John 3:16 is probably the most recognized verse in the Bible. Believers and non-believers alike are familiar with its words. However, its very familiarity makes it seem like an old cliché in the minds of some. The verse is so often heard that, for many, it has lost its meaning altogether. Although we know the words, do we know the message behind those words?
As with any verse of the Bible, context is extremely important for interpreting the meaning of the verse. This is true in the case of John 3:16 also. Let us look at this verse in its context and shed some new, and fuller, light onto it.
16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
This is God’s message to mankind in a single verse. It tells us that the reason God sent His Son to die on a cross for our sin is that He loves us. God’s love for us reaches through time and space to draw us to Him. Everything has been done on God’s part. Our part is to ‘believe’. This is what we must to do be saved, to be forgiven of our sin, and to be made right with a holy God.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
This verse reveals to us God’s heart. It is a heart of love that wants everyone to be saved (2 Peter 3:9). God made the way for us to be reunited with Him, but it is still our choice. Many people have the idea that God is an angry God who watches over us looking for flaws and failures for which He can punish us. This verse shows us that God looks upon us with love, not anger.
18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
There will come a time when God will judge humanity. He will separate those who have believed in Jesus from those who have not. Believers have already begun a saving relationship with God that will continue into eternity. Those who persist in unbelief are in a state of condemnation, meaning that, were they to die today, they would enter an eternity separated from God.
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
In the first chapter of John we see that the ‘light’ is Jesus Himself (John 1:6-13) and that He makes Himself known to every person. People put themselves under the judgment of God when they reject the light, when they choose to rebel against God and serve themselves.
This explains why the atheist works so hard at attempting to disprove the biblical record. It is why the non-believer tries so hard to find faults in Christians and to make those faults public. The godless want to justify their godlessness. They wish to continue in their selfish pursuits without anyone, including God, interfering with them.
21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God." (John 3:16-21 ESV)
So, what does it mean to ‘believe’? It means to trust that Jesus is who he says he is and that he has done what he says he has done. He is God incarnate and he came to earth to die on a cross to pay for our sin. Because of what he did, our relationship with God can be restored.
The Bible tells us that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23, 5:12). God must judge sin. We are sinners and God can accept nothing but perfection. Therefore, when we trust Christ, repent of our sin, and give our lives to him, his perfection covers our sin.
John 3:16 is God’s love reaching out to a people who have rejected Him. Rather than giving up on these people and abandoning them to their evil, God chose to send His only Son to earth, as a man, to die a horrible death on a cross, so that you and I might be reconciled to God.
All we have to do is to turn from our selfish ways and turn to God. We will be taken out of a state of condemnation and placed in the almighty loving arms of the Creator of the universe. The next time you see John 3:16, think of it as an offer of love from God.