John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 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.”
THE MESSAGE HAS BEEN LOST
Possibly, no other verse in the Bible is more well known than John 3:16. I am grateful for its familiarity because it clearly proclaims the Gospel; however, certain problems accompany its fame. Misinterpretations have colored this text for so many people. Some have used it to defend an easy believe-ism that allows a person to live however he wishes yet still claim the identity of “Christian.” Others have applied worldly definitions of love and made God out to be a God who is dismissive of sin. These mistakes have left many unsure of the meaning of this text and, even worse, unsure of the Gospel.
The problem is we have divorced the text from its context. This saying of Jesus was not just a random proverb expressed at a random moment in the life of our Lord. It was a part of a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus in which He foretells His death on the cross by comparing himself to the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. He explains that those who look to the “lifting up” of the Son of Man in faith will have eternal life. This is a pivotal moment in the book of John because after this conversation Jesus would use the phrase “the Son of Man must be lifted up” to prophesy His own death. John 3:16 is Jesus’ explanation of this statement–that is why it begins with the word “for.” So when considering “God…gave his only Son,” He did not just give Him to us, He gave His Son to be “lifted up” on a cross to die for our sins. Similarly, very little consideration has been given to what follows this famous verse, namely Christ’s explanation of John 3:16. My goal is to bring life to this text by examining John 3:16-21 as a unit.
THE LOVE OF GOD
Our text begins with two ideas being held in contrast to one another–God and the world. God, the Infinite, Holy, Perfect One versus the world which is fallen, perishing, and dwelling in darkness. These contrasting ideas are held in place by one thing: love. This love is not a mutual love between two equals, nor even a mutual love between one greater and one lesser. This is God loving the world who hates Him.
The love God has for the world is not just a theoretical love; it is far deeper than that. It is a love that causes Him to act. God’s love for the world caused Him to give His only Son. To put this in perspective, I would not be willing to give any one of my four children (whom I love) to save even the best of people. However, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). Even still, the emphasis is not so much on the act of giving as it is on what was given. This term “only son” or “only begotten son” is very specific within its context. John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This glorious “Word” dwelling among us is the only Son of God. Still more striking is the reference in John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The only Son of God not only displays the glory of God, He is also “with God” and He “is God.” Therefore, implicit in the statement “God… gave His only Son” is the reality that God gave God to be lifted up on a cross. He gave infinitely of Himself for a world who hated Him.
THE REALITY OF PERISHING AND ETERNAL LIFE
The result of such love is that those who were perishing may have eternal life. What does perishing mean? What does eternal life mean? And how does Christ’s death on a cross affect my eternal destiny?
In this case, perishing comes as a result of judgment; however, Christ did not come to bring judgment. Why not? After all, we deserve judgment. Why would He not come to judge us? Because He did not have to! Verse 18 explains that those who do not believe in Christ are already judged. From the moment sin entered the world everyone who sins is under the just condemnation/judgment of God. There is no need for Christ to die to secure judgment for sinners because they are already perishing. The Son of God died so that sinners might be saved from the judgment and wrath of God. Christ bore our sins in His body on the cross so that His righteousness might be imputed to sinners. This is why Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). If judgment brings eternal perishing, then salvation brings eternal life.
BELIEVING IN THE TRUE LIGHT
What then does the belief which brings eternal life look like? To answer this we must understand one more truth about God’s Son–He is light. As light, He illuminates the spiritual truth in all of reality. The light reveals everything hidden in the darkness of sin. Unbelief, then, is when one loves the darkness rather than the light. Why would anyone love darkness over light? Because his deeds are evil and the light exposes them. Jesus reveals that everything you have ever loved, everything you have ever hoped in, everything you ever invested in to satisfy your longings is, in the end, worthless. However, the light not only exposes the worthlessness of false treasures, it also reveals the true treasure. Unbelief is a refusal to accept that. Unbelief is when a person is so in love with his worldly ideas and treasures that when they are revealed to be worthless, the unbelieving heart shouts, “I hate this light that is calling my treasure worthless!” And, in the end, the unbeliever falls more in love with darkness.
This love for darkness is not simply unbelief; it is the very judgment by which the unbeliever is judged. They love darkness rather than light, so in the end, they will be cast into total darkness and all good will be removed from them. It is only then they will understand the worthlessness of their pursuits, but it is only then that the light will be unavailable to them.
Belief on the other hand is a pursuit of light. Notice it says, “whoever does what is true comes to the light.” Why does it not say “whoever does what is right”? Or “whoever does what is good”? Or “whoever believes”? Or “whoever seeks holiness”? Remember, light reveals the truth, so someone who loves the light walks in the truth that has been exposed. When the light of Jesus shines on a person’s heart and he believes, the worthlessness of his previous pursuits becomes apparent and he turns from them. The light shows us that what we once called treasure is actually trash. And turning from that darkness, we live in the truth the light reveals.
However, belief is not just turning from darkness; it is also pursuing the light, “so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” You see, belief is a life of pursuing God. Your deeds are not exposed as being simply good deeds; they are deeds carried out in God. You pursue the light, but your deeds also expose the light by living for it. Saving faith, then, produces a life lived with a desire for God to be magnified in all we do.
COME TO THE LIGHT
What shall we do then with this renewed understanding of this well-known scripture? It is possible that someone reading this has never turned from the darkness and pursued the only begotten Son of God. I have no idea how you got to this website and to this article, but I assure you, it was not an accident. Abandon the darkness in which you live; it is not worth it. Light has been made available to you through Jesus Christ. Live for Him and nothing else.
I also realize most people reading this are Christians, and this passage is for you as well. The lies of darkness find their way into our lives continually. Fleeing such darkness is not a one-time event. We must expose our hearts to the continual shining of the light of Jesus. This is why the prayerful study of God’s Word cannot be neglected, for it is the strongest beam of Gospel light available. Light is the only way to dispel darkness. As we expose ourselves to the light, it will cause in us a posture of repentance. And for those who love the light, repenting of the darkness is so sweet.