“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
These are probably the most familiar words in the Bible. For many of us, this was the first verse we ever memorized as children. You may even be thinking now, “I know this verse. I’ve studied it and heard sermons and lessons on it all my life.” Yet, the riches of God’s Word, including this verse, are inexhaustible. There are always new truths we can learn from a verse or passage as we continue to study and meditate on it. So, let’s take another look at this precious verse—John 3:16.
Please notice that the verse does not just say, “For God loved the world …” It says, “For God so loved the world.” The word “so” is a small word, only two letters, but it has great meaning.
The Greek word translated “so” is “houtos” which means “the manner, type, or extent” of something. In this case, it refers to the manner of God’s love. In the Greek text, the word for “so” comes first, which emphasizes the importance of this word. The purpose of John 3:16 is to describe the manner, type, or extent of God’s love. As we examine this verse a little more closely, we will see four aspects of God’s love which convey to us how “God so loved the world.”
Who God Loved
Who did God love? The world! The word “world” is translated from the Greek word “kosmos” which has more than one meaning. God certainly does not love the evil “world system” that is ruled by Satan (John 12:31), but God does love all the people of the world. God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The lake of fire, which many refer to as hell, is an eternal place of punishment where all unbelievers will one day be cast (Rev. 20:15), however, God never intended it for man, but for Satan and his angels (Matt. 25:41).
When the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world, He came to give “Himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). Jesus Christ became the “propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). God’s holiness and righteousness require that a payment of death must be paid for sins (Rom. 6:23). Jesus’ death on the cross met this requirement for the sins of the whole world. At the cross of Calvary, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The finished work of Christ made it possible for all the people of the world to be reconciled to God. What was the extent of God’s love? He loved the whole world.
Why God Loved
Why would God love the people of the world? Let’s begin by looking at this question from the negative side. First, God did not love us because of Christ’s death. Some believe and teach that the death of Christ made it possible for God to love us. John 3:16, as well as many other verses of Scripture, show that the exact opposite is true. God’s love for us came first. It was His great love that led Him to send His Son to die for us.
Second, God did not love us because of any merit on our part. Romans 5:6-10 gives a clear picture of what we are by nature.
“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
The Holy Spirit, through Paul, declares that we were without strength, ungodly, unrighteous, not good, sinners, and enemies of God. Yet, even in this terrible, sinful state, God loved us.
If God did not love us because of what Christ did for us, and He did not love us because of who we were or what we had done, then why? This is certainly a puzzling question to us, especially with the limitations of our human minds. The simple answer is, God loved us because of who He is.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
This passage tells us two key things about God. First, “love is of God.” God Himself is the source of all love. No one is capable of love who is not born of God and who does not know God. Second, “God is love.” Many people look at God as a holy and righteous Judge who is constantly watching our every move, ready to condemn us when we sin. It is true that God is holy and righteous, and He must judge sin, but God is also loving, merciful, and gracious.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when were were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).” (Eph. 2:4-5)
God loved us because that is His character, His nature, His person. God is love. Though we may not fully understand it, this seems to be the only explanation for why God would so love unrighteous, ungodly sinners, such as ourselves.
How God Expressed His Love
God expressed His love for us through a gift. God so loved the world that He “gave.” The Greek word for “love” in John 3:16 is “agape” which is the highest form of love. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit raises the meaning of this word to an even higher level than what classical Greek writers used it for. Agape love is unmerited love. It is a giving love; a love that requires nothing before being given and expects nothing in return. But what did God give?
God so loved the world that He gave “His only begotten Son.” When we think of the relationship between a father and son, it is often seen as very close, and loving, but the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is far deeper. John 1:18 describes the only begotten Son as the One “who is in the bosom of the Father.” This pictures the closeness and love of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. While the Lord Jesus was here on earth, His Father in heaven declared His eternal love for His Son at both His baptism and His transfiguration, saying “This is My Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17, 17:5). The gospel of John records the fact that the Father loves the Son (John 3:35, 5:20, 17:24), and that the Son loves the Father as well (John 14:31).
Why does God the Father love His only begotten Son? One reason is because of who the Son is. The Lord Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, is very God Himself. Jesus stated in John 10:30, “I and My Father are one.” Yet, their relationship is also expressed and described in Scripture as that of Father and Son. This enables us to better understand the love between the Father and the Son, because we have seen or experienced similar relationships between earthly fathers and sons.
One thing that needs to be stressed is that the Lord Jesus is “the only begotten Son.” The expression “only begotten” carries the meaning of “the only one of its kind.” As believers, we are called in Scripture, “children of God” (Rom. 8:16, Phil. 2:15) and “sons of God” (Rom. 8:14, Gal. 3:26), therefore we can call God, “Father” (Rom. 8:15), but the Lord Jesus Christ has a unique relationship with God the Father, different from ours. After Jesus was raised from the dead, He met Mary Magdalene and instructed her, “Go to My brethren and say to them, I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God” (John 20:17). He did not say “our” Father, but clearly pointed out the difference between His relationship with the Father and theirs.
Another reason that the Father loves the Son is because of what the Son did. The Lord Jesus pleased the Father in all that He said and did. The Son, became a man, and as such, He “humbled Himself and became obedient” to the will of His Father, “to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus stated in John 10:17, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.”
The love between the Father and the only begotten Son is like that described in Ephesians 3:19, it surpasses our knowledge.
In what way did the Father give (or give up) His Son? The answer to this question is found in 1 John 4:9-10.
