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. (NIV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (NASB)
Perhaps the best known all Bible verses, John 3:16 is a “twenty-six-word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending with life, and urging us to do the same.” (Lucado) It is a safe bet to say that a majority of Christians have memorized this verse and though not many would correctly place it in the context of a conversation with Nicodemus, most would be able to apply the first rule of hermeneutics to it; the plain reading of a passage is usually the best. Theologically, Arminians will point to the passage containing this verse ( 3:16-18 ) as one of many supporting a universal atonement while Calvinists will draw a finer point to the verse saying that Jesus was simply teaching only that atonement was not racially specific, that it would include both Jews and Gentiles (i.e. the World).
I recently read an exegetical study of this passage that was presented as the authoritative, final word (implied by the author and insisted upon by the blog poster who archived it) in the Calvinist/Arminian appropriation debate over the passage. Logically, a reader’s approach where there seem to be two clear-cut sides to a debate is to assume that if one side is right, the other must be wrong. Perhaps (as Blomberg, Klein, & Hubbard point out), given a specific text, the reader must consider the possibility that the verse has only a single meaning or whether it may accommodate several possible meanings on multiple levels. While going to the Greek is a necessary step in studying a New Testament verse, there is much more to consider when settling on the meaning of a passage. Responsible hermeneutics stands against the tendency to “proof-text” and pull verses out of their context and overall meaning in order to support or refute a specific doctrine.
The verse we are studying comes from the widely beloved Gospel of John, the book in the quartet of canonical gospels that stands apart from the Synoptics. Though there is no explicit claim of authorship within the book itself, it is generally accepted to have been written by the apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Dating for the letter ranges from early second century ( 110-125 ) to mid to late first century (50 – 95), the exact choice of which does not affect the interpretation of our passage. What is important to note in examining the time in which the gospel is written is that an accurate interpretation is reliant upon an understanding of Judaism in the first century as it forms a thread throughout the book.
An outline of the book most often divides it into two larger parts: The Book of Signs (miracles) chapters 1 – 12 and The Book of Glory 13 – 20 with an epilogue in chapter 21. The subsections within the Book of Signs shows Jesus interacting with the institutions of Judaism and showing how His coming replaces a Jewish symbol with something infinitely greater (water->living water; manna->living bread, etc.). We find the verse under study in the Book of Signs in the third ‘sign, following the miracle at Cana where the Lord changes water into wine and the cleansing and the replacement of the Temple for worship. In the third sign, the Lord is approached by the Pharisee Nicodemus. Here, Jesus will reveal that his “glorification on the cross will be the turning point in which Judaism discovers its dissolution and renewal.” (Burge)
The near context of 3:16 is the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. In order to properly understand this verse, it is especially critical to place it in the near context and not to approach it as a discrete sentence. The context passage we will look at is 3:1-21 with the introductory verses of 2:23-25 included.
Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man.
3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
“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. 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 he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 2:23 – 3:21 NIV)
The tail of Chapter Two follows the Lord’s clearing of the Temple and it leaves us with the editorial note on His knowledge of the corruption in the hearts of all men ( Gk. anthropos ). John introduces Nicodemus by linking his inner heart to that of all men mentioned previously ( “Now there was a man of the Pharisees” Gk. anthropos ) despite the recognition of his earthly authority that follows. He comes from the darkness to meet and interview Jesus and begins with an assessment of the stature of the Lord. Interestingly, Jesus responds with an answer to a question that was not asked, telling the Pharisee that one must be born again before gaining entry to the kingdom of heaven. A back and forth ensues with Nicodemus asking first how it is possible and then how can it be done until Jesus answers, a bit short perhaps, “you are a very prominent teacher of the very favored people of Israel and you don’t understand this?” [ Both Israel and teacher are preceded by the definite article lending this emphasis.]
