By Jennifer Slattery, Crosswalk.com
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." - John 3:16
John 3:16 can easily run through our brains without much cognizant thought, but have we paused to consider what it truly means? Have we contemplated the depth of truths packed within this verse, preserved by God Himself, throughout countless generations? Most importantly, how do we live in the reality that John 3:16 presents—that God, who is love, actively demonstrated His love through Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, and through Him, offered salvation to all mankind.
The Biblical Context of John 3:16
Let’s take a look at that verse now. It reads, “For God so loved the world,” or, as the NLT puts it, “This is how God loved the world: He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” There’s so much to unpack in those words, but first, we need to understand the historical and literary context surrounding them. We find John 3:16, perhaps one of the clearest presentations of the gospel, tucked in a conversation between Jesus and a prestigious religious ruler. You may be familiar with the story.
One night, presumably after many of his colleagues were home in bed, a Pharisee named Nicodemus from the Jewish ruling council came to Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we know that You are a teacher who comes from God. For no one could perform the signs You are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). This statement suggests a few things: Nicodemus was familiar with Jesus, most likely respected Him, and recognized that He indeed came from God, just like John 3:16 later states. Nicodemus obviously knew of the miracles Jesus had performed. He’d probably heard many truths Jesus spoke as well, all of which seemed to have triggered a driving question: Who are you? Perhaps you’ve asked God that yourself. Beneath his words of affirmation, of wonderment, Nicodemus appears to be investigating Jesus’ identity. To which Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:6).
Initially, one might call His words a redirect, but Jesus was probing something deeper. You see, we must remember whom Christ was speaking to, what kind of life he lived, and how Nicodemus was accustomed to relating to God—through religious works. Can you imagine how confusing Jesus’ statement must have been? I’m not just talking about the whole rebirth analogy, but consider as well the message conveyed to this well-educated, well-trained, and presumably “righteous” man. Jesus, in essence, told Nicodemus that all his years progressing in Judaism, all the time he spent reciting prayers and participating in festivals, accounted for nothing. Oh, they laid the groundwork, a foundation, if you will, for the truths Jesus was presenting. But they didn’t have the strength to carry Nicodemus to salvation.
Why Did Jesus Use an Old Testament Reference to Explain His Point?
"'Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.' For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son" (John 3:14-18).
To illustrate the point further to Nicodemus, Jesus referenced the bronze snake Moses raised in the wilderness, back when the Israelites wandered in the desert vacillating between rebellion and repentance (Num. 21:4-9). As recorded in the Book of Numbers, a book Nicodemus would have been extremely familiar with, the Israelites chose rebellion and were punished for it in the form of venomous snake bites. To receive healing, they had to look at a bronze snake on a pole. Looking at the snake on the pole was an act of faith, and when they looked they were healed by God. The Israelites knew this was the only way they could be saved from this certain death by venom.
To get the full extent of this picture we need to remember Israel's pattern when they left Egypt: the people would rebel, the Lord's judgment would come, Moses would intercede on their behalf, and the Lord responded mercifully (NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible). In Jesus' earthly days the people of Israel were still rebelling, but this time there was a different intercessor . . . this time Jesus was the One whom the Lord would lift up and grant mercy through. However, this mercy that comes through Jesus the Son, our Savior, is an everlasting mercy. When Nicodemus heard about Jesus' death on the cross, you can imagine his memory of these words. Just like the rebellious Israelites in the desert, Nicodemus needed an intercessor so that he could have salvation and be 'born again.' It is an illustration that likely stayed with Nicodemus for the rest of his earthly life.
“For God So Loved the World” Is a Picture of Love
John 3:16 follows this rich and theologically dense explanation of sin and salvation. “This,” Jesus said, “is how much God loves you. He sent you Me” (paraphrased). In Christ, we see a love so intense, so sacrificial, so incomprehensible, it makes all human expressions seem frivolous in comparison. The words Jesus spoke likely didn’t make much more sense to Nicodemus than Jesus’ talk of rebirth. After all, he likely had no idea Jesus was planning to die—for him (and us). He didn’t understand that Christ would, quite literally, be lifted on a pole, just as the snake had been, and that Christ’s death and resurrection, not well-spoken prayers or good deeds, would bring life. But we do have that knowledge, thanks to Scripture.
Now, considering all Jesus suffered, all God watched Him suffer, for you and I, evaluate the beginning of John 3:16 again, “This is how God loved the world,” and everyone in it. “He gave His one and only Son.” Through His death, Christ revealed what pure, unfathomable love looks like. But He did more than that. Through the cross, God proved the depths of His love, because “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Such a passionate, self-sacrificing act is hard for my mind to comprehend. God reached out, expecting nothing in return, and emptied Himself completely, for the very ones who spurned Him. You and I included.
God knew how helpless we were. Watching us hurt, manipulate, use, and kill one another, God could’ve left us to our destruction. He could’ve been repelled and turned away in disgust. Instead, He drew near. Speaking of Jesus, Philippians 2:6-8 says, “being in very nature God, [He] did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.” God took action from the beginning of time, from that first sin in the Garden of Eden. The first thing God did was to remove the tree of life, lest we be trapped in a life of sin forever. He acted throughout history, weaving a plan and keeping His promise to save His people. He acted when He sent His Son through the Holy Spirit to be born incarnate of the virgin, Mary. And He acted when His Son was laid upon the cross, offering a sacrifice of His perfect life for our stained lives, which was the payment for sin.
Whenever I think of the cross, I’m reminded of the price Christ paid so I could be free. But I’m also reminded of how much I needed that freedom.
“For God So Loved the World” Is the First Part of God’s Rescue Plan
Jesus came so that, though we were guilty and tarnished by sin, we could receive forgiveness and pardon for all we’d done or will do. Because of Jesus, we can have peace with God the Father, be adopted as His child, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live, fully, in His freedom. Christ’s life and death were prophesied and the gift of salvation promised, from the beginning of time. Adam and Eve rebelled against their good, attentive, and faithful Father. They chose pleasure in the moment over the peace and joy of a relationship with God. They chose their will and their wants, over trusting and obeying their God, and in this, they tried to elevate themselves above the very Creator who had loved them so faithfully.
Jesus is not surprised by sin; He was there in the beginning, the second person of the Trinity, and after He was born incarnate of the virgin, Mary, He learned God's Word from an early age and kept it in His heart. In Genesis 3:15, He said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (ESV).
In this, God promised sin would not win; though a battle would rage between light and dark, between good and evil, Christ would ultimately prevail, and He did. He secured His victory through His death on the cross. Colossians 2:15 puts it this way, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” of darkness “and put them to open shame, triumphing over them” (ESV). This allows all who believe in Christ to say, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting.’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57).
"For God So Loved the World" He Sent His One and Only Son to Save
God sent Christ for one reason only, and here’s why: “So that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” We receive God’s free gift of eternal life through faith, by believing Jesus is who He says He is—the sinless Son of God who paid for the world’s sins—and did what He said He did—died in our place to grant us entrance into eternity with Him. But to receive that precious gift, we must acknowledge we need it. That’s hard because it pricks against our pride. We often take great satisfaction in our achievements and knowing we’ve progressed solely through our own merits. But the Holy Spirit helps us realize the futility of our efforts; we cannot earn grace, but we can accept it by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul stated, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
This was the offer Jesus made to Nicodemus on that dark night so long ago. The offer was free. Nicodemus didn’t have to earn it; he simply needed to accept it. To step out of the darkness and into the light, out of death and into life. We don’t know how that conversation ended that night. Perhaps Nicodemus’ heart leapt with hope and he embraced the grace that Christ offered. Or perhaps he retreated, contemplated, and wrestled with his sin and pride, before finally finding the courage to surrender. Regardless, we know Christ revealed a beautiful picture of love, of grace, and the freedom of complete absolution. No more guilt. No more shame. Zero condemnation. Only freedom, light, and life, and all because God so loved this world.
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