Amid the whirl of its activities and messages February has long been recognized as a time of special celebration of love. This has arisen largely due to the (admittedly conflicting and confusing) legends surrounding a certain St. Valentine, who is said to have lived in the third century. An oft-cited story has it that a certain priest named Valentine was imprisoned for his Christian activities. One account maintains that just before his martyrdom he sent a letter to his ladylove, which he signed, “From your Valentine.”
Whatever the true origin of St. Valentine’s Day may be, Christians have the certainty of knowing that not just February the fourteenth, but every day they may draw upon God’s message of love to a needy mankind: “For this is the way God loved the world. He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).1 John 3:16 is perhaps the best known text in the Bible and has served as the scriptural basis for many to come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Yet sometimes the most common things are least fully understood. Such may be the case with this beloved text, which is often called “ The Gospel in a nutshell.” As Tenney observes with regard to the paragraph in which John 3:16 is set, “ This passage… sets the theological framework for the teaching of the whole Gospel by stating the elements of salvation as simply and directly as they can be found anywhere in its pages. The motive of God’s gift, love; the purpose of God’s gift, salvation; the status of believers, the basis and meaning of judgment, are all expressed in one paragraph.”2 John 3:16 itself is so simple the even a little child can understand its basic meaning and accept its teaching as his own. Nevertheless, there is a depth here for the profoundest of thinkers. The original text is loaded with particular spiritual significance. Each word is chosen to express just the right emphasis. Moreover, their structure and their very order are intentionally designed to stamp John 3:16 not only as important, even crucial, to its own context, but also as a statement in its own right, which sets forth the essential nature and truth of the Christian faith. Therefore, we shall go a bit deeper and examine this verse in accordance with three topics drawn from its message: the love of God, the gift of God, and man’s response to God’s giving.
In approaching John 3:16 it is appropriate to note that it is much disputed whether these are the words of Jesus or of John.3 In this regard Morris notes the difficulty in arriving at a definite answer to this problem and suggests rather convincing comments in favor of the authorship of Jesus’ apostle John. “In this passage Jesus begins to speak in v. 10, but John does not tell us where the speech ends. The dialogue formed simply ceases. Most agree that somewhere we pass into the reflections of the Evangelist.. . . In v. 16 the death on the cross appears to be spoken of as past, and there are stylistic indications that John is speaking for himself.”4 Whether the words are those of Jesus or John, it is certain that they “express the most important message of the Gospel . . . that salvation is a gift received only by believing God for it.”5 John’s declaration that God loved the world speaks of a divine total commitment to seek mankind’s highest good—a life lived out in the fullness that only salvation through his beloved Son brings (cf. John 10:10; 1 John 4:10).
John himself can rightly be called the apostle of love. He employs the Greek verb used here some three dozen times in his Gospel and nearly that many in his three Epistles. The noun form from this verbal root occurs eight times in John’s Gospel and twenty-one times in his Epistles. Both noun and verb are also found in Revelation. In distinction from other Greek words found in the New Testament, this particular word pair (verb and noun) have a special, more lofty meaning than in secular Greek.6 For they indicate more than an emotional love. Rather, they contemplate the exercise of one’s whole soul: intellect, emotions, and will. Although not the only Greek terms for God’s love, they are especially fitting as consisting of the fact that, “Love is the very nature of God. God is love (I John 4:7, 8; II Cor. 13:11).”7
It is small wonder, then, that true Christian love reflects and acts in accordance with God’s own love. For a Christian’s whole soul attitude toward others is to love others and seek their highest good—no matter who or what—just as God does (Matt. 5:43-48). This word pair thus expresses the imperative of the Christian ethic—to love (Eph. 4:15). As Barclay observes, “Agapē [love] means treating men as God treats them.”8
