God’s Love in John 3:16
by Bob Burridge ©2011
We’ve all seen the Bible reference “John 3:16” written on signs at football games, and at all sorts of rallies. It appears on T-Shirts, calendars, hats, bumper stickers, pens, banners, and teddy bears.
Many who see those signs and stickers have no clue about what the verse really means. Many don’t know what the verse even says. Some may go home and look it up, and it may be used by God to stir confidence in the promises we have in the work of Christ. Sadly, many simply associate those who display that verse as deluded extremist radicals who bomb abortion clinics, want to take away our personal freedoms, and promote racism. Ignorance breeds that sort of dismissive bigotry. Those who understand and really believe that verse have nothing to do with those extremist views.
Part of the problem is that many who truly love the Savior, also misunderstand the meaning of those words spoken by Jesus. It makes a good biblical quotation, and is worthy of all the attention it gets, but it needs to be understood for what God actually intended in John 3:16.
The way the King James Version translates this verse is so well known that it needs to be the translation we use in examining what Jesus said here.
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV)
It all begins with God’s love.
“For God so loved the world …”
Love always has an object. The object here is “the world.” The original Greek word for “world” in John 3:16 is “kosmos” (κοσμος). It doesn’t mean the planet earth. It means “the world order”. From that Greek word we get our English word, “cosmetology” which is the art of bringing order to the face by using cosmetics. It’s also the source of our word, “cosmology” which is the scientific study of the order of the universe.
Here the world “world” refers to the humans that live here as God’s creatures fallen in Adam. Humans were commissioned in Eden to bring order to creation by representing the Creator, and by honoring him in their lives. He made us to bear his image, and to care for all he made. Our purpose and goal is to promote his glory on earth and to enjoy his blessings as we do so.
Though Satan enticed Adam and brought the human race into sin and condemnation, there was more going on than even the Devil understood.
To demonstrate his love, God allowed his creatures to fall into such a lost condition that only an infinite love and an infinite power could save them. The Devil, like the rest of us finite creatures, can’t really understand the infinite. He thought he was messing up God’s plan. The reality was that he was an intended part of it.
God’s amazing plan was accomplished by very specific means.
“… that he gave his only begotten Son …”
Justice required that when sin entered through Adam, the fallen human race was alienated from God forever. The barrier erected by guilt and offense was a moral violation which God could not overlook without defying his own nature. Adam represented all his descendants, so there is no one who escapes by good behavior. We are born guilty, and live with a corrupted conscience and condemned soul (Romans 3:10-12).
An infinite price can’t be paid by finite creatures. A person could suffer for eternity, and still not pay off his infinite debt.
Satan figured that the human race was a lost cause after that first sin, and would never honor God again. However he didn’t understand the power and love he was dealing with. He assumed he had won a victory in Eden, but he was very wrong.
God himself took on a full human nature, body and soul, and represented his people just as Adam represented the human race. In those few moments on the cross Jesus paid the infinite debt for those he represented. Justice was fully satisfied by the only one who could represent another, the one appointed to that office by the Creator himself.
The value of the work of Jesus wasn’t just the physical suffering of his death. It was primarily that he took upon himself the sins of his people. It was that infinite guilt that produced a suffering beyond our comprehension.
The gospel becomes effective in a person’s life by a particular method.
“… that whosoever believeth in him …”
This is where some get confused and lose the whole point of this important Bible verse. The word “whosoever” sounds as if anybody in the whole world in all of history has the ability to believe in Jesus and to take advantage of the price he paid on the cross. That’s not at all what it says here. That would contradict what the Bible teaches in other passages.
The words “whosoever” or “whoever” are not good ways to translate the original inspired Greek text. It can be misleading. The phrase is centered on a participle of the word “believe” (to trust in something – in this case trusting in redemption by grace through the promised Savior). The Greek text reads, “hina pas ho pisteuon eis auton” (ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν). Very literally it says: “… in order that each – the one believing upon him …”
This verse says nothing about those who don’t believe. It doesn’t tell us who is actually made able to believe (that’s brought up elsewhere). One passage that directly addresses this issue is found just three chapters later in John 6:44. There Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” The ones who will believe are those given to the Son by the Father from all eternity. In John 6:39 Jesus said, “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day.”
John 3:16 is not a universal verse as if everybody is included. It’s a very narrow verse. Only the person who believes has the blessing promised.
If, as some interpret this verse, everybody is given to the Son to be redeemed, and some of them don’t believe but are lost, then Jesus was a horrible failure in his mission. That’s not what we’re taught here, or anywhere in the Bible. That was never God’s plan.
Jesus came to save the human race from failing in what God created it to do. He did exactly that. Not every person in that race was intended to benefit from that work of Jesus. In the end, we see that there will be humans there in glory, not every human, but the race of humans is there in those redeemed. It’s a redeemed race evidencing God’s infinite love, mercy, and power. In working this way, God also dramatically preserves justice in displaying his wrath upon those not redeemed.
John 3:16 promises that everyone who shows faith implanted into his heart by grace, a faith that trusts fully in the atonement of Jesus as the means of his salvation, that person will be saved. The result is the complete fulfillment of the gospel plan.
Those alienated become members of the family of God forever.
“… should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The attempt of Satan to destroy what God had in mind was a complete failure. Instead, by the work of Christ, God’s love, mercy, grace, and justice are made known dramatically.
You have a good opportunity to help people understand what this verse really means. You can and should offer salvation to every person you can. That’s your mission. Only God knows who will respond, but by your witness, and with verses like John 3:16, God will redeem more before Christ returns.
(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)