When Tim Tebow was in college playing for the national championship, he had "John 3:16" written under his eyes and 93 million people googled John 3:16. Exactly 3 years later in the first round of championship play-offs with Denver against the Steelers, Tebow encountered some interesting statistics. He threw for 316 yards, with 3.16 yards per rush, 31.6 yards per completion, and a time of possession of 31.6. Oh, and the Nielsen TV ratings for the game peaked at 31.6. Coincidence?
The truth is that John 3:16 is among the top 10 best known verses in the Bible. (It used to be #1, but "Judge not" has taken that spot in the last several years.) I think, perhaps, that its overwhelming attention has made it less clear to us over the years. Maybe we could benefit from a closer look.
The verse comes in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus seemed to be genuinely seeking insight from Christ despite the animosity of his sect toward Jesus. So he came at night and talked to Jesus. "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." (John 3:2) Jesus's response is singular. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3) As you can imagine, this is baffling to Nicodemus. He can't figure out how to get back into the womb and do it again (John 3:4). He's not getting it at all (John 3:9). Jesus is clear that the fundamental requirement for a relationship with God (Remember, that was Nicodemus's point at the outset -- "We know that you are a teacher come from God.") is to be born again. And how does that happen? "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." (John 3:14-15) It is what Jesus referred to as being "born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
Which brings us to the verse in question. Depending on where you hear it, you might hear a variety of nuances.
"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, ESV)
"Nuances?" you ask. Sure! I'm pretty sure that most of you think of the phrase "only begotten Son" in there, although the ESV doesn't include that. Beyond that, there is the rewording so common that says, "God loved the world so much that He ..." Nuances. So what does the text actually say and, therefore, mean?
The word "so" in that verse is a bit misleading in our ears because it is a bit ambiguous. It might mean "to a great extent" -- a quantity -- but it might also mean "in this way" -- a quality. "They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch them" indicates a quantity. "If you have to handle explosives, do it just so" indicates a quality. The word in this text indicates a quality, not a quantity. Jesus was not indicating the quantity of love God had for the world, but the quality of it. It might be written (and is in other language translations) "God loved the world in this way." The significance here is that God didn't love us so very much because we're just so lovable and how could He not simply adore us? It's not that He loved us so much that He approved of our conduct or earnestly desired our happiness. The point is that God loves the world in a particular way.
And, of course, that begs the question. In what way? What was the quality of God's love for the world that Jesus wanted to express? "He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." So, the way in which God loved the world was to send His Son. Now we're at that other question. What does the text tell us about His Son? The word translated in most places as "only begotten" is the Greek word, μονογενής -- monogenēs. It is built on two parts. The first you recognize -- "mono". We use it in our own language a lot. There is monogamy -- one spouse -- and monopoly -- one company -- and the monologue -- one person talking. It refers to "one". The second part is "genēs". This word means to come into being, but it is the source of our word, "genus" -- a kind. Thus, the word monogenēs might better be translated "one of a kind" rather than "only begotten", or, as the ESV has done, God's "only Son".
God loved the world in a particular way. It wasn't for His approval. Nor was it our lovableness. God sent the only Son He had to remedy a problem. It was the problem Jesus told Nicodemus we all have. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh," He said (John 3:6), so the need is to be born of the Spirit, and that only happens through faith in the Son God sent to be lifted up and die on our behalf. Believe in Him and we need not perish; we will have eternal life. That was the nature of God's love for the world. Without that mission of the Father and the Son, the alternative would be that we perish without eternal life. Jesus went on to say, "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." (John 3:18) When Jesus told us that God loved the world, that was the nature of God's love. It's what we call "the Gospel", the good news. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). Good news.
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