(What follows is the complete series on John 3:16 in the order they recently appeared on this Blog. This way you can get the full impact. I know the series really made me ponder God and our relationship.)
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.
As we continue to delve into John 3:16, I thought that we should work backwards. We’ll start with the promise and make our way though the means until we end up at the source: God. Does that make sense?
Eternity…Eternal life….. I’m already beginning to wonder what I’ve got myself into. This post could end up being really long or rather short. The fact is, you’re either going to get this right away or you’re going to think it’s crazy. I guess a third option is that you’re going to be like me in a trigonometry class and just go, “Huh?”
Human beings like you and me think in linear terms. We read and write in linear terms. That’s why writers utilize terms like “first”, “second”, “next”, “finally”…you get the drift. Such words help the reader make sense out of what the writer is trying to communicate. Humans like it when things make sense. The Bible even starts out with, “In the beginning God….” Our minds, upon reading those words, know that it all starts here. There’s nothing quite like reading the Bible straight through from beginning to end. It makes sense that way.
Further more, we know when we read the Bible that all the events contained within it happened some 2,000 years in the past. We also know that we live in the present. We know what “today” means. We know that tomorrow it the future. These are basic concepts that help us make sense of our reality, our lives.
“Forever” is a very long time. It’s hard to comprehend but it makes sense. In mathematical terms, a normal human life time is like a line segment whereas forever is more of a line which, by definition have no beginning and no end. A big concept, but it makes linear sense. Today can be considered a point on that line and time goes on forever in either direction, past and future. Isn’t that what we usually think of when we think of “forever”? And, don’t we equate eternity with forever?
From a Biblical standpoint we have a problem. The Bible gives us a definite beginning and a definite end. There is no forever. “In the beginning…”, remember? Revelation goes into great detail about the end of the world. There will be and end to time as we know it. Forever does not exist except as a mathematical theory.
And yet we are promised “eternal life” for our faith in Jesus Christ. As just described, to equate God’s promise with living forever is a lie. Since there is no such thing as forever, eternity must mean something else. Eternity, like God, exists outside of time. It’s not the past. That is gone. It’s not the future. That is uncertain. Besides which, we;ve already explained how they are pieces of a forever that does not actually exist. That leaves us with the present.
The present exists outside of time. With a snap of your finger you’ve missed it yet it is eternally here at the same “time”. The promise of faith in Jesus Christ, then is to be able to live in the present. Think about it. Jesus was crucified for the sins we are all committing right this very instant. The crucifixion, like Christ, is eternally present, eternally effective for everyone.
By faith, we become part of God’s eternal plan. That’s eternal life. At any given moment in any given place, God will move through a believer to further His will for His kingdom. Being open to that and willing to be used in this way is living the promised eternal life. Didn’t Jesus say that we would do what He did and more? Miracles are merely outbreaks of eternity. Outside of time there is no past, not future, no distance, no impossibility. Those are all constraints os time. Eternity has no limits precisely because it exists outside of time. It is the present. Right now. That’s where we find God and our life through faith in Jesus Christ.
It gets even better too. No matter what you have done in your life and no matter what you think you are about to do, the Eternal Christ is present and you may believe in Him right now and be given eternal life in Him. He is here/there for you at this very moment. That’s the nature of eternity.
As I said in before, faith, trust, hope, and, belief , more often than not, have the same root word in the original Koine Greek language of the Bible. Further more, when other Greek words are used, a words study shows that the other words are used to describe the one in question.
Mary Magdalene calls Jesus “rabouni” when she meets Him outside of the tomb and clings to her beloved teacher, never wanting Him to leave her again. That’s who she believed Jesus to be; a great teacher. She believed what she knew at the time. Mary was right. Jesus was an awesome teacher. But that’s not all.
Thomas, like many of us, was an experiential learner. Also, like many of us, Thomas wasn’t about to take anyone else’s word for anything. When he saw and touched Jesus, then he believed He was alive. He believed what could be experienced.
