It is not hard to see why John 3:16 is one of the most famous, most often memorized, most cherished verses in the Bible. Packed into this verse are the greatest realities that exist. God. Love. The world. The Son of God. Faith. Perishing forever. Living forever. Whoever — you, or not. These are the greatest things that can be. What could be more important? What could be more relevant for you right now? What could be more urgent for you or momentous for you than to know where you stand in relation to what God says to you in this verse?
So here’s what I think we should do with John 3:16. Today we will walk through it once, pausing over each of the big words (except loved) and commenting on each of them: God, World, Gave, Son, Believe, Perish, Life. And we will seek to apply that to ourselves as we go along. Then next week, if God wills, we will go back and devote a whole message to the one great word that we pass over today, namely, the word loved — “For God so loved. . . .”
The Tension in John 3
We will ask, How does God love us in this passage? How does the love of God for the world in verse 16 relate to the work of the Spirit of God in verse 8? There seems to be a tension here. Many feel it, and many people try to remove the tension in a way that dishonors the meaning either of verse 8 or verse 16.
“If anybody is rescued, God does it.”
On the one hand, verse 8 says that God the Spirit blows where he wills and makes alive whom he chooses. “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.” God is free. And it is he, and not we, who has the final, decisive say in who among the spiritually rebellious and dead will be raised to new life. None of us deserves to be made alive. And none of us has the power to make it happen. If anybody is rescued, God does it.
But on the other hand, John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This surely means that God is loving all and offering all eternal life — the very life that the Spirit gives in verse 8.
That is what we will try to understand next week. And I will tip you off that I have been very helped in this by Don Carson’s book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. It’s less than 90 pages. It’s understandable, and it is very good. I hope many of you will read it.
Seven Massive Realities in John 3:16
But first, there are great and awesome things to be clarified in this verse. Seven massively important words — representing seven great realities — that we need to understand so that the power and preciousness of this famous verse can have its full effect. And oh, how I hope you Bethlehem believers know that such a foundational verse is not just for beginners. It is high-level, high-voltage shock therapy for marriage struggles and single struggles and teenage struggles. So let’s turn first to the seven big words in verse 16.
“For God so loved. . . .” There is no reason to think that Jesus means any other God than the God of the Old Testament. He is the all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is personal and not a mere force, meaning he thinks and wills and feels. He loves, and he hates. And as personal, he is moral — that is, he deals with us in terms of right and wrong and good and bad. And as moral, he is unwaveringly righteous. He only does what is right. And the infinite worth of what he is defines what is right. To do right is to think and feel and act in a way that accords with (is in harmony with) God’s infinite worth.
All of us were made by this God, and our first and highest duty and reason for being is to honor him and give him thanks (Romans 1:21). We have all failed, and we are all under his righteous displeasure. This is what makes John 3:16 so needed and so precious. It describes the way God is acting to rescue us from this condition.
“For God so loved the world. . . .” The most common meaning for world in John is the created and fallen totality of mankind. John 7:7: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” John 14:17: “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”
That is the way John is using world here. It is the great mass of fallen humanity that needs salvation. It’s the countless number of perishing people from whom the “whoevers” come in the second part of the verse: “that whoever believes in him should not perish.” The world is the great ocean of perishing sinners from whom the whoever comes.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave. . . .” Two things need to be said about this giving. One is that it is a giving from heaven. And the other is that it is a giving, not just to come to earth, but to die. Verse 17 replaces the word give with send. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” So the giving of verse 16 is God’s sending his Son into the world on a mission from heaven.
In John 10:17–18, we see what the climax of that mission from the Father is. Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” That last sentence shows that the reason the Father sent the Son was so that the Son would lay down his life. “I lay it down of my own accord. . . . This charge I have received from my father.”
