The Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020 (John 3:1-17 )
For many Christians John 3:16 is their “go-to” verse: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. This is truly a spectacular verse with tremendous meaning both personally and theologically. It has comforted and guided many an individual and it is laden with theological depth that is often overlooked.
Some in explaining this verse have emphasized the tiny word “so”. With such an emphasis the verse is often recited by speaking this word a little louder: “God SO loved the world…” Such an emphasis is pointing to the magnitude of God’s love, that He loved the world SO MUCH that He gave his only Son. Unfortunately this is not only a misunderstanding of the original Greek wording but even worse it can lead to a misunderstanding of the verse. When I first learned this reality it bothered me because I held to a common understanding of this classic verse, for I too emphasized the tiny word “so”. Unfortunately, as will be explained, I had been viewing God’s love apart from Christ.
The Greek word here translated “so” (Οὕτως) is better understood when it is translated “thus” or “in this way”. To translate it as “so” is not wrong, but the Greek word does not mean “so much”. A better translation of John 3:16 would be, God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son… We then should not understand John 3:16 to say that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son. This understanding makes it appear as though God loved the world apart from and outside of sending His Son. It also makes it appear that sending His Son can be recognized as the most intense way but not the only way that God loved the world; that somehow we can recognize God’s love apart from His Son.
When the verse is correctly understood to mean that God loved the world by sending His Son, then the Son of God’s incarnation and life’s-work are seen to be the absolute focus of God’s love. Imagine the giving of His Son to be like the pinpoint spot created by a laser beam. Outside of trusting in this spot, we each stand condemned: …whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (3:18). Without this spot—the spot of God’s love for the world, the spot identifying the saving work of the incarnate Son of God—we each stand under God’s wrath: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey [“refuses to listen to”] the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (3:36). God does not love us outside of Christ. He loves us only through and for the sake of His Son. “God loved the world in this way.” In Christ alone can God be recognized as loving us no matter who or where we are.
This laser spot of God’s love for the world in Christ is the point where faith is directed. This is also true of Old Testament believers, who—though they didn’t fully grasp the work of the Christ—had been given revelation of God’s love for people of all ages and nations to be found solely in the Christ.
Finally (not that we are exhausting the meaning of John 3:16), God’s love for the world in Christ can only be recognized through the cross of Christ. God did not send His Son merely to be our godly example and encourage us. Out of the greatest love the Father sent His Son to conquer sin by being crucified. Thus Jesus explained: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. This “lifting up” of the Son of Man is His crucifixion. The cross of Christ is the expression of God’s love, and it is the focus of God’s gift of eternal life. This is how God loves the world, through His crucified Son.