For years John 3:16 had a seemingly constant presence and American sporting events, especially in the end zones of football games. The ubiquitous man with the rainbow-colored Afro held up his sign for all the world to see, week after week, game after game. Clearly it is the most famous citation of any passage in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16
My personal love for the passage extends to it being the verse that got me admitted back into The United States after a mission trip many years ago. I had taken a group of high school student into the mountains south of Mexico City for two weeks. By the time we returned and were coming immigration, my hair was even longer than normal and my full beard was well, full. It didn’t help that I was wearing old jeans and a rough cotton homespun hoodie when the immigration officer asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a pastor” I replied. Silence from the immigration officer as he looked at my hair, my beard, my hoodie and my jeans then my hoodie, my beard, and my hair again. At which point I heard, “quote John 3:16”. I did so flawlessly and with a sigh of relief that he didn’t ask for something like 2nd Chronicles 8:12. I rather enjoyed the puzzled look on his face so I let him know I was a youth pastor and all these teenagers behind me were the youth returning from a mission trip. His face lit up with a smile and he said, “that’s wonderful, welcome back kids” and he quickly stamped fourteen more passports and let us through.
But let’s not be lulled into a shallow view of this verse. It is far more than a cliché at sporting events or an easy ticket back into The United States. It is one of the most profound statements in the Bible. The first thing to notice about this verse, and something that most people miss, Jesus is the one who says this. These are not the words of a narrator telling us something about Jesus. These are the words of Jesus himself telling us something profound about himself, his mission, and his Father. Recognizing that little bit of information gives a much deeper and personal meaning to the words.
Think if it this way, in this short sentence Jesus is making it abundantly clear that he came into the world for one purpose. His mission was to come and die in order to open the door to eternal life for anyone who would put their trust in him. That is really what he means when he says “whoever believes in him”. Belief from a biblical point of view is all about trust. Putting your faith in Jesus is about trusting him, trusting that he is in fact God come in the flesh, that he is the savior, that he did rise from the dead, and that he will fulfill his promise to give eternal life to all who believe in him.
Certainly the message that God loves the world is a comforting one. But don’t stop there. Don’t breath a deep sigh of relief as if that somehow makes everything perfect and safe. That God loves the world is not a particularly provocative statement in our day. Most people only think of God in terms of his being loving. What is really provocative is the exclusionary nature of the second part of the verse. Jesus does not say that he came to give his life and the result would be that no one in the world would perish but that everyone would have eternal life. Rather he says that anyone who believes, trusts in him, would not perish but have eternal life. That is not something that most people find comforting in our day. Most people skip right passed that part of Jesus declaration. It is just too discomforting to ponder the implications. If eternal life is given only to those who trust Jesus, then it is not given to those who do not trust him. In the western world that is one of the worst possible things a person could say and believe. It is considered intolerant beyond measure. The theology of our day in the west is that all roads to God are equally valid. Pick whichever road feels best to you. It will eventually get you to God and be sure that along the way you never dare to tell someone else they are on the wrong road.
But it is Jesus himself who says that only those who trust and believe in him, who truly follow him, will have eternal life. He makes that clear in John 3:16 and in numerous other verses where he separates those who follow him and welcomes them to eternal life and those who don’t who he consigns to condemnation. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is also the King of Kings and Lord of Lords who will one day return to this world he died for and he will bring with him his judgment. Consider what Jesus says just two verses later in John 3:18 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. Those are certainly words to shake us out of our spiritual doldrums and ask if we are truly trusting and following Jesus or if we are taking false hope in “For God so loved the world”.
The love God has for you must be combined with the reality that God is also just and that eventually, one way or another, sin must be judged and condemned. This is where the most provocative piece of this verse comes in. God so loved the world that he came into the world through the incarnation of Jesus and willingly went to the cross in order to pay the price for your sin. That is what is contained in the seemingly innocuous words “gave His only Son”. The Father gave His only son over to the hands of wicked men so they would torture him to death. That death was the price to be paid for sin and rebellion against God. God made that clear to Adam and Eve from the start. Jesus paid the price of that death so that those who do believe would be assured that they will truly live for eternity. You and I have sinned against God and deserve whatever punishment comes our way. Yet in His love, the Father has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave and his ascension to the Father’s right hand validate his death and vindicate him before his accusers. They are also part of the assurance his followers have that they too will be raised up on the last day.
One final thought for those who are already followers of Jesus. This verse should motivate you to love your neighbor with a reckless abandon. It should move you to sacrifice for them so that they would experience the love of God and turn to follow Jesus. It should motivate you with the realization that they may not be on the right road and the road they are on may lead to perdition. Do not rest in the comfort of knowing that God loves the world without owning the truth that not all the world loves God and that you are an ambassador on His behalf, calling people to their only true hope, to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.