"God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." John 3:16 is probably one of the most concise summaries of the major themes in the Bible, connecting them together to produce the big picture. In order to appreciate the big picture we need to look at some details. The main point of the verse is to emphasize the sacrificial love of God for the world. This love is so powerful, that He offered up His one and only Son, the most precious and beloved Person to Him, for the sake of the world. We cannot fully comprehend what God sees in the world that makes it so precious to Him, especially when we consider that the world does not feel the same way about God. Taking a closer look, note that there are three main characters in this verse, God (The Father and The Son), the World, and those who have everlasting life, people that other verses in the Bible call the Church. These three characters are somehow related to each other, so we need to understand both the characters and the relationships between them.
We must first identify the three characters of John 3:16. God, refers to the God of Abraham of the Old Testament. The New Testament further reveals that God exists in three Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. In this verse, God the Father and God the Son are the source of the sacrificial love for the world. Technically, there are four characters in this verse, but for this article, I will consider that the Father and the Son are One. The World, is the complex system of cultures throughout history, made up of individual men and women, living in communities on Earth. The Church is a subset of the world communities, made up of individuals that are connected by a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. If we try to illustrate John 3:16, it would be hard to figure out where to place the circles. Are they concentric? Are they overlapping? I've tried to come up with a layout that is both accurate and useful but have not succeeded so far. A more elaborate multi-dimensional model is needed.
How are they related?
To understand John 3:16, we need to understand some background information. From Genesis to Revelation, the 66 books of the Bible tell a cohesive story that involves God, the World, and the Church. God created the World, which rebelled against Him and rejected Him, so God entered into the world to call out a subset who choose Him. Those who choose to belong to Him, have eternal life, whereas those who continue to reject Him will surely perish.
The Bad News
The relationship between God and the World is broken. The world hates God, it wants to deny His existence yet is quick to blame Him for every evil or tragedy that it brings on itself. The salient features of the relationship are:
- Separation- There is a divide between God and His creation caused by rebellion against Him. God's creation, which was initiated and made by Him and for Him, has been "hijacked" by Satan and has been corrupted so that it is no longer able to connect with God on its own. This is the definition of death: separation from God, and since He alone is the source of life, this separation from life is death to the world. This separation between God and the World was caused by sin, when it entered into the world through Adam's disobedience to God.
- Anger- The World is angry at God; it is predisposed to blame Him and will take every opportunity to mock Him. It questions His wisdom and even his motivations in accepting worship. Some may wonder what kind of god would send people to hell, but the truth is that those who perish refuse to come to the source of eternal life and thus condemn themselves to an eternity of separation from God.
- Rebellion- The World is in a state of rebellion against God, rejecting Him and His authority as the sovereign ruler over all Creation. The World does not acknowledge Him as the giver of life, wrongly insisting, "this is my life and I will live it the way I want."
The Good News
He gave His One and only Son. God took on flesh and entered into the World. He never ceased to be God, but somehow He prepared a human body for Himself and came to live among us. This is Jesus Christ, the God-Man. Fully God and fully man, the one and only who is holy. He is unblemished by sin, neither by actions nor by inheritance. This God-Man willingly allowed the World to crucify Him, without having ever committed a crime. In contrast to the World, Jesus said, "I lay down my life to do the Father's will." His death on the cross, God counted as payment for sins on behalf of every human being.
That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. God is making an offer to anyone and everyone, to have their sins paid for and the separation from God removed, based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Instead of separation and death, they will have everlasting life. This means eternal union with God. Believing in Him is a matter of trust, a state of the heart.
Love Demands a Choice
God has made his desire for the world known in the Great Commandment, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and spirit. The love He desires from us has to be a choice, otherwise it is not love. Everyone in the world must choose to either believe in Jesus Christ, or reject Him. This choice can lead to a new relationship with God. The church, which is referred to as the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ in the New Testament, is defined as those who have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and its salient features are:
- Redemption- the community of those who believe in Jesus Christ are forever united to Him and therefore have eternal life. This union with God results in salvation of the believer in that they are justified before God and no loner live in fear of condemnation. Their salvation also means that they are being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, being separated from sin and darkness and growing in holiness. Finally, they have the promise to be glorified with Him at the second coming of Jesus Christ.
- Peace- Those who believe in Jesus Christ are indwelt by God Himself. He takes up residence in the believer and communicates through the Bible, guiding them into truth. The presence of God in the life of the believer gives peace and understanding.
- Obedience- Once a person has the Spirit of God in them, it becomes possible for them to actually obey God. Many think they must obey God to be saved and to have his presence in them, but it is actually the other way around.
Regarding the relationship between the World and the Church, the Bible says that the Church is in the World but not of it. This means they are the same in location but different in nature. Location may be a physical coordinate and it may be a role or position in a network of relationships, a community. A believer who is a medical doctor has the position of being a son or daughter in the household of God and a role of physician in his or her community in the World. Being a member of the household of God, means that one is in relationship with God and so abandons the ways of the World, but not his or her role in it! Believers have a role in the world, which is their platform or stage on which they model Jesus Christ, acting as channels of His love to the world.
If you have this belief in Jesus Christ in your heart and wish to mark a time that you actually receive Him, pray to Him and tell Him in your own words. When I prayed I said something to the effect, "Jesus, I know you are God, that you are my Creator, and you know how weak and sinful I am, I need you to save me from myself. I believe you and trust you."
Another reason John 3:16 is such an important verse, is that it emphasizes to us that our faith without any one of these "characters" is off-balance.
Consider Christianity based on God and the World alone, without the Church. We'd end up with an ambiguous, watered-down Gospel that pays lip service to religion but has no power in it. Eternal life given to those who believe, by God giving His one and only Son, is what gives meaning to the love of God, and hope to the world. The Church is the evidence and proof of God's love for the world.
On the other hand, consider Christianity based on God and the Church alone, without the World. In this case, you end up with a self-absorbed and inward focused group of people who are oblivious to the world around them. A holier-than-thou attitude isolates such a church from the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is His message of salvation to the world. In addition, without the world, the Church has no purpose on Earth. Someone may say, God takes care of telling the world, we just need to focus on obedience and our own sanctification. But this misses the point too, because sanctification cannot be accomplished in us apart from the Gospel going out to others through us. It is all driven by love, the love of God, and if it is not flowing through you to the world, you will end up not sharing the Gospel and not obeying His commands either. In other words, if you are still on Earth, you cannot be the church without being in the world and sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, consider Christianity based on the Church and the World alone, without God. If you live in Europe or North America, you are probably quite familiar with this model, which focuses on love and kindness as defined by human standards. God becomes a concept that is invoked as a matter of convenience, or the occasional need to reinforce one's opinion. Such a Christianity is easier to peddle in the World, but it is totally consumed by it, because it carries no power of its own.
A balanced Christian faith includes all three, God, the World, and the Church. Such a faith enables the believer to see a situation through these three perspectives and put them together to better understand the counsel of God in the Bible. This is helpful in understanding the Bible as well, since many truths are presented in tension. For instance, from God's perspective I am predestined and from my perspective I have a choice. Both are true.
If you find these insights helpful to your understanding of the Bible, connect with us by clicking on SUBSCRIBE in the menu at the top of this page, so you continue to receive updates of new articles posted to this site. Also, please consider supporting our school by clicking on the ADOPT A CLASS or GIVE pages in the menu at the top.