“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” — John 3:16 (NIV)
John 3:16 is probably the most memorized verse in the Bible, and not without good reason. Many cornerstone issues of life are packed into this single verse. First and most obvious is that God’s love for the world — which doesn’t mean the earth, but human beings living on the earth — is huge. God is not indifferent toward each of us, God is passionate for us. If He has any anger toward us for the way we have been living and ignoring or rejecting Him, it is dwarfed by the love He has for us.
What is the measure of His love for us? He sent Jesus, His one and only Son, into the world as a human, knowing that His beloved Son would have to die so that we might live. We are not told — probably because it would be difficult for us as mortals (and not God) to understand — what it was like to do these things, only that we are given the impression from the “so” in the sentence that this was a big deal.
We are startled by what Jesus says next. The reason God had to make such a sacrifice is that people are perishing, and that is not what God wants for us. He wants us to have eternal life. But what is this “eternal life” that God wants us to have? People often think of this as being in heaven with God after we physically die. This is part of eternal life, but I think a fuller definition would be that eternal life is having an intimate relationship with and knowledge of God (see John 17:2-3). Eternal life starts before you physically die, as long as you meet the requirements of obtaining eternal life. So back to the point about “perishing”: Jesus is not saying that He came into the world to keep our bodies alive, but to bring us to a relationship and to reconciliation with God. The implication is that until Jesus’ work takes place in our lives, we are not reconciled to God, which means that there is something between Him and us — and it’s not God’s fault that it’s there. If eternal life is a place of intimacy with God, then at a very minimum, “perishing” must be a place away from God.
The only way to be reconciled is to “believe”. What is the nature of this belief? I think that what Jesus is saying is that we must believe that He is indeed the Son of God, and believe that the only way of reconciliation with God is not to behave better, but to have faith that His death was sufficient to close the gap between us and the Father. Then, if we do believe, we are to follow Jesus all the days of our lives.
Note that the invitation is to “whoever”. That means that you can put your faith in Jesus and follow Him no matter who you are or what you have done. It’s “whoever believes”.
In the comments on the next verses we will look more closely at Jesus’ additional statements which reinforce and amplify what He said in this verse.
Originally posted on March 15, 2010