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'God So Loved': John 3:16 in Fragments
Jesus in His Own Words
John 3:16 is the most famous passage in western civilization, perhaps the world. Many of those who have never cracked open a Bible or heard the verse read or recited still know the reference. Being Southern Baptist born and bred, I was taught to memorize and recite the verse constantly.
My purpose in this article is to break down the verse into segments, examining their meaning, and then looking at the larger meaning of the verse when taken as a whole. I will use the New International Version.
Here is the verse:
“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.”
It is important to remember that Jesus is speaking.
Now, let’s break it down:
- “For God…" Jesus first qualifies his statement by telling who he is speaking about. He is telling something about God.
- “For God so loved…” Jesus is describing an attribute of God—that he loves. Whom or what does God love? What kind of love is Jesus describing?
- “For God so loved the world…” Taken plainly, Jesus is saying God loves the entire world—meaning every single person in the world. There is no other way to take these words without deliberately changing their meaning.
- “For God so loved the world that he gave…” God loves all people in the world. For this reason, he has given something to the world which expresses his love for all the people within it.
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son...” God gave the world a gift, his Son. In saying this, Jesus is saying that he was personally sent by God. By saying he is God’s son, he is making himself equal with God, and thus he claims to speak with God’s authority.
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever…” The “whoever” simply means that what Jesus is saying applies to every single person on earth.
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him…” Here, Jesus is saying that an individual’s choice to believe(have faith in, trust) will have a consequence.
- “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish…” Here, Jesus lays out the consequences for those who choose not to believe in him. He assumes his audience (in this case, Nicodemus) knows what “perish” means.
- “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."
We see that Jesus is speaking of himself in the third person. One can assume that he does so here deliberately in order to communicate with all of those who would later hear his message. He makes an audacious claim—that all those who choose by their own free will to believe in him will be given eternal life. Taken with the rest of his words here, he is clearly and plainly communicating that he, and he alone, is the way to eternal life.
Taken in light of other scriptures, to "perish" must mean to die--but not just to die physically, but spiritually. Jesus is indicating that those who believe in him will live forever spiritually, and that those who choose not to believe in him will die forever spiritually. This is what "perish" means in the context of John 3:16.
I believe Jesus spoke of a literal place of eternal torment for those who reject his offer of salvation. To say anything less would be deceptive and a watering down of Jesus' full message about the consequences of rejecting his offer. For Jesus' most vivid description of hell in the gospels, see Luke 16:19-31. Some say this is only a parable, or fictional story to prove a point. However, context clues indicate that this is a true story. Abraham and Lazarus were real Biblical figures.
Jesus has offered the world a gift. Individuals can accept or reject his gift. That gift is simply this--eternal life to all who trust in him alone for their salvation. For a more detailed explanation of the gospel, see my post, "'Of First Importance': The Plain Gospel and a Little About Me."
What you believe is up to you. But what you believe does matter.
I say believe in Jesus.