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!

3 Reasons Western Christians Are So Ignorant of the Bible

Biblical Ignorance Amongst a Bible Flood

We are at a time in history when the Bible has never been more accessible. Typing in ‘online bible‘ in a Google search yields tens of thousands of results. Bible software is readily available, whether free or paid. Online Bible studies dominate the Internet and social media. And people pour into the pews of their churches on any given Sunday to hear a sermon. So why is there so much Biblical ignorance in Western Christianity?

You don’t believe me? A 2002 Barna research says otherwise. Though many of the core beliefs about the Trinity and the afterlife were intact, many were still quite heterodox. The research concluded that those who identify as Christian have many unbiblical beliefs. To name a few, Barna concluded:

  • 59% reject the existence of a real and personal Satan. They believe he is only a “symbol” of evil
  • 51% believe that praying to saints affects a person’s life positively
  • 35% believe they are able to communicate with the dead
  • A whopping 42% believe Jesus was a sinner
  • 50% hold that salvation is earned by good works

If some of these seem disturbing you’re not alone. How did Western Christianity get here? Below, I offer 3 reasons why I believe we are among a Biblical drought even though we have more accessibility to God’s word than ever before.

the bible is boring

If you ask any nominal Christian about their thoughts on the Bible you are more likely to hear that it is outdated and archaic. They believe many of the passages need to change or be reinterpreted in light of the cultural shift, especially those that address man’s sexuality. They are not willing to realign their own beliefs with that of Holy Writ, so therefore they forsake it altogether. The old boring book is not worth their time. Bored Christians are people that look elsewhere for the answers. They are seeking the excitement and adrenaline the Bible fails to give them. As a result they look for the latest, greatest method, that best selling self-help book on ‘fill in the blank’, or more relevant ways they can contribute to community and feel good about their self-worth. This spills over into their church lives as their new churches are more about cool music and pep talks rather than sound, Biblical preaching that properly divides the Law and the Gospel.

the bible seems irrelevant

When the Bible no longer seems to change with the culture people deem it as unnecessary and stray from its precepts. Psalm 119:4 says, You have commanded us to keep Your precepts diligently. Though culture would deem this unreliable, Christians know that that the Law of the Lord is a lamp to our feet (Psalm 119:06), a guide to point us to Christ and His Gospel (Galatians 3:24), and to show us our shortcomings before God (Exodus 20:1-17). The irrelevance only comes as more youth create their own paradigm shifts to fit their current situations. This seems to be founded upon another 2015 Barna poll which stated that only 35% of Millennials claim faith as an external factor in their lifestyles. Another poll conducted in January of 2018 found that the atheists among the newest generation has nearly doubled.

Why this sudden falling away? When asked, most youth stated the problem of God and evil. In other words, if God truly existed all of the suffering wouldn’t. This is simply another way of saying, “The Bible isn’t relevant to my culture.” Millennials and Gen Zers are fast becoming a majority part of the population. Considering the current trend it would not be surprising if the next generation wholly abandons God’s Word altogether.

the bible is no longer sufficient

Since the Bible is boring and irrelevant, certainly it cannot be sufficient as the standard for faith and life. Though research shows that many young people still hold a high view of Scripture, their beliefs and practices seem to state otherwise. For example, a study cited earlier in this post revealed that 50% of self-identifying Christians believe they can obtain God’s favor through their good deeds. And it isn’t just the younger generation. This is the trend of people of all age groups. People flock after an experience rather than take the time to find the answers in Scripture. They depend upon fresh revelations instead of the way in which God has chosen to reveal Himself and His will through the written word. They flock to those teachers that can promise them their next big breakthrough or the fulfillment of life-long dreams. The number of “ministries” geared towards this disgusting puke attests to this. Teachers such as Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Creflo Doallar, Ken and Gloria Copeland, Christine Cain, and myriads of others prey on those seeking some kind of physical or monetary relief. Ultimately those who follow these teachers must share in the blame as they have abandoned sound doctrine for doctrine of demons. Their hope appears to rest in what God can do for then rather than in God Himself. All of this can be directly linked to the abandonment of Scripture as the sufficient means in which God communicates to His people.

Hope Amongst Drought

There is hope, despite the odds of these statistics. Another research performed by Barna revealed that an increasingly number of adults are becoming dissatisfied with “doing church.”