The passage shifts to discourse on the part of Jesus starting in verse 10, with Nicodemus as His audience. Jesus says to him that if he, of all people, cannot see that the new birth was built on OT teaching, how would he be able to understand greater things. Verse 11 is often seen by commentators as a comment introduced by the author repeating a statement commonly spoken in the synagogue of the day repeating the Lord’s sentiment of verse 10. The Lord expresses the doctrinal challenges of Judaism through Nicodemus; if he were unable to understand matters that had been illustrated by material experience, he (and his fellow Jews) would be unable to grasp that which had no earthly analogy (Tenney).
Jesus draws an illustration from the Jewish Scriptures to make His meaning explicit . He refers back to a story recorded in Numbers 21 in which Moses is instructed in the way by which men and women could be saved from their venomous snake bites (death being the penalty for the rebellion against God). He is told to hoist a bronze snake upon a standard so that anyone who looks upon it might live. It was no doubt a startling image for Nicodemus, the serpent being the image of sin under judgement. In the same way, Jesus explains, the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may be saved. This is an important statement that the reader must not dismiss too quickly in order to get to 3:16 because the two are intertwined. Note the points of comparison that we must be aware of:
- The bronze serpent was prepared by the command of God.
- It was a symbol of salvation to men who were under the condemnation of sin and suffering from its effects.
- The curative power was available on the basis of faith rather than works – one need only look upon the serpent.
- The serpent was lifted on a banner staff ( a cross shaped implement ). John uses an important word (hypsoō) that is translated as “lifted up”, to be used again of the passion of Christ (8:23, 12:32,34)
- The destiny of the individual was determined by his or her response to God’s invitation.
A principle of hermeneutics that must not be violated when exegeting a typological passage is that we are not free to use our ingenuity to read into the text comparisons between the type and antitype upon which the text is silent. James White publishes just such a bit of wishful thinking when his eisigesis of the type-comparison reads in a particularity needed to support his Calvinist theology. Specifically, he attempts to link a limited efficaciousness of the bronze serpent to the people of Israel and the proposed limited atonement offered through Jesus. He says [the serpent was] “only a means of deliverance for a limited population” reading into the text something that is both physically true but not theologically applicable. Does the text indicate that others outside the community are suffering from the snake venom? Are outsiders even present at the moment of redemption (the serprent being raised) to gaze upon it only to die? The answer to both is that we do not know but the text does not indicate in the affirmative.
At verse 16 we encounter an aspect of the original text that requires us to make a decision. Lacking quotation marks, orthographical marks, or an editorial break by the Evangelist, the words in many bibles continue in red leading the reader to assume that they are the words of the Lord. Many commentators disagree with the identification of the speaker indicating that the words in 16-21 are a commentary included by John to amplify the teaching of Jesus in the preceding verses. Carson points to the unique verbiage used in this pericope as being specific to John as one way of identifying authorship with Burge pointing to the tense of the immediate verse (16) as pointing to the already occurred death of Christ as further evidence of this break.
I will separate a closer examination of verse 16 for another section so I close out the textual context by looking at the Evangelist’s words in 17-21. Starting with ‘For’ (gar) in verse 17, he comments on the preceding verse extending the mission of the Christ in saving the world. Those who believe in the Savior will be saved while those who elect not to believe stand condemned in their sin. Their judgement due to their innate depravity is the default end; only by salvation can this terminus be changed. This is the emphatic conclusion that John concludes the passage with. Interestingly, Nicodemus offers no counter or conclusion of his own.
Verse 3:16 in the original text reads as follows:
Outwj gar hgaphsen o` qeoj ton kosmon( wste ton uion ton monogenh/ edwken( ina paj o`pisteuwn eij auton mh. apolhtai allV ech| zwhn aiwnionÅ
Translated directly, it reads as:
The first phrase ‘For God so loved the world’ leads to the first interpretive question; why is the verse not translated “God thus loved the world?” This might be expected given that the conjunction ‘for’ references the preceding verses and an example of God’s love that foreshadowed the Savior’s sacrificial act and the succeeding phrase which describes the uniqueness of the gift that fulfills it. In his exegetical paper, White dismisses any emphasis to God’s love opting for the straight translation of ‘in this way’ so we must ask if there is support for reading the adverb with emphasis or simply causation. Houtos in this context takes the form of an emphatic adverb (Lowe-Nida – 78.4) denoting a high degree. With God the author of the love and the resulting action being that He sacrifices His Son on the behalf of those He loves, contextually the English ‘so’ is the appropriate translation. Carson (The Gospel According to John) provides this grammatical structure in support of this reading, “houtos plus hoste plus the indicative instead of the infinitive emphasizes the intensity of the love.”