“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Two times in this passage it says that God “sent” His Son. The word “sent” literally means “sent away.” It implies a separation between Father and Son. First, God sent His Son “into the world.” This refers to the INCARNATION, when God the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, left that position and came into this world. He “emptied Himself” of the form and glory that He had with the Father and became a man (Phil. 2:6-7, John 17:5). Hebrews 2:9 states that Jesus was “made a little lower than the angels.” What a tremendous sacrifice the Father made to see His Son become a man and humble Himself this way.
Second, God sent His Son “to be the propitiation for our sins.” This refers to the CRUCIFIXION, when the Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Jesus suffered in many different ways. He endured terrible forms of physical pain and suffering, including being beaten, crowned with thorns, scourged, and then crucified. He also suffered mentally and emotionally, being mocked, spit upon, taunted, rejected of men, and publicly executed as a vile criminal. No one likes to see a loved one suffer, but the Father was willing to give up His Son to suffer in this way for our sake (1 Pet. 2:21, Heb. 2:9).
But greater still were the spiritual sufferings that Jesus endured for us on that cross. Christ died “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). He Himself “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (I Peter 2:24). He, who knew no sin, “was made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).
As Jesus hung there on that cross, Matthew 27:45 tells us that “from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.” I believe that during these three hours Jesus bore the weight of the sins of the world upon Himself. At about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) When Jesus spoke the first time while hanging on the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). When Jesus spoke the last time from the cross, He said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). Yet, at the ninth hour, Jesus did not call Him “Father,” a term of relationship, closeness, and love. He simply cried out “My God, My God.” Why the change? Because while Jesus carried the sins of the world for those three hours, His Father in heaven forsook Him. The expression “forsaken Me” in Matthew 27:46 means “totally abandoned; utterly forsaken.” As difficult as it was to watch His Son’s sufferings on the cross, it surely was harder for the Father to turn His back and forsake His Son while He was in such agony.
God didn’t do this because we deserved such a gift as this, or because we first loved Him (1 John 4:10). God did this for us even though we were ungodly, unrighteous sinners, even enemies of God (Rom. 5:6-10, 3:10-18). Yet, because of His great love for us, God was rich in mercy toward us (Eph. 2:4), not sparing His own beloved Son, “but delivered Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). Ask yourself this question, Would you give up your dearest loved one (whether it be a spouse, a parent, or a child) to die for your worst enemy? God did! For God “so” loved the world. “Thanks be unto God for His indescribable Gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15)
What God’s Love Accomplished
What did God’s love accomplish on our behalf? The answer to this question is found in the last phrase of John 3:16, “that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The word “that” literally means “in order that.” The word speaks of purpose or intent. It was God’s purpose that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s precious Son, should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Here is God’s wonderful offer of salvation from sin. It is available to “whosoever” will believe. While it is true that Christ died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), not everyone will be saved. The offer is to all. Everyone has the opportunity to be saved, but salvation will be experienced and received only by those who believe.
What does it mean to “believe” in Him? The word “believe” is the Greek word “pisteuo.” It carries the idea of considering something to be true, but it also means much more. It is not enough simply to believe that God exists. Even Satan’s demons believe this (James 2:19). It is not even enough to believe the facts concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The word “believe” means to trust in, to have confidence in, to commit to, to rely upon. To “believe in” the Lord Jesus means to believe that He died for your sins on the cross, that He was buried, and that He arose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:3-4). It means to trust in Him and His finished work, to totally rely upon Him and Him alone to save you from your sins. Many people are taught today that they must do something in order to be saved; that the finished work of Christ is not enough; that they themselves must add something to what the Lord Jesus accomplished. If you accept this teaching, you totally miss what it means to “believe in Him.”
What happens to a person who does not believe? They perish. The word “perish” describes a terrible condition; one of ruin, loss, and total destruction. While the word “perish” may have reference to physical death (cf. John 18:14), in John 3:16 it refers to perishing spiritually. 2 Corinthians 4:3 teaches that the gospel is veiled (hidden) “to those who are lost.” In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul states that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” but to those who are saved, it is the power of God! Here we see the contrast between those who are “perishing” and those who are “saved.” To “perish” is to remain unsaved and suffer the spiritual loss, ruin, and destruction that will happen to every person who does not trust in Jesus Christ as Savior. There is nothing in this word that implies annihilation. To perish means to suffer this ruin, loss and destruction for all eternity.
It was not God’s purpose or desire to judge or condemn the world. The lake of fire, which is the place of eternal punishment for the unrighteous, was not prepared for men, but for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41). God sent His Son into the world to provide the means of salvation for all men.
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:17)
All who “believe in Him” will not perish, but have everlasting life. While He was here on earth, Jesus gave this promise in John 5:24.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death unto life.”
Some people speak of everlasting or eternal life as something they look forward to possessing one day, but this Scripture assures us that the very moment we believe, we “have” everlasting life. It is a present possession. We are passed from death unto life. We, who were dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), are made alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5), raised and seated with Him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2:6), delivered from the power of darkness and conveyed (translated) into the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13). We become sons of God by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:26).
How can we be sure of this? The Scriptures are God’s testimony that these things are true.
“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” (1 John 5:11-13)
Maybe you are simply waiting to make the decision, about whether you will believe or not. The reality is that if you have never believed in Christ as your Savior, you are already under the judgment and condemnation of God.
“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18)
If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart, convicting you of your sin and of your need of a Savior, don’t ignore His leading. Don’t turn away from Him. Don’t put off making the most important decision of your life. 2 Corinthians 6:2 states, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Proverbs 27:1 warns us not to “boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.” Believe in Jesus Christ right now, and receive the wonderful gift of everlasting life.
“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1)
The word “behold” means to look at, see, perceive, or consider. I encourage you to think about and carefully consider the manner of love the Father has bestowed on you, personally. What a wonderful thing to know and to think on this truth—that “God so loved the world!”