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.