John 3:16 Reconsidered

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

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.

For example:

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!

Image credit: Lindz Graham from Strathaven, Scotland via Wikimedia Commons
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25 Responses to John 3:16 Reconsidered

  1. michaeleeast says:

    While I agree with much of what you are saying,
    I’m not sure that it is Jesus who rescues us.
    Following Jesus leads us to the Father.
    The Father rescues us.
    This is my experience.
    God sets us free to love.
    Thus ending our alienation and misery.


    • Michael, I see your point. My thought is that Jesus works so closely with the Father that it is sometimes difficult to separate their roles. But I am comfortable in saying that Jesus rescues us because it is Jesus we can see. We do not see the Father; we only know of the Father what Jesus has told us. Indeed God sets us free, but Jesus is the agent.


  2. Phil Johns says:

    I like your description of being born again Tim. We are taught from the very earliest regarding the Nicodemus question that being born again means a ‘spiritual’ rebirth. Up to being born gain, we were ‘spiritually’ dead. I’ve always found this ‘spiritual’ element confusing. What are your thoughts on this body,soul and spirit issue. Thanks.


    • I have an opinion, but it is not one to argue or defend. I suspect that man is a unity. Whatever there is about a person is that person, but I don’t think we are divisible into components such as mind, body, soul, or spirit. We are all of these things combined.

      These terms may have been used by some to describe functions, but I think our identity is all of the functions together. I do not think we have a ‘spiritual’ existence outside our body. When we die–we die. When we are resurrected–we are resurrected with all our components.

      This is not something I promote because it is very speculative. I share it only in answer to your question.


      • Phil Johns says:

        Speculative! How can anyone build on such quicksand?


        • Marc says:

          Human beings were designed to live in the physical and spiritual realm of Creations so we are tripartite, having a body, soul, and spirit (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23). Although we die spiritually before dying physically, the spirit is actually dormant and not completely dead. This is why some people can be spiritually resurrected in this life, and the potential for spiritual resurrection is very strong for people after their spirit and soul departs from their dead bodies. One must experience death before they can be born again. This happens either in baptism into the Church in this life, or through the particular judgment that happens when we leave this life. This is the First Resurrection (see Revelation 20:6). The resurrected spirit and soul live in the spiritual realm only until the general Resurrection when their glorified bodies allow them to live in both the physical and spiritual realms of God’s Creation for eternity.


        • Phil, it is speculative, but the fact is we know very little about such things. What are your speculations?

          And what is there to build? We probably agree that we will die and that those who do not reject the Father be resurrected to live with him forever. What else matters?


          • Marc says:

            Tim, if you disregard the understanding of the most ancient of Christian traditions, what is your criteria for separating truth from baggage?


          • Phil Johns says:

            Hey Tim, All I was questioning was your statement – Being born again does not mean having a conversion experience or saying the sinners’ prayer; rather it means seeing things anew. I was always taught that being born again was a matter of spiritual rebirth as opposed to your view that we simply change our minds about things and see them a different way. I’ve even heard the statement of ‘dying to myself’ whatever that means. I change my mind about things every day and I know how fickle I am. I’ve always regarded salvation as something to ‘build’ on as we grow in Jesus. If it’s speculative, then where is our certainty and what’s the point of trying to develop faith? From what I can see, Paul is pretty much the only writer to suggest that we have a spirit. Is this enough to suggest that we are spiritual beings – that need rebirth – or was he just using flowery language. As mentioned, I like your statement Tim as it makes a great deal of sense. But is being born again really just a matter of seeing things anew or is it much deeper than that?


          • michaeleeast says:

            Some thoughts about being born again:
            Jesus said to enter the Kingdom you must become again like a little child.
            Our faith goes through three phases:
            enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment.
            Re-enchantment may be being born again or becoming again like a little child.
            What do you think?


          • Hi Phil,

            I agree with you that being believing in Jesus is very important, but it is a process. I was also taught that being ‘born again’ was an instant spiritual rebirth, but that does not seem to fit the context. Jesus was talking to Nicodemus who was apparently eager to participate in the ‘kingdom of God’ but he had pre-conceived notions of what this meant.

            Jesus told him that to see the kingdom, he would have to let go of his preconceptions and become teachable. It would be like being born all over again. In another place Jesus spoke of being like a little child, as Michael say above. In yet another place, he used the metaphor of wineskins.

