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.
JOHN 3:16 ESV
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
JOHN 3:16 SBLGNT
Why a new paragraph should begin at this verse is hard to see since the connection with ‘for,’ ‘γάρ’ is both here and in the following verse 17 is close. The fact that the dialogue stops, also all forms of personal address such as “thou” to Nicodemus, is naturally due to the simple moral instruction nature of what Jesus says and begins already at v. 13, where, if for such a reason, a paragraph is to be made, it might be made. The idea that a new paragraph starts with v. 16 because Jesus’ words stop here and John’s own reflections are now added is contradicted by the two words, ‘for’ ‘γάρ,’ by the close connection of the thought, which runs through to v. 21, and by the absence of even a remote analogy for a conversation or a discourse that goes over, without a word to indicate this, into the writer’s own reflection.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of man must be lifted up for the purpose indicated. This δεῖ is elucidated in v. 16, hence γάρ which so often offers no proof but only further explanation. For thus did God love the world, that he gave his Son the Only-begotten, in order that everyone believing in him should not perish but have life eternal. 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. They flow like milk and honey says Luther, “words which are able to make the sad happy, the dead alive, if only the heart believes them firmly.” What a revelation for this old Pharisee Nicodemus who all his lifelong had relied on his own works! And this testimony concerning what was in the heart of God comes from him who came down from heaven, came down so that he still is in heaven, from the Son of man and Son of God himself, the only ἐπουράνιος, who alone can declare the ἐπουράνια at firsthand, 1:18 and 3:12, who thus in the very highest degree deserves faith.
The word οὕτως, “thus,” denotes manner and degree, “in this way” and “to such an astounding degree” did God love the world. No human mind would have thought it, could have conceived it—God had to reveal it, the Son had to attest it. The verb ἠγάπησεν is placed ahead of the subject and is thus made emphatic, not: God loved the world; but: God loved the world. The verb ἀγαπάω denotes the highest type and form of loving, as distinct from φιλέω, the love of mere affection, friendship, and ordinary human relation; compare the distinction made between the verbs in 21:15, etc. In ἀγάπη lies full understanding and true comprehension, coupled with a corresponding blessed purpose. How could God like the sinful, foul, stinking world? How could he embrace and kiss it? He would have to turn from it in revulsion. But he could and he did love it, comprehending all its sin and foulness, purposing to cleanse it and, thus cleansed, to take it to his bosom. We see this force of ἀγαπάω whenever it is used, for instance in the command to love our enemies. We cannot embrace and kiss an enemy, for he would smite, revile, thrust us away, as the Sanhedrin did with Jesus at last; but we can see the baseness and wickedness of his action and by the grace of God we can do all that is possible to overcome this enmity. We may fail in this purpose, as Jesus did in the case of the Sanhedrin, but to have it and to adhere to it constitutes “love” in the sense of ἀγάπη.
The attempt is made to deny this distinction between ἀγάπη and φιλία on the ground that Jesus spoke Aramaic which has only one word for all types of love. The answer is that we have only a limited knowledge of Aramaic, and even if we knew all its forms of speech and found there only the one word, there would certainly be other ways of bringing out a difference in the character of love. But in the inspired Greek which God gave us this distinction is so marked that in scores of cases the two words ἀγαπᾶν and φιλεῖν could not be exchanged; especially would it be impossible here to substitute the lower form of love and say, “Thus did God like the world.” Jesus uses the aorist tense because the manifestation of his love toward the world was an accomplished fact. We may call this aorist constative; it reaches back into eternity and culminates in Bethlehem. “God,” here the Father, as the mention of the Son shows, like proper nouns in the Greek may or may not have the article—here it has the article but not in v. 21. There is no real difference but only a slight grammatical variation in certain connections. In this discourse of Jesus with Nicodemus the entire Trinity is mentioned as a subject that is well known (the Spirit from v. 5 onward, Father and Son now). On what this means for the Old Testament and for the Jews at this time see 1:32.
