The Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 16, is one of the all-time beloved and well-known verses in the entire Bible. It is frequently called the “golden text” of Scripture.
One might be shocked to learn, therefore, that this great passage is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented texts of the Word of God. Many sincere people, who dearly cherish John 3:16, have little idea what this marvelous verse actually is teaching.
In a brief study, let us carefully look at the passage in its constituent elements.
In the Greek New Testament, John 3:16 begins with the conjunction gar, which is used to explain a foregoing statement. In this case, the writer has just alluded to an historical situation that occurred in the days of Moses.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up”( John 3:14 — ASV).
After the Israelites were led from Egyptian bondage into the wilderness of Sinai, many of them began to murmur against Jehovah. Accordingly, the Lord sent fiery serpents among them as a mode of punishment. When the people acknowledged their sin and sought deliverance, God instructed Moses to fashion a serpent out of brass, and set it upon a standard. Any person who “looked” upon the serpent would live (cf. Numbers 21:4-9).
It must be observed that the desired cure was not to be realized in simply “believing” that such could occur; rather, in addition to having faith in the Lord, the Israelite who sought healing was required to obediently look upon the image.
The incident of the serpent was, of course, typical of the death of Christ, i.e., it was a symbol or picture. Note the use of the connective, “even so,” in verse 14 (cf. Luke 11:30).
Jesus Christ, consistent with the divine plan of redemption, must die, and in a manner whereby he would be “lifted up” (cf. John 12:32). This was accomplished by the Lord’s death on the cross (cf. John 8:28).
The object of all of this was that “whosoever believeth may in him (en auto — dative case of location — cf. Ephesians 1:4) have eternal life” (v. 15). Eternal life is thus located “in Christ” (cf. 2 Timothy 2:10), and that realm is entered by baptism, which is the culminating act of the conversion process (Romans 6:4; Galatians 3:27). This background, therefore, leads up to the introduction of John 3:16.
...God so loved...
It is here affirmed that God so loved the world. The term “God” is the designation of the divine nature, and so can be employed of either the Father (Ephsians 1:3); of Jesus, the Son (John 1:1); or of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). In this verse, obviously “God” is used of the Father, who gave his Son.
How wonderfully the love of God is here portrayed. Unlike the gods of paganism, who were vicious and cruel, and also the cold and indifferent “god” of modern philosophy, the God of the Bible is loving (2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 John 4:8,16).
The term “loved” translates the Greek verb agapao. The noun form agape is not a love which is merely emotional. It is the love of genuine interest, that of determined dedication. It is the love which acts out of concern for others. W. E. Vine observed that agapao, as used of God:
“expresses the deep and constant love and interest of a perfect Being towards entirely unworthy objects, producing and fostering a reverential love in them towards the Giver, and a practical love towards those who are partakers of the same, and a desire to help others to seek the Giver” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. III, p. 21).
It is this magnanimous love of God that motivates man to seek his grace. John once wrote: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The extent of divine love is underscored by the use of the adverb “so” (houtos), a term marking the degree of intensity. God thus loved; not passively, but actively; to the extent of giving his precious Son, his “fellow” (cf. Zechariah 13:7), for human redemption.
The Greek word for world is kosmos. In a literal sense, the term denotes the orderly universe created by the intelligent God (Acts 17:24), or, in a more limited sense, the earth (Mark 16:15). Frequently, though, “world” stands for all people of the earth —this is a figure of speech known as metonymy; in this case, the container is put for the contents, i.e., the world stands for its inhabitants. The passage therefore emphasizes the universal love of God.
The doctrine of predestination, as expressed in the old Westminster Confession of Faith (1643), and still believed by many today, taught that:
“. . . By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestined unto everlasting life, and others foreordained to everlasting death” (Art. III).
This doctrine suggested that God, consistent with his own sovereignty, had determined to save some, and damn others. Hence, actually, a person is utterly helpless as to his eternal fate.
