I was supposed to teach John 3:1-21 over a week ago in college group, but my car is currently out of commission and I was unable to get to church until well after our Bible study started :(, so my colleague Zephaniah went ahead and taught it. He did a fine job as always, but since I don’t want to feel like my time preparing was a waste, I’ll write a blog post on the passage. I’m also bored :). I’ll focus mostly on 3:16-21 so this post isn’t too long.
John 3:1-21 contains two famous sayings of Jesus: John 3:3, where Jesus says one must be born again (or from above) to see the kingdom of God, and of course, John 3:16, the most famous verse in the entire Bible. Though John (and the Gospels in general) are not as concerned about chronological sequence as modern history writers would be, it’s obvious this is still in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and, therefore, still at the start of his self-revelation as the Word who became flesh (John 1). Sometime after Jesus’ first temple cleansing (obviously I take it John 2’s account is a different event than the Synoptics’), Nicodemus shows up to have a chat with Jesus, and it is here that Jesus says that one must be born again (or from above) to see the kingdom of God. The idea is that a radical transformation is needed, wrought by the Holy Spirit, to enter into God’s kingdom.
Then comes Jesus’ famous words:
16 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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
John 3:16: “Whoever Believes…”
John 3:16 is known even among non-Christians, and it is so often recited that it might seem “old” and annoying even to Christians. However, there is a reason why it is the most famous verse in the Bible. It was called the “miniature Gospel” by Martin Luther, and that sentiment is echoed by many Christian thinkers in history who see the verse as a powerful summation of the Gospel message. There are, perhaps, people who try to draw a bit too much out of it; I read a transcript of a sermon by Jerry Vines on the verse and he curiously claimed that it refuted annihilationism, and while I am not an annihilationist, there is nothing there that would do that. Still, it is packed by significant theology that deserves consideration and very well may challenge some theological biases people have.
For starters, to say that God “so loved the world” often gives the connotation that God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son. While that is no doubt true and can be concluded from the text, the meaning of “so” in Greek is more along the lines that God loved the world “in this manner” or “in this way.” It’s not as common a use of “so” in English anymore, but those who have watched Star Trek may remember that Captain Picard likes to say “Make it so,” meaning “Do it that way.” Thus, it is emphasizing the way God loved the world, and that is by sending his one and only Son as a sacrifice. It is a self-sacrificial love, which is again repeated by the Apostle John in his epistle, 1 John 4:9-11. It is not merely the intensity of God’s love that should amaze us, it is the manner in which he loved: He sacrificially gave of himself. If you really think about it, this is a scandalous statement for a transcendent God.
What was the object of God’s love? The world. “World” in Greek, as well as in John’s writings, can mean different things based upon the context. It can mean the physical world, it can mean everyone in the world, or it can mean forces or patterns of the world that are opposed to God (thereby distinguishing the things of God and those of the world, such as in 1 John 2:15-17). These need not always be mutually exclusive, but here I believe it is very clear that the emphasis is the second meaning. God loved “the world,” everyone, and gave his Son. Some people try to get away from this and argue that “world” means “all nations in the world” or something along those lines, but that simply does not fit usages in John’s writings, nor does it fit the context of “whoever believes.” Nations or people groups are not in mind here; every person who resides in the world is.
For what purpose did God send his Son? Clearly, for the dual purpose that whoever believes in him shall A) not perish but instead B) have eternal life. Let me make this clear: The text is forthrightly saying that he who believes shall not perish but have eternal life. The importance of true, trusting faith is emphasized here. It does not say “whoever has been mysteriously chosen by God in eternity past.” Nor does it say “whoever has been made to have faith by the Holy Spirit.” It says “he who believes.” I listened to a Calvinist youth pastor once try to argue that Romans 10:9 should instead be read that if you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus resurrected from the dead, that shows that you are already saved and the Holy Spirit made you believe. While this fits Calvinist theology, it does not fit that text which clearly says that you will be saved, nor does it fit John 3:16. A theology that demotes the importance of believing faith, which Scripture never does, needs some serious re-consideration, whether its proponents intentionally do it or not.
What is the content of this faith, or rather, who is it? It’s Jesus; “whoever believes in him.” At this point in his ministry, all the details of his death and resurrection would not be known by anyone, but nonetheless that trust in him as the Messiah and the Son of God is what saves, which of course now would imply that one trusts his sacrifice for sin and resurrection. This is not merely intellectual assent but choosing to follow Jesus.
Salvation and condemnation
Verses 17 and 18 flesh out verse 16. In v. 17, it reiterates that God’s intention is not to condemn the world but to save the world (again, everyone) through the Son. However, verse 18 states the reality of judgment and prevents an imbalanced view of John 3:16 and 17: While those who believe in Christ are not condemned, those who do not believe stand condemned already. This does not mean that they are in a perpetual state of condemnation and they were determined by God to be that way; it clearly states that the reason they stand condemned is “because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Again, believing faith is what is in view here. Romans 3:23 gives us a hint as to why they are condemned, and that is because all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. The only remedy is faith in Christ, so it stands to reason that those who have not believed (perfect tense, signifying a past action with present consequences) stand condemned of their sins, while those who do believe are not (echoed in Romans 8:1). The implication is that when someone does believe in Jesus, he passes from a state of condemnation to a state of salvation.
Light and darkness
Verse 19 gives us the final verdict or judgment: Light has come into the world in the form of Jesus, but people loved darkness instead, and reason they did so was because their deeds were evil. Evildoers naturally do not want their deeds exposed as such, so they avoid the light (verse 20). This rejection of Jesus leaves them in their state of darkness and condemnation. This is not to say, again, that this state is guaranteed to be perpetual, but rather that the final verdict is that those who do not believe in Jesus are those who love darkness rather than light.
However, those who live by truth, and here the truth is about the Son of God, come into the light (v. 20), since they do not fear it. The purpose for that is so that it may be clearly seen that his lifestyle is “in God.” Essentially, what the light exposes is a contrast between those who decide to live in darkness and those who live by the truth. The light comes in and shows darkness for what it is; many people decide to hate the light and recede into the darkness, but others see the truth and come towards it.
What’s the main idea for John 3:16-21? I think it can put like this: Because God lovingly and sacrificially gave his Son Jesus for the salvation of everyone, put your faith in him so that you will not perish but instead have eternal life. And that, of course, is the Gospel in sum, though surely it is helpful to add the details of his death for sin and his resurrection. It is easy to be bored of this passage because people wear John 3:16 signs at baseball games and belt it out all the time, but taken in context, it presents a powerful picture of a God who reaches down to a condemned world to offer deliverance. The only thing that compels him to do so is his love. As the text states, people are already in a state of wrath because of their sin. However, if one accepts God’s offer, he is saved through no merit of his own. That is the good news. That is the God we worship. It should never cease to amaze us.