The English phrase linked with the declaration of God’s love in John 3:16 is also of special interest. Although the common English translation contains two words (“so loved”), they translate a single Greek word. It should be noted that this word occurs just two verses before (John 3:14) and is rendered there “just as” (or “even so”), that is, to express the manner of God’s love. In John 3:16, however, translators have frequently understood this word to stress the degree of God’s love: “God so loved.” Perhaps the NET has solved the impasse by suggesting that both meanings are applicable and to be understood here: “John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing God’s mode, intensity, and extent.”9
John often speaks of the world also. 105 of its 185 occurrences of this word are found in John’s writings. Although he often uses this word in its natural sense of the world at large (e.g., John 1:9-10), John quite frequently employs “world” in its rejection of and opposition to God and to Christ’s mission in particular. “In the case of Christ, the world at large opposed Him, rejected Him, and finally crucified Him. So it is not surprising that ‘the world’ is used of mankind in opposition to Christ.”10 John explains that this world has Satan, the prince of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), at its head. Although this world hates the Son (John 7:7; 15:18) and knows nothing of him (John 1:10) or of the Father (John 17:25) and seeks only to serve its own lusts (1 John 2:15-17; 4:4-6), yet in his great love God has provided for the world’s salvation. Such is realized through the vicarious, substitutionary atonement accomplished by God’s own Son, Jesus Christ (John 1:29; 3:17-19; 6:51; 12:47; 1 John 2:2). With regard to John 3:16 it is of significance, then, that “this much-loved verse is the only place in John where God the Father is said to love the world (cf. 1 John 4:9-10). . . . Just as God’s love encompasses the entire world, so Jesus made atonement for the sins of the whole world.”11 It is to this unassailable fact of the gift of God’s love that we turn next.
Having noted the fact of God’s gracious, boundless love for an unloving world, John notes the outflow of God’s love in his free gift to the world of his own Son: “He gave his one and only Son.” The Greek construction here is a rare one in the New Testament, being found elsewhere only in Galatians 2:13. By its use John lays stress on both the cause and results of God’s love. The usual New Testament construction would lay emphasis on the relation of God’s love as the cause or reason for God’s giving: because God loved the world, he gave. In addition, John‘s construction suggests that the giving is equally as important as the loving: God gave because he loved. These distinctions are subtle ones but of vital importance. They immediately draw our attention not only to the kind of God the Lord is, a God of love, but also to the actual fact of the incarnation of the Son of God when in love God gave the Savior Thus Mounce remarks, “Love must of necessity give. It has no choice if it is to remain true to its essential character. . . . This construction stresses the reality of the result.”12.
Herein lies the truth of the Gospel. As will be seen in the next section, it is not just the fact that God is love (cf. 1 John 4:8), but that a loving God gave that which was most precious to him—his own dear Son—to effect a lost world’s redemption (1 John 4:9-10). In giving his Son, God intended more than Christ’s living among men; he gave him to die for sinful men (Rom. 5:8; Gal. 2:20). Westcott observes that because John chose to use the word “gave” here rather than the word “sent,” it “brings out the idea of sacrifice and of love shown by a most precious offering.”13 Morris concurs saying, “His love is not a vaguely sentimental feeling, but a love that costs. God gave what was most dear to him.”14
Two other matters are also of crucial significance. (1) The verbs “loved” and “gave” speak of an accomplished deed that happened once and for all. They imply that there would be no other giving or redemptive plans (cf. John 1:12; 3:17-18, 36; 10:17-18; 14:6 with Acts 4:12). (2) There would be no other sons. This One alone is God’s “one and only Son.” The underlying Greek word here, although often used of human relationships, emphasizes not the process of physical procreation, but the uniqueness of the one that is born: he is the only Son, the one and only child. Elsewhere this word was used of Jairus’ daughter (Lk. 8:42) and of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk. 7:12). The writer of Hebrews (Heb. 11:17) calls Isaac Abraham’s only son, emphasizing the uniqueness of Isaac’s position. Abraham did have other children (Gen. 21:2; 25:1-4), but not of his wife Sarah. Therefore, Isaac was Abraham’s son in a special sense; he was uniquely his son (Gen. 22:2).
