Last night I preached at Bethel Baptist Church in North Vernon on who Jesus was, what Jesus did, and what it means to believe in him. (You can find the audio here). My text was John 3:16, actually John 3:14–16, and I sought to help those at Bethel’s revival service to understand how God is inviting them to come and be saved by faith in his Son.
John 3:16 is the gospel in miniature, a veritable gold mine for precious truth, and a passage that solidifies the believer’s faith with every word. Indeed, it seems that every single word contributes to the beauty of the verse. So, with that in mind, I want to run through the verse, word-by-word.
While there are many so-called ‘gods’ in the world (even if someone doesn’t call them what they are), there is only One, True, and Living God. He is the triune God who has existed eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The One who promised to turn back the curse through Abraham’s offspring, the holy God who gave Moses the law, the God who promised an eternal throne to a son of David, the God who inspired the prophets, and turned all of history to bring salvation to the world through the Incarnation of God the Son.
Specifically, in John 3:16 “God” refers to the Father, the One sent his Son to redeem the world. In this sense, he is not some angry deity in the sky who demands blood atonement; he is the loving Father who redeemed sinners by the voluntary death of the Son. This is the God of John 3:16.
It is not surprising that John said this. He describes himself as “the beloved disciple,” not because he was conceited but because, he was amazed by God’s love. Twice in his first letter, he says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). In context, he says that God “so loved” because he was indicating by what manner God loved the world. This statement does not key in on the magnitude of God’s love, though his love is as high as the heavens. Rather, John 3:16 focuses on the way that God loves us: He loves us in this way . . . he gave his son for us.
The same idea is found in 1 John 3:1, where he says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” God’s love is manifested towards the world by sending his Son to die in our place, and by bringing us into the family of God. This is an glorious reality.
Because of Jesus Christ, we who deserve everlasting death are brought into the same relationship as Jesus Christ. He is the Son of God by nature and obedience; we are sons of God by grace and adoption. But the love that he has for you is the same that he has for his Son. This should amaze us, because we are a part of the world.
Who is the world? Though it is debated, it is probably the totality of the believers and unbelievers. In John’s day, the world should be set against the Jews. For instance, in the Old Testament, the Jews saw God as their Savior, coming to deliver them from the enemies (the Gentile world). However, with Jesus conversation standing at the beginning of John 3, he is expanding his reach from ethnic Israel to the world–Jews and Gentiles. Something similar happens in John 4, when Jesus brings salvation to the Samaritans and is called the “Savior of the World” (John 4:42). So in John 3:16, Jesus is God’s gift to all people, everywhere—Jewish or otherwise.
But, there is more we can say about God’s love. He does not love the world in its pristine, redeemed state. Rather, John 3:16 beholds a world at war against God. He loves the sick and rebellious younger son who has squandered his money on harlots and heroine. He also loves the well-dressed ingrate who despises his father’s generosity. In this way, he loves all the sinful world—not for their sin, mind you. He loves the world so much that he is going to save the world from their sin. D. A. Carson, puts it like this:
The vast majority [of uses of kosmos] are decidedly negative. There are no unambiguously positive occurrences. The ‘world,’ or frequently ‘this world,’ is not the universe, but the created order (especially of human beings and human affairs) in rebellion against its Maker. Therefore when John tells us that God loves the world (3:16), far from benign an endorsement of the world, it is a testimony to the character of God. God’s love is to be admitted not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad.
Only in the darkness of a world that extinguished the sun, can the light of God be seen for what it is. God loves the world in this way.
The word ‘that’ indicates purpose. “That” connects God’s attitude with his actions. And it gives us a paradigm that says that whatever God wants, God gets. Unlike our selfishness, which craves all sorts of self-absorbed pleasures; every attitude of God is pure and perfect. Thus, when we say that he gets everything he desires, we are simply saying with Job “nothing thwarts the will of God” (Job 42:1), or with Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
Thus, while taking up just a little space, we can find great truth in the purpose clause “that.” His love is so great, “that he gave his Son.” Accordingly, all that God intended in sending his Son would be accomplished. Unlike you and I, he is not a frustrated deity. He gets what he wants . . . and what he wants is to save the world!
The word John uses here is a typical, everyday word in the New Testament. And so it is today. People give and re-give all the time. Some people wait a whole year to “regift” unwanted presents. People sometimes give with false motives or becaue of a sense of forced obligation. So, giving can be misleading.
But not so in John 3:16. In John 3:16, God gives his very best. He gives for no other reason than his own love. And gives in such a way that all the world learns that God is good and true, merciful and mighty. He gives his Son and implied in this word is the idea of God “giving him up” to die on Calvary. God’s gift of the Son is not just seen in the incarnation; he gave his Son the work of dying for the world. And in this way, God’s gift becomes the standard of every other gift. To know his gift is to know true love, and to receive this gift is to know eternal life.
