John 3:16 in context

by Mike Ratliff

16 οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. (John 3:16 NA28)

16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that everyone believing in Him should not perish but have life eternal. (John 3:16 translated from the NA28 Greek text)

The first verse I memorized in Sunday School as a child was John 3:16 from the King James Bible. This must have been sometime around 1956-1957 since I did not learn to read until the 1st grade. My mother even had a plaque made with that verse on it and put it on the wall over my bed. I still have the little white New Testament I got for memorizing the most verses in my class that year. So what? When I look back on my life from that point to the time God had mercy on me in 1986, I am truly amazed that He did at all. Since the time I came to know Christ, I have known much of both of the tender mercies of our Lord as well as His flail of tribulation. My brethren, the school of the cross is the school of light, it discovers the world’s vanity, baseness, and wickedness, and lets us see more of God’s mind. Out of dark affliction comes a spiritual light. With that, let us look at John 3:16-21. 

16 οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλʼ ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος διʼ αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται· ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. 19 αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις ὅτι τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον καὶ ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς· ἦν γὰρ αὐτῶν πονηρὰ τὰ ἔργα. 20 πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ· 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα. (John 3:16-21 NA28)

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone believing in him should not perish but have life eternal. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 The one believing in him is not judged, but the one not believing has been judged already because he has not believed in the only name of the Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, light has come into the world and men love the darkness rather than the light for their works were evil. 20 Everyone practicing evil things hates the light and does not come into the light lest his works be exposed, 21 but the one doing the truth comes to the light that it may be manifested that his works have been wrought in God.  (John 3:16-21 translated from the NA28 Greek text)

In v16 we have a very abused passage spoken by our Lord. The verb “loved” translates ἠγάπησεν the Aorist tense, Indicative mood, Active voice case of ἀγαπάω or agapaō, “to love as a direction of the will and finding one’s joy in something.” The aorist, indicative, active verb structure expresses action that is not continuous. It does not specify the relative time of the action to the time of speaking. However, from the context of our Lord’s words, it is obvious that He is referring to the sending of the Son to the world was an act of His love. Now we must determine what is meant by “world.” Just the reading of the rest of this passage makes it clear that salvation is only for a group of people, those who believe. The words τὸν κόσμον (the world) are found in v16 and twice in v17 and again in v19. The noun κόσμον is the Accusative, Singular of κόσμος or kosmos, “In classical Greek and the LXX, κόσμος communicated the idea of order and adornment, and from this it developed into the basic term for the cosmos or the universe. The Old Testament conception of the created world or κόσμος was very different from the Greek notion, however. There, creation is never seen as a separate entitiy controlled by an all-embracing order as in Greek thought. Instead, the universe, usually described with the phrase “heaven and earth,” is always understood in its relationship to its Creator, God. In the New Testament κόσμος always means “the world”, but context determines use. Sometimes, as in Matthew 4:8; Mark 8:36; John 3:19; 2 Corinthians 5:19, it is used to speak of the sphere of human life and humanity itself. Both John and Paul use κόσμος  this way quite a bit. The world is the place where God has come to do his redeeming and transforming work. As is obvious, in this context, κόσμος has a negative connotation. In 1 Corinthians 3:18-19; Ephesians 2:2, and Romans 12:2 κόσμος is used to refer to this passing, evil age which is opposed to God.” 

God expressed His love for the κόσμος by sending the Son of God that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have life eternal. Jesus himself makes clear that this salvation of those whom the Father “gives me,” and only those, is not a mere possibility, but an absolute certainty; “will come to me” (John 6:37-40; 10:14-18; 17:9). The point our Lord made by the κόσμος is that Christ’s saving works is not limited to one time or place but applies to the elect from all over the world. Those who do not receive the remedy God has provided in Christ will perish. Our Lord says that their works are evil, they love the darkness rather than the light, and they do not come into the light lest their works be exposed. On the other hand, it remains true that anyone who believes will not be eternally separated from God, but lives in His presence forever.

People are not judged and cast into Hell for not believing the Gospel. No, our Lord says that all unbelievers are condemned or judged already. All outside of Christ are separated from God for eternity no matter how “good” they appear to be in this life or how religious they are. The reason these unbelievers reject the Gospel, thereby rejecting the real Jesus, is because He is the light who exposes whether a person is righteous or not. The self-righteous hate that. They are the ones who call those who preach and teach these truths “judgmental” and “divisive.”  They want that easy-believism non-gospel of their “Christless Christianity.” Sorry, but that only leads to hell.