We believe what our past has taught us. We believe what we experience. John 3:16 demands that we step beyond these things. Remeber that the promise is eternal life. Eternity is beyond our ken. We are created finite creatures. Trying to wrap our minds around the eternal is mind boggling. It’s not what we know, nor can we simply reach out and touch it. Yet we are called to believe it, trust it, place our hope in it, to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it exists. That’s faith and it is so vital because that is where (it’s not a “when” after all) we see and experience and really get to know God.
Have you noticed that as I examine these concepts they keep flowing into one another? There’s a lesson/message in this I’m sure.
(This post is rather short since I couldn’t come up with much more than I originally wrote in I Believe in Faith back in August of last year.)
So who really is Jesus? The Gospels give a good account of who Jesus was, but light of our discussion concerning eternal life, I think we need to concern ourselves with who Jesus is. Eternity exists in the present tense, after all.
Of course just saying that Jesus is, I’ve played my hand, haven’t I. This hearkens back to Moses before the burning bush when he asks God what his name is. God simply says, “I am.” He doesn’t say, “I was the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” either. He says that he is the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob (Exodus 3:6). God is eternal. He always speaks of Himself in the present tense.
The exception to this is in regards to Jesus. Jesus stepped out of eternity to walk in a specific time and place. God gave Him to the world so that He could be seen and heard, smelled and touched. God gave Jesus to the world so that God could experience and be experienced in the flesh.
Jesus’ divinity is the ultimate litmus test of Christianity. No one who is a
Christian can deny this fact. This is the foundation of our faith. Period.“
–excerpt from “Jesus is God”–
Jesus is God’s Son. This is just another way of saying that Jesus is God. Jesus was not a prophet. Nor was He an angelic messenger. He does not represent the Kingdom. Where He is the Kingdom of God is. All this is to affirm the divinity Christ Jesus.
His contemporaries knew who He claimed to be and wanted to stone Him. Later, when brought before the Sanhedrin, that was the gist of their questioning and Jesus was branded a blasphemer and sent to Pilate to be executed (John 18:31).
There are whole books on the subject of Christ’s divinity and I could go on and on. In a previous post called “Jesus is God”, I encouraged readers to read John’s entire Gospel since the divinity of Christ is the primary theme. I encourage you now to go back and read “Jesus is God” and then break open John’s Gospel so you can determine for yourself whether of not my words are true.
When Jesus says that God gave His Son, this brings us to the subject of grace. Or, as John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Grace is another one of those ideas that whole books have been devoted to. It’s a primary doctrine in Christianity and one’s views on this doctrine determine how salvation occurs and even whether or not it is possible to lose one’s salvation once it has been gained. I’ll throw my personal views on the table for comments and questions.
Like I said grace is an essential doctrine for all Christians. It can be a deceptively complex issue when one unpacks all of its implications but it boils down to simplicity itself. Because of His great love for human beings, God offers us all salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s His gift to us.
An example of descibing grace I have often used is that it’s like a Christmas present under a tree….. The present is wrapped beautifully and has you name written on it. You can pick it up, examine it, shake a little to see if it rattles or not. But even then you can put it back down and leave it on the ground next to the tree. You can even carry it around with you to show everyone how beautiful the package is. But, the gift really isn’t yours until you truly accept it, open it up and see what’s inside. That’s when you truly accept it and it is useful to you.
Or, maybe you don’t do Christmas or you aren’t yet a Christian… Imagine your best friend (or a complete stranger for that matter) is offering you a $100 bill. It’s a gift with no strings attached. You don’t have to do anything to earn that $100 bill. It’s not yours until you take it from his or her hand.
In both examples, the gift is free. You don’t have to do anything to earn the gift. That’s why we call it grace. But you do have to accept Jesus as your Lord and your Savior. That’s not really something anyone “does” per se. He already is Lord and already is everyone’s Savior but no one receives the benefit of His identity without first realizing them.
