John 3:16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible. We see it everywhere. It’s in the end zones at football games. It’s on bill boards. It’s painted on athletes’ faces. In fact, sometimes I think it’s too popular. I, personally, have never seen or heard it “unpacked” or picked apart to see if it really deserves all of this attention.
I know that I used to see it every time a kicker attempted a field goal. “Yea, I get it. God loves me.” I had mixed emotions about the signs. Let’s face it, I had mixed emotions about the sign holders as well. I saw them as self-righteous loons who needed to spend more time watching the games.
Later, as I began to study scripture and take my faith a bit more seriously, I still had issues with the signs and their wielders. Why exclaim a number and verse without explanation? It was at this time that I began hearing people quote John 3:16. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish have eternal life. “ So what? I mean, people spout that single verse and then act as if they’ve won the argument. Those who throw this quote around are people who believe the Bible and the Bible says it so it must be true. I get it. I sincerely do.
I’m not someone who is content to just take someone else’s word for, well, anything. “What does that even mean?” I’d ask. “It means that Jesus died on the cross for you, so you can be saved,” would be the general answer. To which I would sometimes respond, “But that’s not what it says.” The incredulous looks I would receive after such a remark led me to usually just say, “Oh.” After a while, I stopped asking the question altogether. I should say that I stopped asking the question out loud.
I have an extremely quizzical mind. It’s always asking questions. That’s how it feeds itself in a manner of speaking. My favorite classes in seminary were those small study classes with just a few of us sitting around a table discussing the thoughts and theories of various theologians or what have you. Our professor would get the ball rolling and the conversation would proceed politely along until I got bored with the niceness and would recognize a possible “rabbit trail” some giant of the past could have been suggesting and I would interject my thought into the mix, “If Jesus, being eternal God, never changes, then Barth must be suggesting that it was Jesus who was walking around in the garden with Adam…” Then the conversation heated up nicely until our professor, who clearly didn’t see that coming, reeled us back in with a comment about how we would address that topic in the next class, or something like that. The point being that I’m never satisfied with the same old explanation precisely because it’s the same old explanation. It’s all well and good to understand what the great minds of the past have said, but let’s dig in and see for ourselves.
So that’s what I did with John 3:16. What I quickly discovered upon merely breaking this verse up into key subjects is that this is one of the most compact and powerful passages in scripture. No, it doesn’t say that Jesus died on the cross so that you and I may be saved. Nor does it just say that God loves us. Both of these are, of course, implied but it says so much more.
As I see it, the first main idea is God. Whatever one believes about God immediately colors everything that comes after invoking Him in the beginning of the thought. This is exactly the same ideal that precedes one’s perception of the Bible as a whole. It begins, after all, with, “In the beginning God…” Whatever the reader believes about God supersedes, for better or worse, everything that comes next.
Loved, I believe is the next key word in this passage. To understand this concept, one would have to look at what Greek word for “love” is utilized here. Then one would have to examine the nature of God’s love in the Bible. Is God really fond of His creation like an artist who is proud of a sculpture or a painting? Or does He love it like a parent loves a child? The answer may, at least in part, be determined by what is meant by the next key concept: world. Does this mean the earth, humanity, or something else? Once again we need to examine the Greek.
Next we come to the word gave. What does it mean when God gives something? First, it depends upon who and what God is, doesn’t it? We could say the same thing about loved, couldn’t we? If God gives something, is there a price to be paid, or is a free gift? Maybe it’s both. Much depends upon the nature of God.
Much depends upon the gift as well. That gift is His Son, our next key subject. If Jesus is God’s only Son, then does that equate Jesus with God or is He merely like God? Perhaps, He’s so much like God that it doesn’t make any difference? These questions need to be asked, if for no other reason than so that they can be eliminated. The reason being that if one is to believe in Him one must know who one is expected to believe in.
Believe is the next to last term we need to unpack. What does it mean to believe in the Son of God? I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe that my favorite football team will win the Super Bowl this season. I don’t live or die by either occurrence, however. Just what this passage is asking us to do is of utmost importance. It’s what being a Christian is all about, really. Many people, even of other faiths, believe that Jesus existed and was a great rabbi, even a prophet. Is that what belief means in this passage, or is there a greater expectation?
Which brings us to the final key concept in John 3:16: eternal life. This is the promise of faith in Jesus Christ. How many people really ponder the meaning of this? It’s significant, in part because of what it does not say. The promise is not to live forever. It says eternal life. The question therefore is, what does eternal mean? God is eternal. So is this the promise that the serpent used in order to circumvent God’s will when it convinced Eve to eat the fruit in the garden? Once again, it all depends on one’s idea of God. It also depends on one’s idea of the nature of humanity.
Good questions always lead to more questions, often before the original questions are answered. If one claims that God is eternal and that God has no beginning and no end, then eternal life would then mean that believing in His Son grants one a life with no beginning and no end which is a huge concept for a finite human being to wrap one’s mind around. Since faithful Christians who were born on specific dates die every day on specific dates, one has to ask, what does eternal life mean?
The journey begins. If you have any comments or questions be sure to ask them below. I will do my best to address the questions I’ve asked in days to come.
- Jesus and The Wedding at Cana: The First Sign (christophercrandolph.wordpress.com)