“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.” The 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).
“Should not perish.” This phrase, from the Greek word ἀπόλλυμι; apollymi, refers to a personal destruction which is yet future and possible. The meaning involves a spiritual loss which is irretrievable. However to perish does not mean annihilation but rather a final destiny of “ruin” in hell apart from God who is the source of life, truth.
Theologian Dr. Guy Richard writes, “Although it is true that the word perish is used frequently in the Gospels to refer to physical death or destruction (approximately thirty-six out of the sixty-six occurrences), it means far more than that here in this passage. We know that to be the case because the word “perish” is placed in antithesis to “eternal life” in verse 16, “saved” in verse 17, and “not condemned” in verse 18. The destruction from which believers are spared in John 3:16 is, therefore, not physical death or even some kind of annihilation but the eternal destruction that results from being “condemned” because of sin and rebellion. All who reject Christ and persist in their unbelief will receive not eternal life but eternal destruction. The “wrath of God” will “remain” on them forever (v. 36).”
In fact, Jesus taught more about the existence of hell than He did of heaven. Dr. Richard continues, “In Matthew 25:31–46, for example, Jesus sets the “eternal life” that is reserved for “the righteous” over against the “eternal fire” (v. 41) and the “eternal punishment” (v. 46) that is reserved for everyone else (referred to as both “goats” who do not follow the shepherd and are “cursed”). Those who do not receive eternal life do not simply die or cease to exist. They experience an eternity of “destruction” or “punishment” that manifests itself in “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 18:8; Mark 9:43, 48; Luke 3:17) or in the “fiery furnace” in which “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42, 50). This is what it means to perish. It is an eternity of getting what our sins and our rejection of Jesus Christ deserve.”
John 3:16 exists as a preventative warning that there are only two types of people in the world: those who are perishing and remain under God’s wrath for eternity and those who believe in the Son, are spared from perishing and instead receive eternal life (John 3:36).
Dr. Richard concludes, “Each person’s response to Jesus determines which of the two categories he or she is in. Those who respond to Him in faith and obedience (which is the fruit and, thus, the proof of genuine faith) will not perish but will have eternal life. Those who do not respond in faith and obedience will not be shown mercy. The wrath of God will remain on them for eternity.”
Which category of people do you belong? Your answer is a matter of life or death.
Soli deo Gloria!