John 3:16 is often considered the jewel of the Bible—a synopsis of the entire message of the Good News. I agree! It is a beautiful passage:
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 with Baggage
But often it is twisted by all the baggage loaded into it. We have read this verse so much it has become over-familiar and difficult for us to read afresh, so when some of us read the words we imbue them with meaning that is not really there.
God so loved the wicked people of the world that he sacrificed his one and only Son on the cross in our place because of our sins, so that whoever believes the right things about him shall not burn for eternity in hell but live in heaven forever.
I submit that this is NOT the message of John 3:16. John 3:16 is part of a larger passage. In fact, it is not even a complete sentence; it begins with the word ‘For‘, which means ‘Because‘.
Who would think this is a complete thought?: Because, 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. ‘Because‘ indicates that this explains what was said just before, and what goes before is:
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.
This may not refer primarily to the crucifixion, though it likely brings it to mind in the ears of the first readers, since by that time the crucifixion was an important aspect of their experience.
The lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness in order to find rescue for the suffering Israelites was a perfect image to explain how Jesus, himself, is the source of rescue for those who look to him for resolution of their alienation and misery.
So John chapter 3 says that Jesus is lifted up so we can see him and receive that resolution BECAUSE God loved us and sent his son so that whoever looks to him will not remain in their painful condition but have new life!
This reminds us of the invitation given in Matthew chapter 11 that also emphasizes this rescue:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
John 3:16 Continued
Now, I wonder if John 3:16 completes the sentence. It does not! Instead, it introduces another ‘because’:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
We are told that God’s reason for sending his son into the world was NOT to condemn the world—it was to save the world! The fact is, we are already condemned—but what does this mean? Are we condemned to hell? No, we are condemned to a life of alienation, misery, and death. But if we look to Jesus and believe in him, he rescues us from this condition and gives us new life now and in the resurrection!
Jesus did not come to tell us how terrible we are; we already know that. He came to deliver us from our wretchedness. Jesus’ being among us enables us to see something we could not see before—the opportunity to live in fellowship with the Father.
Living in Relationship with the Father
This passage began with a yearning inquiry from the Pharisee Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, or life in the Father’s community. Jesus replied that one must be born again to participate in the kingdom of God.
Being born again does not mean having a conversion experience or saying the sinners’ prayer; rather it means seeing things anew—outside the old structures of legalism, ritual, and politics. It means having a complete paradigm shift in our perspective; it is like being born all over again.
What is this new perspective? It is looking to Jesus as salvation from our messed-up lives of alienation and misery, much as the Israelites looked up to the serpent as a symbol of God’s help in their time of difficulty. But Jesus is no symbol; he is the real thing—he is the solution itself, BECAUSE:
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!