Even though we know that it takes an act of the Holy Spirit to bring a person to the point at which a person can see the gift for what it is and Jesus Christ for who He is, that’s kind of like turning on the lights on Christmas morning. The present was there before the lights were turned on, but you just couldn’t see it. Now, in the light, you can walk over, pick it up and open it.
Jesus is the gift that God is holding out to the world. Come and get Him.
“Go so loved the world….”
Surprisingly enough, this whole “world” idea has been giving me more problems addressing than anything else in this passage so far. God loves the world? Why? Let’s be honest, I’m not the only one who wonders this. The Church teaches to be “in the world but not of the world.” But God loves the world. Why should we not relish being a part of something that God loves?
So, I figured that I would check out what the original Greek says, thinking that this would clear up the issue. Surely it would “actually mean” something like “all the people in the world” or something like that. Well… the Greek word is Kosmos (as in cosmos and cosmonaut). Great. That sounds more like the universe than the people. Then I dug a little deeper and found that the Greek sense of the term is more like the order of things, everything including the people who are within that order.
Kosmos, then, in a Biblical context and in the context of John’s Gospel which begins, “In the beginning was the Word….” hearkening back to Genesis, means that God loves everything that He created. He still believes that it is very good. Remember that he proclaimed creation to be “very good” on the sixth day when He created humankind.
I’m still left with the “in the world but not of the world” dilemma. I’m sensing from what follows this verse that Jesus is primarily concerned with people. Humans are the ones who are capable of believing and therefore receiving God’s gift of salvation. But, at the same time, I’m sensing that God also loves everything around us as well. The whole thing is “very good”. The earth and all that is in it, the sun and the moon and the stars and all the planets, and dust and dark matter… it’s all created by God and for that reason it’s all “very good”.
I want to say that I’m confused at this point, but I’m not. I am instead, blessed with a profound sense of wonder and astonishment. Think about it. Look up and long down and all around you. God created it. It’s not all pretty. A lot of it is inscrutable. But so much of it is so complex, so miniscule, so massive, so profound and amazing that one cannot but imagine the perfection that originated it. And this ultimately unimaginable Creator loves His kosmos in its entirety but you and me most of all and wants to know us on such an intimate level that He’s willing to just give us such a life that he enjoys in eternity. If that doesn’t take your breath away then I don’t know what ever will.
“Go so loved….”
God’s love for people is a wonderous thing. The Old Testament deal is Hesed. This is that steadfast love that God has for His people. He never forsakes them, never forgets them, and always keep His promises. It’s the truest form of love that is eternally present even when one may not like some one or be fond of what a particular person or group of people is doing at a specific time. Love is still there and never subsides or dissipates.
Sometimes it takes faith to recognize such love because it the truest form of love that isn’t always nice or even pretty. We, as petty human beings wish to relegate love to a feeling but it’s really more a verb. One’s actions demonstrate one’s love for one thing. That’s not to say that one is always nice, but one always cares and desires what is best for the loved one. Even more than that though, love is a state of being. It’s said that God is Love. That is to say that God’s state of being is Love. Humans don’t understand it. We don’t get how God could allow His Son to be sacrificed for our benefit. Did he somehow love Him less than He loves us. Certainly not! But that merely makes the sacrifice all the more poignant. Giving His Son up was what had to be done though, for us to truly love God back. His life, death resurrection, and ascension allow us to enter into that saving relationship through faith in Jesus. God loves us so much that he did what needed to be done.
The New Testament, and especially Paul, took an obscure Greek word for love, “agape”, and essentially gave it the Old Testament ideal of “hesed”. There are other more popular terms that could have been used like “eros”, but eros is a romantic love that doesn’t quite encompass how God loves. His is an all encompassing, never-ending kind of love whereas romantic love dissipates and fades over time. So, agape was given this Godly meaning by usage in the Bible. I’ve been told that it is used more in the Bible than all other written usages put together.
