John 3:16 – The Gospel in a Single Verse

For God so loved the world…

It is a simple yet profound statement. Somehow my mind tends to skip over this verse when reading through the gospel of John. I always thought of it as too simple. I always said to myself, “Yeah, yeah, I know that!” This time, for no particular reason, I stopped to meditate on it. And I was astounded by the truth of Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus.

God’s love for sinners was so great, so astounding, so broad in its spectrum that He gave! Think about that for a moment. YOU had nothing to give to God except your sin, your rebellion, and your faithless wavering. God initiated the action because of His love for sinners. It was not because we were great or loveable. We had absolutely zilch to offer in return. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2: 4-5). As I truly pondered the scope of this verse a few things stood out to me.

The Gospel in a Single Sentence

In Greek the very first word that stands at the head of this verse is the word houtōs, which is translated as ‘so’ or ‘in this manner.’ What follows is an explanation of how God loved a sinful wicked world. In short, the plain simple gospel is given within a single verse. Just as Lenski points out,

The “must,” the compulsion, lies in the wonder of God’s love and purpose. By telling Nicodemus this in such lucid, simple language Jesus sums up the entire gospel in one lovely sentence, so rich in content that, if a man had only these words and nothing of the rest of the Bible, he could by truly apprehending them be saved. 

Lenski, R. C. H. (1961). The interpretation of St. John’s gospel, p.259. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.

God’s Agape Love Stands As the Theme

It has been stated that agapē love is the highest form of love presented to us in the Scripture. John presents this love to us through Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus. And this love is so important to John that he emphasizes it by causing it to stand at the head of the clause. Greek is a very flexible language and word order is not so important. Biblical authors used this to their advantage. Often, when they wanted to make a certain action or person emphatic they would do so by allowing to stand at the head of a clause.

Diagramming is a great way of seeing such construction. I’m kind of a geek and love to diagram so when I begin to meditate on this verse I did just that. Below is my diagram of the verse. The English is presented along with the Greek for easier reading. All nouns are in blue, verbs are in red, and direct objects are in green.

Diagram showing the main clause of God’s love for John 3:16

Notice how God’s love, not our believing, stands as the headpiece of this entire passage. Often, we are tempted to read the Bible and make it about ourselves. But this passage is very clear that the focus should be on the Father’s love for sinners not those whom He saved by sending His Son. St. John Chrysostom comments on God’s love for sinners.

Now he spoke at greater length, as speaking to believers, but here Christ speaks concisely, because His discourse was directed to Nicodemus, but still in a more significant manner, for each word had much significance. For by the expression, “so loved,” and that other, “God the world,” He shows the great strength of His love. Large and infinite was the interval between the two. He, the immortal, who is without beginning, the Infinite Majesty, they but dust and ashes, full of ten thousand sins, who, ungrateful, have at all times offended Him; and these He “loved.” Again, the words which He added after these are alike significant, when He saith, that “He gave His Only-begotten Son,” not a servant, not an Angel, not an Archangel. And yet no one would show such anxiety for his own child, as God did for His ungrateful servants

Schaff, P. (Ed.). (1889). Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews (Vol. 14 pp 95-96). New York: Christian Literature Company.

God’s Great Agapē Love for Sinners Caused Him to Initiate an Action of Giving

It was God that sought us. We did not seek Him. We did not care to seek Him. We ran away and were happy to be left to our own vices and destruction. The apostle Paul tells us clearly that we were at enmity with God (Romans 5:10). In this same discourse Jesus tells Nicodemus that men naturally run away from the Light because we are evil (John 3:20). But because of His great love towards sinners the hõste (result) was that He did not leave us in that state. He initiated the action of seeking us through the giving of His Son. And what of our weak faith? Christ will cast out no one who comes to him with but the tiniest of faith. The Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions states,

As Christ says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” [Matt. 11:28*], and, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” [Matt. 9:12*]. “God’s power is made mighty in the weak” [2 Cor. 12:9*],206 and Romans 14[:1*, 3*], “Welcome those who are weak in faith …   p 606  for God has welcomed them.” For “whoever believes in the Son of God,” whether weak or strong in faith, “has eternal life” [John 3:16*]. Moreover, this worthiness consists not in a greater or lesser weakness or strength of faith, but rather in the merit of Christ, which the troubled father with his weak faith (Mark 9[:24*]) possessed, just as did Abraham, Paul, and others who have a resolute, strong faith.

Solid Declartion VII, 70-71, Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J., & Arand, C. P. (2000). The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press

The Result of God’s Agapē Love Is the Reason We Believe

There is nothing special that God sees in us. I know that goes against the popular modern Evangelical teaching. Scripture has nothing positive to say about man in his natural lost state. We are told that we are slaves to sin (John 8:34), dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), blinded by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4), and a host of other things that make us altogether unlovely. The only reason we believe is because of God’s gracious love for us poor, weak, miserable sinners. It is He and He alone that calls us and draws us to the grace and forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ perfect atoning work.

And though we experience God’s great love for us we still fall short. We still sin and grieve the Holy Spirit. We still struggle with our flesh every day. Fear not! Look to the cross and know, weak one, that Christ died for sinners; Christ died for me…

And Christ died for you!

Author: Steven Long

Just a guy that cares about how Scripture is being used and taught in today's mainstream Evangelical Church

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