“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
For many Christians John 3:16 is their best known and most loved verse in the Bible. It has been called the “golden verse” of Scripture, one of the Bible’s most succinct summaries of the gospel, and the ultimate single-verse summary of God’s plan for humanity. But many do not realize just how much meaning is packed into this one short verse – its very familiarity often obscures its richness – and it can be profitable to look at each part of the verse more closely:
“For…” The word “For” with which this verse begins points back to John’s previous statement that: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15). This refers, of course, to the bronze image of a serpent that God instructed Moses to place on a high pole for the healing of the Israelites who acknowledged their sin in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9). In that story, everyone who “looked at” the serpent was granted life, and in John’s Gospel we see Christ made it clear that in the same way whoever “believes” on him is granted eternal life (John 3:16). Looking and believing are equal in these accounts of the same story – faith is “looking” without the eyes, or beyond what the physical eyes see, to a reality that saves (see our article “Seeing Is Believing: The Serpent on the Stake” here). That is the background to John 3:16 – that our belief is not just the acceptance of an abstract idea about God and what he has done, but an active looking to the Person who is salvation.
“God so loved…” We should also realize that when this verse tells us that God “so” loved the world, it does not mean God loved the world “so much.” Instead, the Greek in which the verse was written clearly means God loved the world “in this way.” In other words, “God loved the world in this way – he gave his only son …” It’s an important difference. The Old Testament often stresses God’s love (Isaiah 63:9; Hosea 11:1-4, etc.), but John 3:16 shows the way in which that love was expressed.
“the world…” The Greek word translated “world” is kosmos which can mean not just the physical world or universe, but also – as in this case – all the inhabitants of the world. Rather than just telling us that God loved people in general, “the world” emphasizes the all-inclusive and universal love that God displayed – love of everyone without exception.
“that he gave…” Giving is, of course, characteristic of the nature of God – it is one of the things that most clearly defines him – and the gift of his son is his greatest gift, eclipsing all others (Romans 8:32). The gift was foreshadowed in the prophets, as Isaiah wrote: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…” (Isaiah 9:6).
“his one and only son...” In this phrase John stresses that God’s love extended to giving his “one and only" son – a sacrifice that reminds us of the story of Abraham’s willingness to give up Isaac (Hebrews 11:17). Here the expression marks the unique nature of the gift that God was willing to give (1 John 4:9).
“that whoever believes on him…” The word “whoever” signifies “everyone” and stresses again the universal nature of God’s gift and its availability to anyone who will accept it. John reiterates this truth a little later in the same chapter: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life …” (John 3:36). Unseen in our English translations is the fact that the word “believes” is a “present participle” in the Greek of the New Testament – a verbal form that stresses continuity of action. The required belief is not just associated with a one-time emotional occurrence – it is ongoing, and it only those who continue to believe who receive the gift (Matthew 24:13).
“shall not perish but have eternal life.” Here we see as much stress on God’s desire that we do not perish (2 Peter 3:9) as on his desire to grant us life. The specific words “eternal life” are typical of the teaching of the apostle John, who uses them more than twice as many times as all the other Gospel writers combined. John here uses the expression in the present tense to stress that the life God offers us is not just life that we “shall” have at some future time, but spiritual life that begins now, in the present, and continues eternally from now.
The total message of this great verse is echoed by John in his first epistle: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). But it is only in John 3:16, the verse we all know but do not always appreciate to the full, that the great message is so clearly and thoroughly explained.