Thoughts on John 3:16

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

For Saint Augustine it was Romans 13:13-14. For Martin Luther it was Romans 1:16. For Jonathan Edwards it was 1 Timothy 1:17. Although as Christians we hold the entire Bible in high esteem, God has used specific verses to capture our hearts in unique ways. Throughout history, John 3:16 has been such a verse for many people. Because it encapsulates the plan of salvation so clearly, we see it placarded on signs at sporting events, pasted on car bumpers, or possibly even tattooed on someone’s skin. What is it about John 3:16 that moves so many people? I can think of three reasons

Our God loves. Despite the anti-God propensities within each of us (Gen. 3; Ps. 14), God loves us. He sought us out. He came after us. He wasn’t content to leave us in our sin. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son makes it clear: God doesn’t just wait for us to come to him; he runs to us. He’s active in his love for us not because we deserve it, but because (unbelievably), he delights to give us what we don’t deserve (Eph. 1:6, 7, 14).[1] In Zephaniah 3:17 (often referred to as the John 3:16 of the Old Testament) God says he will “exult over you [his people] with loud singing.” Through Isaiah God reminds us, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (62:5).

Our God saves. Renowned Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield was once asked to summarize the teaching of the Bible in three words. He responded, “God saves sinners.” To those whose hearts have been pierced by this reality, the message of salvation is like a cool cup of water on a hot summer day (Prov. 25:25). We rejoice when we read, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 Jn. 5:11). Any and all who repent of their sins and trust in Christ for eternal life will be saved. Nevertheless, in our current cultural climate (which often takes the phrase “God is love” to mean “Love is God”[2]) we must emphasize that John 3:16 doesn’t promote universalism—the belief that everybody, no matter what they believe will be saved. The context makes such a notion untenable (see John 3:18, 36). Jesus wants to stress to Nicodemus (v. 1) the truth that the good news knows no ethnic boundaries.[3]

Our God keeps promises. Jesus promises that those who believe in him will be saved eternally. Ponder this: Our God maintains an eternal relationship with his people. And this promise is in fulfillment of God’s prior promise to Abraham (Gen. 12) and David (2 Sam. 7) that we would be his people and he would be our God forever. Are we surprised? He promised he would never leave us nor forsake us (Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5).

This should cause our hearts to burn within us (Lk. 24:32), our thoughts to soar in wonder, and our mouths to sing with joy. We can’t grasp how great our God is! We catch a glimpse, however, in John 3:16. God has set eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11), and the one who placed eternity in our hearts has met that deepest desire in the gospel by sending a sinless Savior into this world to rescue sinful people who, through their own disobedience, have condemned themselves to a hopeless eternity. But our God wasn’t satisfied to leave things that way. He sent his Son, Jesus. And Jesus lived an obedient life and died a substitutionary death, thereby purchasing redemption for his people. He promised to be with us on earth (Matt. 28:20) and then take us to be with him forever, to go to the place where everything sad becomes untrue (Jn. 14:3).

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[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, God, Scripture & Hermeneutics: First Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 71-95.

[2] Even non-Christian scholars recognize this. See e.g., Simon May, Love: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), xiii. May refers to love as a religion and notes that “The religion of love is no less attractive to the diehard atheist than to the agnostic or the believer” (3).

[3] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 141-159. See esp. 153.

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