Our Bible study group on the USS Hue City (CG 66) recently looked at John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible. The fame is well deserved, for this single verse packs enough theological punch to keep a writer/minister busy for days.
I’m going to break down some of the very simple things we talked about in class. Please feel free to discuss your own thoughts about John 3:16 in the comments section.
Let’s get to work!
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
- First off, “For God” signifies a sort of transition. We won’t go too in depth into this, but scholars believe that Jesus has stopped talking at this point and the author (possibly a different one than John the evangelist) has started to share his personal thoughts on the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. In fact, there are several “issues” with the book of John that make scholars think that at least two people wrote it at slightly different times. Chapter 3 of John, along with chapters 2-11, is thought to have come from an earlier signs source, which would have been written closer to when Jesus was alive on earth (John in its present form was written sometime between AD70 and AD100). That the more conservative D. A. Carson agrees, or at least acknowledges this possibility gives it credence in my estimation.
I’ve belabored the point, let’s move on.
When I say that “For God” means we’ve reached a transition, I mean that the statement is sort of like, “therefore” in that we need to find out what the there is for. So what is Jesus (or the writer) saying when he writes, “For God?”
He is explaining something that happened in verses 14 and 15. “…so shall the son of man be lifted up…” Why? Because God loved the world so much!
- God loved the world. Yes, the world is fallen. Yes, it isn’t the “very good” of Genesis 1:31. Still, it is God’s creation. Our children, despite their sins, are still our children and we love them dearly. God loves his creation! This is good news! And because he loves his creation, he wants to rescue it, even from itself. Praise God!
- Abraham mirrored God’s sacrifice by offering Isaac on the alter. Isaac is the “type” of Christ and Abraham is a “type” of God, meaning that they are illustrative of Jesus and God, respectively. Another word to use for “type” is “shadow.”
The difference in John 3:16 is that God is offering the sacrifice on behalf of all creation, whereas Abraham offered Isaac to show his faith in God’s provision. In this way, Jesus was God’s provision. God offered Jesus to satisfy his own requirements to have a perfect sacrifice. Jesus, by becoming that sacrifice, accepted this as Isaac did, and in doing so provided the way (John 14:6).
Another very important point here is that, by actually sending Jesus to die, and by Jesus committing himself to death, God asked more of himself than he ever asked Abraham and Isaac to do. Isn’t God like that? He always goes further than he asks us to go!
Again we go back to verses 14 and 15. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up. Of course, Jesus was comparing his future sacrifice to the salvation method in the desert. John Shelby Spong rightly says, “It is a powerful image.”
- Jesus is God’s ONLY son! We are able to become adopted sons and daughters by believing in Jesus’ sacrifice (John 1:12), but God only had one son, and it was that son that paid the price for our sins. In the Greek, this wording indicates that God gave his best, most unique gift possible. How much more should we do the same!
- Liberal theologians (I’m thinking of the book Underground Church, by Rev Robin Meyers) state that the “good news” isn’t just about what happens after death. That is part true. It isn’t JUST about what happens after death, but this verse certainly makes it mostly about that! My other favorite verse in John, 14:6, also makes John’s point more about what happens after death than not. I think this is one of the distinctive marks of John’s Gospel.
I understand the value of telling someone what the gospel means now in this life on earth. Each of us is bombarded with the requirements of life. To know that the gospel means something now is very good! This is especially true since the gospel is sometimes all the downtrodden have.
However, the ultimate restoration presented in John 3:16 has nothing to do with this current Earth. It is much more about the Earth and Heaven to come. When John wrote Revelation, he was telling his readers about that restoration. He was letting them know that they should hold on in the face of persecution. He seemed to say, “God is coming back, and he’s going to fix everything someday. Just keep holding on to the good news!”
Some call that escapism (especially as it relates to the rapture), but it’s actually what the gospel is all about. God is restoring humanity through Jesus, his only son, because he LOVES the world!
- “Should not perish, but…” This is the crux of the matter. Pick life over death. Accept Jesus over oneself. Pick true Christianity over other religions. However you slice it, the point is that there are only two options. Either accept Jesus’ sacrifice, or die.
Final Thoughts: I could write so much more about John 3:16. Like 14:6, it is a bedrock verse of our faith. In this verse we have the gospel…the good news. God did not leave us to our own devices. He did not demand petty sacrifice like so many other “gods.” No, he became the sacrifice because HE LOVED US! If you haven’t made your decision today, please do so. This life is the time to make the decision and today is a great day to do it!
 Carson, D A. The Gospel According to John. William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, MI, 1991. Pg 203.
 Brown, Raymond E., Edited by Francis J. Moloney. An Introduction to the Gospel of John. Doubleday. New York, NY, 2003. Pg 40.
 Spong, John Shelby. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. Harper One. New York, NY, 2013. Pg 12.
 The Gospel According to John, pg 35.
 I’m working on a much longer project to be unveiled in the not-too-soon-future, but don’t let this information bother you. That John didn’t write every line in the book named for him shouldn’t rock our faith to the foundations. In fact, the editor of John chapter three actually expands on Jesus’ words and simply provides a backdrop to what Jesus and Nicodemus discussed. If there is more than one author, then they were faithful enough to the story to provide consistency. We know, of course, that God is the ultimate editor of his book anyway (II Tim 3:16).
 The Fourth Gospel, pg 92.
 The Gospel According to John, pg 204.