The universality already expressed in the title “the Son of man” (1:51; 3:14) and in “everyone who believes” (v. 15), is brought out with the most vivid clearness in the statement that God loved “the world,” τὸν κόσμον, the world of men, all men, not one excepted. To insert a limitation, either here or in similar passages, is to misinterpret. We know of nothing more terrible than to shut out poor dying sinners from God’s love and redemption. But this is done by inserting a limiting word where Jesus and the Scriptures have no such word. Thus “world” is made to mean only omnes ex toto mundo electos; and “all men” in 1 Tim. 2:4, omnis generis homines; and again, Nullum mundi vel populum, vel ordinem a salute excludi, quia omnibus sine exceptione (i.e., to all nations and orders and in this sense only “to all without exception”) Evangelium proponi Deus velit. Thus “the world,” “all men,” is reduced to signify only that no nation, no class, as a nation or as a class, is excluded; God offers his love and the Savior only to all kinds of men—not actually to all men as such. The reason for this misinterpretation of the universal promises of God is that the divine voluntas beneplaciti ( the will of pleasure) is placed above the divine voluntas signi or revelata (revealed), and the latter is interpreted by the former. In other words, the real will of God is said to appear in his acts, in what we see him do, not in what he plainly says in his Word. So we see him damning some men. Hence we are told to conclude that he never loved these men, never gave his Son for them, never intended to save them. Hence we are told to limit all such expressions as “the world” and “all men” in the written will (voluntas signi sive revelata). But this view disregards the fact that we are able to see God’s will only partly, dimly, imperfectly in his acts; we often only think we see it, for as we look at his acts, they are often full of mystery. But the will as revealed in the Word is always clear. Hence we dare never to interpret what God clearly says in his own Word by our conception of what he does. We must do the exactly opposite: interpret what we see him do or think we see in the light of the Word; and when the two do not seem to us to square, we must abide by the Word, never change it in one iota, and leave what is dark in the acts of God to the light of the future world. Always, always and only, Scriptura ex Scriptura explicanda est and not by anything extra Scripturam.
Even after carefully defining “love” no human intelligence can fathom how God could thus love the world. The revelation of this love distinguishes the Christian religion so radically from all others, that no bridge can possibly connect the two. The former is divine, the latter only human. Moreover, this love of God is the pinnacle of his glory, the crown of all his attributes. It makes God supremely attractive to every sinner needing this love, a most efficacious call to trust this love and thus to have all it gives.
“So … that” indicates correspondence: the love and the gift tally. Moreover, ὥστε with the indicative expresses the attained, actual result (R. 1000); with the infinitive. 762, 770. This repetition lays equal weight on both terms; it bids us consider , it would be only the intended result, one toward which this love would tend. The gift was made; the aorist marks the past fact. God’s own Son sat before Nicodemus at that very moment. Jesus does not again use “the Son of man” as in v. 13, 14. It describes what he came out of heaven and became here on earth. Here the divine act of love takes us into heaven and shows us the gift of that love as it was when the act of giving occurred. That gift was “his Son the Only-begotten.” On the Greek article’s repetition, see R “his Son,” secondly, in the same way, “the Only-begotten.” The addition of the second lifts this “Son” above all others who in any sense may also be called “sons.” On the meaning of the title “the Only-begotten,” see 1:14 and 18.
Strange reasoning argues that because John uses this title in the prologue, this section, v. 16–21, is John’s composition, not Jesus’ discourse. Therefore, this assumes John himself coined the title “the Only-begotten.” Even when this section is regarded as Jesus’ discourse, its wording is often supposed to be so peculiarly John’s language that he inserted, here and in v. 18, the designation “the Only-begotten,” which Jesus himself never uttered. This strange reasoning must be reversed. This title is so strange, striking, unique, and exalted that it is easier to believe that Jesus coined it and that John adopted it from Jesus than to think John himself coined it. This title is so distinctive and striking in every way that we must say: if Jesus did not use it in this discourse, if it originated in John’s mind during John’s later years, then John inserted it here as though Jesus used it is unbelievable. Whatever wording of John’s own is found in this discourse must be minor and must leave intact the distinctive terms and expressions that Jesus used, quite a several which may be noted: loved—world—believe—perish—life eternal, etc. Among the grandest, the most unusual is “the Only-begotten.” If Jesus used it, John had to preserve it, and he did; if Jesus never used it either here or elsewhere, John would not dare to insert it here and that twice. All is normal if John here heard Jesus say, “the Only-begotten” and thus placed this title in his prologue; all is abnormal if Jesus never used the expression and John yet writes as he does.
