“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)
“For God.” From the outset, Jesus informs Nicodemas (remember the context) that the person who is responsible for regeneration and the salvation of sinners is no one else but God. The word God (θεός; Theos) refers to the One, True God of heaven and earth. This is the God who is the subject of the entire revelation of Scripture.
“So Loved.” This is the Greek word ἀγαπn; agape. This is the highest and noblest love. It is a self-sacrificial love of the will. Therefore, it is a love which seeks other’s needs and not its own. It is a love not based upon one’s feelings but rather a resolute decision and act of one’s will. This is the love found in John 3:16. This is the love God possesses as an attribute of His character and displays as a behavior completely inherent within His being.
The Apostle Paul describes agape love in I Corinthians 13:1-8a. Paul also explained that agape love is the type of love a husband is to have for his wife (Ephesians 5:25). Paul also wrote that this is the kind of love of which God loved sinners in Romans 5:7-8. The Apostle John describes agape love in I John 4:7-11.
“The World.” The most accurate interpretation of this word refers the reader to the fallen, sinful anti-God system of thought and behavior expressing itself in utter moral rebellion against God.
“That He Gave.” We must remember that the subject of John 3:16 is not us, but God. It is God who loves the fallen and sinful world that prompts Him to give the world something. The word “gave” comes from the Greek word δίδωμι; didomi which means to grant, to cause to happen, and even to pay. It is God who gives the world something from His entire being.
“His only Son.” Jesus, speaking of Himself, gives Nicodemas, and us today, the identity of God the Father’s gift of the world based upon His love: His only Son. The Greek words for this phrase are μονογενής, υἱός; monegenes, huios. It means a unique, one and only, or a one of kind Son. The word Son addresses the endearing relationship the Son of God has with God the Father. This title takes us back to the initial statements in John’s Gospel about Jesus, the Eternal Word (See John 1:1-14).
“That whoever believes in Him.” Let me begin today by asking three questions which originate from this brief preceding statement. (1) The identity of the whoever? (2) The nature of believing or faith? (3) The meaning of “in Him?”
First, there are three possible meanings to the phrase “that whoever.” It could refer to the doctrine of Universalism. Universalism teaches that everyone who has ever lived on this planet will be saved and go to heaven when they die. The whoever then is everyone. However, even a superficial reading of Scripture indicates that there are multitudes of people who will experience the wrath of God as punishment for their sins (Revelation 20:11-15; John 3:18-21).
Second, the “whoever” may refer to all those who believe in the person and work of Jesus in and of their own free will. This is the most popular meaning which is used to refute the sovereignty of God in salvation. I came to Christ. I believed in Christ. My eternal destiny is ultimately up to me. Yet even this meaning ignores the immediate context of when, and to whom, Jesus made this statement.
The third meaning of “whoever” does not ignore the context of John 3. It recognizes and acknowledges that the “whoever” of John 3:16 are the ones who are sovereignly “born again” so they can enter into the kingdom of God as Jesus taught Nicodemas in John 3:1-8. This meaning acknowledges that faith in the person and work of Christ is a sovereign gift of God unto salvation (Acts 13:48; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 1:29; 2 Peter 1:1-2). This is the identity of the “whoever.”
What then does it mean to believe or to have faith? The Greek word for believe, as a verb, is πιστεύω; pisteuo. The Greek noun, faith, is the Greek word pistis. Both forms define believing, or to have faith, as trusting in, depending upon, committing to and worshipping a particular object. What then is the object of saving faith?
John 3:16 says that whoever is born again by the Holy Spirit, is therefore enabled to believe in the person and work of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone. The phrase “in Him” refers to Jesus: the unique and eternal Son of God.
Dr. Cornelis Venema writes, “In the history of the church, some believers have hesitated to affirm the propriety of this well-meant offer of the gospel indiscriminately extended to all sinners. Some are hindered by questions such as: How can I know that God has chosen to save this particular sinner to whom I am speaking? How can I be sure that Christ died for this person’s sins?”
Dr. Venema continues by explaining, “But why should I have to know the answer to these questions before graciously extending the gospel’s invitation to any sinner? Surely, John 3:16 provides us with a sure footing for a free and well-meant offer of the gospel to all sinners. This passage tells us everything that we need to know in order to invite sinners to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation. It speaks of a love so great that it prompted God to give nothing less than His Son. And it reminds us that the world God loved, and for which He gave His own Son, was a lost, undeserving world. With unmistakable clarity, it declares that “whoever believes” will be saved. What more must I know in order to say sincerely to any sinner, “Believe in Christ and you shall be saved”? After all, we have God’s Word for it.”
Share the good news of God’s love for sinners today to someone who needs to hear.
Soli deo Gloria!