The first chapter of John’s Gospel using only one verse summarizes the birth and the early years of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
– John 1:14
The second chapter of the same gospel includes what many consider the first miracle of Jesus when He changed the water into wine at the wedding in Cana1. I do not know whether or not earlier miracles were left unrecorded by the writers of the books of the New Testament. Internal evidence supports the claim that this was Jesus’ first miracle.
This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.
Which brings us to the third chapter and the subject of this article containing perhaps the most famous Bible verse of all, known both by the Bible aficionado and the Bible averse.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
I watched a video2 of a presenter who said:
“What is it about John 3:16 that evangelical Christians love so much? Why is it (a) favorite, favorite Bible verse that they want to tell everybody about? Well I’d like to think it’s the first six words that say, “For God so loved the world.” Wouldn’t that be awesome if that was the message they wanted everybody to hear and everybody to know. That God loves you so much. But sadly I believe it’s the latter part of the verse that they want to emphasize and make clear. That Jesus is the only way that leads to salvation. The misunderstanding over John 3:16 has led many Christians in America today to believe that one must accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior or they will be condemned to hell. That is not what John 3:16 means. That is not what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel.”
I write this article from three perspectives in mind:
- Many of you share my sense of privilege to know God and to be known by God; my sense of gratitude that I am blessed with every spiritual blessing; that I am SO LOVED by the Creator and the Judge of the Universe. (I think of some fellow travelers on our recent tour of Israel and believe they would read the title and start singing a song of praise. “Oh how He loves you and me. He gave His life, what more can He give. Oh how He loves you and me.”)
- I find this a useful moment to hone our critical thinking skills. I will use this article to remind and equip us to read in context and to study diligently to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth.3
- The passage in John 3 is a powerful picture of what Jesus did in His triumph at the Cross and at the Empty Tomb.
THE WORD “SO:” I remind you Gracious Reader that critical thinking is a habit of mind, not a gotcha moment. Begin with a question not with a reaction. And the first question that came to my mind is, “What is the usage of the word ‘so’ in this verse?” Consider the following illustration:
“The government so taxes its people that…”
Does the use of the word so refer to the amount of taxation or the method of taxation? Will the words replaced by the ellipsis talk amount the percent of income paid by the taxpayer or the progressive nature of the tax code? I hope that sparks in you a “thought bubble” as you read it. The critical thinker starts with the question and then pulls out the tool in the toolbox that addresses the question. From my Greek dictionary:
The word so comes from the Greek work hooto means “in this way (referring to what precedes or follows)”
Wow! The YouTube presenter takes the position that the “so” in the verse (note the underlined phrase in the previous transcript of his words) refers to the amount of love God has for the world and any reliance on what follows is misplaced. Instead, the Greek word translated “so” refers to how He loves (not how much) and RELIES on what follows to have a meaning. The issue is the manner of His love not the amount of His love. The evidence is starting to tip the scale of conclusion away from the position of the presenter.
THE PHRASE “LOVE THE WORLD:” Once I start digging, I cannot stop. It is my nature. I self-describe as an 100% or 0%. I can say NO but once I say YES, it is an enthusiastic and committed yes. As the “first six words” played in my mind, I remembered:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.
–1 John 2:15-16
On its face, we have two Bible passages in tension. On the one hand, Jesus “so loved the world.” On the other hand John wrote,” Do not love the world.” Incidentally, the two passages come from books written by the same heavenly author4 and the same human author. There must be something worth uncovering here. And the best path to resolving this tension is context.
The third chapter of John records a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. From the conversation, evangelical Christians use the phrase “born again Christian.”
Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The conversation continues, and Jesus, in explaining what He means, refers to a peculiar incident recorded in Numbers 21:4-8. God instructed Moses, to erect a bronze serpent on a wooden pole and to direct those bitten by a snake to look upon this brazen serpent so they would survive.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
(the two verses immediately preceding John 3:16!)
Jesus introduced John 3:16 with an Old Testament illustration of His death on the Cross! Without His commentary, readers of the passage in Numbers might still be scratching their heads. Such a peculiar story! Along with Genesis 22 and the book of Jonah, these stories point to the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His completed redemptive and atoning work. John 3:16 is coming alive and rather than be defined (and deformed) by a mere six words, this verse is leading us to consider the “whole counsel of God.”5
Let’s read the verse which follow John 3:16:
For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
I suspect the presenter is reluctant to consider more than the first six words of John 3:16; he seems unwilling to consider the full text of the six verses from John 3:16 – 21. “Unbelieving” and “condemnation” and “practicing evil” hardly fit in with the message and the mantra of the “For God so loved the world” trope. And yet, my heart is blessed as I read the full passage and write this article. I want all the world to look upon the Son of Man lifted up on the cross where the debt of sin was paid in full. Tetelestai – Paid in Full. But that is another article for another time.
I hope you are invigorated in your faith toward God and instructed in the critical thinking necessary to sort out today’s conflicting and confusing commentaries. The author welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.