The second word of interest is ‘world’ or kosmos in the Greek. Some will attempt to apply a particularity to this word (e.g. world means only ‘the elect’) that is not justified by the context. An example of this attempted textual sleight of hand is written in The Five Points of Calvinism by Palmer where he says:
The answer to this objection [i.e. Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world] is that often, the Bible uses the words world and all in a restricted, limited sense.
Palmer attempts to support this assertion by comparing verses such as John 4:42 (Jesus is the savior of the world) and John 1:29 (He takes away the sin of the world) with Luke 2:1,2. In this verse Caesar Augustus calls for a census of all of the Roman world to which Palmer (who, we should note conveniently does not quote the verse and leaves out the qualifier Roman) points out that all is not all. “For the Japanese, Chinese, and Anglo-Saxons did not enroll themselves.” Remember, context is important in interpretation and when we jump from the Johannine to the Lukan corpus we must make one shift but secondly, it is absolutely clear that the Doctor used world in a geographic sense in this verse, far different than the Johannine verses he compares it to. Despite any inferred megalomania on the part of the Caesar, it is clear that context clearly defines the usage and removes it from the theological discussion.
White’s paper attempts to maneuver the reader into the same territory staked out by Palmer. He states, “The wide range of uses of kosmos (world) in the Johannine corpus is well known.” The noun kosmos appears in the NT 186 times, with 78 occurrences in John’s gospel, 24 in his epistles, and 3 in Revelation. Verbrugge (The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words) and Kittel (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament) agree that there are nuances to the word but in each case, they are all encompassing. It can mean (a) the universe or the world as the sum of all created things, (b) the sphere or place of human life, or (c) the whole of humanity. Each of these is linked by the thread of being a way of stating the totality of a created thing without a hint of particularism.
In John, the author’s use of kosmos is consistent in meaning the entire realm of humanity that stands in opposition to God while the context defines the different aspects of this totality to which it speaks. In 3:16 we must examine the kosmos in light of it being the object of God’s love. It is the very reason that God’s emphatic love is so astounding; even though the entirety of world is so utterly depraved, God loves it as His created order. Continuing, we must examine the word in terms of the immediate context which includes verse 3:17. If there were a particularity to kosmos in 3:16 how would the same word be interpreted in verse 17? Does the Lord come into a world (Jn 1:9) in which some are not condemned prior to His work upon the cross? No, the Son of Man came into a world already lost and condemned so that He might offer salvation to those who would believe. That is why Jesus is called the ‘Savior of the World’ (Jn 4:42). That some will not be saved is made clear in verses 18-21 but this does not modify God’s mission in sending the Son.
Though the world is thoroughly corrupted and stands under His judgment, the Creator loves His creation with such intensity that He gives it the most gracious gift possible, His only Son ( hoste ton huion monogene edoken.) There is little disagreement regarding the greatness of the Son in whom we are to place our faith but we do see an emphasis in this clause on the greatness of the gift. John places the object before the verb ( ton huion before edoken ) emphasizing the unique, love-driven aspects of this gift. This gift, the one and only/only begotten Son ( monogenes ) is the ultimate act of grace, giving something of such uniqueness and value to a creation so utterly undeserving.
The result clause of the verse demonstrates the gift of grace that affords the salvation to all who will believe in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. The Greek phrase hina pas ho pisteuon is translated that whoever believes, a smoothing of the more wooden direct translation [in order] that all the one’s believing. The participle pisteuon form of the verb to believe (pisteuo) tells us something about the all/everyone who (pas) which precedes it, they are the ones who are believing. Many times, in order to read a specific theological system into this verse, the emphasis is placed on what it does not say (e.g. White’s exclamation that this phrase does not in any way introduce some kind of denial of particularity to the action.) This eisigesis is unnecessary since the full dimension of the Savior’s work is restated again in verses 18-21. Jesus’ ultimate purpose is the salvation of those in the world who believe in him (eis auton). Who is encompassed in this circle of possibility? All those men and women who exist in this world but who, by their depraved nature, habitually turn toward darkness by default.