This word, which is frequently rendered “only begotten,” is not necessarily concerned with physical procreation, but with special relationship. For this reason the inter-testamental writers could speak of Israel as God’s “only son” (Ps. Solomon. 18:4; 4th Esdras 6:58). Technically, the word means only one of its kind so that Jesus is the one who alone displays the Father’s essential being. Indeed, only Jesus Christ is only both God and fully unfallen man, the God-man.15
John himself uses this term elsewhere of Jesus intimate communion with the Father (John 1:18); of his incarnate display of God’s glory and being, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14); of the reason for Christ’s coming: that believing men might be saved and thus transferred from death to life (1 John 4:9-10); and of the crucial nature of man’s decision with regard to Christ--not to believe on God’s only Son renders a person already under the sentence of God’s judgment (John 3:18; cf. 3:36). Thus Köstenberger remarks, “This designation also provides the basis for Jesus’ claim that no one can come to the Father except through him.”16
What a momentous declaration! Why did Jesus come? The reason is clear. A loving, concerned God cared for his created world despite his enmity so much that he actually gave the One who uniquely is God the Son in order that once for all Jesus might be the perfect sacrifice for sins (John 10:11, 17-18). The old Christmas carol expresses all of this so well:
Veiled in flesh the God-head see;
Hail the incarnate deity!
Please as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel!17
Having noticed previously John’s careful selection and use of words, terms, and syntactical devices to express God’ consummate love in Christ’s coming to provide a final and complete sacrifice for a sinful world, we turn to some specific reasons for doing so. We see at once that God designedly and purposefully gave his Son in order that people might believe in Christ and respond to his provisions for them.
In the phrase “everyone who believes” we meet another characteristic Johanine construction. Rather than implying simple belief in a fact, person, or thing, the construction here emphasizes personal trust and full commitment of life. Such involves a faith born of a whole soul commitment to God: intellect, emotions, and will. As the psalmist reminds us, we are to trust completely in the Lord, to delight in him and commit ourselves to him, and “wait patiently for the Lord” (Ps. 37:3-7). It is a faith, which enables one to rest his entire being in Christ alone. It is no easy believing about Jesus or even the Gospel. It believing in Christ and his accomplished work of providing for salvation that makes one accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior and entrust himself totally to for all the details of life and death (cf. 2 Tim.1:12). As Mounce declares, ‘The Greek expression … carries the sense of placing one’s trust into or completely on someone.”18 Tenney adds further that by “whosoever” the invitation is” as inclusive and indefinite as possible. Salvation is not restricted to any race, color, or class, but is the heritage of all who will truly believe.”19
Such a decision is a crucial one, for it carries with it both positive and negative implications. On the positive side, for a true believer there comes the truth that spiritually he shall never perish but continue to have eternal life. Yet, “There is no middle ground: believing in the Son (resulting in eternal life) or refusing to believe (resulting in destruction) are the only options. Since ‘perish’ is contrasted with ‘eternal life,’ it stands to reason that perishing is eternal as well.”20 As used by John, the word “eternal” refers not only to the ages to come, but also to a quality of life even now that flows from it. Tenney adds, “It is a deepening and growing experience. It can never be exhausted in any measurable span of time, but it introduces a new quality of life. The believer becomes imperishable; he is free from all condemnation; he is approved by God.”21 Thus he who has eternal life (John 5:24; 6:40; 10:28), whose life is, as Paul says, “hidden with Christ in God” partakes of that kind of heavenly living already in his earthly pilgrimage (cf. John 4:14; 12:25-26; 17:2-3; 1 John 1:2-4; 5:11-21 with Col. 3:1-17).
The final clause may thus be restated in terms of a specific condition, which is absolutely true: If anyone believes in him (Christ), he will never perish but have eternal life. As such it becomes an axiom for all time that underscores the truth of full salvation in Jesus Christ for the one who puts his absolute truth in Christ as Savior and Lord of his life. As indicated above, however, John 3:16 carries a negative implication as well—namely, that there is a vast difference between the condition of the believer and that of the unbeliever. As Osborne points out, “There are two sides to the offer of eternal life—salvation and judgment. The judgment side is developed in 3:18. . . . The unbeliever, on the other hand, ‘has already been judged’ at the moment she or he rejected God’s ‘one and only Son.’”22
Taking John 3:16 in its entirety, it may be seen that Christ’s coming is central to earth’s history and man’s destiny. Because a loving God loved an unlovely, sinful world, he gave once and for all his only Son (he alone who is uniquely the God-man) as a final and sufficient sacrifice for sins. So then, he who personally commits himself to Christ, the Savior, as God intended, is automatically transferred from the realm of perishing sinners to that of eternal life. Paul and Peter record further benefits for believers.
