For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
— John 3:16 —
John 3:16 is a glorious diamond, but it only one jewel in the crown of John 3.
Many times we quote, hear, and share John 3:16 without its context in John’s Gospel. This is not a bad thing. A single diamond is beautiful, but set in an engagement ring or on a king’s crown, the placement makes the diamond better. The same is true when we put John 3:16 back into the Bible and see what comes around it.
In what follows, I outline ten things about John 3:1–21 to help us better understand this whole section of John’s Gospel.
1. The flow of John 2–4 moves from light to darkness.
It is well recognized that John’s Gospel turns on the themes of light and darkness. Already in John 1:9 we heard John say, “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” Later, Jesus will say, “I am the light of the world” (8:12). But what about in between? Is there a theme of light dawning in chapters 2–8? I believe there is, or at least we see a progression of light in John 2–4. Consider this outline:
Cana in Galilee
John the Baptist
Woman at the Well
Cana in Galilee
Healed the Sick
In this outline, that is framed by Jesus’s time in Cana, we see that Jesus encounters a number of different people, with different experiences (or exposures) to his light. For instance, Nicodemus comes at night and is in the dark, with respect to Jesus. The woman at the well, by contrast, comes to Jesus at midday (the sixth hour, which is noon) and she, though a Samaritan woman, with five husbands, is given insight into who Jesus is. In between, John the Baptist who bore witness to the light (1:6) is observed testifying to Christ again.
In these narratives, there is a movement from Galilee to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem to Galilee again. There is not a straight linear illumination, where light increases consistently and continually. Rather, like dawn breaking over a jagged mountain range, there are places that see the light while others remain in the shadows.
All in all, there is a clear indication that the light of God is rising, and how people respond to this light—that is to Christ—determines the condition of the person. Interestingly, those who “should” see the light (Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel) does not. Those who are perceived to be in darkness (the Samaritans) are given eyes to see the light. In this way, John sets up the reversal Jesus will explicate later in John 9:39, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
2. Nicodemus is a larger-than-life figure.
John 3 starts with a man named Nicodemus. In the context of the Bible, this figure is much like Zacchaeus (Luke 19) or Joseph of Arimithea, whom Nicodemus will be paired with later in John’s Gospel (see John 19:39). Yet, from clues in the text and from the history of Israel, Nicodemus is a larger-than-life figure.
To capture his preeminence, we need to think of contemporary names like Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, or Kardashian. Nicodemus, according to Jewish records was a name associated with one leading family in Israel’s history. Citing Richard Bauckham (“Nicodemus and the Gurion Family,” in Testimony of the Beloved Disciple), Edward Klink observes,
Only four Palestinian Jews between 330 BC and AD 200 had the name Nicodemus, and all four belonged to the same family: the Gurion family. After reconstructing the Gurion family and seeing the clear connection between Gurion and the name Nicodemus, Bauckham concludes that Nicodemus was a member of “a single, very wealthy, very prominent Jerusalem family of Pharisaic allegiance.’ The very name Nicodemus, which means ‘conqueror of the people,’ along with the military meaning behind the name Gurion suggests that “the family’s unusual and distinctive names are those appropriate to military heroes. So it may be that the first Gurion or the first . . . Nicodemus was a successful general in the Hasmonean period, won the name in the first place as a laudatory nickname, and received landed estates as a reward for his distinguished service.” (John, 194)
From this history, we discover Nicodemus’s name is not singularly famous; he is famous in association with a leading clan in Israel. And thus, his name conjures up some of the most important leaders in the generations before Jesus.
On top of this, John highlights his prominence in three ways. First, in addition to his name (“conqueror of the people”) and family heritage, John highlights his position. He is a ruler of the Jews. This supports his family heritage and strengthens his placement in the Jerusalem hierarchy. Later in John (7:50), we will see him debating with other leaders in Jerusalem.
Second, he is a Pharisee (v. 1) and a “teacher of Israel” (v. 10). Nicodemus is not just a ruler, but he is an educated ruler with convictions for keeping the law and teaching others to do the same. As a Pharisee, he would be well-versed with the whole Old Testament and quite certain us his own righteousness in keeping the Law.