On the other hand, those who are in Christ have their deeds exposed. They know that they are not righteous in and of themselves at all. They know that they are declared righteous according to the righteousness of Christ. They may indeed suffer the affliction of purification, but through it, they come to know their Saviour that much better. My brethren, do not flee the rod. If you are being disciplined by the Lord that means you are truly His. As we mature in Christ, we do not seek our own, but only that God be glorified as we obey Him according to His will.

I wrote and posted this in response to a commenter who sometimes attempts to post comments on this blog attacking my posts on election. This person stated in his/her last comment that he/she was a former Calvinist and had “perfect” understanding of the doctrine of election that was superior to mine and that he/she had fled that to become part of a group that is all about “Free Grace.”  This person said in that last comment that I could not post a meaningful, exegetically accurate post on John 3:16 and stay true to my Calvinism. What do you think?

Soli Deo Gloria!

10 thoughts on “John 3:16 in context

  1. “Free Grace” does not exist except in the deceived minds of the unsaved.
    It is a lovely, man-made, demonic contrivance without Biblical foundation.
    You did well, Mike!
    Blessings,
    Brian

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  2. My pastor claims to disagree with both Arminianism and Calvinism, though he told me last week if forced to choose (this said with a smile) he would choose Calvinism. I had given him my write-up on John 3:16 a couple of weeks ago as he mentioned he was going to use that verse in a Sunday school lesson about biblical love (on which, he is doing an excellent job!). He does not, I think, truly understand the doctrines of grace well enough and pray he will continue to grow in grace and knowledge. He shows me what I think it true of Christians – if we are humble and want to know the Word of God, He will reveal it to us, in His good time. If we go to the Bible with an agenda, we can find support for whatever doctrine of man we want to defend. Such is our fleshly thinking.

    Ya done good, Mike.

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  3. Thank you for this post. I have grown tremendously in my faith in Jesus Christ because of this doctrine lovingly taught through this website, and others like it. I do not hear this message at church as much. So, keep posting the hard things!

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  4. Mike, I pondered this a few years ago and came to the conclusion that we must examine the previous verses to get the proper context. In doing so, what I found matches perfectly with what you’ve written above. Can you verify my reading of this?

    Nicodemus would have understood that the “lifting up” of the Son of Man was a parallel to the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness. Most people read the “so” as an adjective when, in reality, it is used as an adverb here. They’re reading it as:

    “For God so [very much] loved the world…”

    That’s not the construction of the sentence, nor does it flow from the immediate context. In context, it reads,

    “For God [in this way] loved the world…”

    Here’s the context: John 3:14-15 says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.”

    In Numbers 21, we see that Israel complained against God, God sent serpents that bit the people, and many Israelites died. Those who were not bitten admitted their sin to Moses and asked that the serpents be removed. Moses prayed and God said to Moses to make a serpent. Moses made a brass serpent, hoisted it on a pole, and those who were then bitten, when they subsequently looked upon the serpent on the pole, lived.

    Jesus tells Nicodemus that just as God provided a way for sinful Israel to be saved from the serpents in the wilderness, He would likewise make a way for the world to be saved through His Son.

    John 3:14-16: “And as [like] Moses lifted up the serpent…,even so [likewise, in this way] must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosever believeth may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved [likewise, in this way — the way God did with the Israelites and the serpents] the world [not Jews only but Gentiles, too]…”

    But notice that in the serpent passage, many Israelites died without having an opportunity to look upon the brass serpent. Here, we see God has an elect remnant of Israel. Those who died in their sin died because they had sinned against God (as they all had), but they were not given the opportunity to be delivered. Those who were not yet bitten went to Moses and asked that the affliction be removed, but God did not remove the affliction; He made a way, in the midst of the judgment, for them to be delivered.

    LIKEWISE, in John 3, Jesus makes the parallel when He tells Nicodemus that God sent His Son to be lifted up and looked upon for salvation. Jesus says that God did not send Him into the world to judge it, for is had already been judged — just as those unbelieving Israelites who perished prior to the serpent even being presented as an option. Everyone is already judged. Now, those who were not bitten were also sinners and the serpents remained among them, but these Israelites admitted their sin and were given a way of rescue. What caused them to see their sin and believe that God, through Moses, could deliver them? For some reason, they had faith, while the others who perished did not. God did not “draw them” all equally; He didn’t give all of them the same opportunity to look upon the brass serpent.

    In the same way that God provided the brass serpent to the Israelites in the wilderness, He would now provide His Son for the Israelites in the Land; and not only them, but Gentiles also (the whole world). But this provision does not guarantee that all people who have ever been born are invited to partake of it. Post-Cross, many people will die without having heard the Gospel (which is given us in 1 Cor. 15), and they will die in their sins, for they are judged already — but they were not drawn equally.

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