For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16 (ESV)
So we return to where we began, the inspiration for this whole month of meditations. After a month of studying the Old Testament, does this verse look different? Is John 3:16 more or less important than it was? Taken in the context of Scripture as a whole, what can we learn from this most famous verse? For one last time, let’s dive in.
It’s not clear whether these are words from Jesus Himself, or John’s interpretation of His words. Either way, they come in the context of a conversation with Nicodemus, a teacher of the Law. He would have been intimately familiar with the passages we have spent a month exploring. And he was flabbergasted by what Jesus was saying to him. In a clandestine nighttime meeting, Jesus spoke of being born again by the Holy Spirit and the Son of Man coming down from God. The only coherent question Nicodemus can stammer out regards the anatomical impossibility of crawling back into your mother’s uterus. The Old Testament is a visceral thing, a book concerned with the physical realities of sacrifice, war, sex, menstruation, circumcision, disease, hygiene, etc. Jesus speaks of such things, too, but He is much more concerned with the soul. For a Jew like Nicodemus, the body mattered more than the soul, and outward adherence to the Law more than inward renewal. Jews didn’t really even have a concept of heaven and hell. They believed that the dead went to a sort of amorphous place called Sheol, or “the grave”. Eternal life would have been seen more as living on through your descendents (hence the genealogies). With this verse, Jesus, as he so often did, shattered the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Law. In its place, he revealed a God who loves.
Love is far from absent in the Old Testament. When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he responds by quoting two Torah passages about loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and loving your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), concluding, “on these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). So if Jesus had to sum up the last month of verses, he would use the word “love”. Would you? Looking back, I see passages about suffering and injustice, about righteousness and vengeance, about wealth and pride, about blessings and curses. I feel like summing it up in one word would require the word “holiness”. God called His people to be holy, to be set apart for Him. Love mainly meant loving other people who followed the Lord. But look at John 3:16: “for God so loved the world“. The world! That’s a revolutionary statement. When God looked at the world in Noah’s time, he destroyed it. And now Jesus says that His Father loves the world. As the (undeservedly) less famous John 3:17 puts it, “for God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There are no qualifiers here, no requirements to follow the Law or not be a jerk. God does not condemn the world; God loves the world. He loves it so much that, while they sinned, He sent His only Son to die for them (Romans 5:8). In the past, God sent judges and priests and prophets to speak to just His people. For the rest of humanity, there was only judgement. But now, God sends His Son, not just to the Jews, but to the world. The striving for holiness through legalism has been replaced with a gift of love and grace found in the Son of Man. No wonder Nicodemus couldn’t pick his jaw up off the ground. Everything he thought he knew about God was wrong (or at least incomplete). “Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’” (John 3:9). The reply, standing in front of him with a scraggly beard and tattered clothes, was Jesus Himself, the Son of God, offering eternal life.
If I had to sum up how this past month has recontextualized John 3:16, I would say it shows how radical the message of the gospel is. Much of the Old Testament is concerned with religion — practices, ethics, philosophy, government, even architecture. But these words from Jesus are not about religion at all. They are about a relationship. You can hear God’s yearning for relationship in the background of all the verses we’ve covered. Then Jesus arrived and tore down the whole edifice that had been constructed by the Jews to get to God, to earn that relationship. In its place, there is only the amazing grace of God and the free gift of salvation to all who believe. Of course, Jesus did not just throw out the Law, indeed He demanded even greater righteousness than the Torah (see Matthew 5:17-18). But, as Paul puts it, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). The Law existed to lead us to a relationship with Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:24). The prophets foretold the coming of the Messiah. All of Holy Scripture points in one direction, to the Cross of Christ, where justice and mercy met and the Law was both nullified and fulfilled. He died once for all that we might have eternal life, and rose from the dead to be prophet, priest, and king forever. On the cross, Jesus said, “it is finished” (John 19:30). And it is. Christ has completed the work that we have spent this month reading about. Now God dwells with us, in our very souls, forever. All we have to do is believe.
Maybe I should reconsider how to sum up the message of the verses we have read. Maybe the one word that summarizes it all is “believe”. Look at how often we have been told that God sees, God remembers, God cares, God forgives, God blesses. It is all about the work and the sovereignty of God. The only thing He asked of His people, the only thing he ever asks, is that we believe in Him and His ability to accomplish His purposes. For He has kept His promises time and again, even (or especially) when we were unfaithful. New and eternal life awaits us if we only turn to Jesus and believe in Him. No, Nicodemus, we do not have to crawl back inside our mother’s womb to be born again. It is as simple as saying “yes”. If you have never said it before, Jesus invites you to say yes to Him and begin eternal life today. If you have said yes before, say it again today, for each day we must begin anew. And, in doing so, we will discover the greatest truth, the fulfillment of all the Scriptures: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).