Gospel Reading: John 3:14-21
John 3:16 is certainly the best-known New Testament reference in North America. Watch any public sporting event and you are likely to see a placard with that citation displayed in the crowd. I have no doubt that the fans holding such posters know the words of the text, and many non-Church folks know the words as well – from neighbors, from the odd Sunday School or Bible school encounter, or from dozens of plaques and pictures in hobby and craft stores.
For church folks, the verse is treasured as well. Martin Luther described John 3:16 as the heart of the Bible, “the gospel in miniature.” Others have often described it as the “gospel in a nutshell.” The verse flashes like a neon sign in the midst of an otherwise obscure and difficult passage. I suspect that many sermon listeners will focus on that verse to the exclusion of the rest of the passage, no matter what the preacher intends. So, a preacher might do well to begin with a close examination of this verse and then work outward to the rest of the text.
The littlest words often cause the biggest translation headaches. One of those words is “so” – as in God “so” loved the world. I suspect that most contemporary English readers and listeners hear that word as describing the “amount” or “intensity” of God’s love for the world. That is not the meaning of that little word. Instead, it means “in this manner,” or “thus” or “as follows.” Therefore, John 3:16 is not talking about the degree of the love expressed but rather the way in which that love is expressed.
The verb John uses, “loved,” matters as well. Greek has a number of words which can express something we would, in English, describe as “love.” Greek language distinguishes between the affection for pets, the care for a friend, the erotic love for a partner, and the self-giving love for another in need. The verb John uses here, and repeatedly throughout the Gospel, is the last of those four possibilities – the verb form of agape.
In the same way that we post-Enlightenment, hyper-individualist interpreters are tempted to translate “so” as intensity, we are also tempted to translate “love” as merely an emotion. All our language about God is metaphorical, anthropomorphic, and limited. That’s a given. But we can exercise some care in how we use that language. “Love” in John 3:16 is not an emotion but rather an action. This active love contains in it the idea of unconditional commitment (see Wallace, 380).
To this point, here’s what we have. “God loved in this way…” What was God loving? Our translation says, “the world.” That’s accurate but incomplete. The Greek word is “cosmos.” We have taken that directly into English as a word for the whole universe. That’s a better translation in John 3:16 as well. God’s action of loving has been directed not merely toward the world inhabited by humans. That would be a different term. It is not only this particular ball of mud on which we find ourselves. Rather, God’s devoted attention and action is directed toward all that is – toward the whole of that Creation, which was created through the Word, as we read in John 1.
God was acting in love in this way toward the cosmos. That gets us through the first seven Greek words in the verse. In what way was that Divine love being enacted? The next little word in the verse indicates that what follows is the result of that love or the outcome of that action of loving. That outcome of Divine love is the “actual result” of that love, as opposed to the “natural result.”
A natural result is an outcome that would be expected based on what came before. If I drink too much coffee while I am writing this piece, the natural result is more trips to the restroom. An actual result is not expected from the circumstances but has really happened. No one could have seen this coming, John says, but it has happened! (see Wallace, page 593).
What has happened? God acted in love in this way toward the cosmos. The outcome of that loving action was the giving of the only begotten son. The word translated as “only-begotten” is the Greek word “monogenes.” Entire doctoral dissertations and libraries of books have been written focused on that word and its meaning. So, I will try to scratch the surface here. In its basic definition, the word means “only” as in “only son.” Literally it means the only one who was brought into being.
I don’t mean to commit heresy in that previous sentence. The word does not suggest that Jesus as the Word is somehow “created.” The word describes the status of the Son rather than the mechanism by which the Son “became.” It’s clear from John 1 that the Only-begotten is not a creature but is rather the Creator. In John’s gospel, the word is applied exclusively to Jesus. In this gospel it can be translated as “only” in the sense of “unique.” John’s gospel gives us a way into understanding the relationship between Divine Father and Son.
God was acting in love in this way toward the cosmos, with the result that God gave the Only-begotten One. The verb for “gave” indicates that this is a one-time and completed action. It’s not that God only gives “once,” but rather that giving is what God does. God enacts love by giving – by giving the unique Son who, as we read in John 1:18, is close to the Father’s heart and has made the Father known to the world.