The notion is patently false and is a reflection upon the character of Jehovah. Christ affirmed that he came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). But “many” is an expression meaning “all” (see 1 Timothy 2:6; cf. Romans 5:12,15). Yes, God’s grace appeared “bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). Truly, God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9).
It is important to point out, of course, that only the elect will be saved. But the elect are those who, of their own free will, determine to accept the Lord’s offer of salvation. And so, certain passages, dealing with the death of Christ, are focused especially upon them (cf. “. . . Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it,” — Ephesians 5:25). Such passages as this one, however, do not negate the many that affirm the potential salvation for any who will obey (Hebrews 5:8-9).
God loves the whole world and wants all to be saved, but he will force no one to yield to his plan!
...that he gave...
Giving is characteristic of God. He has given us life (Acts 17:25), and his gifts of providence are daily evident (Acts 14:17). He is the source of all good gifts (James 1:17), and the greatest was the gift of his Son. Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah announced: ". . . a child is born. . . a son is given. . . " (9:6). Surely we must say with Paul: “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
It is quite apparent, however, that even when a gift is made available, for it to be effective, one must be willing to receive it. There must be a concurrence between the will of the giver and the will of the benefactor. Now the tragic fact of the matter is, though God willingly gave his Son, not all have been disposed to receive him. Of some it was said: ". . . they that were his own received him not. . . " (John 1:11). Men do have the power to reject gifts!
Further, it is certainly true that an object may be freely given, i.e., not deserved, and yet be conditional. In the days of ancient Israel, Jehovah informed Joshua, "See, I have given into your hand Jericho. . . " (Joshua 6:2). In spite of the fact that Jericho was a gift, the Lord subsequently specified instructions for the taking of the city. An inspired writer later comments: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were compassed about seven days” (Hebrews 11:30).
Similarly, those who would receive Christ, as God’s gracious gift, must submit to the conditions required by the Lord and his apostles (cf. Acts 2:41).
...his only begotten Son...
“Only begotten” renders the Greek monogenes, found nine times in the New Testament (five of these of Christ — John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; 1 John 4:9). The term derives from two roots, monos (only, alone) and genos (race, stock).
In the contexts in which it applies to Jesus, it undoubtedly denotes that he is “unique in kind” (F.W. Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon, University of Chicago, 2000, p. 658). It is used “to mark out Jesus uniquely above all earthly and heavenly beings” (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed., Zondervan, Vol. II, p. 725). “In its significance monogenes relates to the several areas: (1) being or nature (uniquely God’s Son), (2) the revelation of God to man (John 1:18), (3) salvation through the Son (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9)” (Everett F. Harrison, Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, Hendrickson, 1999, p. 386). The term has no reference to the origin of Christ.
[Note: there is nothing in the term monogenes to indicate that Christ was “the eternal Son of God,” as some have suggested. For a refutation of that theory, see “Was Jesus the ‘Son of God’ Eternally?” www.christiancourier.com.]
The Lord Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by: the prophets (Isaiah 9:6); angels (Luke 1:32); the Father (Matthew 3:17); himself (Mark 14:62); his disciples (Matthew 16:16); his enemies (Matthew 27:54); and, by the power of his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4).
...that whosoever believeth on him...
Again, the term “whosoever” (literally, “everyone”) reveals the universality of God’s saving plan. The gospel is addressed to “the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), and, as the final great invitation of the Bible has it, “. . . he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).
The word “believeth” is a present tense participle, literally, therefore, “the keeping on believing ones.” But exactly what is the biblical “belief” of which God approves?
Some have defined the term as simply an acceptation of the historical facts regarding Christ, along with a willingness to trust him as Savior. This is the view of those who advocate the doctrine of salvation by “faith alone.” But the truth is, there is more to faith than a mental disposition.