Third, we also know that Nicodemus was wealthy. John 19:39 records that in preparing Jesus’s body for burial he brought 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. Compare this to Mary, who brought one pound of expensive ointment, which was equal to a year’s wages (12:3). In this comparison, we see the resources that Nicodemus possessed. Through his “righteousness” he had become a wealthy, ruler of Israel.
Altogether, Nicodemus is a larger-than-life figure. He is a real person, but he is also caricature of the strongest form of Judaism in Jesus day. Thus, he comes to Jesus’s at night, seeking to know who Jesus is. Or, perhaps seeking to prove who Jesus isn’t. It’s difficult to tell exactly what is motivating Nicodemus, but clearly this is a colossal competition between the one named “the conqueror of the peoples” and the one whose name means “Yahweh is salvation.”
3. Nicodemus represents a larger group un/believers.
Advancing this larger-than-life picture, John 3 also presents Nicodemus as representing a group and not just speaking for himself. Though, Nicodemus is presented alone in the night-time meeting, his words indicate he comes as a representative for others. And interestingly, Jesus responds to him in both the singular and the plural. Let’s look.
First, verse 2 records that, “This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” John’s record of this conversation is worth close consideration. For instance, the word “man” (see v. 1, anthropos) seems to pick up John 2:25 (Jesus knew what was in a man). In this way, John is presenting Nicodemus as representing all of mankind.
In Nicodemus’s words, however, he is representing the Jews, for whom he is a ruler. He states, “we know you are a teacher . . .” The “we” clearly identifies Nicodemus as a representative of a larger group. Even more the mention of “signs” connects to John 2:23 and those who believed because of many signs.
It is difficult to decide if Nicodemus himself “believed” those signs, or if as a ruler of the Jews, he felt the need to prove Jesus’s wrong. Indeed, if Nicodemus is a believer in the signs and thus a true seeker, then he is the only Pharisee in the book portrayed positively. Indeed, by the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus is shown to side with Jesus, not against him. However, it is premature to place that latter faith in John 3. It seems more likely, that Nicodemus, in his exalted status in Israel, was the chosen warrior to come and slay this Son of David. For clearly, Nicodemus comes representing the Jews, who are in staunch opposition to Jesus.
And Jesus, for his part, recognizes this. For in verse 11–12, he speaks to Nicodemus in the plural: “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you [all] do not receive our testimony. If I have told you [all] earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Noticeably, Jesus speaks for his “group” when he says “we speak of what we know” and he speaks to Nicodemus and his group when he says “You [pl.] do not receive our testimony.” In this way, we see that Jesus understands that this conversation is much bigger than an individual’s inquiry about salvation. This is a competition, or at least a non-negotiable contrast, between two systems of thought, two ways of salvation—the way of the Law and the way of the Spirit.
In fact, Jesus most powerful indictment of Nicodemus is aimed not at the man, but the people he rules and represents. In verse 7 he states, “Do not marvel that I said to you [sg.], ‘You [pl.] must be born again.” Don’t miss the deliberate change in voice. Jesus says to Nicodemus, the representative, “YOU ALL [i.e. the Jews you represent] must be born again!”
This is the crux of the whole matter. The Jews believed they would receive the kingdom promised to David by their righteous law-keeping. But Jesus cuts across the whole system, saying, “All of you must be born from again / from above.” In other words, “Your Jewish heritage will not save you or bring you into the kingdom. You need to be born by the Spirit of God.”
From this perspective, of two competing groups, represented by their two leading figures, we can see more clearly that Nicodemus is not coming neutrally. He is not a curious, but ignorant seeker. He is coming to assert his case and Jesus, in response, asserts his greater case. Wonderfully, God’s mercy will fall on Nicodemus, but that comes later. And not in John 3.
4. The greatness of Jesus finds its pinnacle in the cross.
In this late night showdown with Nicodemus, Jesus’s “bests” the great ruler of Israel. We can see this in the fact that Nicodemus leaves with nothing to say. While entering with a strong challenge in verse 2 (“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”), he leaves speechless. He sputters a four-word question and goes back out into the night.