So when John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave,” the giving is God sending his Son to earth on a mission to die. It’s just as amazing — only a million times more so — as if you should say to your son, “There is something I want you to do for me: I have some enemies that deserve to perish, and I want you to go and die in their place, so that they can have eternal life.” Whatever else you know about God, make sure you know he is like that.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. . . .” Muslims and others stumble over the idea of God having a Son. So let me say a few things that are crystal clear in John’s Gospel, even though mysterious. God did not have sexual relations with Mary in order to have a Son. Turn back to chapter 1 where John gave us our basic understanding of the Son of God.
“We don’t perish under the wrath of God because Jesus died in our place under the wrath of God.”
John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So here we are introduced to the Word. And we are told three things about him. One, he is God. “The Word was God.” Two, he is with God, and therefore distinct from God. “The word was with God.” And third, he was therefore always in existence and never came to be. “In the beginning was the Word.”
Then look at verse 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” This verse clarifies three things for us.
First, the Word of God referred in verse 1 is the Son of God. “The Word became flesh and . . . we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son. . . .”
Second, God, with whom the Word was, and from whom he is distinct, is God the Father. He is “the only Son from the Father.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” He was with God the Father.
Third, therefore, Jesus is the Son of God not because the Father had sex with Mary, but because the Son has always existed, without beginning, as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). He is fully God. And the Father is fully God. And along with God the Spirit, they are one God, one divine nature. One essence and three persons in an eternal, perfect, joyful relationship.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes. . . .” Four observations about this believing.
First, it means that not everybody will benefit from what Jesus came to do. But “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The rest will perish — and not have eternal life.
Second, the word itself means to embrace something as true; and when it’s a person, it means to trust them to be what they are and do what they say.
Third, John 1:11–12 shows that another word John has in mind to explain believe is receive. “[Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” So receiving Jesus and believing Jesus explain each other.
Fourth, if we ask, “Receive him as what?” the answer would be, “Receive him as what he is.” For example, in John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So here believing means coming to Jesus and receiving him as the food and drink that satisfies our souls. That’s one of the reasons I talk about receiving him as our Treasure (Matthew 13:44). And this is why faith is so transforming.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish. . . .” What’s most clear and most important is to see that perish is the alternative to eternal life — “not perish but have eternal life.” So if you perish, you don’t get eternal life.
Another thing that’s clear here is that verse 18 describes perishing as being condemned. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” And that means that God’s judicial sentence of wrath is on us as sinners and remains on us. We see this in John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” So we are already under condemnation because of our sin and unbelief. And perishing means staying there forever under God’s wrath. There is nothing you can imagine worse than having the omnipotent God oppose you with righteous wrath forever. That’s what perishing means.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This does not simply mean you exist forever. Everybody exists forever. But not everybody has eternal life. This life is first that we are born again and have spiritual life. We know from John 6:63 that “it is the Spirit who gives life.” And we know from 1 John 5:11 that “this life is in [God’s] Son.” This is life to God — life that can see and savor God as glorious and all his creation the way he meant it to be enjoyed.
“We have eternal life both because Christ died in our place and because in him is life.”
So what happens in our believing is that, by means of believing, the Holy Spirit is uniting us to Christ in whom is life. And in that instant, we are born again, we believe, we are united with the Son of God, and we have his life.
And because it is the life of the Son of God, it does last forever. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26).
Jesus Gives Life — and Dies in Our Place
And at this point, don’t forget what we saw under the word gave — “For God so loved the world that he gave. . . .” Meaning gave to die. We don’t perish under the wrath of God because Jesus died in our place under the wrath of God. He was “the Lamb of God” — the sacrifice given in our place — who bears our sin and our punishment (John 1:29, 36).
So we have eternal life both because Christ died in our place and because in him is life. He removes the great obstacle of God’s wrath, and he supplies the everlasting life that we don’t have in ourselves.
Is This Your Life?
Which leaves just one question: Do you live in the forgiveness and life and freedom of John 3:16? Are you free from the fear of death? Does the wonder of being loved like this shape your relationships? I’m not asking if you give lip-service to this verse. But do you live it? Is this your life? Is everything you do permeated with this verse?
May God grant you such faith. Believe this promise of John 3:16. Receive the treasure of Christ — and life.