Paul assures believers that because Jesus is the Savior, those who have accepted him have entered into the family of God and have a present hope of eternal life and heirship with Christ (Titus 3:4-6). Indeed, Jesus Christ is the great Savior who offers Christians an abundant and fruitful life in this present age and who is coming again soon to receive them unto himself (Titus 2:11-14). Peter reminds his readers that Christ has provided equality of redemption for all who receive him by faith and they may therefore escape the pollution of this world (2 Pet. 1:1-4; cf. 2 Pet. 2:20). Moreover, Christians have gained “an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:11). At last man can be free from sin and self to serve God and enjoy his grace (John 8:32-36; Rev. 1:5) in a life of full abundance (John 10:10). What a great Savior! How inexpressibly great is God’s love! The hymn writer well says,
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill,
And ev’ry man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Tho’ stretched from sky to sky.23
Truly, John 3:16 has rightly been called, “The Gospel in a nutshell.” As believers who continue to appropriate the God-given eternal life, which is ours in Christ in full and fresh quality, ought we not to heed John’s further challenge?
In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God so loved us, then we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:10-11).
Indeed, genuine Christian love reaches out to others where it functions as “unconquerable benevolence [and] invincible good will.”24
Yet there is even more. For those who have believed God’s revealed statement of his purpose in giving Christ as the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, it is imperative to heed Jesus’ own challenge: “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). Although this commission was delivered to Jesus’ disciples, the missionary challenge is incumbent upon all believers, for believers are his ambassadors to an unbelieving world that needs to know and appropriate the good news of the message of God’s redeeming love in John 3:16. That message is a love that begins with God (Matt. 6:24), is alive and active in our families (Eph. 5:25-28), and extends to others: fellow worshipers (1 Pet. 2:17), neighbors (Matt. 22:36-39), and ultimately to the whole world (Matt. 28:19-20). May each of us so live that God’s love shines through our lives to his glory and our good.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural citations are taken from the NET.
2 Merrill C. Tenney, “The Footnotes of John’s Gospel, “ Bibliotheca Sacra, 117 (1960): 350-64.
3 See further, Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Baker, reprint ed., 1981), 105.
4 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 228.
5 Merrill C. Tenney, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed., Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) 9:50.
6 See further, Nigel Turner, Christian Words (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1980), 264-66.
7 William Barclay, More New Testament Words (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), 18. Barclay goes on (18-19) to point to the many New Testament texts, which reveal that God’s love is a universal, sacrificial, undeserved, merciful, saving, and sanctifying, strengthening and inseparable love, as well as a rewarding yet proper chastening love.
8 Ibid, 17. Barclay does point out that this does not mean letting others do as they please in every instance.
9 NET text note.
10 Morris, “John,” 126-27.
11 Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 128-29. See also, Grant R. Osborne, “The Gospel of John,” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2007) 13:51.
12 Robert Mounce, “John,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, eds. Tremper Longman III, and David E. Garland, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) 10:400. Mounce cites Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [Garden City: Doubleday, 1966, 1970], 134) who points out that the construction means “that he actually gave the only Son.”
13 B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) 1:120.
14 Morris, John, 229-30.
15 With this Köstenberger (John, 44) concurs.
17 Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
18 Mounce, “John,” 10:400.
19 Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 89-90).
20 Köstenberger, John, 129-30. Köstenberger hastens to point out that “’perishing’ does not mean annihilation in the sense of total destruction, but rather spending eternity apart from God and from Jesus Christ, in whom alone is life (1:4).”
21 Tenney, “John,” 9:50.
22 Osborne, “The Gospel of John,” 13:58.
23 F. M. Lehman, “The Love of God,” Favorites No. 2,” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1946, 1974), 27.
24 Barclay, More New Testament Words, 16.