Jesus, however, does not boast in “defeating” Nicodemus. Rather, Jesus’s greatness is seen in the way that he turns from shaming Nicodemus, questioning his role as Israel’s teacher (v. 10–12) to telling Nicodemus how the Son of Man will be “lifted up” (i.e., exalted). With thick irony, Jesus speaks of his exaltation in terms that will be fulfilled in the cross. Verses 13–15 read,
13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Notice what Jesus does with this self-reference. He acknowledges that he alone has come from heaven and that no one else has the revelation that he does. He even uses the language of Daniel 7:13–14 (Son of Man) to speak of himself as the one who stands before the throne. Yet, Jesus immediately turns from this glorious vision of the Son of Man to the cross, to the suffering that the Son of Man will experience.
Presumably, Nicodemus did not understand this. Jesus’s own disciples did not understand this prior to the resurrection. However, Jesus’s understood his role, and while he was the Son of God who deserved eternal praise, he was also the Son of Man who came to be lifted up like the serpent on the pole, so that those who believe in him might have life. Incredibly, as Jesus’s shames Nicodemus for trusting in himself, he immediately gives him the cure.
For Nicodemus and all of us, we must look away from ourselves—our family reputation, our titles, our positions, our knowledge, etc. Speechlessly, we must look to Jesus lifted on the pole, crucified in our place, so that his moment of shame can cover ours and his eternal righteousness can clothe us. Yes, I’m adding some categories to John 3, but it is important to see how Jesus’s showdown with Nicodemus leads to the cross. Jesus may expose our folly, but only so that he might lead his sheep to his wisdom.
5. John 3:16–21 is John’s explanation of Jesus’s Words.
Most English translations put John 3:16–21 in “Red Letters,” however, it is better to see John 3:16–21 as the Apostle’s explanation of Jesus’s words in verses 1–15. This is evident for a number of reasons. First, the word “For” (gar) indicates the explanatory purpose of John 3:16ff. John is explaining what Jesus is saying in these verses and tying Jesus’s words to the larger themes of eternal life, light, salvation and judgment that fill his Gospel.
Second, the change in voice between John 3:1–12 and John 3:13–21 signifies a difference. In the former, we find direct discourse between Jesus and Nicodemus, where the two speak in the first person or second person. But that changes in verse 13, where Jesus begins to speak in the third person (vv. 13–15) and John continues to speak in third person (vv. 16–21). The reason for a break after verse 15, however, instead of after verse 12 is because of the use of the word Son of Man, which is a title that is restricted to Jesus. Here’s how Colin Kruse puts this together,
The evangelist’s account of the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus begins at 3:2, and throughout 3:2-12 he uses second person forms, indicating direct speech. In 3:13 the use of the second person forms gives way to third person forms, which continue to be used throughout 3:13-21. This might suggest that the evangelist’s comments begin at 3:13. However, wherever the evangelist presents Jesus’ own statements involving the use of the expression ‘the Son of Man’ (1:51; 3:13, 14; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23; 13:31), they are always couched in third person forms. It would appear, then, that 3:13—15 continues the account of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, and that the evangelist’s comments begin at 3:16. (Kruse, John, 112n41)
Third, it would be unusual for Jesus to use the word monogenēs to refer to himself (John 3:16, 18). In the other uses, it John who uses that word to speak of Jesus (John 1:14, 18; 1 John 4:9). It would be even more unusual for Jesus to speak of God without the reference Father. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of God and to God, his Father. But in verses 16–21 all the references are to God and the only-begotten Son. This is strongly suggests John is speaking.
In the end, it is does not make a huge theological difference whether these are John’s words or Jesus’s. As far as inspiration goes, all of John’s words are technically the words of Jesus, as they are the inspired words of God. Yet, getting the structure right helps us hear what is being said and to see what John sees–which is a key theme in his Gospel.
6. “Born again” / “Born from above” is intentionally dual-intentioned.
Retracing our steps in John 3:1–21, we need to see how a few words and phrases should be understood. And not surprisingly, they relate to Old Testament passages.