Adults among the varying groups who are dissatisfied with the current church culture.

This could go either way. It could drive people away from church completely or it could drive then to seek out a more satisfying experience in worship. Whatever the case, it shows that people are thirsty! They crave more than the monotonous weekly ritual. Even their usual cool, hip relevant churches aren’t doing it for them anymore. This is encouraging as those who remain faithful to Scripture as the innerrant, infallible word of God can be a beacon to point them back to the sufficiency of Scripture. When we allow our beliefs to come in line with God’s word we rest much easier, knowing that all the minor details will be worked out in the end. This is not to say that we must possess an ignorant faith or never seek the answers we desire. It is simply means that we take God at His word and believe that what He has revealed to us is sufficient for our entire lives.

How To Properly Claim Scriptural Promises

In times of grief, temptation, trial, or any other life-altering event God’s Word can be a firm foundation and a comfort for Christians. The myriad of Biblical characters who have banked on God’s promises to them are plentiful and examples of how we too can call upon God in our time of need. Unfortunately, many Christians claim these promises without realizing that the promises they are clinging to is not actually a promise that is relevant for the situation. In other words, just as Scripture can be taken out of context and misused, so too, can certain promises remain null when taken out of its proper setting.

Philippians 4:13 is a prime example of faulty claim-promising: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Most Christians use this as their default promise when they find themselves in tight situation. But this verse was not written in a vacuum. It has a context and should not be claimed outside of its context. Claiming promises on faulty premises in reckless in the least and dangerous at the most. While God holds His word on the same level of His Name He does not honor promises that were not meant to be promises. Many people have no doubt shipwrecked their own faith claiming promises that they should not have tried to claim, usually as a result of a careless reading of the text, but most times because of blatant false teaching. In this post I hope to share some steps in correctly claiming a promise of God that is relevant to the current situation and that does not violate the hermeneutical process. We will use Philippians 4:13 as our example verse.

Step 1. Context

All Scriptural promises have a context and just as we interpret a passage according to its context, so too, must we apply a promise to its context. Our example verse has a context. When we read that we can do all things through Christ we must first understand that ‘all’ has its own context. There are four aspects of context that need to be examined: immediate context, the verses surrounding the passage, the book context, and the theme of the book. Examining the entire context of Philippians 4:13 we learn a few things.

  1. The immediate context of all things consist mainly of the state of contentment that Paul is in. He explains that he has been in every possible situation–hunger, fullness, poverty, abounding. His declaration of being able to thrive through them is his usage of ‘all things.’
  2. Paul’s plight and his learning to be content has come as a result of being a witness of the gospel. Verses 14 and following make this abundantly clear (remember, the context includes all the verses surrounding the passage). All of Paul’s situations were during his ministry and this is precisely how he applies the ‘all things.’
  3. Zooming out a little further we notice that the book of Philippians belongs to a group of epistles (church letters) categorized as the Prison Epistles. This means that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, probably much like the one pictured below or under house arrest. This is important as it can affect interpretation. When we apply the principle in the text we must take this into consideration.
  4. Finally, we must consider the reason for the epistle. By using his own circumstances and hardships Paul’s reason for writing seems to be a demonstration of a life lived worthy of the Gospel Calling, The theme of a book should always be kept at the front of the mind when reading. It can help shed light on a lot of cultural nuances.

Step 2. Piecing It Together

Now that we have the immediate context, the surrounding context, and the book context, we can begin to narrow things down,

For this phase it is best to start at the outer context of the spiral and work inward. This is a prison epistle and we must ask if there are situations in which a Christian not in prison for their faith can apply this verse. Since Paul is addressing ordinary Christians in the church, and not to pastors or other leaders he must of had in mind for his audience to put it into practice the things he was speaking to them about. The only influential people he mentions is Euodia and Syntyche, apparently two prominent women within the church that were having a dispute. He exhorts them to reconcile for the sake of the gospel.

We look then at next level on the spiral. It is ministry situational. That is, Paul’s context of ‘all things’ is placed within the context of his own ministry. Can this apply to those not in ministry? Again, considering the overall context and the theme of the book we must wait until the last step before we deem its applicability. But we also note that Paul’s comments are to the church at Philippi. Not everyone was a minister of the church. Most were common workers or slaves. All of this will come into play on the final step of application. But again, the running theme is living a life worthy of the gospel and forsaking worldly recognition as Paul states in 2:10, 3:12-14, 20-21.

