last day, extinguishes the wicked, I’ll celebrate my misreading of his words.” It is not God’s will, Lucado says, that anyone should perish. “…but the fact that some do highlights God’s justice.” There’s plenty of fodder here for discussion among Christians. Yet Lucado doesn’t leave it there. He adds that “The supreme surprise of hell is this: Christ went there so you don’t have to. Yet hell could not contain Him.”
Lucado can be as reassuring as he is tough. Consider this lovely passage:
“Allow the only decision maker in the universe to comfort you. Life at times appears to fall to pieces, seems irreparable. But it’s going to be okay. How can you know? Because God so loved the world. And, since he has no needs, you cannot tire him. Since he is without age, you cannot lose him. Since he has no sin, you cannot corrupt him. If God can make a billion galaxies, can’t he make good out of our bad and sense out of our faltering lives?”
This is a fine introductory book for those new to Lucado’s writing and will also be appreciated by his legions of readers. Don’t miss it.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on September 11, 2007