What is said when expounding 1:14 and 18 regarding the meaning of the title and the fact that it cannot refer to the exceptional human birth of Jesus but must express the eternal relation of the Son to the Father, the generatio aeterna (eternal generation), is made inevitable by how Jesus himself here uses this title. God’s gift of love must name this gift as it existed in heaven before the time of the giving and at that time. There with the Father in heaven was “his Son the Only-begotten,” who was such from all eternity, and as such, God gave him to the world. So great, so tremendous was the gift, and so astounding the love that made this gift. Luther’s word must stand, “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity,” expressing, as it does, the conviction of the church of all past ages.
The aorist ἔδωκεν, “did give,” denotes the one historical past act. Jesus speaks objectively throughout, using the third person when speaking of himself and general expressions like “world,” “he that believes,” etc., when speaking of other persons, and thus he uses the aorist. This verb “gave” refers to an act that took place in the other world, where any consideration of time would be inadequate, meaning that we are in a poor human way speaking of things beyond us. Keeping this in mind, we may say that “gave” neither refers to the death on the cross nor the incarnation alone but to all else by which God bestowed his Savior as a gift. No indirect object follows “gave“—a significant omission, for Jesus could hardly say that God gave his Son “to the world” because the world as such did not on its part receive the Son (1:10).
Nevertheless, all is clear when we hear God’s purpose by giving his gift, “in order that everyone believing in him should not perish but have life eternal.” Therefore, this repeats the purpose clause of v. 15, which see for the explanation. The repetition links the verses so closely that no new paragraph is in place at v. 16. The gift is a unit act, but the purpose attached to it holds until the end of time. The repetition stresses this purpose clause, even as repetition constantly marks emphasis. Jesus virtually says: Note well once more this fiducia (faith and confidence) of believing, this personal singular, this universality, this possession, this wondrous life.
But as is the case in many such emphatic repetitions, the emphasis is enhanced by an addition. The object of faith is indicated by John’s usual εἰς αὑτόν, “in him,” where, however, εἰς is not to be stressed as including motion. In the Koine especially this would be a linguistic anachronism, for εἰς here follows verbs of rest and even verbs of being as an ordinary idiom; cf. R. 591, etc., on its static use. John does not need to repeat that the believer “should have ἐν αὑτῷ, in him, life eternal,” for this is clearly implied in the other phrase. In εἰς αὑτόν, “him” includes all that has been said of the Son in v. 15, 16. This wonderful Person is the object of faith. The real amplification lies in the addition of the negative, “should not perish” to enhance the positive, “but have life eternal,” using the strong adversative ἀλλά. “To perish” denotes total and eternal rejection by God, and it is used especially in the middle voice by John and Paul. The word never means to suffer annihilation. Here the aorist subjunctive μὴ ἀπόληται is in place to indicate the one final act of perishing in contrast with the present subjunctive ἔχῃ to indicate the present and enduring having of life eternal. Not to perish is to have; not to have is to perish. To perish is defined in what follows as the opposite of being saved (v. 17), as being judged (v. 18), and as being reproved or convicted (v. 20). In this negative “should not perish” Jesus touches the first great warning for Nicodemus: God does not want him to perish—does he himself mean to perish, nevertheless? He indeed will if he becomes obstinate in unbelief.
- R. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, by A. T. Robertson, fourth edition.
- R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961)