John 3:16

‘“For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son,
that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.”’
(John 3:16)

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) summarised for us so neatly here?

We can’t fully appreciate the good news without first understanding the bad news, which is summed up by the word ‘“perish”’. Without the good news we’re 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. It’s a place far darker than the most Godless place on earth now, for currently everywhere enjoys at least some rays from God’s universal blessings. 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’s 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’s 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 just 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 can 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 that mean, and not mean? Its context helps with that. This verse follows on from a longer statement that Jesus made at the end of His encounter with Nicodemus – an encounter that teaches us about saving faith.

John starts to address this subject just before Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. At the end of the preceding chapter 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 God’s Kingdom”’(John 3:3). He goes on to explain that this means having a spiritual birth quite distinct from our physical birth. So Jesus taught Nicodemus that believing in Him means more than just believing that He came from God. Saving faith includes accepting His authority and is something that requires spiritual birth.

So how can that happen? That was Nicodemus’ question too, and Jesus provided 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 was pointing to the crucifixion by drawing attention to an incident from 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 poisoned 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 that 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 that God the Father was displaying perfect judgement, God the Son was going to the cross. In a sense God tore Himself apart, and bled, in an act of divine judgement/love to save us. So the cross is God’s kiss of life to a guilty world. That’s how God ‘“so loved”’ the world, and how we can trust and ‘believe in Him’ from the heart, as we’re ‘“born of the Spirit”’(John 3:8), accepting Him as both our Saviour and Lord.

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