"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” - John 3:16
This verse in John can quickly go through our minds without realizing it, but have we ever thought about what it truly means? Have we considered the depth of truths within this verse, maintained by God throughout generations? More significantly, how do we live in the reality of John 3:16, that God showed His love through His only begotten Son, offering salvation to all humanity?
The biblical perspective of John 3:16.
First, we should look at how the verse reads. It says, “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” There’s a lot to unload with those words, but we should first understand their historical context. John 3:16 is one of the most precise presentations of the gospel, hidden in a conversation between a respected religious ruler and Jesus. You might know this story.
One night, as his colleagues were home in bed, a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus. He said, “Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God. No one could perform the signs You’re doing if God weren’t with him.” This statement implies a few things. The first is that Nicodemus was familiar with Jesus, respected him, and saw He came from God, as John 3:16 says. Nicodemus knew about the miracles Jesus had performed and likely heard about the truths Jesus spoke, which triggered a question: Who are you? Maybe you’ve asked God that question yourself. Under his words of affirmation, Nicodemus is investigating Jesus’ identity. Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they’re born again.”
At first, Jesus’ words seem like a redirect, but He was probing something deeper. We must remember who Christ was talking to, his life, and how Nicodemus was familiar with relating to God through religious works. Jesus’ statement must’ve been confusing for him, not only with the rebirth analogy but the message it revealed to this presumably righteous man. In essence, Jesus told Nicodemus that all of his years advancing in Judaism and the time he spent delivering prayers didn’t matter. They laid the foundation for the truths Jesus presented, but they weren’t strong enough to carry Nicodemus to salvation.
Jesus used an Old Testament reference to make His point.
In John 3:14-18, we briefly read about Moses’ time in the wilderness. It says that like Moses lifting the snake in the wilderness, Jesus should be raised on a pedestal, and those who believe might have everlasting life in Him. God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, and whoever believes in Him won’t die but have eternal life. God didn’t send His Son to Earth to condemn it but to save it through Him. Those who believe in Him aren’t doomed, but those who don’t are already condemned because they haven’t believed in God’s only Son.
To further show this point to Nicodemus, Jesus mentioned the snake Moses raised in the wilderness when the Israelites roamed through the desert, wavering between repentance and rebellion. In Numbers, a book Nicodemus would know about, the Israelites chose rebellion. Their punishment came via venomous snake bites. They had to glance at a bronze snake on a pole to get healed. Looking at the snake was an act of faith, and they were healed by God when they looked. The Israelites knew that looking at the snake was the only way they could be saved from death by venom.
To see this picture’s full scope, we must remember Israel’s pattern when they fled Egypt. They would act out, the Lord’s judgment would come, Moses would step in for them, and the Lord would show mercy. While Jesus walked the earth, the Israelites were still rebelling, but there was a different mediator. Instead of granting mercy Himself, the Lord would give mercies through Jesus. Still, this mercy that comes through Jesus is everlasting. When Nicodemus learned about Jesus’ death, he probably remembered these words. Like the defiant Israelites in the desert, Nicodemus needed a mediator so he could have salvation and be reborn. It’s a picture that remained with Nicodemus for the rest of his days.
John 3:16 is a vision of love.
John 3:16 follows a scripturally dense and rich explanation of salvation and sin. It says that God loves you so much that He sent Me. Christ shows us an intense, sacrificial, incomprehensible love that makes human expressions look trivial in comparison. Jesus’ words didn’t make much sense to Nicodemus than Jesus discussing rebirth. He didn’t know that Jesus was planning to die for his and our sins. He didn’t realize that Christ would literally be lifted on a pole, like that bronze snake, and that Jesus’ death and resurrection would bring life. However, thanks to the Bible, we have that knowledge.
Considering all that Jesus went through, re-read the beginning of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son.” Christ showed what pure, immeasurable love looked like through His death, but He did more. God proved how deep His love was through the cross because while we were sinners, Christ died for us, as stated in Romans 5:8. This self-sacrificing, passionate love is one that none of us could understand. Expecting nothing in return, God reached out and emptied Himself for those who snubbed Him.
The meaning of John 3:16 is God loves His children. He sent Christ to earth for one reason: those who believe in Him will live forever. We obtain God’s gift of eternal life by accepting that Jesus is who He says He is. Jesus is the sinless Son of God who paid the ultimate price for the world’s sins. He died for our place to allow us to enter eternity with Him. However, to get this gift, we have to say we need it.