            New wine could not be put into old wineskins to be fermented because they were not flexible enough to accommodate the fermentation. However, new wineskins are pliable and can adjust. All of these suggest that the Jews of that day should not try to force their expectations about the kingdom–otherwise they would miss it.

            The idea of ‘born again’ as a crisis conversion experience that moved a person from being on the road to hell and put them on the way to heaven does not come from the text itself. This was an idea promoted by German pietists in the 1700s and became the expectation among many in America during the Great Awakenings. This is what I was raised to believe.

            However, this ignore the process in our relationship with the Father. The Father has a relationship with each of us, though we may not feel that relationship. Believing in Jesus and accepting his invitation to eternal life is an important part of that process and the growth of our relationship with the Father.

            Current day usage of terms like ‘born again’ and ‘saved’ (as opposed to the lost or unsaved that are going to hell) are misleading concepts.


          • Michael, thanks for sharing your observation on becoming a little child. I think this relates precisely to the question. As to my thoughts on how this works, see my comments to Phil above.


  3. sheila0405 says:

    You went to verse 18 but skipped vs 17, which I think is better than vs 16. God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world though him might be save. Then comes “he who doesn’t believe is condemned already”. I don’t think that refers to those who don’t know, or who haven’t heard about Jesus, but to those who actively know who Jesus is and chose to not believe. What’s great is that there is always the opportunity to change one’s mind about Jesus, and come to believe the truth.


    • You are right Sheila, verse 17 is essential for the very reason you mention! And we do have opportunity to change our minds–for which I am very thankful!

      I checked my article and I think I did include verse 17, but it is not separated from verse 18 since I usually don’t use verse numbers; they are not part of the original text, of course.


  4. Marc, you ask: “Tim, if you disregard the understanding of the most ancient of Christian traditions, what is your criteria for separating truth from baggage?” I am not sure what you are referring to specifically, but I will address it if you will clarify.

    In general, however, I think we find a firm basis in Jesus’ words and actions as related by his earliest followers. One cannot get any more ancient than that.


    • Marc says:

      Tim, The concept of a conscience state in the spiritual realm after the death of the body was accepted by the vast majority of early Christians and was affirmed by the words and actions of our Lord Jesus Christ.


      • Marc, I used to believe the same thing, but I don’t see evidence for a conscious state in the spiritual realm after death. This might be so, but it certainly does not seem so to me. I think that when we die we are dead until the resurrection. And in the resurrection we have some sort of body, so we are not bi-partite (or tri-partite) at all.

        If one considers our spirit to be breath, it is true that when breath is gone from our body we are dead. But the breath does not have a separate existence.


  5. Not all Christians believe in the immortality of the soul.
    “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” -Genesis 2:7

    I was taught it is the breath of God plus dirt of the ground that equals the soul.

    “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” -Eccl. 12:7
    Genesis 3:22 also seems to connect immortality to the tree of Life because God sent A and E from the garden “lest they eat the fruit and live forever.”

    Not saying this is the final word but these verses sort of contradict the immortal soul theory.

    Yes, we have eternal life, but only because Jesus has risen and has promised to come back for us. Our immortality will come as a gift from God–not as the nature of our being.

    God alone is immortal.

    God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. – Timothy 6:15,16


    • Marc says:

      Natural immortality of the soul is a pagan concept that has had negative effects on Christianity fostering the distorted concepts of eternal conscience torment and universalism. It is very clear from the weight of God’s revelation that immortality is a gift given in either the first or general resurrection. For the spirit and soul to remain alive and conscience after the death of the body does not require immortality. Consider Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”


      • You are right Marc, the pagan concept of natural immortality of the soul has had a tremendously negative impact on Christianity. It is often difficult for us to separate what we are taught from Jesus with what we infuse into his words.


    • Cherilyn, I agree with you and with Marc that immortality is a gift from God. The Greeks (Plato) taught total immortality of the soul. It was both pre-existent and enduring, so it was immortal in both directions. This is not a Jewish or Christian view.

      When we are offered eternal life by the Father, it IS a gift. Those who might finally reject it will likely cease to exist. However, I do not think this implies a separation into two pars: body and soul.


  6. PS I think you are on to something about being born again is to change our minds. The word repentance means to change your mind. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.
    -Romans 2:4


    • Thanks Cherilyn,

      I think Jesus was telling Nicodemus he must change his mind on what the kingdom was all about in order to see the kingdom. I think we have to set aside our own preconceptions in the same way in order to see things afresh.


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