The first example is the phrase “born again” or “born from above” in verse 3. As many commentators have noted, there is an ambiguity in the adverb translated “again.” It could also be translated (or understood) as “from above.” On this point, Edward Klink writes, “Jesus declares that a man must be born anew (anōthen). This term and our chosen translation are particularly important. While there are three possible meanings of the term, only two adverbial functions are possible here: 1) an adverb of time: again; or 2) an adverb of place: from above” (John, 196).
In the text, we can see this ambiguity too. In verse 2, Nicodemus speaks of Jesus as coming from God (a place), but in verse 4, after Jesus says “a man must be born anew / from above,” he responds with a temporal reference, “How is a man to be born . . . a second time?” Capturing this point, Klink continues, “Even though Nicodemus understands the adverb to be functioning temporally (v. 4), clearly Jesus is intending for it to function as an adverb of place.”
Indeed, following John 1:12–13, we see how Jesus is bringing life from above to his children below. Or to use the language of Psalm 87, he is looking to find in all the nations, people who are Zion-born. If you don’t remember Psalm 87, here is the main point: There are people from all over the world whose birthright is the city of God. And the city of God is associated with heaven above. Listen to these words,
4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush— “This one was born there,” they say. 5 And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”; for the Most High himself will establish her. 6 The Lord records as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”
In John’s Gospel, this is an ongoing theme: there are children of God who are born not by the flesh, but by the Spirit and they come not from Israel only, but also from other folds (nations). These are the ones who are born “in Zion.” Or, to use Jesus language, these are the ones born from above.
So, it is appropriate to see that John is using these term and allowing the ambiguity of place and time remain. Again, Klink is helpful,
Our translation of the term must allow for this duality of meaning, since it has to mean both “again” and “from above” in v. 3. To select one of the options is to misunderstand v. 3. The intentional ambiguity of this adverb is part of the plot. In this case, the adverb is doing something that requires both its meanings to be cooperatively in play. Nicodemus was both entirely correct in what he heard and at the same moment dead wrong. (196-97, emphasis mine)
This theme of seeing but not seeing is normative in the days prior to Jesus’s resurrection. But now as John writes, with the direction of the Spirit (see John 14:26), he is explaining how sight comes. It is not through the flesh, but through the new birth and the gift of the Spirit, which comes next and points in the same direction.
7. “Born of water and the spirit” refers to the new birth.
Next, we need to understand what “born of water and the spirit” means. To help us consider the options, Colin Kruse has nicely summarized the four main views. He writes, “This expression has been interpreted in four main ways,” and then lists:
- Baptism in water by John the Baptist and baptism in the Spirit by Jesus. All previous references to ‘water’ in this Gospel relate to John’s baptizing ministry (1:26, 31, 33), and in 1:33 his baptizing ministry with water is compared with Jesus’ baptizing ministry with the Spirit. In this case, Jesus would be saying that entrance to the kingdom involves submission to John’s baptism with water for repentance and Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit.
- Christian water baptism and spiritual regeneration. The original readers of this Gospel would have seen in the reference to water an allusion to Christian baptism (rather than John’s baptism), so the reference to being born of water and the Spirit would denote submission to Christian baptism, which in the early church was connected with the reception of the Spirit (cf. Acts 2:38).
- Natural birth and spiritual regeneration. Being born of water is for natural human birth, water being an allusion to either amniotic fluid or semen. Jesus was saying that to enter the kingdom one must be born spiritually as well as physically; by the Spirit as well as by water. In support of this view is the fact that in 3:6 Jesus contrasts being born of the flesh (physical birth) and being born of the Spirit (spiritual regeneration).
- Spiritual regeneration alone, depicted with a double metaphor. Elsewhere in this Gospel water functions as a metaphor for the Spirit (cf. 4:10, 13-15; 7:38), as it also does in places in the Old Testament (e.g. Ezek. 36:25–27). The expression ‘water and the Spirit’ is a hendiadys, a figure of speech using two different words to denote one thing, something suggested by the fact that both water’ and ‘Spirit’ are anarthrous (without the article) and governed by the one preposition (, lit. ‘of water and spirit’). Jesus is saying that to enter the kingdom one must be born of water — that is, of the Spirit. This view is preferable because it is also supported by the fact that in this passage Jesus uses a number of parallel expressions which are all related to seeing and entering the kingdom: 3:3: ‘born again/from above’; 3:5: ‘born of water and the Spirit’; 3:72 ‘born again/from above’; 3:8: ‘born of the Spirit’. If all these expressions are in fact parallel and synonymous, then to be ‘born again/from above’ and to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ mean the same as to be ‘born of the Spirit’. (Kruse, John, 115–16).