David Crowder says it better than I…..
David Crowder Band “Never Let Go”
As I have worked on this series about John 3:16, I’ve learned a lot. This is in spite of the fact that some of the individual topics I had already researched and written about. There’s just something about looking at things all together that gives one a new perspective. I’m in awe about how beautifully John’s Gospel swirls around our relationships with Jesus and our Father…..one thing just flows into another and the faithful reader is left humbled and awestruck, and in the end with a profound sense of ineffable love. God is truly great.
When Jesus calls to Mary outside the tomb, she responds by exclaiming, “Rabouni!” which means “teacher” in Aramaic. Perfect. That’s exactly what Jesus is. He’s the Master Teacher and John 3:16 is a perfect example of His genius. In one sentence, Jesus tells us who He is, why He is there and how it may benefit everyone. Everything else in the Bible merely serves to flesh this one statement out. It’s all about God and the intimate relationship He desires to have with every single person on earth. So, this final post in this series isn’t about the impossible task of defining God in a brief blog post. It’s about how Jesus did it in one sentence. Like I said, He’s a genius that way.
The sentence begins as the Bible begins, with “God…” Okay, that’s not exactly true, it begins, “For God…” but we have to take into account that Jesus’ thought process began a few verses back and He’s, in part, explaining some earlier verbage. God is definitely the subject of the sentence and where we begin when looking at it. I mean, even taking that “For”, “Since”, “Afterall”, “Because,” in account, we end up with the sense that what comes next (“God…”) is indisputable. So, it begins with “God…”
God loves. More than that God so loves. He’s not just fond us and the rest of the world, He really loves us. There’s this technique used by writers in Greek in which words and concepts occur in each sentence by order of importance. God is of utmost importance and the primary idea we need to know about God is that He loves.
Whom does God love?
God loves the whole world, the entirety of all that He has created, the sun the moon the stars the planets, the earth and all that is in it, and especially you and me and the rest of humanity. A believer is rightly humbled as one ponders the immensity and precision of all of creation and then realizes that God loves him or her most of all. That’s true, you know. God loves you most of all. Just as He loves every other person most of all.
How do we know?
We know that He loves us because he gave Jesus, His Son to us. That Jesus came to meet us on our own terms is more than we deserve. That Jesus then died that excruciating death for all the sins ever committed and ever to be committed in the world just for us is unfathomable. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He rose from being dead in a demonstration of who He is and the power he possesses as the Son of God. After that he rose bodily into heaven to prepare it for us and in order that we may be empowered in our lives on earth.
Why would He do that?
We need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in order to believe any of this. We hardly live in a Utopian world. It’s full of sin and evil, dangers and temptations and so are we. But God still loves the world and He still love us. Further more, we have a difficult time even looking at pictures taken from scenes in movies depicting the crucifixion that still don’t paint the trueness of this horrific atrocity. In fact, most of us have a hard time even wrapping our minds around the fact that anyone could do that to another person let alone that the Son of God would volunteer for such a grizzly death on our behalf. Then after all of that, we are then supposed to believe that three days later, Jesus rose from the dead fully healed? That’s impossible. Then it gets better. Jesus walked around teaching for another forty days after that before rising bodily into heaven for our benefit? Who believes that kind of story without the aid of the Holy Spirit? No one does. And that’s the point. It’s all about God and what He is continuously doing for us.
We, you and I need to believe all of this and know that it is true in our heart of hearts. This is our hope. this is our source of strength. We know that God is right here with us and for us wanting us to see Him and even to touch Him to further our strength and our faith. That’s when we discover what eternal life is. It’s the right now of God. There is no past and whatever happened. There’s no future that is set in stone. How could there be without a past to determine it. There is only the eternal present God for those who place their faith in Him.
And Jesus said all of that in one sentence. To truly do it justice, one would have to write a book.
I hope this helps.
- Jesus and The Wedding at Cana: The First Sign (christophercrandolph.wordpress.com)