The verb “believe” in the Greek New Testament is pisteuo. In addition to the acknowledgment of the historical data, and a trusting disposition, the word also includes the meaning, “to comply,” as Liddell & Scott observe in their Greek Lexicon, (Oxford, 1869, p. 1273); and, as they further point out, it is the opposite of apisteo, which means “to disobey. . . refuse to comply” (p. 175).
Prof. Hermann Cremer noted that “faith” (pistis) both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament “is a bearing towards God and His revelation which recognizes and confides in Him and in it, which not only acknowledges and holds to His word as true, but practically applies and appropriates it” (Biblico-Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, T. & T. Clark, 1962, p. 482; emp. added). W. E. Vine declared that faith involves “a personal surrender” to Christ (Expository Dictionary, Vol. II, p. 71).
Lexicographer J.H. Thayer noted that belief is “used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e. a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah — the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon, T. & T. Clark, 1958, p. 511; emp. added).
Saving faith cannot be divorced from obedience as the following evidence clearly reveals.
Belief and disobedience are set in vivid contrast in the Bible. Note this verse: “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36 — ASV; emp. added). Similarly, the Israelites of the Old Testament that were “disobedient” were condemned “because of unbelief” (see Hebrews 3:18,19; 4:3,6).
While John 3:16 promises eternal life to him who believes, Hebrews 5:9 attributes eternal salvation to such as who obey, thus demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive, rather, saving faith includes obedience!
The New Testament often uses “faith” as a synecdoche (a figure of speech whereby the part is made to stand for the whole) to denote the sum total of gospel obedience.
For instance, Paul wrote: "Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God. . . " (Romans 5:1). That this means more than mere mental faith is proved by Paul’s own conversion. He believed in Jesus’ Lordship while yet on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:10), but he enjoyed no peace for three days subsequent thereto; until he was baptized in water in obedience to the Lord’s command (Acts 22:16; 9:18,19).
Other components in the plan of salvation sometimes figuratively represent the entire process. Repentance is said to result in life (Acts 11:18), but certainly not repentance alone! And baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21), but not baptism by itself.
Biblical faith, therefore, is the faith that lovingly works (Galatians 5:6) in obeying the Lord’s requirements for implementing the new birth (John 3:3-5). And in the maintenance of the Christian life. The notion that salvation is effected by “faith alone” is strictly a human doctrine.
...should not perish...
Contrary to the assertions of some religious materialists, the Scriptures do not teach that the wicked will ultimately cease to exist. The Greek word, here rendered “perish,” is apollumi — a very strong term meaning “to destroy utterly.”
That apollumi does not suggest annihilation is clear in that this word is employed to describe the miserable condition of the prodigal son, when separated from his loving father. In that state the son was “lost” (Luke 15:24), but he had not ceased to exist.
As Vine pointed out: “the idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (Expository Dictionary, Vol. I, p. 302). Prof. Thayer declared, with extreme clarity, that apollumi suggests “to be delivered up to eternal misery” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 4).
In this connection one should carefully study Matthew 25:46 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9. The abiding separation of the wicked from God will entail an eternal suffering! This passage is an eloquent refutation of both the materialistic theory of the annihilation of the wicked, and the modernistic assertion of universal salvation.
...but have eternal life.
Eternal life is here promised to those who pursue the life of obedient trust. But exactly what is eternal life?
Most assuredly it is not mere eternal existence, for the wicked will exist eternally. Eternal life is the exact opposite of everlasting death. The final abode of evil persons is called “the second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14). Since “death” always connotes the idea of separation, in some form or another (cf. Ephesians 2:1), the final death is obviously eternal separation from God (cf. Matthew 7:23; 25:41; 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Conversely, eternal life is everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory (Romans 2:10; 2 Corinthians 4:17), rest (Hebrews 4:11), and happiness (Matthew 25:21).
John 3:16 is truly a marvelous text. But it is deeper and much richer than many have supposed. May we be wise enough to study its truths in the light of the Bible as a whole. It contains history, responsibility, warning, and promise.