This must be the most famous verse in the Bible. It’s been called the gospel in a nutshell. So what is this gospel (good news) John quotes Jesus stating for us here?
We can’t fully appreciate the good news without first understanding the bad news, which Jesus sums up in the word ‘“perish”’. Without the good news we are all destined to perish. Elsewhere the Bible teaches that this doesn’t mean simply ceasing to exist, but involves living in eternal separation from God. This is a place far darker than the most Godless place on earth now, for currently everywhere has at least some rays of God’s common grace. It will be a quite literally hellish spiritual darkness, illuminated only by fiery wrath. This is the ‘second death’(Revelation 2:11&20:6&14&21:8) described in John’s book of Revelation. It is the inevitable consequence of choosing to reject God; the perfectly just sentence from the supreme judge: ultimately life without God is Hell.
The good news is partly of course that we needn’t end up in such a state of darkness, severed from the gracious light of God. But it is much more than that. We can have ‘“eternal life”’, and just as perishing means much more than simply ceasing to exist, eternal life means more than living forever. John teaches us about eternity in Revelation: ‘the very glory of God illuminated it’(Revelation 21:23). There life is an eternity bathed in the glorious light of God. Amazingly, the first taste of this eternal spiritual life can begin even now.
So how do we see this light / find this eternal path to God’s glory? The summary answer from this verse is ‘“whoever believes in him”’. But what precisely does this mean, and not mean? The context helps us here. This verse is part of a longer statement Jesus makes at the end of His encounter with Nicodemus – an encounter designed to teach what saving faith is.
John starts to address this subject just before the story of Nicodemus. At the end of Chapter 2 we are told that many people witnessed Jesus’ miraculous signs and ‘believed in his name’(John 2:23). But it seems they did not have saving faith, since we read ‘Jesus didn’t trust himself to them’(John 2:24) because he knew their hearts. John then focuses in on one such person, Nicodemus. Superficially he seems to believe in Jesus, ‘“we know that you are a teacher come from God”’(John 3:2) he says. However, the conversation reveals his lack of true faith, since he doesn’t accept what Jesus is saying. Cleverly Jesus simultaneously teaches Nicodemus what he’s lacking – spiritual birth, ‘“unless one is born anew, he can’t see the Kingdom of God”’(John 3:3). He goes on to explain this means having a spiritual birth quite distinct from our physical birth. Jesus teaches Nicodemus that believing in Jesus means more than just believing he came from God. Saving faith includes accepting his authority and is something that requires spiritual birth.
So how can this happen? This is Nicodemus’ question too, and Jesus provides him with the answer: ‘“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”’(John 3:14-15). In other words, God ‘“gave his one and only son”’. Jesus is pointing to the crucifixion by drawing attention to an incident in the book of Numbers. God decreed that any Israelite who was bitten by a poisonous snake would live if they looked at Moses’ bronze snake on a pole. This incident prefigured the gospel. We are all bitten by the snake, Satan, and as condemned sinners can only experience spiritual birth into eternal life as we look to Jesus as Lord, who perished on the cross taking the judgement due to us.
But how is this compatible with a God who ‘“so loved”’? Surely it’s parental cruelty! The answer of course is that God is both the Father and the Son. At the same time as God the Father is displaying perfect judgement, God the Son is going to the cross. The very Godhead is torn apart and bleeds in an act of divine judgement/love to save us. The cross is thus God’s kiss of life to a guilty world. That’s how God ‘“so loved”’ the world, and that’s why we should truly believe in Jesus from the heart, being ‘“born of the Spirit”’(John 3:8), accepting Jesus as our Lord and saviour.