This is central to Martin Luther’s understanding of God’s nature as revealed to the cosmos in Jesus Christ. If we want one word to describe what God is and is like, Luther suggests that we use the word “Giver.” God needs nothing from us and wants everything for us. Since God needs nothing from us, we can have confidence that all we receive from God comes by grace and not as part of some contract or deal. It all comes “free of charge,” as Mirsolav Volf writes so well.
Now we are thirteen words into the Greek rendering of this verse – halfway home! Why did God do this? God gave “in order that.” There’s the next little word, a particle that indicates purpose, intent, and actual result. God was acting in love to give the Son in order that all who were believing in him might not be obliterated but rather might have life for all the ages.
The “might” in that sentence “might” give some readers pause, as if there would be some doubt about the outcome of God’s loving action in the giving of the Only-begotten Son. That Greek subjunctive doesn’t indicate doubt about the outcome here. It does, however, indicate that the action and the result have not yet been completed. There is always both a “now” dimension to the Good News of Jesus Christ present among us and a “not yet” dimension as we await and long for the fulfillment of that Good News as the end of the age.
The NRSV translates the Greek word “pas” as “all” here. The grammar lends itself to a more precise formulation. John is talking about each one of the “all” who believes. It can be translated as “everyone,” but really has the sense of “each and every one.” The participle, “believing,” is a singular, nominative construction (I know that’s in the weeds a bit, but it makes the point). John is talking about the gift that comes to each one who will embrace that gift by believing. But what does John mean here by “believing”?
The grammar here has a Greek participle, “believing” followed by the preposition that most often means “into.” Literally, John says that God gives the Son in order that each and every one who believes “into” him may receive the gift. That doesn’t fit with our English usage, so we have to work at it a bit. The sense of the preposition is not so much “believe in” as a static relationship but rather to “put one’s faith into,” as a kind of “motion” or direction. John isn’t talking about intellectual assent here. John is talking about active trust that results in discipleship. (See Wallace, page 359).
That active trust in Jesus is an ongoing rather than onetime reality. In John’s Gospel, there are certainly one-time acts of belief or assent. But disciples engage in ongoing trust in Jesus as the Only-begotten Son who gives life (see Wallace pages 522, 620-621). This ongoing active trust is in response to God’s active love made real now and promised in the future. We can come back to the ideas of being “lost” and having “life” when we build forward on this text in a future post.
Then we come back to the most troublesome little word – “for.” Most people who memorize this verse leave off that little initial particle. But it is critical for our understanding. John 3:16 doesn’t stand in splendid isolation, just waiting to be cross-stitched on to samplers for sale at the local Christian craft store.
No, the verse is part of a context and an argument. “For” means that the verse comes out of the verses that come before it – somehow (in ways we’ll explore in the next post or two). It is “a coordinate conjunction linking this sentence to the previous idea in John 3:14,” as Wallace writes (page 668). This little word also has an explanatory function and “indicates that additional information is being given about what is being described” (Wallace, page 673). Wallace suggests that we might translate it as “for,” but we could also use “you see,” or “that is,” or “namely.” Verse 17 also begins with a “for,” so that verse comes out of what has been said in 3:16 – somehow (in ways we’ll explore in the next post or two).
What does John 3:16 say? “So, you see, God unconditionally loved the cosmos in this way – God gave the Only-begotten Son, with the actual (but unexpected) result that everyone who continues to actively trust in him might not be wiped out but rather might have life that does not end.” I know it doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue in the way we expect. If, however, we want to use this verse as the “gospel in miniature,” we ought to know what it actually says.
If we are to be faithful to this “gospel in miniature,” we can treasure it as a verse of encouragement and hope. But if we wish to understand it, then the verse itself does not give us permission to allow it to stand alone. Rather, we need to see how it fits into John’s bigger picture in chapter three and in the whole gospel. More on that next time.
Resources and References
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.