Meditation on John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s that passage Tim Tebow wrote.”
But seriously, many people, the world over, if they’ve ever heard a Bible passage, it’s this one. Because of the familiarity, it almost becomes cliché. Our eyes glaze over as we gloss over these pregnant passages of God’s grace. So, for a few moments, I’d like to shake us up a little.
What does it mean that God “so loved” the world? That’s very strange phrasing. It doesn’t mean the measure of God’s love, but instead how he loved. A better translation is the LEB’s “For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.” In other words, God showed he loved the world in that he gave His Son for it.
God loves not just Israel, or his elect, those who were given his laws – but he loves the world, cares for all those in rebellion against him. This is remarkable. Voltaire, the 18th century French Enlightenment writer and famous critic of Catholicism, couldn’t grasp this concept so he “questioned how the deity of the cosmos could actually take a personal interest in insignificant humans. [He writes] ‘When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he worry about the comfort or discomfort of the rats?’”
Unlike so many truly pagan notions of a god who loves for what he can get out of it, the God of the Bible just loves. And he doesn’t love because we were lovely, loveable or worthy of love. Deuteronomy 7.7-8 says, “Yahweh loved you and chose you not because of your great number exceeding all other peoples, for you are fewer than all of the peoples, but because of the love of Yahweh for you and because of his keeping of the sworn oath that he swore to your ancestors, Yahweh brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.” You read that correctly. He loves just because he loves. He tells the same group later in chapter nine that it wasn’t because they were righteous that he’s benevolent to them. In fact, they had proven themselves unrighteous.
God doesn’t love us because we’re perfect. It’s not based on who we are. We didn’t do anything to earn it. Recently, a friend asked me which of these statements is true: (1) God loves me so Jesus died; or (2) Jesus died so God loves me. If you think about it, it’s really the first statement, because God loved you even before he sent Jesus to die. Romans 5.6-8, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The gospel story is the unique story because in this story, the hero dies for the villain.
That’s insane, right? Good stuff.
One last thing.
John blows my mind yet again with a neat little nugget in the story about Lazarus. So, in chapter 11 of his gospel, we have the story of Lazarus’s death and subsequent resurrection. But the way Lazarus is described shows that Martha really gets Jesus. When sharing the news to Jesus of her brother’s death, she says “The one whom you love is sick” (John 11.3). Notice, in urging Jesus to come and heal him, she doesn’t say “the one who loves you” but “the one whom you love”. We like to think of ourselves as “the one who loves Jesus” but our true, fundamental identity is “the one whom Jesus loves”. That’s where it needs to be. The disciple Jesus loved, not the disciple who loved Jesus. Maybe that’s why the gospel author refers to himself in this way (John 13.23).
Look at John 3.16 one more time: it’s not “the world so loved God” that he sent his Son, but “God so loved the world.”