For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16
John 3:16 (note: all verses are NASB95 unless otherwise indicated) is one of the most often quoted verses of the Bible and probably familiar to many non-Christians, especially those watching ball games on TV. It was a favorite in the Billy Graham crusades during the 20th Century. It is no wonder since this statement is packed and highly charged with a tremendous message for mankind. It also is the message for our day. I will unpack the gems within this verse as we go through the chapter it is contained in.
The context in chapter 3 of John is a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus, the latter who is identified as a Pharisee and Jewish ruler (John 7:50). Nicodemus was well-respected by the Jews as a religious leader and attended the ruling councils in Jerusalem. In view of the hostile attitude the Pharisees had toward Jesus, this was a remarkable encounter captured in the book of John. His openness to meet with Jesus is signaled in verse 2 where he says, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” In recognizing that Jesus came from God as a teacher, he acknowledges His status as a prophet, recognizing that the signs testified of God working through Him, although this was contrary to the official position of the Pharisees. This recognition of Jesus by Nicodemus, though not necessarily indicative of a saving faith (there is no acknowledgement of His Messianic identity, His Lordship, or redemptive work), demonstrates there was enough conviction to drive him to pursue his own investigation through a private interview, probably at considerable risk of losing his position. His use of “we” indicates there were others sharing his opinion.
John 3:3: Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In response, Jesus did not address this religious leader with the customary deference, but cut to the heart of the matter, as only the Lord could do, by first positing what’s truly required to see the kingdom of God. In so doing, the Lord may have addressed what was chiefly on the mind of Nicodemus or what field of expertise he was known for in Israel. But this statement likely undercut whatever views Nicodemus held and elevated the discussion immediately to a spiritual level instead of a mere academic exchange. In this way, Jesus refuses to humor the sage’s intellectual or religious credentials but assumes His own Messianic preeminence and superiority as master and rabbi of this Jewish sage. And of the discourse about being born again that follows, much can be said and has been said in theological circles. Let it suffice to state here that this core New Testament doctrine totally threw the Pharisee, having been lodged firmly in the paradigm of the Old Covenant and Jewish scholarly tradition, had to exclaim in verse 9, “How can these things be?” Now in the realm of the New Covenant kingdom, born again believers conversely are not perplexed about this truth, but through the spiritual understanding that comes by faith (Hebs 11:2, “By faith we understand…”) through the indwelling Holy Spirit, they experience wonder, enjoyment, and appreciation of it.
Moving on to the main topic of interest, during the course of the dialogue Jesus masterfully weaves in the gospel message and begins to drive it home in verse 14. After all, that is His main purpose for coming into the world. He says, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Here he relates the passage in Numbers 21:9 that prefigures His own forthcoming act of redemption on the cross and concludes, “so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:15). In the OT narrative, Moses raised up the serpent on a standard to enable Israelites to be healed from snake bites by faith. The snakes were sent against the Israelites as a judgement for sin. Summarizing: Jesus received God’s judgement on the cross for sinners as the supreme standard for a healing that is not merely physical but eternal for the soul and that is received solely by faith.
As a side note, I believe the Lord’s reference to Himself as the Son of Man here and elsewhere in the Gospels (Matt 8:20) is laying claim to the identity of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13 which is unmistakenly Messianic, which may have registered in the mind of Nicodemus.
All of the preceding message prefaces the key verse that is before us: John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” This statement, along with introductory verses 14 – 15, encapsulates the heart of Gospel. It concisely expresses the salient points of God’s redemptive plan. Let’s start unpacking it’s truths. This declaration must have been astonishing, yea overwhelming to the Pharisee. Though Jesus had the credentials of a renowned prophet (Luke 24:19), He was pushing it far beyond that into the realm of the Messianic with a conception that must have exploded the contemporary Jewish views. Messiah claiming to give eternal life? Who is this man who claims this power and this relationship with God? Nicodemus was getting more than he bargained for in this interview. Although revolutionary to him, he eventually may have embraced all of Christ’s claims. In the opening of the verse, God’s love is front and center as the motive force of His actions toward mankind. In other words, God’s love was of such a nature that it led Him to devote His own Son to achieve His end of redeeming lost persons in the world. It was not just the Jews, who were supposed to be His chosen people and the apple of His eye, but His love includes all persons in the Gentile (non-Jewish) nations. Christ is introducing His universal love extending redemption universally to the world–a world enslaved to sin and in rebellion against God, a world under the rule of Satan and under God’s condemnation. Thus we have the love of God for unworthy creatures juxtaposed with His condemnation of the same. This is addressed in the verse that follows.
Continuing in Jn 3:16: “That He gave His only begotten Son.” First, God’s act of giving is forefront in this clause. His Son is that gift given to the world (Isaiah 9:6) and oh what a Gift! His very own human Son given as a gift to mankind is beyond words. He is no less than the Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14), God with us (Matt 1:23), God incarnate sharing in flesh and blood, God amongst mankind and part of the human race itself. And yet, still God of very God! This was His only Son to be born thus and how prescious He was to the Father. But God still gave Him. This giving was to culminate in the death and resurrection of this Son as a supreme sacrifice for the forgiveness and justification of sinners (Jn 1:29, Roms 3:24). Perhaps the story of Abraham obediently sacrificing his only born son of the promise, Isaac, is the best type of this given in the Bible (Gen 22). This Jesus was also a Son of the same promise that was made to Abraham centuries before His advent (Gals 3:16).
“That whoever believes in Him…” Again recalling Nums 21:9, faith is the means that God has established for all people in all ages in the world, for the “whoevers” to come to the Messianic standard raised up by God, who is Jesus Christ–the gift of the Father. They must believe in Him (Hebs 11:6), in all that the Scriptures teach about Him (Luke 24:27) that is packaged in His name (Matt 1:24). The Israelites could understand the meaning of His name in Hebrew and thus the Gospel message that it signified: Yahshua Hamashiach. It may help to have it interpreted in our language. The first word is His birth name and the second word is His Messianic title, thus interpreted: YAHWEH our Savior, the Anointed One of God. YAHWEH is called the tetragrammaton by Hebrew scholars and was given in the Old Testament as the memorial name of God to Israel that was revered as sacred by the Israelites (Exodus 3:14 – 16). In naming Him Yahshua (Matt 1:21), God the Father was stamping His child with His divine name and mission, and thus His true identity. It follows that the Scriptures also declare salvation in His name. Acts 4:12: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” See also Luke 24:47. With regard to His title Hamashiach, it denotes the Messiah of Israel as prophesied in the Scriptures. All of this is bundled in the gift of God’s Son given out of His love for a world lost in sin; the One whom we must put our faith in.
To be continued – The Supreme Gift of the Ages — Part 2