We are now at the last part of the spiral. Contentment in all things is the immediate context and this is applied to an individual Christian in particular circumstances. We will look at different ways of application in our last step.

Step 3. Applying the Scripture

Applying the passage personally begins with yet another reading of the context. The natural flow of thought seems to begin at verse 8. I will start at verse 10 because the conjunction ‘but’ (Greek, δέ) provides a transition between the two thoughts.

Philippians 4:10–19 (NKJV)

As we apply Scripture we want to begin to take note of key themes and words which help us to remember the context of the passage. I’ve marked some of them in my own style. The two biggest things we see are the Philippians’ care for Paul during his ministry, and more importantly we see the context and content of ‘all things.’ As Paul recalls ministry hardships he praises the Philippians for sending him aid time and time again. He concludes this section by declaring that God will also supply the Philippians’ needs just as they cared for his. This last verse is also a verse that is taken out of context many times. Despite popular belief, it is not a claim-all promise for God to pay your rent or your credit card bill. This promise is grounded in the context of the gospel ministry and therefore must be applied as such.

Since we are dealing with two separate promises we will have to apply both of them. Starting with the first we remember,

  • ‘All things’ has its own context
  • the context is contentment in all situations
  • the situations include having much, having little, being healthy, being sick
  • Paul’s determination to continue comes from Christ’s own strength, not his

I see two different applications for this verse One for those in a pastoral ministry related occupation and one for those who are in their everyday trades and jobs.

Application 1 (v.13)

As a pastor/teacher you face many challenges day-to-day. More than likely, you are bi-vocational, as many pastors are today. You have the concern to provide for you own family but at the same time you know God has called you to under shepherd a local congregation. The added burden of taking on other people’s problems is taking its toll. You struggle financially because it’s a small congregation. Bills are late, debtors are calling, and inter-congregational fighting has you pulling your hair out. But God has not left you desolate. There are people in the congregation always encouraging you to move forward. Even though you believe you’re at the end of your strength you claim Philippians 4:13, as it is Christ’s strength, not your own, that will allow you to navigate any circumstance in ministry that may face you.

Application 2 (v. 13)

Our daily work should always be considered as ministry because of the command for us to live a life worthy of the gospel. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves and this includes doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, not to please man but to please God. You know most of your coworkers are lost. You begin sharing the gospel with one of them when your supervisor pulls you aside. He warns you that there’s no room at this job for “playing.’ You respectfully address him, explaining that your work quota is met and that you were on your break when you talked to your coworker. He shakes his head and gives you a final warning. The next day at break he overhears you talking again. He decides to give you a “crap” job in order to keep you away from your coworkers. The job is hard and laborious. Over time it begins to take a toll on your body and health. You really want to quit and get out from under the supervisor’s thumb. You’re praying at work one day and Philippians 4:13 comes to mind. You become convinced that this is where the Lord has placed you, and by His strength you will continue to share the gospel with anyone who will listen.

Application (v. 19)

The application here is ministry specific. Most of us have claimed this promise as a means for God to help us in a financial situation. Though it can be applied that way, the promise is rooted in the ministry of giving. Paul recounts in verse 15 at the beginning of his ministry the Philippians were the only church to supply him with his needs. In fact, it wasn’t just his initial need but they sent him gifts over and over. In verse 18 he prays that God will cause them to abound in fruit as their giving is a sweet aroma to God. The language is reminiscent of the Old Testament sacrifices, which when offered in the prescribed way, God saw as pleasing in His sight and in His nostrils as something sweet and precious. It would be proper for us to apply as we are loving our neighbors, pastors, and other Christians by selflessly giving as they have need. In turn, God has promised to supply your need according to His own riches,

Conclusion

Applying Scripture correctly is just as important as interpreting correctly. When we approach the application step in a cavalier manner without considering how it would have applied to the original audience we may find disappointment when that promise is not fulfilled. Always take the time to consider the full context before applying Scripture. If you are practicing regular hermeneutics with the Observation, Interpretation, Application process this step will be a little less tedious, as you will already have the necessary background and context information.

May God bless you richly as you study His word.