Six Reflections on John 3:16

John 3:16 is one of the most famous verses in the Bible. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Clear, concise, powerful. Gospel. News worth shouting and celebrating! Here are six reflections that I hope will help us love it more.

(1) John 3:16 explains a previous statement. The verse doesn’t begin with “God” but with “for.” John 3:16 doesn’t stand alone but explains 3:14-15, where Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” If someone asks why looking with faith to Jesus will bring life, John 3:16 gives the answer: for God loved the world by giving his Son so that sinners might believe and live. John 3:16 is part of a chapter, part of an unfolding scene where Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about being born again and entering the kingdom of God. So when we read John 3:16, it is helpful to keep in mind what comes before it.

(2) God is God the Father. The verse talks about “God” at the beginning and “the Son” later on. This separation doesn’t deny the deity of the Son. Rather, in the New Testament, whenever Jesus is distinguished from God in a verse, God should be understood as God the Father. This understanding of “God” in John 3:16 is confirmed by the later use of “Son,” for a son has a father. Most accurately, then, God the Father loved the world and gave his Son. This truth prevents any absurd notion of a sympathetic Savior who rescues sinners from an unloving Father. The Father loved the world.

(3) The “so” is about manner not degree. When I gush over something I love, I might say, “I love it soooooo much!” And when readers see that “God so loved the world,” they might imagine God’s gushing love. But “so” doesn’t mean that here. It means something like “thus” or “in this manner.” People use “so” this way too, like when they’re instructing someone to do a craft: “Take these strings and tie them like so.” The glorious news of John 3:16 is telling us how God loved the world. He loved the world like so, or in this manner, or thus: he gave his only Son. Paul wrote about the same idea: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

(4) The Son must have preexisted the incarnation. The Father can’t give what he doesn’t have. If the Father sent the Son into the world (see John 3:17), then the Son already was. The Son, like the Father and Spirit, is eternal. The incarnation was not the beginning of the Son but was when the eternal Word became flesh. God the Father loved the world and gave his Son, the Son who existed before there ever was a world.

(5) The phrase “his only Son” may recall Genesis 22. In John 3:16, the Father “gave his only Son,” which may allude to Genesis 22:2, where God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Yet Isaac was spared from being sacrificed (22:11-13). His near-death experience and deliverance foreshadowed the one who would truly be sacrificed and resurrected. Jesus is the true and greater Isaac. He’s the Father’s Son who would not be spared.

(6) John 3:16 answers who, what, how, and why. One way to think about this famous verse is in four parts that each ask a question. Who? God. What? Loved the world. How? He gave his only Son. Why? That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In his new book Gospel Formed, Jeff Medders wrote this about John 3:16: “However many times you’ve read, heard, or said that verse, it’s safe for you to hear it again and again. Familiarity shouldn’t breed apathy: this verse sparks fire! Let your heart hang on each word; there is enough to chew on for fours, years, a lifetime–even eternity” (p. 66).

Praise be to God for the merciful gift of his Son, his only Son, that sinners might live forever.

My 10 Favorite Books in 2014

What a gift reading is! I’m thankful for good books that illumine mind and stir the soul. And at a time of end-of-year lists, here’s my compilation, in no particular order, of my 10 favorite reads from 2014 (though they weren’t necessarily published this year).

1) Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me, by Kevin DeYoung. I’ve enjoyed reading DeYoung’s books for years, and this may be his best yet. Why should we take the Bible seriously? Why should we think it is inspired and inerrant? How did Jesus view the Old Testament? In eight chapters, DeYoung answers these questions and more.

2) Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity, by Charles E. Hill. If you enjoy books on eschatology, you’ll benefit from this book. It’s the most technical on this list, and the only one with a Latin title! What did the early church have to say about the millennium of Revelation 20? Where did they believe the soul went after death? Hill is a trustworthy guide through primary sources, and his book brims with insights. No matter where you land on the millennium question, Hill’s presentation is equal parts fascinating and thorough.

3) Now My Eyes Have Seen You: Images of Creation and Evil in the Book of Job, by Robert S. Fyall. In my opinion, the series “New Studies in Biblical Theology” is unmatched. Fyall writes on Job, and his book repays the reader with dividends of insight, especially in his treatment of Behemoth and Leviathan. He, of course, cannot address every verse of Job’s forty-two chapters, but he engages the key themes and passages.

4) Reforming Marriage: Gospel Living for Couples, by Doug Wilson. I think every married couple ought to read this book, especially every husband. And yes, I know that sounds like an overstatement. Oh well. Wilson explains God’s plan for marriage, and in a time of cultural revolution, few topics are more relevant than this one. In slightly over 100 pages, Wilson doesn’t waste a word. He wields his gift of writing to tackle headship, submission, child-bearing, forgiveness, sex, and a dozen other things in the mix. My wife and I read this book together, which made for great conversation and reflection.

5) The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms, by Gordon Wenham. I loved this book because it helped me love the Psalms more. Wenham drives the reader to worship. He instructs us in canonical and messianic readings of the Psalter. He also engages imprecatory psalms, always a matter of dispute among Bible readers. The whole book is good, but the first half is stronger than the second.

6) The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of Incarnation, by Graham Cole. No one is more important than Jesus Christ, and the incarnation is the foundational event of the gospel. I’ve benefited from Cole’s other books, and this was no exception. If I taught a class on Christology, this book would be required reading. Does the Old Testament predict the incarnation? How do the Old Testament stories prepare the way for God to be “with us” forever? I read this book during Advent, and Cole helped me think about the incarnation afresh. (And this book is also a volume in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology”–I told you I loved that series!)

7) An Infinite Journey: Growing Toward Christlikeness, by Andrew Davis. This book is about sanctification, and it is outstanding. Providing a map of the areas of Christian growth, Davis guides the reader through the “K-F-C-A cycle”: Knowledge, Faith, Character, and Action. What Davis accomplished with his book is tantamount to a systematic theology of sanctification! It’s brilliant.

8) Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World, by Michael Horton. In this book, Horton provides a diagnosis and cure that is relevant to many believers who may feel overwhelmed and burnt out by the ceaseless demands to change the world and do something radical for God. If that describes you, Horton wants you to sit down, lean in close, and calm down for a minute. Horton calls us to steadfastness, to a life of faithfulness. He points us to the glory of God’s kingdom and the power of the gospel. He calls us to love our neighbor. He calls us to serve the body of Christ. And he calls us to a contentment that doesn’t undermine godly ambition. What a refreshing book this was!

9) With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology, by James Hamilton. This is a fantastic addition to the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series. (Have I mentioned that I love that series?) Hamilton is a gifted writer who is drenched in the Bible, so when he writes about the Bible, lights are going to come on and your heart will be glad to be under his instruction.

10) Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God, by Dane Ortlund. This was the last book I read in 2014, and I knew it would make my list of 10 Favorites as soon as I finished the first chapter. Covering subjects like prayer, joy, Scripture, Satan, and heaven, Ortlund covers the Christian life–from an Edwardsian perspective–in twelve chapters, and he devotes a thirteenth to several thoughtful criticisms of Edwards. The book was pure joy to read.