Thursday, December 9, 2010

More Than John 3:16

Aside from Matthew 7.1, which says "judge not, that you be not judged," John 3.16 is the most well-known Bible verse in the world. This verse is on plaques. This verse is on T- shirts. Max Lucado even wrote an entire book on this theme called 3:16: The Numbers of Hope, which came on the scene with a whole multitude of related products, church music, CD's featuring top Christian music artists, and "ancillary publishing products," according to the website for the book. This short quote completely overshadows the rest of the context in which it is found. The full verse is as follows:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
John 3.16 Out of Context
This quote just feels sort of warm and cuddly, doesn't it? God loves us, and we're going to have eternal life! And both of these things are true. Still, without context we don't know what it means that God gave His only Son, and we have no sense of what perish means, and we have no idea what happens to whoever [does not] believe in Him, and so all that we get from this verse is that God loves us and that we're going to have eternal life, whatever that means. It just sort of becomes this vague "God is loving" verse, which is why it gets used by people who try to argue against the existence of Hell (i.e., because God loves the world so much, He would never send anyone to Hell). Even things that are found in here get passed over because we need the rest of the Bible to show us what these words mean.

John 3.16 In Context: "Unless One is Born Again..."
The context for John 3.16 really stretches from John 3.1-21. A Jewish man named Nicodemus (a "Pharisee" and "a ruler of the Jews") had come to Jesus by night to ask some private questions. Jesus replied to Nicodemus with, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God - and that is the context for understanding this popular verse. Jesus is talking about us needing to be born again and what that means. Within that framework, the things that come after fit in to a pretty neat pattern. Here's a quick bullet-point list of things you can get from 3:16 in context:
  • Apart from Jesus, we started off under judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (3.19). All of us were destined to perish (3.16) in Hell, we were condemned already (3.18), and we were not born again and therefore could not hope to see the Kingdom of God (3.3).
  • God gave His only Son to death for us (3.16) in order that the world might be saved through him [from condemnation] (3.17).
  • People are saved when they are born again (3.3), meaning that they have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and so are born of the Spirit (3.6-8), since unless someone is born of the Spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God (3.5). Being born of the Spirit results in people who love Jesus and believe in him (3.16), looking to Him for salvation (3.14), and so whoever believes is not condemned (3.18).
  • Those who have been born of the Spirit (3.6-8) and believe in Jesus (3.16) are not condemned (3.18) and are rewarded with everlasting life, but those who do not believe in Jesus are condemned already (3.18) and perish in an eternity in Hell (3.16) and cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (3.3). There is a way of life and a way of death.
John 3.16 is the Pure, Unfiltered Gospel
Taken together, John 3.16 is the Gospel. In it, we read that sinners are saved from condemnation by Jesus' death, are justified by faith in Christ, and are invited to share with God in his kingdom. Soli deo gloria.

Appendix: Full Text of John 3.1-21
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 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."


  1. Excellent, excellent post. Thank you for pointing out the idea of context. I think I harp on people not reading in context more than anything else when discussing Scripture.

    That being said, and maybe it's just me, but I've always found John 3:16 full of common grace. God loves the world; it's His world (Ps. 24:1). He made it and all that is in it, and for Jesus to give the invitation that He does to the world should take our eyes off of ourselves, and onto others.

    My problem is with the people who say, "Well God wants the whole world to be saved! John 3:16!". If you understood the Scriptures (and this story specifically) instead of taking one verse out of context, you would see that God's plan of redemption has always been directed towards a specific people (Israel in the OT and the Church in the NT). It's just like saying "God is love therefore his other attributes are canceled out in light of His love." That's not true biblically. We all know that God is love, but his justice and holiness flow just as deep as His love. Anyway, all that to say great post man. I'll try to get one up tomorrow.

  2. Hey, thanks for the encouragement man. John 3.16 gets used to say way too many things that it never even came close to saying. Context is key. How are things going for you down in the States, buddy?


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