For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
If the Bible’s all-time favourite passages were ranked, I suspect this verse would make the top three. From t-shirts to sandwich boards to The Simpsons, “John 3:16” has appeared almost everywhere. That John 3:16 is famous seems beyond doubt. Whether the awesome implications of this passage are appreciated, however, is perhaps harder to gauge.
There’s a banner in my suburb that reads “Jesus loves you”. I often wonder what passing motorists think of it. Most likely, the reactions are mixed, ranging from “Who cares?” to “Well of course, Jesus loves everyone—that’s what he does”.
Perhaps years of familiarity with the message “God loves you” has dulled the shock we ought to feel from the opening of John 3:16. In John’s hands, “the world” is anything but lovely. Despite its divine origins, the world has become a deeply sinister place, full of people whose sinful preference is outright rebellion against God (John 3:19). The news that God still loves this world is a remarkable testament to his compassionate love for all that He has made.
Importantly, as John 3:16 continues, we see how God loves this world. This verse reveals that God has demonstrated his extravagant love towards the world in a specific and particular way. That is, God’s steadfast love for the world is seen through the giving of his Son, the Word become flesh (John 1).
That God gave “his only Son” amplifies the extravagance of God’s love for this world. The Father loves this world by giving his unique, glorious, beloved Son, who is “full of grace and truth” (1:14). No group of superlatives adequately captures the Son’s radiance, but the point is clear: God’s love for the world runs deep.
But what motivates God to love this world and with such a gift? Humanly speaking, and with due reverence, this love doesn’t seem to make much sense.
If the world contained people who loved God with all their heart, soul and strength, then maybe such a gift would make sense (Deut 6:4-5). But, as Rico Tice points out in the Christianity Explored series, loving God like this just “…isn’t our heartbeat”. And yet, by sheer divine mercy, God’s unconditional love breaks into our darkness through the light of his one-of-a-kind Son (John 1:9). Consistent with his character, the God who is love (1 John 4:8) acts in love towards his world.
But merely to say that God is motivated by love, while true, seems somehow inadequate. God’s love for this world is personal and unthinkably costly.
The sharp end of this well-known verse arrives with “whoever believes in him should not perish”. Perishing, as an idea, is unfashionable. However, Jesus consistently thrusts reality onto the agenda.
The reason is simple. In Jesus’ estimation, irrespective of your pedigree or your best acts of righteousness, humanity is hopelessly compromised by sin (John 8:34). We are desperately sick and only Jesus has the cure (Mark 2:17). Therefore, out of love, the Father’s one-of-a-kind Son warns us that to ignore him is to needlessly invite eternal disaster.
And while verse 17 expands on why the Father gave his Son—to save the world—verse 14 explains how. Chillingly, the Son of Man will be “lifted up”, an unambiguous reference to his crucifixion (John 12:32). It is there, lifted up, that the Son of Man would bear away the sin of the world (John 1:29).
Long ago, the Lord declared that he takes no pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezek 18:32). By the gift of his Son, God shows just how far he is prepared to go in order to save lost sinners and grant them eternal life.
How it must have grieved the Father to send his Son! How it must have grieved the Son to leave his Father’s side. And yet, in the power of the Spirit, and out of steadfast love, the Son exercises his authority to lay down his life (John 10:18). Truly the Son has loved his own to the end (John 13:1), such that all who believe might be called children of God (1 John 3:1).
Ultimately, John 3:16 is a comprehensive statement of God’s extravagant love towards this world. These words have filled many with a compelling desire to share this news with a world that is perishing in darkness.
While putting up a “Jesus Loves You” banner might not be my style, perhaps I need to question my reservations. After all, the love of Jesus has to be the greatest news this world will ever hear.