John 3:16

Verse 16


“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have eternal life.”

We reject the notion of that school of exegetes who make a break at this place, removing this from the interview with Nicodemus and attributing these words, not to Christ, but to John the apostle.

This whole chapter may be read in less than five minutes; and thus there is nothing unusual or atypical in the Master’s brief exhortation of Nicodemus concerning those “heavenly things” mentioned in John 3:12.

To make of these short remarks some big sermon and to allege on that basis that the interview must have been terminated already is to overlook the near certainty that this interview was longer than a mere five minutes. Moreover, after Nicodemus rejected what Jesus said, exclaiming, “How can these things be?” it was altogether natural for Jesus to have continued for a few moments without any further interruption from Nicodemus. This and the following reasons for rejection of the idea of a break at this point are weighty enough for doing so.

(1) It is fully in keeping with many of Jesus’ actions that the world-shaking concept of the new birth should first have been mentioned to this proud and bigoted Pharisee. Did Jesus not also propound the greatest sermon on worship to a woman at the well?

(2) It is more logical to believe that the epic teachings of this passage came first from the lips of Jesus, rather than from John. This verse is the heart of Christianity; and to identify it as coming from the reflections of a Spirit-guided John so long afterward is simply unreasonable. Scholars favoring such a view are unconsciously advocating an evolutionary hypothesis of Christianity, rather than the view that Christ brought it all at one time. They forget that the function of the Spirit in the apostles was to help them remember what Jesus said (John 14:26).

(3) The technical reasons alleged against this position are weak. For example, some words in the paragraph beginning here do not appear elsewhere in words attributed to Jesus but do appear in other writings of John, “only begotten” being a conspicuous example. As Reynolds noted:

The reply is that John used this great word because he had heard it on the lips of Jesus. He would not have dared use it otherwise; and he used it because he had heard our Lord thus express himself.[18]

Furthermore, the connective, “for,” at the beginning of the paragraph shows that there is no break. See below.

For God so loved the world … “For” indicates that we do not have here a new section, but the continuation of the interview with Nicodemus.

So loved the world … is the burden of the entire corpus of divine revelation. Fittingly, this announcement of God’s universal love was made to a representative of the narrowest and strictest sect in ancient Judaism, who taught that God’s love was the special province of Israel, who were at that very time hoping for their long-awaited Messiah, who would, according to their views, restore the kingdom of Israel and judge the whole Gentile world with an overwhelming destruction. Jesus’ refusal to conform to such an idea of the Messiah was a very conspicuous element in their rejection of him. Here, Christ hurled into the very teeth of the Sanhedrin the mind-blowing concept that God loved everyone on earth, the whole creation! It is no wonder that John never forgot such a confrontation as this; and no wonder that some of the words in this interview became a part of his permanent vocabulary, appearing even in the writings of his old age, as in “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

God’s love for mankind is pure, spontaneous, and constant. Jesus did not die on the cross to compel God to love people, but because he already loved them, the cross being a result of God’s love, not the cause of it. God’s holy love is not inconsistent with His wrath, for God’s love extends to man himself, but not to the sins that man is guilty of. The doom of the wicked appears by implication in this very statement of his love.

That he gave his only begotten Son … Although the initiative of the Father appears here in the word “gave,” Christ also gave himself for man. Seven centers of initiative are discernible in the drama of the cross, and the student is referred to my Commentary on Romans, pp. 117f, for a review of them. It is the Father’s initiative on view here, and it is significant that in the Christian religion alone it is God who provides the offering for sin. In this sublime fact, Christianity rises above any comparison with ethnic and natural religions, in which, in all of them, it is man himself who pays and pays. It is always a man, like Prometheus, who is chained to the rock; but in the holy religion of Christ, it is God who provides the offering for man’s sin.

The thought in focus here is the sacrifice of Christ. Such is the nature of sin and rebellion against God, that only God could extricate fallen humanity from the morass into which they had fallen; and God could do it only at awful cost in the giving of Jesus as an offering. Note the significant shift of titles. John 3:14 spoke of the Son of man; here Jesus spoke of the Son of God. No MAN could have died for all men; only God in the form of man could have done it. The highest angel in heaven would not have sufficed to provide such an offering as Jesus.

O listen to our wondrous story: Counted once among the lost, Jesus came from heaven’s glory, Saving us at awful cost.

No angel could his place have taken, Highest of the high though he; The loved one on the cross forsaken Was one of the Godhead three![19]

This was the mystery hidden before times eternal, that God would enter the lists of humanity as a man, paying the penalty of human transgression himself in the person of his Son and discharging the debt due to the fall in Eden. It was primarily for the purpose of delivering the flesh of the Messiah to humanity that the device of a chosen people had been provided by God in the days of Abraham; and, despite the will of the chosen people to reject him, Christ here unfolded the full mystery to one of the noblest and best men in the very council of the Sanhedrin itself.

That whosoever believeth on him … Faith is the great principle of Christianity, motivating every act of obedience, securing the believer in times of bewilderment or temptation, sustaining the disciple through tribulations and distress, and enlightening the soul during every darkness. Faith is the first of the preconditions of redemption in Christ Jesus, and it is also the last, there never being a single moment of the Christian pilgrimage when faith is not required. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). “On him …” is alleged to be one of the words that is Johannine rather than from Christ, but such a conceit is rejected. Glorious as faith assuredly is, it is faith “in Christ” that saves, not faith “in faith.”

Should not perish … The so-called translations that read this place “shall not perish” are incorrect. See under John 3:15. “Perish …” is a reference to the overthrow of the wicked in hell, and is a hint of the judgment when God will settle accounts with evil. Tender as the love of God is, it does not extend far enough to include any divine acceptance of man’s rebellion against the Creator.

But have everlasting life … Such an unspeakable reward contrasts with God’s wrath (John 3:36), destruction (Matthew 7:13,14), eternal fire (Matthew 18:9), and with judgment or death (John 5:24). Everlasting life is antithetical to such things, being eternal both in its excellence and in its duration.

The careful student should not overlook the fact that this passage (John 3:15) reveals that the eternal life which is available to men is located “in Christ.” This means that eternal life is available only for those who become identified with Christ in the absolute sense, being so united with him that they are in fact “Christ,” as Paul declared (Galatians 2:20). Nor is this teaching ever lost sight of by the apostle John; he said:

And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son hath not life (1 John 5:11,12).
[18] H. R. Reynolds, op. cit., Vol. 17, p. 122.

[19] L. O. Sanderson, Christian Hymns Number Two (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1948), What Did He Do? No. 187.

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