The final clause provides the promise given to those who believe in the Savior, they shall not perish but have eternal life ( me apoletai all eche zoen aiwnion.) The Greek word appolymai provides a starkly contrasting word to the idea of life eternal ( zoen aionion ) in that it describes something that is lost, destroyed, or has disappeared through violent ends. The believer will experience the opposite; they will posses or hold on to (eche) the new, eternal life to replace the old finite one.
The Calvinist will read this passage through the lens of humankind’s inability to believe. The theological construct posits that due to their thoroughly depraved nature, man cannot take advantage of this offer as he will not, of his own volition or will, believe in the redemptive work of the savior. The Calvinist may occasionally agree that the offer of eternal life is to all is implicit in this verse but turn right around and say that it is impossible to redeem outside of the abilities provided to the elect. In other words, man has no way on his own to take advantage of this promise. This verse ( and others of similar dimension: 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned; 6:37 whoever comes to me I will never drive away; Rev 22:17 whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.) causes the Calvinist to apply unwarranted definitions to the terms all, whoever, everyone, world, et al. in which they find that each means only a specific group, an interpretation unsupported by the context.
There is further a disturbing practice amongst Calvinist interpreters to reach for the negative space in a passage in their search for theological support. White’s paper on this verse (which prompted this study) is wrought with highlights of what is not written in the text rather than what is. For example, he examines the clause ‘whoever believes’ and tells us that these words [do] “not in any way introduce some kind of denial of particularity to the action.” Granted, this may be true but is the conclusion warranted by either the author or the context? Does John go on to define whoever as those elected prior to the creation to receive eternal life? I do not believe the answer to either of these questions is in the affirmative. Attempts to limit the scope of this passage and others of similar dimension to a select few require eisigesis driven by theology rather than careful exegesis driven by the text alone, which should then in turn, be reflect in our theology. A sober example of reading one’s theology into this passage is given by John Owen as he restates the passage in his own words:
God so loved his elect throughout the world, that he gave his Son with this intention, that by him believers might be saved. (Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)
Besides the fact that this interpretation is in no way supported by the Greek text, it runs directly counter to God’s repeated command not to add or subtract from His word (Dt 4:2).
Another attempt at constraint is found in the oft-repeated Calvinist response that non-Calvinists are mis-characterizing or misunderstanding God’s love. Again we reach to the negative; by leaning on the Lord’s words in Isaiah 55:9 ” As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” for support, the Calvinist is prompted to say that we cannot understand God’s love in human terms. This of course is the foundation for their definition of love in supralapsarian terms; God shows His love in His way by creating some for redemption and others for destruction and we are not to attempt to understand how this demonstrates His love, simply accept it. To the contrary though, the Genesis account shows us that the image of the creator was sullied by original sin, our innate sense of love was not removed. I believe that it is from the creator that we reserve the ability to love others contrary to our self-serving nature which would naturally see others as competition.
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
2 Co 5:14-19
That God desires all (meaning all and not some nor a few select) men to be saved is clearly stated throughout the Bible. If John is unsatisfactory, we can turn to Paul who says “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3-4) or Peter who turns the phrase “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). Had the Lord intended to convey the meaning of some men or a very narrow spectrum of humankind, was it not possible for the Spirit to clearly convey this to the authors? Spurgeon himself comments on those manhandle the text in an attempt to extract a theological truth that is absent. He says “‘All men,’ they say–that is, some men; as if the Holy Ghost could not have said some men if had meant some. All men, say they; that is some of all sorts of men; as if the Lord could not have said ‘All sorts of men’ if he had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written ‘all men,’ and unquestionably he means all men.” (Spurgeon, his sermon “A Critical Text – C.H. Spurgeon on 1 Timothy 2:2-4)