“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” ((John 3:16 KJV.))
We evangelicals love to quote John 3:16. We call it “the poster-child verse of the entire Bible.”1 We think of it as “the gospel in a nutshell,”2 “the Bible in a nutshell”,3 and “the most important verse in all of God’s Word.”4 We regard it as “the miniature gospel” and “a love letter from God.”5 We believe it sums up the gospel message like no other text of scripture.
But, when it comes to actually teaching what Jesus taught using John 3:16, our track record is quite poor. We are guilty of “constant and often acontextual citation”6 of this important verse. It is as if we actually believe that we can slip this verse in as a proof-text for any theology that we believe, or have been taught.
Many think John 3:16 teaches something about what happens when we die:
“Hell… is a place of agony reserved for those who refuse to accept God’s permanent offer of eternal life. In John 3:16, the idea “perish” is equated to eternal punishment. Those are the two choices: eternity in heaven or eternity in hell.”7
“When this life comes to an end, we will be ushered into eternity based on the choice we made while we were alive.”8
Some of those who teach these doctrines do recognize that they do not actually come from John 3:16.
“we believe that there is a heaven and a hell. All of us will spend eternity in one of those places. So why does this passage indicate that we might “perish” unless we believe in the only begotten Son?”9
So, what these teachers often do is quote John 3:16, and then go on and redefine the words of the text so that those words agree with their theology. When Max Lucado said the idea behind the word perish is equated to eternal punishment, he was doing just that. That exact word usually refers to something or someone who is destroyed.
- what happens to your right eye if you tear it out.10
- what happens to your right hand if you cut it off.11
- what God will not allow to happen to the hairs on believers’ heads.12
- what happens to leftover food if it is not collected and preserved.13
- what some Jewish leaders believed the Romans would do to them if they let Jesus live.14
In not one of those instances does the idea of the Greek word apolétai mean a process of being punished eternally. Yet, constantly people read John 3:16 as if it describes this process.
What if we stopped abusing this famous verse in that way, and started teaching what the verse actually says? Here is the verse as I would translate it:
“…because God loved the world this way: he gave it his unique Son, so that each believer in the Son would not destroy himself, but have permanent life.”
Jesus had been teaching the teacher Nicodemus – an expert in the Old Testament – and he used a story in the Old Testament. It was the story of how God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent upon a stake for the Israelites to look at if they were bitten by a snake. Those who did not look upon the serpent in obedience to Moses’ command would perish. They would suffer the pain of the snake bite, and then die. So, the choice to not obey, and not look upon the serpent was a choice to destroy oneself. But God loved the Israelites, and wanted to save them from this painful death. He made a way for those inflicted with this curse to reverse its result. The bronze serpent was that way. But the people still had to put their faith in that salvation. They had to believe in the rescue.
The history lesson now over, Jesus proceeded to tell Nicodemus that God loves the whole world just as much as he loved those Israelites. He wanted to save the whole world from destroying themselves in hell. So, he gave a rescuing remedy. This time it would not be a bronze serpent, but his unique Son – Jesus Christ. What Jesus did not tell Nicodemus (because it had not happened yet) was that Jesus himself would be placed upon a wooden stake and crucified as that sacrifice to rescue the world God loved.
And, just like the bronze serpent, Jesus on the cross was a rescue that required faith. Those who are destroying themselves with their own sin must look to that salvation and believe. Those who do will gain permanent life. Those who do not will suffer the destruction that those sins deserve.
So, John 3:16 is not about heaven, but is about what God did when he sent his unique Son to earth. It is not about what happens when people die. It is about a loving God who wants his condemned children to live. What if we stopped teaching human traditions and taught John 3:16 instead?
- Eduardo Palazuelos Romo, John 3:16. (Bloomington, IN: Booktango, 2012), n.p.
- Alicia Goodwin Jacobs, Good Morning, Lord. (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2011), 59.
- Cathy Liening, B.I.B.L.E.: Be Involved Bible Learners Everyone: A Children’s Bible Study. (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Company, 2008), 15.
- James MacDonald, 10 Choices: A Proven Plan to Change Your Life Forever. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 17.
- Alfred Flatten, In It for Life: A Spiritual Roadmap on the Quest for Discipleship. (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2009), 23.
- James White in Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views. (Dave Hunt and James White), (Colorado Springs: Random House, 2004), 376.
- Max Lucado, 3:16: A Study for Small Groups. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 73.
- Max Lucado, 3:16: A Study for Small Groups. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 74.
- Bill Thurber, A Moment of Truth John 3:16. (Xulon Press, 2007), xvii.
- Matthew 5:29.
- Matthew 5:30.
- Luke 21:18.
- John 6:12.
- John 11:50.