The Gospel of John, chapter 3, verse 16, is one of the most widely quoted verses from the Christian Bible, and has been called the most famous Bible verse. It is frequently called the “golden text” of Scripture, and is often found in evangelistic leaflets.
However, this great passage has been interpreted in so many ways that it has become one of the most controversial and debatable texts of the Word of God. Many sincere people, who dearly cherish John 3:16, have little idea what this marvelous verse is actually teaching.
In order to expound the golden text, let us take a close look at it in its constituent elements.
It is here affirmed that “God so loved the world”. How wonderfully the love of God (the Father) is here portrayed. Unlike the gods of paganism, who were vicious and cruel, and also the cold and indifferent “god” of modern philosophy, the God of the Bible is loving (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 John 4:8,16).
The term “loved” translates the Greek verb agapao. The noun form agape is not a love which is merely emotional. It is the love of genuine interest, that of determined dedication. It is the love which acts out of concern for others. It is this magnanimous love of God that motivates man to seek his grace. John once wrote: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The extent of divine love is underscored by the use of the adverb “so” (houtos), a term marking the degree of intensity. God thus loved; not passively, but actively; to the extent of giving his precious Son, his “fellow” (cf. Zechariah 13:7), for human redemption.
The Greek word for world is kosmos. In a literal sense, the term denotes the orderly universe created by the intelligent God (Acts 17:24), or, in a more limited sense, the earth (Mark 16:15). Frequently, though, “world” stands for all people of the earth —this is a figure of speech known as metonymy; in this case, the container is put for the contents, i.e., the world stands for its inhabitants. The passage therefore emphasizes the universal love of God.
Christ affirmed that he came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). But “many” is an expression meaning “all” (see 1 Timothy 2:6; cf. Romans 5:12,15). Yes, God’s grace appeared “bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). Truly, God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9).
God loves the whole world and wants all to be saved, but he will not force anyone to yield to his plan!
Giving is characteristic of God. He has given us life (Acts 17:25), and his gifts of providence are daily evident (Acts 14:17). He is the source of all good gifts (James 1:17), and the greatest was the gift of his Son (Isa 9:6; 2 Cor 9:15). It is quite apparent, however, that even when a gift is made available, for it to be effective, one must be willing to receive it. There must be a concurrence between the will of the giver and the will of the benefactor. Now the tragic fact of the matter is, though God willingly gave his Son, not all have been disposed to receive him. Of some it was said: “. . . they that were his own received him not. . . ” (John 1:11). Men do have the power to reject gifts!
Further, it is certainly true that an object may be freely given, i.e., not deserved, and yet be conditional. In the days of ancient Israel, God informed Joshua, “See, I have given into your hand Jericho. . . ” (Joshua 6:2). In spite of the fact that Jericho was a gift, the Lord subsequently specified instructions for the taking of the city. An inspired writer later comments: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were compassed about seven days” (Hebrews 11:30). Similarly, those who would receive Christ, as God’s gracious gift, must submit to the conditions required by the Lord and his apostles (cf. Acts 2:41).
“Only begotten” renders the Greek monogenes, found nine times in the New Testament (five of these of Christ — John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; 1 John 4:9). The term derives from two roots, monos (only, alone) and genos (race, stock).
The Lord Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by: the prophets (Isaiah 9:6); angels (Luke 1:32); the Father (Matthew 3:17); himself (Mark 14:62); his disciples (Matthew 16:16); his enemies (Matthew 27:54); and, by the power of his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4).
Again, the term “whosoever” (literally, “everyone”) reveals the universality of God’s saving plan. The gospel is addressed to “the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), and, as the final great invitation of the Bible has it, “. . . he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).
The word “believes” is a present tense participle, literally, therefore, “the keeping on believing ones.” But exactly what is the biblical “belief” of which God approves?
Some have defined the term as simply an acceptation of the historical facts regarding Christ, along with a willingness to trust him as Savior. This is the view of those who advocate the doctrine of salvation by “faith alone.” But the truth is, there is more to faith than a mental disposition.
The verb “believe” in the Greek New Testament is pisteuo. In addition to the acknowledgment of the historical data, and a trusting disposition, the word also includes the meaning, “to comply,” as Liddell & Scott observe in their Greek Lexicon, (Oxford, 1869, p. 1273); and, as they further point out, it is the opposite of apisteo, which means “to disobey. . . refuse to comply” (p. 175).
Prof. Hermann Cremer noted that “faith” (pistis) both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament “is a bearing towards God and His revelation which recognizes and confides in Him and in it, which not only acknowledges and holds to His word as true, but practically applies and appropriates it” (Biblico-Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, T. & T. Clark, 1962, p. 482; emp. added). W. E. Vine declared that faith involves “a personal surrender” to Christ (Expository Dictionary, Vol. II, p. 71).
Lexicographer J.H. Thayer noted that belief is “used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e. a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah — the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon, T. & T. Clark, 1958, p. 511; emp. added).
Saving faith cannot be divorced from obedience as the following evidence clearly reveals.
Belief and disobedience are set in vivid contrast in the Bible. Note this verse: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). Similarly, the Israelites of the Old Testament that were “disobedient” were condemned “because of unbelief” (see Hebrews 3:18,19; 4:3,6).
While John 3:16 promises eternal life to him who believes, Hebrews 5:9 attributes eternal salvation to such as who obey, thus demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive, rather, saving faith includes obedience!
The New Testament often uses “faith” as a synecdoche (a figure of speech whereby the part is made to stand for the whole) to denote the sum total of gospel obedience.
For instance, Paul wrote: “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God. . . ” (Romans 5:1). That this means more than mere mental faith is proved by Paul’s own conversion. He believed in Jesus’ Lordship while yet on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:10), but he enjoyed no peace for three days subsequent thereto; until he was baptized in water in obedience to the Lord’s command (Acts 22:16; 9:18,19).
Other components in the plan of salvation sometimes figuratively represent the entire process. Repentance is said to result in life (Acts 11:18), but certainly not repentance alone! And baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21), but not baptism by itself.
Biblical faith, therefore, is the faith that lovingly works (Galatians 5:6) in obeying the Lord’s requirements for implementing the new birth (John 3:3-5). And in the maintenance of the Christian life.
Contrary to the assertions of some religious materialists, the Scriptures do not teach that the wicked will ultimately cease to exist. The Greek word, here rendered “perish,” is apollumi — a very strong term meaning “to destroy utterly.”
That apollumi does not suggest annihilation is clear in that this word is employed to describe the miserable condition of the prodigal son, when separated from his loving father. In that state the son was “lost” (Luke 15:24), but he had not ceased to exist. As Vine pointed out: “the idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (Expository Dictionary, Vol. I, p. 302). Prof. Thayer declared, with extreme clarity, that apollumi suggests “to be delivered up to eternal misery” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 4).
In this connection one should carefully study Matthew 25:46 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9. The abiding separation of the wicked from God will entail an eternal suffering! This passage is an eloquent refutation of both the materialistic theory of the annihilation of the wicked, and the modernistic assertion of universal salvation.
Eternal life is here promised to those who pursue the life of obedient trust. But what exactly is eternal life?
Most assuredly it is not mere eternal existence, for the wicked will exist eternally. Eternal life is the exact opposite of everlasting death. The final abode of evil persons is called “the second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14). Since “death” always connotes the idea of separation, in some form or another (cf. Ephesians 2:1), the final death is obviously eternal separation from God (cf. Matthew 7:23; 25:41; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Conversely, eternal life is everlasting communion with God, along with all the wonders that involves. It is a state of glory (Romans 2:10; 2 Corinthians 4:17), rest (Hebrews 4:11), and happiness (Matthew 25:21).
Let us praise God with the song “Love Has Come”: