“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. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” [John 3: 13-19].
“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” [John 3: 16]. We see someone hold up John 3:16 at a sporting event, we hear this verse quoted in conversation and we hear it read from the pulpit. Recently, I looked at banners at the front of my church and sure enough, both banners have John 3: 16 on them.
But what does this oft-quoted Scripture really mean? Do we just rattle it off, not really appreciating the meaning?
In the opening paragraph, I quoted from John 3: 13 to John 3: 19 to provide some context for this famous verse, hoping to glean some additional interpretation by examining surrounding words. The key to understanding John 3:16 comes from comprehending its context.
John 3 begins with Jesus discussing being born again with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Ruling Council. Jesus has confused him by telling him that to enter the Kingdom of God, one has to be born again. Nicodemus replied “How can this be?…How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus chastised Nicodemus “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things…still you people do not accept our testimony.”
Then Jesus hit Nicodemus with the verse “No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from Heaven.” How will Nicodemus believe heavenly things; Jesus “has spoken to him about earthly things and he did not believe.” How will we believe of heavenly things? Jesus doubted that he would believe.
Then the Scripture “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” Is Jesus comparing Himself to the serpent? One would think not, but maybe He is. The serpent deserves to be condemned; for he has bitten man with a deadly poison called sin; in fact, that poison is flowing in man’s veins. Jesus does not deserve to be condemned but He will be lifted up as a substitute for the sins of man “that whoever believes in Him [Jesus/ God] may have eternal life.”
Then the famous John 3:16, which now clearly establishes that God sent His own Son into the world to save it; in fact, belief in [Jesus/ God] will insure that the believer will not perish but have eternal life.
Again in John 3:17, Jesus restates His mission on this earth: not to condemn the world but to save it. All one has to do is accept Jesus/ God and they won’t be condemned. However, Jesus knows it is often not that simple. The poison of sin is too strong man; prefers darkness instead of the light. Love for sin causes man to reject the light of Jesus Christ. That choice of darkness over light condemns man. The choice of light shows great faith and great faith will be rewarded with everlasting life.
What is John 3: 16 really saying?
Many feel this single verse underpins the entirety of the biblical narrative. Why is John 3: 16 quoted so much? No other verse in the Bible summarizes God’s relationship with man the way this verse does. Some consider John 3:16 the “theme verse” for the whole Bible. This one verse explains that Jesus came to take our place on the cross to satisfy God’s demands for sinless man. Matthew Henry* states that “giving His Son for this world is God’s way of negotiating a peace between heaven and earth.”
The irony of all this is that God has given His only Son to save man from His wrath over the sinfulness of man’s behavior [John Stott’s comment “God gave Himself to save us from Himself”].
Let’s be honest, what god would do this? Only our God. Instead of experiencing the wrath of God [which we so richly deserve] Jesus turned God’s wrath into love. Since this was God appeasing Himself, that makes it even more difficult to understand. Man gets off “scott-free”. We all sin, yet we are made right with God [justified].
This introduces an idea that so many people struggle to accept, the doctrine of grace. Grace is the opposite of the popular word “karma” which means getting what you deserve. Grace means getting what you don’t deserve. We don’t deserve salvation; we don’t deserve eternal life. It is a core concept in the Bible. It is God’s undeserved love for you and for me.
This past Sunday my church was graced with a first time visitor who stood during prayer time and gave his testimony. He revealed that he had a battle with alcohol; in fact, he said that three or four times in the few moments he was speaking. He began crying and saying that he was sorry. Later in the service, it was my honor to serve this same man communion and I just said to him simply “bless you brother.” He began crying and saying, “I am sorry; I am sorry; I am sorry.”
We should all be sorry for how we conduct ourselves. I hope this man does not assume that my church has pews filled with saints. My church [like all churches] is full of people who should be saying to God, “I am sorry; I am sorry; I am sorry.” We are saved, but only by God’s unmerited grace. We are saved by the redeeming sacrifice of His own Son Jesus Christ. We are saved by our belief in our loving Father. We are saved by our belief in our loving Father.
Is there anything, anything that we can do to begin to be more deserving of God’s love? In the Book of John Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This is a bit vague but one must realize that Jesus’ life was inspirational. Of course we cannot achieve a love like that of our God, our Father who gave His only Son, but we must make an effort to imitate Jesus, to grab that “bar” of love which God and Jesus set so high.
We have been trying to understand the word propitiation as what man must do to appease gods. It is a common idea in pagan worship. In Christianity, Christ is used to appease God and God initiates propitiation.
God is angry at man and He appeases Himself by His own action.
What greater love is this?
“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.”
*From Matthew Henry’s Commentary on “Biblegateway.com.”
Based on ideas expressed in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God