His Only Son
Most older translations will say, “God’s only begotten son.” This is probably not the best translation. It gives the impression that God does not have any other children. At one level it is true; however, John 1:12 clearly teaches that we are children, not begotten by the will of men, but by the will of God. Thus, a better translation is that Jesus is the “the one and only Son.” Jesus is unique—uncreated, co-eternal, God incarnate.
Now consider what this means: God who is free to do as he pleases, chooses to redeem a fallen people, and the way that he does it is by sending his Son, his one and only Son, to be a substitute for a sinful people. When you read this fact in context, “God gave his Son to be a substitute. Romans 8:32 puts it like this, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
By sending his Son, and later his Spirit, he ensures that his purchase will be effective. God gives his son in exchange for a bride, for a people for his own possession. And because his Son is sinless, he cannot be contained by death, and so he leads back the people for whom he died. And this brings us to the next purpose clause.
Because God the Father and God the Son have done all the work we are now given the free offer of salvation. Thus, if the first purpose clause moved God’s love to send his son, the second purpose clause secured salvation for all who believe. So here is the progression: in the mind of God, long before he created the world, God set his love on a people for his own possession. Such love caused him to create the universe. Knowing that the world would fall, he planned to send his Son into the world to redeem his beloved children. Jesus agreed such that Peter could say that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world. So secure was God’s plan that even before Christ took on flesh, it could be said that Christ chose his beloved saints in Christ. Now in John 3:16, we find this plan in action: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that . . .
“Whoever’ indicates that the offer is to all people everywhere. The offer is to you! While not everyone will receive Christ’s offer of salvation, his call is universal and without constraint. In context, this goes against the grain of Israel’s privileged status.
Just a few verses earlier, Jesus has an important conversation about who can enter the kingdom of God. In Nicodemus’s mind—as with all good Jews in first century Palestine—the circumcised Jew who keeps covenant will enter the kingdom of God. But Jesus, appealing to outpouring of the Spirit and the start of the New Covenant, points to the new birth, which brings a different kind of circumcision.
Those who are born again will enter the kingdom of God. And how is the new birth evidenced? Through faith in Jesus Christ. So it goes, the gospel is preached to all people everywhere. As the gospel goes forward, the Spirit opens hearts, gives sight to blind eyes, grants repentance, and enables faith. And when those people hear the voice of their shepherd, they respond in faith—which brings the next word.
The word itself is used at the end of John 2. There John records that many “believed” in Jesus’s name. However, Jesus did not ‘entrust’ himself to them. Or, using a coy word play, Jesus didn’t “believe” in them whose hearts were deceitful.
Countering a false profession that ultimately trusts in itself, Jesus suggests that those who truly believe in the Son will be saved. The rest of John’s gospel unfolds this and explains that saving faith receives God’s testimony, hears the words of God and believes. True faith comes to Jesus and continues to follow him. Faith that saves feeds on Jesus, such that the one believing walks in the light and loves God and his ways. All in all, saving faith is a faith that arises from the new birth and that is evidenced by a life of faith working itself out in love.
Indeed, saving faith is faith in Christ. Thankfully, salvation is not secured by the strength of our faith. Salvation is secured by faith in the Son (see 1 John 5:12–13). John 3:16 is beautifully simple. All those who believe on Christ will be saved. Those who do not believe will . . . perish.
Should Not Perish
Jesus’s words bring a severe warning: those who do not believe are left to experience judgment, wrath, the law’s curse, bitterness, emptiness, separation, and death. There is no good thing that remains for those who refuse to believe. Perishing in this verse is more than just non-existence; it is the eternal torment of knowing that one rejected God and it is the active judgment of God which eternally destroys those who do not believe.
By inverse, these words offer the believer a promise of protection from judgment and hell. For those who believe, all condemnation is gone. The curse of the law has been broken. The bitterness, emptiness, and impurity of sin will be forever removed. All threats of death, separation, and despair have been removed. Indeed, for those trusting in Christ, it can be said that they have eternal life.
But Have Eternal Life
This is the positive promise: Those who trust in Christ will enjoy eternal, abundant life. While life is promised eternally, it begins the moment we come to know Jesus Christ. In this way, eternal life is both a measurement of time (John 6:58) and a quality of life with Lord (John 10:10). It is the personal knowledge of the infinite, triune God. John 17:3 says that eternal life is to know God and his only Son.
Indeed, this is why Christ came to bring salvation to the world. And hence it is worth our time and eternity to ponder this truth, one word at a time.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds