If you prefer to save it and read later – the PDF can be downloaded here: Recapturing the Familiar – A detailed exposition of John 3_16
This is the expanded notes from a sermon I preached on Dec 28, 2014. The actual sermon preached was condensed from these notes to fit the allotted time. The sermon audio and slides are at the bottom of this article if you’re interested in hearing it… Enjoy & God bless!
Sometimes we can become so familiar with a passage of scripture that we become numb to it and it loses its freshness. Probably none is so famously so than John 3:16. We have a tendency in church circles to be able to rattle it off without much thought given to its context or weight. It used to be that John 3:16 was the most popularly quoted verse. However now, it is a verse which although few even know where it comes from—everyone knows how to quote it out of context, “Judge not lest you be judged.” (Matt 7:1) And perhaps this is a good representation of the shift that has occurred in our society and churches as what seems to be the muddling—or even in more drastic cases—the loss of the Gospel. Without proper consideration of the context of a verse it can lead us to a type of “bumper sticker theology” which really does the Word an injustice, sometimes even to the point of twisting it and robs us of its true depth and transforming power.
So I will begin by briefly giving some context leading up to our main verse and we’ll camp out for the remainder of the time in John 3:16. I will attempt to plumb the richness and depths of this passage—to extract as much as we can from the text and also address what I think are some common mistakes made today. My hope from all of this is that we would more clearly and gloriously see the beauty of the true Gospel in Jesus Christ from this passage. I hope that our hearts would resound and burst forth in ardent worship and renewed appreciation and passion for Him. And perhaps for some, they would for the first time see and be transformed—truly born again for the first time.
Before we begin—let’s read John 3:1-21.
Written c.70-90AD, John’s gospel has a distinctly different style to the other 3 synoptics—Matthew, Mark and Luke. The synoptics write from a 1st person point of view, whereas John writes from a 3rd person view. (We see this quite humorously I think, when he refers to himself in the 3rd person as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Quite a cheeky fellow! Haha!) He continually emphasizes Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour to take away the sins of the world. He uses many symbolic titles such as the Lamb of God, the vine, the resurrection. Also, John quotes Jesus as using the “I am” statements, identifying himself as Jehovah/Yahweh – echoing God revealing the Divine Name in Exodus 3:14. His gospel was the last of the four to be written, and therefore has a much more developed theology in it. It is supposed that his Gospel was written to deal with a heresy of the time of the Ebionites, who claimed that Christ did not exist before he was born of Mary. This helps explain his very different introduction to his gospel than the other 3 which speak of Jesus’ human birth, John begins with Jesus as the eternal Logos.
His introduction of Jesus starting with, “in the beginning” would have harkened his readers all the way back to Genesis 1 – equating what he was writing with their Holy Scriptures and Jesus with Yahweh himself. The passage we will be looking at today, culminating famously in John 3:16, summarizes nicely his gospel’s central theme. He states the purpose of his gospel clearly in John 20:31, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” This is why John’s gospel is arranged so differently, it is not chronological, John takes much liberty with how he arranges the stories, and what he puts in and leaves out. His main focus is not to write a chronological history, but rather a theological treaty that will aid the reader to believe in Jesus as the son of God and to have life in him.
Context leading up to 3:16
I’ll briefly sketched out the context leading up to our text in John 3 before we dive in so that we have some understanding of how John has built us up to this point. Take a minute to read and consider:
The Prologue: The Word Became Flesh
John 1:1-18 – Christ the Eternal Word/Logos. Pre-existent. Creator. Life giver. Light. Incarnate. Salvation and rebirth through him. Everything in John’s Gospel has to be understood in light of this opening which defines who Jesus is.
The Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry
John 1:19-28 – John the Baptist testifies of Jesus. John uses the testimony of John the Baptist about Jesus a few times in his Gospel to bring out the theme of Jesus as being the expected messiah.
John 1:29-34 – John Baptizes Jesus to fulfil all righteousness and identify with sinners. (Matt 3:13-15) Foreshadows his death, burial and resurrection. Declares him – The Lamb of God. He is approved and identified by God as the Spirit descends and rests on him. We read in other Gospel accounts of the voice from Heaven declaring him as God’s own Son.
John 1:35-51 – The first disciples to Jesus. Andrew, Simon Peter, Philip, Nathanael. Each bring the other to Jesus – illustration of evangelism we can learn from. Jesus speaks authoritatively (unlike some depictions of him begging or convincing people to follow him like in the Bible series). Nathanael’s expression of surprise that anything good can come from Nazareth – Galileans had a reputation (See my article on Jesus in Context for more info). Jesus tells Nathanael about himself and greater things to come.
The Start of Public Ministry: Signs and Discourses
John 2:1-12 – Jesus first miracle – the wedding at Cana. Water from jars for ceremonial cleansing are changed to wine.
John 2:13-25 – Cleansing the Temple. As God incarnate, this was rightly Jesus’ turf. Jesus seems himself as the new ‘temple’ and also will become our perfect high priest. At the end of this incident John notes that Jesus knows the heart of man, and did not trust them though some started to follow.
John 3:1-21 – Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He comes to Jesus at night. Talks about being born of water and Spirit – which is interesting considering the previous stories of ceremonial water jars and cleansing of the Temple. This discourse reveals the major focus according to John of Jesus’ ministry. He has so far built his Gospel up to this point and this is where we’ll be camping out today…
Nick at Night – Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus: John 3:1-7
Who was Nicodemus?
He decides to meet Jesus at night, perhaps because he wasn’t ready yet to be publicly associated with Jesus – so it was in secret. Or perhaps just to ensure a private audience with Jesus so they could be undisturbed. He was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader and teacher, so he would have been well aware of the Jewish holy texts – the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud. Some had the expectation that messiah would come to deliver if the nation could perfectly keep the Torah or Sabbath. Which is why they had such a strong emphasis on law and keeping themselves clean. The name “Pharisee” is apparently derived from the Hebrew word perusim, meaning “the separated ones” or “separatists.” The term “Pharisee,” however, was what those outside the sect called them as they sought to make themselves set apart in this way.
The Pharisees had developed a system of 613 laws, 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws which were in addition to the 10 commandments given at Sinai. So Nicodemus understood law! He would have understood that God was holy and transcendent, unapproachable in His glory as visibly illustrated in the Temple proceedings where only the high priest could enter the holy of holies once a year – and only with great trepidation and reverence for fear of being struck down if his life was impure.
Sometimes people want to jump straight to John 3:16 to proof text that God just loves everyone and end up with some sort of “soft” Gospel. It sounds great and everyone loves to hear about how much God loves them! But there was some assumed and necessary pre-knowledge to this text here (as in many places in the Bible). The audience that was being addressed was well aware of God’s severe holiness and perfect law. They had memorized it, Torah was an integral part of their lives. They grew up with the stories of the law being given with fire, earthquake and great fear at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19-20. Many of the Israelites were afraid of being consumed by the fire of the Lord as he delivered His law to them from that burning mountaintop.
This is not so with the vast majority we encounter today. We must not assume that people know the law, or that they are sinners – guilty under the law, or have an adequate understanding of the holiness of God. We must still present them with the Law because it is the “schoolmaster bringing them to Christ” (Gal 3:24) and that by the Law, everyone is made aware of their guilt before a Holy God (Rom 5:20).
You must be born again:
Jesus cuts straight to the heart of the matter when he engages Nicodemus. Jesus seemingly ignores his greeting and just jumps to “you MUST be born again to enter the Kingdom of God.” This may have been startling, but it cut right to the chase of dealing with the goal of the Mosaic Law – how to be right with God. Nicodemus probably knew all too well from trying earnestly to maintain all the Law that one could not change himself. So Jesus explains that this change can only come about through the work of the Holy Spirit in making a person “born again”. Nicodemus doesn’t get it though as he can’t fathom someone being physically reborn, however Jesus was referring to a spiritual rebirth and fleshes that out in the verses to follow.
You can be religious and not born again. It is possible that you see God at work in Jesus without God being at work in you. You can be religiously impressed without being born again. Then Jesus tells him he must be born of “water and of Spirit” – in reference to Ezekiel 36:24-27. This is why Jesus says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (verse 10), he shows that his teaching is not completely new but that someone who knows the Old Testament well (as Nicodemus does) should understand what Jesus is saying. The word that Jesus uses (δεῖ) which is translated “must” is a very strong word – which means “it is necessary, needed, inevitable.” John used it elsewhere in his gospel to refer to the necessity of the crucifixion (3:14; 12:34), of the proper method of worshiping God (4:24), of Jesus carrying out His ministry (4:4; 9:4; 10:16), and of the necessity of the resurrection (20:9).So it stresses the importance of this new birth to salvation.
“… to be born again, is to begin to live anew, as those who have lived much amiss, or to little purpose. We must have a new nature, new principles, new affections, new aims. By our first birth we were corrupt, shapen in sin; therefore we must be made new creatures. No stronger expression could have been chosen to signify a great and most remarkable change of state and character. We must be entirely different from what we were before… It is a great change made in the heart of a sinner, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It means that something is done in us, and for us, which we cannot do for ourselves.“ (Matthew Henry Concise Commentary)
Today many profess to be “born again Christians”. If you go to the Barna Group online—an organization that specializes in religious research and statistics—you’ll read things like this: “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians.” Also that, “Only 9 percent of evangelicals tithe. Of 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge to wait for marriage, 80% had sex outside marriage in the next 7 years. Twenty-six percent of traditional evangelicals do not think premarital sex is wrong. White evangelicals are more likely than Catholics and mainline Protestants to object to having black neighbours.”
Clearly, people professing to be “born again” have missed something here. Check yourself, does your life show that you’ve truly been made new and born again? Or do you look just like the rest of the world with a little Jesus added on? Friends, Jesus is no mere add on…
How does the Bible talk about being born again?
In another of John’s letters, he expands on what a born again person looks like…
1. They practice righteousness. It is a continuous lifestyle not just a one time decision. “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.” (1 John 2:29)
2. They don’t make a wilful practice of sinning. If they do sin, it is against their new nature and there is contrition, remorse and repentance. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”( 1 John 3:9)
3. They display God’s love. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)
4. They endure – their faith lasts. They aren’t like the seeds that spring up for a bit then are destroyed, but they endure faithfully to the end. “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”(1 John 5:4)
5. They do not keep on sinning, they make an effort to work towards sanctification – being made more and more holy and the Lord helps and keeps them. “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” (1 John 5:18)
To confirm this in John’s Gospel, look back at John 1:12–13. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born [this is the new birth], not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” In other words, God causes us to be born again with new spiritual life, and the simultaneous effect is that we see and receive Jesus for who he is—trusting him with our lives—and our lives show that change.
Implications of being Born Again:
In verse 6, Jesus makes his point more clear – that “humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual birth.” (NLT) We, like Nicodemus, are totally incapable of producing spiritual rebirth. It takes a supernatural move of the Spirit. None of us save ourselves by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. By saying it in the imperative – you MUST be born again – Jesus was putting this prerequisite to entry into the Kingdom well out of the reach of Nicodemus and us. We are totally and utterly helpless and dependent on God to do in us that which we cannot do for ourselves. This is the starting point of salvation and indeed of every aspect of Christian living. We would do well to recognize this as our starting point and posture.
So many times we fail at this, thinking ourselves something we’re not. We should take heed to 1 Cor 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” We say – perhaps this time I’ll do it right, if I just try a little harder, make the right program, learn the right theology, do 12 steps, make a resolution and all these other futile attempts we do time and time again only to have them blow up and fail miserably apart from the grace of God.
As in 1 Corinthians, Paul urges us in verse 7 to not be idolaters, that is – to not put our hope or trust in anything or anyone beside Christ to save us. The examples of the Old Testament where Israel failed to keep their trust in God alone serve as an example to us (verse 11). It is the break down of all pride and puffing out of chests – all our delusions of self-sufficiency and ego. Our total depravity and inability should lead us to radical dependency on God’s sufficiency. Our song ever on our lips should be as the hymn writer puts it, “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.”
Wind & Spirit – John 3:8-15
The effectual wind:
Jesus teaches in verse 8 how the Holy Spirit does this work of regeneration. Jesus uses an analogy here of wind to the Spirit – which is common as the Hebrew (ר֫וּחַ – ruach) and Greek (πνεῦμα – pneuma) words for spirit also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’.
Jesus says to Nicodemus: “You can hear, feel, and see the effects of the wind, but you do not know where it comes from. In like manner, you can see the effects of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those the Spirit touches.”
The effects of true salvation should manifest itself in the lives of believers. We sometimes can make the mistake of making our assurance of salvation on “faith alone” – however, the Bible in numerous times and place stresses the importance of works to back up one’s profession of faith (James 2:14-26). While salvation is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), it is also true that faith without works is dead. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that if the Holy Spirit has truly moved in the life of a believer, His effects will be shown – we will see the effects of the wind blowing in their lives.
The untamed wind:
Also, he says that the wind blows “where it wishes” – pointing to the Divine sovereignty of God in saving people. His sovereign will to choose, predestine and elect those who come to salvation. While predestination and free will is not the focus of this sermon, I will point out some points which John makes this theological point as we continue. But what is important here to point out is that it is possible that Jesus was addressing Nicodemus’ belief as a Pharisee that reconciliation to God could be earned through proper obedience to Torah and their laws. This total sovereignty of God to choose whomever He wills would have went in the face of that. Redemption cannot be earned.
This would not be a new thing though, even in the Old Testament, God chose Israel – a nation for Himself – not because of any merit of their own but because of His own good purposes. “Just as you can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” There is a certain mystery to salvation. How many times have we been perplexed at the ones that God chooses to save – saving the least likely of people…?
This is like what Jesus said in Mark 4:26–27: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how.” The kingdom of God is like that. And Jesus says in John 3:5 that you can’t enter the kingdom of God unless you are born again. That’s why Jesus says: We scatter the seed of the word, and God causes new birth, yet we know not how. The Holy Spirit has a will of His own. Sometimes we have a tendency to want to tame God…
The irresistible wind:
This is what we mean when we use terms like sovereign grace or irresistible grace. We mean that the Holy Spirit is God’s Spirit, so He is omnipotent and sovereign. Therefore, he is irresistible and infallibly effective in his regenerating work. Which doesn’t mean that we don’t resist him. We do. The Bible is plain about that (Acts 7:51). What the sovereignty of grace and the sovereignty of the Spirit mean is that when God chooses, He can overcome the rebellion and resistance of our wills. He can open our eyes to make Christ look so compelling, so beautiful and desirable that our resistance is broken and we freely and joyfully come to Him to receive Him and believe Him.
Jesus says in John 6:44 and 65, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. . . . No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
In Acts 13:48, Luke says, “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
In Romans 9:15–16 Paul quotes God, “‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” In other words, the wind blows where it wills in the work of regeneration.
In Philippians 2:12–13, Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” In other words, our indispensable willing is owing to God’s decisive working.
Or the very familiar Ephesians 2:8–9: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The wind blows where it wills and gives life and faith.
Nicodemus at this time could not grasp all this as we see by his response in verse 9. But by the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus risks his life and spends his money to show his love for Jesus (John 19:38-42). Today there are still two basic responses to what Jesus says in John 3:8. One is to be threatened by it. And the other is to be thrilled by it. To some it feels threatening because it takes the new birth out of our control and makes us feel helpless. But to others this is thrilling, because they have already discovered they are helpless.
It is thrilling to me to be told that God is free and sovereign in His grace. Because it means that all my helplessness, and all my deadness, and all my rebellion, and all my spiritual hardness, and all my moral inability, and all the years of my sin are no hindrance to God’s omnipotent Spirit when He wills to give me life through His crucified and risen Son. He blows where He wills, not where we deserve His blowing, and not where we constrain his blowing. His grace is free and sovereign. He does not depend on you or I in this work. What a glorious truth to rejoice in!!
The Greatest Verse of the NT – John 3:16-21
Arguably – this is the greatest or at least the most well known and quoted scripture in the New Testament by a vast majority of Christendom. It is worth a closer look to see why… So next, we will dissect it word by word to see what riches we can plunder from this heavy passage of scripture.
“FOR” – that glorious linking word!
FOR – verse 16 starts with an important linking word. Greek writers like to string together their sentences using these linking words – it’s like they’re knitting thoughts together to form a chain of argument. “γὰρ” in the Greek – meaning “for” – links verse 16 with what was previously said in verses 14-15. Just as Moses had to lift up the snake in the wilderness for those of Israel who had been bitten by poisonous snakes to be healed and live (Num 21:9) – so too we who have been bitten by the Snake (Gen 3), the poison of sin coursing through our veins. We too need to look to the Jesus lifted up on the Cross bearing our sins to be healed and live. This is what verse 16 calls us to bear in mind as it opens. The Cross is always the central point of the Gospel – for there, atonement was made and the price for sin was paid.
We can know the seriousness of a crime by the punishment it elicits. We can know the worth of something by the price you pay to have it. On the Cross is the visible demonstration to us all of the infinite seriousness of our crime and the value of our salvation. Treachery against an infinitely Holy God incurs an infinite debt and therefore deserves an infinite punishment. “The wages of sin is death…” (Rom 6:23) The only One able to pay an infinite debt is One who has an infinite account, One who is of infinite worth. It cost God His only Son, the God-man, beaten, bleeding and marred beyond recognition, dying on a tree which He had made, at the hands of men whom He also created and for whose debt He also suffered. There is no mystery or wonder more profound in all the Universe, that the God of all the Universe dies to pay the redemption cost of His creation. And we will flesh this out some more…
In the garden, Jesus prays for the cup to pass – but what was this cup? It was no mere physical pain, or agony of the Cross – He knew full well what He was getting Himself into! He designed the very nerve endings that would transmit this horrible pain. Jesus says it explicitly in Matt 10:28 and Luke 12:4-5 not to fear man, but rather God. It was not fear of Roman nails and scourging, it was fear of God Himself! Because on that Cross, the full weight and terrible wrath of God was poured out on Christ. The cup which He pleaded to pass was filled from the winepress of God’s wrath – and on the Cross He took the cup, drank it all and slammed it down saying “it is finished!” For those who are in Christ, your debt is paid – there’s no more wrath! This is what this opening word “For” should call to memory for us… and that’s just the first word of this verse!
God – who is He?
Today when we say God to people outside the church (and even inside!), what may be understood may not be what we intend to be understood. In our pluralistic society, there are so many different views of God which range from the Islamic view of a totally transcendent un-relatable absolute monotheist God to the hindu understanding of a pantheon of gods to simply the “big man upstairs” view commonly held by average Joe. We can not assume people know God or fear Him rightly.
“Idolatry is not simply worshiping a stone image; idolatry is any concept of God that reduces Him to less than who He really is.”
(Ron Carlson and Ed Decker, Fast Facts on False Teachings, p. 196.)
The God we as Christians refer to is the One only true God. Creator and Sustainer of all things, all powerful, all knowing, everlasting, totally sovereign and answers to no one, loving, perfectly good and just, holy, righteous, unchanging, merciful and gracious, severely opposed to sin who righteously judges evil, Triune and above all else. Perhaps one of the best ways to get an appreciation for the ‘size’ of God is to look to the heavens since they declare His glory (Ps 19:1). The universe God has created just screams of His unfathomable “bigness”. Billions upon billions of galaxies, stars, blackholes and other cosmic bodies that boggle the mind to comprehend in their sheer massiveness.
There is a red hypergiant star called VY Canis Majoris – it is the biggest star known so far. It has a diameter of about 2.8 Billion km! To put that to scale – it would take a plane travelling at 900 km/h about 1100 years to circle it! If that wasn’t big enough – there’s a black hole at the center of the Phoenix Cluster galaxy. Its gravity is so strong it holds the entire galaxy in orbit around it. The one at the centre of the Phoenix Cluster has the mass of about 20 billion suns! And there are many of these, most galaxies have a black hole at their centre. All of this is only a tiny dot in our Universe.
And He hold it all in the palm of His hand, He is in control of every one of them, knows them by name, and none of them can even come close to comparison with His glory!
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'” – Abraham Kuyper
How ridiculous is it then when we try to bargain and bribe God with the things He already owns? What is there that we have that is not already His? What can we offer truly that He is in lack of? How ridiculous is it when we – as little specks in the grand scheme of the Universe question His wisdom? This is the God we must rightly understand and think about when this verse says “God”.
“Lots of people today would never consider themselves guilty of idolatry as far as it is spelled out in the Ten Commandments, but by reducing God to some benevolent “man upstairs” whose only attributes are love and tolerance, and who could not care less about sin, they truly have transgressed God’s commandment. They have created a god in their mind who does not actually exist and will on the day of judgment, not be able to offer them any help.”
The size of the offense:
So, why is sin so serious as to deserve eternal punishment? The answer is that God is the most worthy Person in the Universe. His greatness and His value are infinite. All things are measured by Him. He is the beginning and the ending of all things. Every person depends on Him for everything. We owe Him perfect trust, allegiance, love, worship, honour, respect and obedience, because He made us and owns us and sustains us. We know that the punishment is in proportion to the honour of the one offended. If I threaten a nobody, well, there may be some minor ramifications. But if I was to threaten a police officer – there’s some more trouble. And if I was to threaten the President of the US – now I might be guilty of treason! As a person’s honour increases, so does the offense against him – so how much does it increase for the Person of Infinite Honour?
Therefore, rejecting Him, distrusting Him, disobeying Him, neglecting Him, and enjoying other things rather than Him—all these are infinite insults to His worth because He is an infinite treasure. And an infinite insult—or a life of infinite insults—deserves infinite punishment.
Let me try to bring this home in terms more relatable. God is perfect.. We all know how it feels to be compared to someone who seems perfect or excellent in whatever field. Or maybe you know a perfectionist who does something really, really well! How sometimes we feel ashamed to even try to attempt what they do because it would make our feeble attempt seem to fall all the more short of perfection. I know a few guys who can play the drums so well, when I hear them I’m in awe but simultaneously say to myself – it’s best I just chop my hands off and never play again because I’ll never be that good!
But here’s the crazy thing! They aren’t perfect – and we know it. Sure they may be exemplary, gifted, or highly skilled at whatever it is they do exceptionally. But they are not perfect. God is perfect. So if we feel this sense of inadequacy, of falling short with just mere mortal men, how much more for a God who is perfect in all that He does?! How much more is this reality magnified when we perceive God for who He actually is? How much more are our sins scarlet? How much bigger the shame? How much more when we realize this perfection is not just in what He does, but also in who He is – perfectly Holy and we are not. This is why when anyone in scripture comes within the presence of God, they fall down in fear and realization of their own depravity and unworthiness.
But then surprisingly what we read next is not that God shames, or that God rejects, or that God rains down fiery justice as He is totally in His right to do… No, though familiarity has bred some sort of mundane acceptance, we perhaps should be surprised by what comes next… The infinite, unapproachable, sovereign, perfect Lord of all shows His love in a most extravagant way!!!!
So – “Οὕτως” – in this way.
I have heard many preachers misinterpret this word, and indeed so have I in the past before starting to study Greek. Many use it as quantifying the amount of God’s love – that he “SOOO” loved the world. Meaning, that His love was so great – that He gave His Son… Though this is true, God’s love is immeasurably great and big, this is not what this word actually means. The word “Οὕτως” (Houtōs) actually means “in this manner/way” or “thus”. So what the text is actually saying is that “this is the manner in which God loved the world – He gave His Son.”
Loved – what is the type of love in mind?
I think before I start discussing love, I’d like to dispel a well-intentioned but common mistake. We’ve all heard about God’s “agape” love (and indeed I even bought into this for a long while myself!). We’ve heard it preached that it is different intrinsically to other words used for love like “phileo” (“φιλέω”). And that it is somehow unique to and this word alone says something special about God’s love. While the entire range of the two words are not exactly the same, there is still a lot of overlap between their uses and it is false to appeal to their “root meaning” to discern a difference.
For example, in the Septuagint, in 2 Sam 13 “ἀγαπάω – apagao” is used to refer to Ammon’s rape of Tamar. In 2 Tim 4:10, “ἀγαπάω” (agapaó) is used to speak about how Demas “loved this present evil world”. Furthermore, right in John – he uses “ἀγαπάω” (agapaó) and “φιλέω” (phileó) interchangeably. (John 3:35 uses “ἀγαπάω” (agapaó), and John 5:20 uses “φιλέω” (phileó) without any discernable shift in meaning.) These sort of root-word fallacies are common in word studies for those who are not learned in Greek, and though this one may be fairly harmless – there are some more serious implications to careless use of word-studies. So we should be good students of the word and rightly discern it.
The Nature of God’s love:
So, what can we say about God’s love then? The point that some people try to make through a false word study of “ἀγαπάω” (agapaó) is actually made more clear through the plain reading of scripture. Allow me to illustrate… A true lover gives the best he has to offer and everything he has for his beloved. We’ve all heard those romantic guys that would promise the world and stars to a girl, give her everything to win her affections… God owns those stars. But God proved his love for us by giving us the best He had to offer — His only unique Son as the sacrifice for our sin. We don’t naturally understand that kind of love these days…
Predominantly today, love can be fallen into and out of, depending really on how happy the other person is making us. So really, we don’t love the other person; we love us. Today, love is, “You make me happy, so I love you.” That’s you loving you. That’s not you loving someone else. If love is a simple kind of emotive fluttering of the heart – how could you possibly feel safe in that? See, if love is conditional on making the lover happy, then won’t you have to be on your guard to never show your weaknesses? Because if they see your weaknesses, then that jeopardizes their giving of love. Or what if the returns of happiness for giving the love are diminished or not present? What then?
If we don’t understand what love actually is, when we begin to talk about God’s love for us, we can’t frame it up. It won’t feel as spectacular as it is – we won’t see its greatness. We’ve heard that we feel like we have to measure up, and we feel like we have to do everything right in order for God to love us. That’s not love as the Bible teaches it. So it’s important for us to move away from this popular, predominant understanding of love and get into the biblical version of love. We can never understand unconditional love, if the only love we know is conditional. How can you unconditionally love someone who meets all your conditions? Marriage love should be the demonstration of this, as it is based on faithfulness to a covenant made. God’s love is covenantal – and as such, He can never go back on His word.
Why does God love?
Lastly, some have the false notion that God loves you for some merit He saw in you… the talk of self-esteem and loving yourself because God loves you is very popular these days. After all, God gave His best for you right? It was because you were so special to Him, because He could not imagine heaven without you, right? There was a you-shaped hole in God’s heart that He just had to fill right? Malarkey! The whole lot of it – and it probably reflects the narcissistic me-centric nature of our culture. The Bible doesn’t encourage us to love ourselves – we already do! Sinners love themselves, 2 Timothy 3:2 says, “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive… etc…” If this is what you’ve thought, get over yourself – you’re not that great. Just a brief look at yourself will show that. We do so much to put make up on and dress up the depravity which stares right back at us.
In fact it is in spite of our wretchedness that God loves us, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) We were all once lost sheep gone astray (Is 53:6), led away by our own evil desires and passions (James 1:14), we actively rebelled against a Holy God, suppressed the knowledge of Him, denied to give Him glory as He deserved (Rom 1:18-19), we cursed and profaned His name with the very breath He gave and thereby spat in the face of the One who gives us life. Those who rebel against God do so using the very gifts He has given them. It’s like they sit on His lap to slap Him in the face.
God has no lack. God is not lonely. Even from before He created anything – He exists in perfect love and fellowship within the Trinity. God is infinitely and completely satisfied in Himself. So why does God love you? Well, because God is love (1 John 4:8). It is His nature to love, it is who He is and what He does. He loves you, not ultimately because you are so deserving of His love, but because He is loving. And ultimately it is for His own glory that He saves anyone!
“For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9-11)
This may seem a bit odd to some who have never encountered this, but this is actually a source of great security. Because God is most passionate about His own glory and the praise of His Name, His love and salvation toward us will never fail. Who else would be worthy of glory? There is none greater than Him, so for God to be for anything less than Himself would be to settle for something lesser and be idolatrous. God’s passion for His own glory is the source of our great security in Christ. Because He has saved us to the glory of His name, we know that those who are truly His will be secure and testify and praise Him into eternity for this. We are the ones in need, we are the helpless – and as such, God’s salvation of those unable to save themselves shows His strength. God is ever the giver, and we are mere lowly recipients of His grace.
The World – who does this encompass?
The world – the world which is wicked, depraved and fallen. A lot of times in how scripture uses this word “κόσμος” (kosmos) for the world – it is speaking in a negative light. To be set apart from the world – not to be of the world, etc… However, this is the type of world that God loves. A world apart from the merit that would deserve the love of an immeasurable and perfect God. The gospel isn’t go clean yourself up first then come to God – You can’t. Give up! God’s love is not based on you… thank God it’s not!
However, does this word “κόσμος” mean everyone without exception? We see this word being used in a variety of ways in the New Testament, so it is impossible to discern what is meant solely based on root-word study. It is used in reference to the Universe (Acts 17:24), the earth (John 13:1), the world system (John 12:31), the human race (Rom 3:19), unbelievers (John 15:18), Gentiles (Rom 11:12) and even of believers (John 1:29). So, we have to look at the context to figure out the specific meaning. And this is commonly the case for most things, it takes study and consideration of the whole context of scripture to discern rightly its meaning.
In the context of John, the most common meaning for “the world” is the created and fallen totality of humankind. It’s the countless number of perishing people. It is also argued that “the world” is the nations/non-Jews/gentiles – as John is refocusing and correcting the held belief by the Jews that salvation was only to be to the Jews. Whatever the case – it is out of this larger group that the “whoever” comes from in the second part of the verse.
“This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3-4)
So God’s general love is shown to all mankind, the call to repentance and belief in Jesus goes out to everyone because He wishes for all to be saved. However, there is a more specific love – it seems – which is specially on those who are redeemed by Him.
If we consider John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.” Did Christ by His death take away the sin of all men without exception? If He did, all men without exception shall be saved. Or John 6:33: “For the bread of God is he which comes down from heaven, and gives life unto the world.” Does Jesus give life to all men without exception? If He does, all men without exception have eternal life and we end up with Universalism. But this is not the case. So it seems that there is a certain specificity also to God’s redeeming covenantal love with those He saves and gives life to. That the price for sin He paid was for those whom He also predestined, called and elected to salvation. It was to purchase His church – the body of true believers who would come to genuine salvation. Some people have a problem with this – how can God chose to save and love some but not others? But perhaps the better question is how can God save and love ANYONE in light of His holiness and our depravity?
Gave His Only Son – the active demonstration of God Incarnate
This clause is strung together with the word “ὥστε” (hōste) meaning “so that” or “therefore”. God loved the world – therefore He gave His Son. The giving of the Son is based in God’s love. It is the demonstration and result of that love.
The word “ἔδωκεν” (edōken) used for “gave” here is an Aorist Active Indicative verb. Which is just a fancy way of saying that this action is seen as complete, and something which God was actively involved in doing. The giving of His Son was once and for all. His sacrifice is complete and accepted, there is no further need for sacrifice – the payment was in full.
The giving of the Son is the proof that God’s love is more than just mere sentiment. And we know that this giving was a giving up to rejection and death. “He came to his own and his own received him not” (1:11). Instead they killed him. So when the Father gave his only begotten Son, he gave him to die. That’s the kind of love the Father has. It is a giving love. It gives His most precious treasure—His Son. We need to meditate on that this Christmas season.
The word “μονογενῆ” (monogenē) has been popularly translated “only begotten”, but its actual force is more like “only one of its kind” or “unique”. In Hebrews 11:17 “μονογενῆ” is used to speak of Isaac – however he isn’t Abraham’s only son – but he is his special or unique well-beloved son. So it speaks of the preciousness of the Son to the Father. So it was a very costly love. A very powerful love. A very rugged, painful love. For those who are parents and love your precious children dearly, it is difficult to fathom giving them up to die willingly for any cause. Truly we have to take a minute and wonder, what kind of love is this!?
“Perchance for a good man one might dare to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7–8)
“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded empires; but upon what foundation did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force! But Jesus Christ founded His upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.”
–Napoleon Bonaparte I
All the believing ones (πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων):
Who are these people?
This clause is linked to the giving of God’s unique and only Son by the conjunction “ἵνα” (hina) – meaning “so that” or “for the purpose of”. So, the giving of the Son is so that, or for the purpose that everyone believing would not perish… it facilitates the redemption and salvation of these ones who come to faith in Christ. So we see that God’s giving of His Son is effectual – it wasn’t a lost cause. It accomplishes the purpose He set out – Jesus’ death on the cross was not His defeat but rather His victory and success in purchasing redemption. This is why He declares resoundingly “it is finished!”
The use of “πιστεύων” (pisteuōn) for believing is what is called a Present Active Participle. You may ask what is a participle – well, for our purposes since this isn’t a Greek lecture, let’s just call them “verby words”. The present tense in Greek is an ongoing, continuous action. John 20:31 tells us why this whole gospel was written and makes the ‘continuousness’ of believing plain. It says, “These have been written that you may believe [aorist tense: come to believe, or some manuscripts have present tense] that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [present tense: ongoing believing] you may have life in His name.”
So this eternal life is predicated on the continuing and persistent belief or faith of those for whom He died and saved. These believing ones are the ones who endure to the end because God’s Spirit given to ensure salvation is not incapable to keep those whom He has taken hold of. The ones who fall away only prove they never truly fell forward.
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19)
What does belief look like?
Far too many of us believe in Jesus like we believe in Abe Lincoln or some other person or thing. He’s a kind of a historic figure who did some cool stuff, then died an untimely death. But it is not mere intellectual ascent being spoken of here, but belief that He was who He said He is. The type of belief being talked about here puts us in a bit of a bind, because Jesus says he’s God. He says he’s the only way to God. Jesus made some very radical and exclusive claims which if we say we truly believe should also radically affect the way we live our lives. CS Lewis put it this way, that considering the claims of Christ – either he is a liar, lunatic or Lord. He leaves no room for middle ground or standing on the fence.
So let me love you enough to put this in no uncertain terms. Believing in Jesus means you’ve declared war on the sin in your life and that you’re serious about growing in your knowledge with God. If you have a new relationship with God, you should also have a new relationship with sin. To believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and life is to not put any trust in anything else to save you or ultimate satisfy you. If those things are not true about you, you do not believe in Jesus. If there’s no seriousness about sin in your life and no desire for you to grow in an understanding of who God is and who Jesus is, you don’t believe in him. You believe in Jesus like you believe in some sort of historic figure, or that belief doesn’t change who you are fundamentally – you do not believe in him in regard to eternal life.
“A man must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool. It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions if he is not even ready to wear a wreathe around his head for them.”
― G.K. Chesterton
More than ‘mere’ belief:
In other words if your believing is only an agreement in the head with facts about Jesus, your faith is no different that the faith of devils—who believe and tremble (James 2:19). In fact, theirs may exceed yours if that’s the case – because I have known some people who profess to know God but have no fear of Him. Knowing and agreeing with truths is necessary, but it is not enough. It doesn’t make you a Christian. Believing means being satisfied with what God is for you in Jesus.
Consider John 6:35, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.'” So believing is something which is satisfying of your deepest desires. What once satisfied, is now distasteful. Believing is based on new taste buds in the soul. Before, your soul was satisfied—or at least so you thought—with what the world could offer. Now Christ is so satisfying to your soul that the world is losing its power. Believing does not merely solve philosophical problems. It is also an emotional experience of being relieved of a troubled heart and a hungry soul.
Consider Jesus’ parables of the man who finds a treasure in a field (Matt 13:44) or a pearl of great price (Matt 13:46) – IN HIS JOY – he sells all that he possesses so that he can have that treasure! That treasure is Christ. Paul says that he counts everything a loss and compares it to dung so that he would have Christ! (Phil 3:8)
So the question in salvation is not merely do you believe in Jesus, or do you accept Jesus – but do you treasure Him?!
I think sometimes in our modern evangelism and zeal to win converts we miscommunicate this important point. Perhaps we need to rethink the language we’re using… No where in scripture do I see Jesus asking people to “accept Him into their heart.” As if God himself would need your acceptance. This sort of language sometimes seems to belittle Him to something we can just add on to our lives instead of recognize Him for the all encompassing, life consuming reality that He is! You don’t get the Gospel in addition to your life but in exchange for it! What I do see in scripture is a radical demand of a life change – that we lose our life to gain it (Matt 16:24-26 & Luke 9:23-25).
So perhaps the better questions are: Does all else fail to compare to Him? Has He been made so irresistibly beautiful in your eyes that you would joyfully forsake all else and others to have Him? Do you count it ALL a loss if but only to have Christ? Is Christ enough?
Perish – the reality of God’s wrath
The word used here is interesting. It is “ἀπόληται” (apolētai)… yea I know right!? Lol. It is an Aorist Middle Subjunctive verb – and if that sounds complicated it’s because it is… some fair debate surrounds the use of this word in this verse. The Aorist tense sees this action of perishing as something complete or referring to being done and finished at a point in time. This is confirmed in verse 18, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” Therefore, in this case to perish is in reference to a specific event which may be potentially future.
The Subjunctive mood shows that this is a statement of potentiality, probability, intention or conditionality. This is in contrast to the indicative mood which is a statement of fact or definite result. So they aren’t condemned and perished full-stop – there’s a condition upon which this is dependant. They should or may perish, or perhaps will perish if this condition is not met. This condition is the believing we just dealt with.
Finally, the Middle voice of this verb is most interesting – because the middle voice implies some sort of close relation or involvement of the subject and the action of the verb. Sometimes it can be reflexive – as in they perish of themselves, or because of themselves. Perhaps the idea here is “cause himself to perish” which seems to be confirmed by verse 18. Even though some are, in fact, judged and condemned, it is because they are already in that condition when Jesus came. Every person is directly involved with their rebellion against God and thereby their own demise.
Why do they perish?
One may look at John 9:39: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” And then remember John 3:17, “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world,” and think that’s a contradiction. However, if we read verses 19-21 we will see there actually is none.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21)
What we have here is a new description of the division that we saw in verses 16 and 18. There the division was described between those who believe and those who don’t believe. Here in verses 19–21, that same division is described, only this time instead he uses the words love and hate and come.
“When Christ, the light of the world, begins to shine on a person’s life, it must either break him and lead him to repentance and faith, or drive him further into the darkness. Because it is simply intolerable when our sinful works and thoughts and feelings are forced out into the light of Christ. Sin is so ugly and so monstrous and so hideous that it must surround itself with darkness. It must live in illusion and deceit. It hates the light and loves the darkness and will not come to the light. This is the inner working of unbelief in Jesus. It will not come to Jesus. And that, Jesus says in verse 19, is the judgment. This response of loving the darkness and hating the light reveals that the guilt of not coming to Jesus lies in the heart of man. It lies in us. We don’t come because we don’t want to come.”
(John Piper – “This is the judgement” — Desiring God)
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”(John 3:36) So we are already under condemnation because of our sin and unbelief. And perishing means staying there forever under God’s wrath. There is nothing you can imagine worse than having the omnipotent God oppose you with righteous wrath forever. That’s what perishing means.
In one of John’s other books, he describes the one who is perishing like this:
“He will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” (Revelation 14:10)
Doesn’t sound nice? Good! It’s not supposed to. Hell isn’t peachy, and it’s one of the reasons Jesus spoke so much of it. People who make up this fairytale Carebear Jesus definitely aren’t basing it on scripture. Let us not forget that He is the same Jesus who we will see returning in Revelations 19 on the clouds of glory, tatted up with “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” on his thigh, His robe dipped in the blood of His enemy and eyes glowing with fire.
We will glorify him both through our life lived for him and if necessary our death as well. In fact, every person, whether saved or not – every life will ultimately glorify God. The only difference is the believer will glorify God in their lives being a testimony of his glorious grace and mercy, whereas the unbeliever will glorify God as a testimony to his equally glorious justice and wrath. We have a tendency to shy away from that one – but John writes explicitly of it in Revelations 14 saying that, “They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever.”
Why speak about wrath and the fearfulness of God though? The words of John Newton are appropriate here:
“T’was grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved,
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed.”
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom – and it is by His grace that He teaches us to fear Him!
Everlasting Life – our blessed hope
Thank God this verse doesn’t end there on wrath! The word used for having eternal life is ” ἔχῃ” (echē) – and it is a Present Subjunctive Active. As we saw with perishing, the subjunctive means there is some conditionality to this action – and the having of eternal life is also conditional on being one of those believing. Jesus is THE way. Salvation is only by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The Present and Active parts of this verb imply that it is a continuing action which we are actively involved in doing. We have and continue to have and experience this life. It is not just some aloof ethereal hope of one day far, far away. It is an experience meant to be lived now and continued to eternity. It does not simply mean you exist forever. Everybody exists forever. But not everybody has eternal life. So what is this life?
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4)
“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
In the end the Gospel is not that you get nice stuff, it is not that you get some relief of a bad conscience, or even that you avoid hell. It’s not even that you get heaven and all its pleasures, streets of gold and being reunited with family and friends. Those things surely come along also – but the Gospel is primarily that you get Jesus. He is the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, He’s the reward. If you’re in it for any other reason, you have too low expectations.
For I suppose that even one nano-second into eternity, as we gaze face to face upon His beauty, in light of an eternity of pleasures forevermore found in Christ – all those things which we saw as so important in this speck of time we call our life will seem so incomparably miniscule and insignificant. This is why Paul could say in 2 Cor 4:17 that the pains of this life are “light and momentary” in comparison to the reward of having Christ.
Concluding Thoughts and Admonition
I hope this study has been fruitful, and even more so, that perchance some of you who have never truly seen the Gospel have had your eyes opened up, and the beautiful light of Christ has so shined in that all else fades to shadows. I hope that examining thoroughly a familiar verse in its context, digging deep to see what the text is saying and with the aid of the Holy Spirit, letting it speak for itself, has inspired you to your own study of the Word. That even with familiar passages, God can breathe new life to us through them if we are willing to look. I pray that we would not take lightly the implications of this scripture and the Gospel that has been given to us. With such truth, we convict ourselves if we remain unchanged.
If it is that today the truth of the Gospel has burgeoned in your heart, and you now see Christ as your treasure. If you understand your guilt and need for His forgiveness and atoning sacrifice to be applied to you. If you humbly accept your inability to save yourself. I will not lead you in a prayer now, though that can be a way by which such contrition may be expressed, but I will urge you then to respond Biblically – and joyfully give your whole life over to Him. To do like the man who found the treasure and give it all up to have Him! Delight in Him, serve Him, honour and worship Him. Desire to get to know Him through His word – and let your manner of life reflect the change that He has made in your heart.
This truth of the Gospel does not allow for apathy. Our response should be in worship through song and our life. News this good cannot be withheld – no matter the cost! How much is it to our shame if we shrink back from sharing this news in a country where we face little to no persecution for it! So open up your mouth and it speak out of the abundance of Christ in your heart! I hope you have seen perhaps some ways we miscommunicate this wonderful Gospel, and would consider how we can better make clear this message of hope.
We should desire to live lives that are radically sold out for God, that every part of our life is submitted to His Lordship. Being sold out for God does not mean we have to quit our jobs and enter fulltime ministry – although that may be the call for some. But rather, we need people in the ‘secular’ jobs who realize that there really is no separation of sacred and secular. If Christ be Lord at all, He is Lord of all! And as such, we follow Paul’s admonition in whatever we do, whether we eat, drink, sleep, work, play – we do it all to the glory of God.
I leave you with my expanded translation of John 3:16…
“For [just as with those bitten by poisonous snakes in Num 21:9, those bitten by the Snake with the poison of sin must look to Christ – v14-15] in this way [the eternal, just, transcendent, sovereign, almighty] God [demonstrated that He] loved the world [of otherwise hopeless sinners not yet redeemed elect]; that He therefore gave His [unique and] only Son [sending him to die on the Cross – v17], in order that all the ones believing [and continuing til the end because of His faithfulness] should not perish [of themselves finally and without hope] but they should have [both now and evermore] eternal life [which is in Christ Jesus alone].”
– John 3:16, TEAGET – Thad’s Expanded Amplified Greek Exegetical Translation. 🙂
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