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Max Lucado: The Numbers of Hope

By Chris Carpenter Program Director - For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  – John 3:16

 As simply a collection of words, the Scripture verse John 3:16 seems like any other sentence when grouped with the thousands of others that comprise the Bible.  However, it is the most famous verse because it contains the essential truths of the Christian faith. 

Best selling Christian author Max Lucado has called John 3:16 the “hope diamond of the Bible”.  In the post-9/11 world in which we live, Lucado believes this verse more than any other, can deliver us from despair and provide us with undeniable hope.

In his new book “3:16 – The Numbers of Hope” (Thomas Nelson Publishers), Lucado examines this verse word by word in a quest to unlock the heart of the human problem – the heart of the human. Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with Lucado to discuss what separates John 3:16 from the 31,102 other verses in the Bible, why it appears in the Gospel of John, and Max’s recent battle with health problems.

 You have written a book that is 224 pages long about a verse that is 26 words long.  That is quite a contrast.  What is it about this verse that separates it from all the others?

 That is a great opening question.  I think what this verse does is that it is a table of contents to the Christian hope.  You can start with the first primary word, God, and then go to the last word, life, and every major word in between invites you to look at a major statement about the Christian faith.  God’s personality, then God loved, God loved so much He gave – there is the excuse to discuss substitutionary atonement.  He gave His one and only son.  There is an opportunity to converse about the uniqueness of Christ.  That whoever believes – there is an opportunity to talk about God’s invitation to the whole world.  So, every single word deserves not just a chapter but it really deserves several books.  And books have been written on each of these different themes.  So, I call it a table of contents, like it is listing out all of the major discussions of doctrine.  The other reason is that it is just so full of hope.  God loves.  Those two words alone are worth a book.  We would just assume that God would be vengeful, that God would be angry, that God would be settling the score, but to start off with ‘God loves’ … we need hope and this passage offers it.

 That poses an interesting question.  If you had to pick a key word or a phrase that encapsulates the entire verse what do you think that would be?

 (Laughs) You know there is no good answer to that question.  However, I really did have a word that surfaced.  There was a word that I loved the most and that word is “whoever”.  That is because “whoever” just throws open the door of God’s love to every person in the world who has ever lived, whatever gender, race, or generation, God has a place for every person.  You might ask how you can pick that word over “one and only son”, “God so loved – absolutely.  It just seemed to me that one word was the icing on the cake.  It just raises the flag outside of the castle and says the gates are open for whoever wants to come.

If you don’t mind, could you take me through what leads up to that verse and why Jesus said what He said?

 I call it the most famous conversation in the Bible.  Nicodemus, the religious leader, who is intrigued by Jesus, who is a member of the Supreme Court, he is a very important man, is a God seeker.  He is not writing Jesus off.  He is intrigued by this Galilean crowd stopper who has come to Jerusalem.  And yet probably, so he won’t risk being defrocked or debarred as a Pharisee, he comes at night and he has an audience with Christ.  He is impressed with Jesus and he says, ‘Master, teacher, or rabbi, we have seen all of these things that you do and we know that no one can do these kinds of things – he complements Jesus.  But Jesus doesn’t even really reply with a compliment.  He goes directly to that other famous statement in John 3.  And that is, ‘unless a man is born again he cannot begin to see the kingdom of God or understand the kingdom of God.’  This is the context for John 3:16 and that is the dialogue that is going on between a God seeker and God.  The big set-up, the huge announcement is that you must be born again.  In the book, I point out the wording that Jesus uses is not meant to be born again as an act of repetition but it’s an act in which the first person who did the work comes back and does it again.  It’s not something that we do but it is something that the One who did it first can do for us.  It’s like saying that I am going to paint the Mona Lisa again.  Well, I guess I could but to really have the Mona Lisa painted again we need Leonardo Da Vinci to come do it again.  And Jesus is saying here, for you to be born again, the one who created you first, must do it again.  So, Nicodemus’ question is how can that be?  How can a man be born again when he is old?  And it is the context of this then that Jesus eventually says in verse 16, is how this happens is that God loves the world so much that He gave His one and only son.  If there is one chapter in the Bible that a person could spend time in understanding the heart of Jesus’ appeal, it would be John 3.  It has the command to want to be born again and then explanation in verse 16 of how it happens.

Do you think there is any significance as to why this verse appears in the Gospel of John and not Matthew, Mark, or Luke?

 You know, I don’t think I have ever really given that a whole lot of thought.  John’s Gospel is written so that people may believe.  That is what he said.  So, it seems that John’s Gospel comes along and he notices what has not been written and he wants to include some essential teachings.  And so he does exactly that.  The only thing I can imagine is that he saw this as something that should be included and so he did.

What was your inspiration for even taking on a project like this?  Yes, this is perhaps the most well known verse in Scripture but I don’t really know of anyone who has decided to tackle it exclusively like you.

 You are right on target.  Unless my Google doesn’t work well you are correct.  There has not been a book written on this subject in several decades with the exception of a great little book called “Life Sentence”, written in the 1980s by a pastor in Wales whose name escapes me at this moment.  It is a terrific little book but is the only book that I could find that had been written exclusively about John 3:16.  I was a bit puzzled but that only motivated me to want to write the book more.  All of my writings come out of sermons.  This was originally a sermon idea, a sermon series idea for the church.  And as we explored John 3:16 it just seemed like the church ate it up.  What I think people like is to have a phrase they can put in their purse, hip pocket, they memorize quickly.  It is familiar to them.  They can dig deeper with it.  This passage is so simple and easy to remember.  People have a familiarity with it so they greet it like an old friend.  And then they say, ‘oh, but I have never thought about that word.  I have never considered that.’  So, it just gives them excuse to get deeper with a verse they already know.

As Christians, we obviously feel this verse is very important.  I understand you have called this verse “the Hope Diamond of the Bible”.  Could you explain what you mean by that statement?

 This verse has captured the attention of men who are far better writers and students than I.  Martin Luther called it the Bible in miniature.  So, it is a verse that really has captured the attention of preachers forever now.  I love the way the passage begins with God and it ends with life.  And it calls us to do the same.  The “hope” element is that God loves and because God loves God gave.  When we believe we live.  It puts our hope in such a packageable understanding that a six year old can get this.  God loved, God gave His son. 

Changing gears a bit, you are planning a tremendous media blitz for this book.  You will have an educational curriculum, a music compilation CD, and even a television special.  Why are you packing such a powerful media punch?

 Soon after I wrote it and Thomas Nelson Publishers started working with it, it went quickly from a book to a cause.  The idea of acquainting a generation with the 3:16 promise just captured the fascination of anyone with whom we discussed it.  It became a rallying point.  This isn’t a political book.  It’s not a psychological book.  It is not a trendy book.  It is a concept.  It is a cause that crosses all generations and enters into all nations.

The book will release on 9/11 (September 11) because there is an intentional juxtaposition of 3:16, the numbers of hope, with 9/11, the numbers of despair.

You recently made the decision to step down from your church due to your health.  Please tell me about why you made the decision and how you are doing.

 I like to use the phrase ‘stepped to the side’ as opposed to stepped down because I am staying on the church staff.  I am going to be one of our teaching ministers.  So, I will be teaching a good portion of the year.  I don’t know exactly how much.  Once the new senior minister is hired we will figure that out together.  But it is really a question of stewardship.  The church needs a healthy, full-time senior minister.  I haven’t really been full-time for quite some time because I do so much writing with increasing travel.  Ours is a church of about 5,000 and a church that size needs somebody who is right there all the time.  But it was ok.  I could manage it and I think the church was fine for the last several years.  But then a year ago I was diagnosed with a heart problem and I was having trouble maintaining the stamina to do the work.  I didn’t think this was really fair to the church.  So, I went to the leadership of the church and said it is time to bring on a healthy, full-time senior minister.  We prayed about it and everybody agreed.  So, we are in the process of looking for that person right now.  My plan is to stay on staff.  I will do more writing and maybe a little more travel.  My health is doing better.  I have had some good treatments over the last few months.  I am not out of the woods yet but I am seeing the sunlight in the forest.

After people read “3:16”, as an author what is the one thing you would like people to take away with them after they read it?

 I would like people to be able to clearly communicate the Gospel – that they have experienced it and now they can articulate it.  I would like for them to be able to say, ‘God loves, God gave, we believe, and we live.’  If every person were able to put the Gospel on a napkin or state it in three minutes – even if they didn’t believe the Gospel than at least we know they had an honest encounter with it.  That would be my goal, that every person could write the Gospel on a napkin and be able to articulate whenever they are asked.

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