Following his lead (along with many others: Carson, Klink, et al.), I believe the best way to read this passage is in light of the Old Testament. In keeping with John’s dependence on the Old Testament, it makes sense to find his meaning in the Old Testament. And in keeping with John’s theme of new creation, it makes sense to see “water and spirit” going all the way back to Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit hovered above the waters and brought life to the world.
Indeed, as Kruse observes, water and spirit will continue to work together in John’s Gospel to describe the new creation life God is giving to his children, i.e., “those born of the water and the spirit.” At the same time, this new creation life is also prophesied in places like Ezekiel 36:25–27, which reads,
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Because John will also use Ezekiel 37 and its picture of wind/spirit blowing upon dead bones in John 3:8 (“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”), it is appropriate to see John referencing Ezekiel 36’s description of water for purification and the Spirit for obedient life in the kingdom.
All in all, by reading Jesus’s word with the Old Testament, we are given the best understanding of the text, one that is later confirmed by Titus 3:5 also (“he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,).
8. The condition of Israel in Jesus’s day is much like that of Israel in the wilderness.
Another connection with the Old Testament relates to the condition of Israel in Jesus day. Advocating strongly (more strongly than I would) the antagonism between Jesus and Nicodemus, Edward Klink explains why Jesus cites Number 21.
First, it is clear in Numbers 21 that the Israelites were not appropriately postured before God. They grew impatient (v. 4) and spoke directly against God and his assigned leader, Moses, freely rebuking God in a manner that reflected their own pride (v. 5). Just as the Israelites mocked and rebuked God, Nicodemus mocked and rebuked Jesus. By using this narrative, Jesus was making a parallel to what was so obvious in his conversation with Nicodemus as well as to something so obvious in the very nature of humanity: enacted rebellion and sin before God.
Second, it is clear in Numbers 21 that Moses served as the intercessor between the Israelites and God. It was only to Moses that the people could turn for relief from their suffering and their situation (v. 7), and it was only through Moses that the suffering was reversed and relationship was restored. Jesus’s statement in v. 14 makes this comparison clear by making an explicit connection between the “redemptive” work of Moses and the redemptive work of Christ.
There are, however, two important differences. First, the work of Moses was clearly depicted in Numbers 21:8 to be not his own doing but the gracious work of God simply funneled through him. In contrast, as much as God the Father is still entirely behind the work of Christ (cf. 3:16), it is also clear that Jesus is entirely behind the work as well. Second, the work of Moses involved something outside of himself (e.g., a staff), whereas the work of Christ necessarily involves himself, his own “flesh” (1:14). Moses’s lifting of the staff was temporary; what was needed was an intercessor who could provide a permanent ‘lifting’ of the staff (i.e., the cross).
In this reading of Numbers 21 that makes connection (via typology) between the serpent pole and Jesus, we see how Jesus both saw himself and explained himself with the Old Testament. John, following Jesus, does that same, highlighting again that the greatness of Jesus (over Nicodemus) is found in his weakness—i.e., his willingness to lay down his life as a sacrifice for his people. Incredibly, by appealing to Numbers 21, Jesus both rebukes Nicodemus and offers him a way of salvation, if he is willing to repent and believe. As Klink finishes his observations,
Jesus, though victorious over Nicodemus, can only truly win when he loses — when he is killed and declared the defeated. That is, the finale of Jesus’s postvictory speech is his ultimate defeat and an ultimate victory for Nicodemus. Jesus’s own carefully selected term, “lifted up” conveys a rich duality of meaning. In the context of the cross (the historical strand of the plot), the verb [lifted up] is able to speak of death, suffering, and defeat. But in its larger context (the cosmological strand of the plot), the verb is also able to speak of exaltation in majesty and glorification (cf. Acts 2:33). In this one word, the message of the gospel is presented. It is only in his humiliation that Jesus can be exalted and glorified. And it is at the center of this irony that humanity receives eternal life ‘from above” — from Jesus. To look at Jesus is to understand the necessity of the exalted Son of Man on a cross, to understand how a crucified God can become for the world the greatest thing imaginable. (John, 203)
From this reading of Numbers 21, Jesus explains his forthcoming death. And then, John following Jesus’s connection to the Old Testament, makes an explanation that connects Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus to the rest of his Gospel.
