Reflection on John 3:16-21

Scripture: John 3:16-21

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”


Today, we read part two of the Nicodemus encounter. In it we hear what is probably the most quoted verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16. The verse is so concise and offers such a profound statement on salvation that it’s easy to recite in a moment’s notice. But what we can’t forget when we start quoting is that it has a context. That context is the greater narrative of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisee named Nicodemus. John 3:16 is the point where Jesus breaks from his confusing banter with Nicodemus and enters into what seems like a sort of soliloquy to clarify his babble.

“For God so loved the world…” What an incredible, attention grabbing way to start an explanation of salvation. Jesus was clearly a good preacher, and he grounds all the profound things he’s about to say in one thing: the love God has for the world. I get so much joy as a pastor out of this phrase and the following few verses. There are mountains of theological insight that explode forth from them. And the best part – even the most significant part – is that I’m compelled by this phrase to ground it all in God’s overwhelming and abundant love for EVERYONE. So, while John 3:16 is easy to quote, we should really not see it as an end-all-be-all statement of salvation. Rather, the love about which Jesus testifies in it is the lens through which we understand the rest of the passage. John 3:16 allows us to fully understand the whole Nicodemus encounter.

In light of this emphasis love, I want to discuss just one important point out of the many there. This point links us back to that all important word: context. In my experience as a Christian, the phrase “he gave” in John 3:16 has too closely been assumed to refer to Jesus’ death. But in context, that’s not at all what this verse is saying. And this is an important distinction because if it’s about death, then God is not in love with the world. Rather, God is so angry at it that he needs something precious to die in order to satisfy his wrath. However, if we read in context and actually see that “he gave” is a statement of life, one that says, “Here is my precious Son, let his life be a testament to what I intended for all life to be,” then God is gifting humanity with love incarnate. That, to me, is a much more profound understanding of the salvation about which Jesus speaks in these verses. I’m not denying the importance of Christ’s death on the cross in the grand narrative, but I am saying that these verses are about our responsibility and freedom to live life in the radical light of truth that Jesus’ life revealed. Jesus life is just as important as his death. These verses tell us this: Jesus came, first, to show us how to live. His life judges every life, not in order to condemn, but in order to correct. A piece of salvation and heaven is readily available to us right now when we allow the life of Christ to inspire the way we live.


God of life, draw me into the light that is Christ that I may have life abundant, just as you intended from the beginning. Amen.

Thought for the Day:

Christians are a people marked by life, not death.


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