9. For God loves the world in this way.
If John 3:16 is given to explain what Jesus just said, we need to consider what it means. And it begins by seeing that the adverb “so” can and should be rendered “in this way.” Though many have taken John 3:16 to mean, “God loves the world so, so, so much,” the word “so” is better understood as a statement of manner, not degree. John focuses on the way that God loves the world: He loves the world in this way, namely he gave his Son for us.
The same idea is found in 1 John 3:1, where the apostle 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 his family. This is a glorious reality, that we who deserve everlasting death are brought into the same relationship as Jesus Christ. In fact, later in 1 John 3:16, God’s love is even defined by the cross of Christ: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
Thus, we see in God’s gift of his Son the love of the triune Father—the Father gave his Son, the Son gave himself, and the Spirit continues to pour out the love of God into the hearts of those for whom Christ died. And this is related to the final point.
10. Monergism is a theme that pervades John 3.
If monergism is an unfamiliar word, it simply conveys the point that salvation belongs to God, and not to man, nor to God and man. From start (eternity past) to finish (eternity future), God is the author, actor, and finisher of salvation. And this means that salvation is not something merely offered or even offered to all people; salvation is something that the sovereign God has initiated and will accomplish.
In our passage, we see this in multiple ways. First, entrance into the kingdom is granted to those who are born from above. The new birth is not something men can achieve or do. We are not commanded to “be born again.” We are commanded to believe. But as John teaches, this belief is found in the lives of those whom God grants life, the children born according to God’s will (John 1:12–13). Therefore, regeneration (which is the doctrinal name of the new birth) is a testimony to God’s work in salvation.
Second, the “whoever’ of John 3:16 indicates that the offer is given to all people everywhere. Salvation is not restricted to the Jews; it is given to everyone—you, me, the whole world. But “whoever” does not mean that God leaves it up to chance for who will believe. In many other places in John’s Gospel, we see how God gives faith. Thus in his universal offer of salvation, we see how God brings his message of eternal life to the sheep who will hear Jesus’s voice and believe (see John 10:26–30).
In the context of John 3, verse 16 explains what Jesus just said to Nicodemus about the new birth. Thus, we need to see that John 3:16 is also about the new birth and not just an invitation to believe. Jesus is God’s gift to enlarge his family, by dying for the people whom the Father promised the Son before the foundation of the world. These people are not unknown or undefined, they are the elect of God. Thus, while “the world” in John 3:16 really does speak to the whole world, the rest of John’s Gospel makes it clear, that God’s love for the world is saving those for whom he has a particular love (see John 13:1).
Last, we see the monergism of God’s saving work in John 3:21, which reads, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” This verse reminds us that salvation is the work “carried out in/by God.” Salvation is not something we activate by our faith; salvation is something we receive, when he grants his children life. Faith is the evidence of being one of his children, but as Jesus will say later, men’s faith does not make them sheep. Rather, those who are sheep will come to faith, when Jesus calls them by name.
Thus, with perfect balance in John’s Gospel, we see God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. And here in John 3, we learn much about how the two intertwine and reinforce one another. Indeed, the doctrine of election energizes evangelism, because election is what promises “success” in evangelism. In fact, in a book that is written to engender faith (see John 20:31), we find repeated emphasis on the doctrines of grace which stress God’s work in salvation.
With in mind, let us humble ourselves before Jesus and learn to trust him. That is why John is written and that is what we see coming to light in John 3.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds