In the last couple of articles, I talked about how critical it is that the church return to the one fundamental truth that determines her success in every other area of endeavor – that is, the knowledge of God based on the revelation of God in the written word (the Bible) and the living Word (Christ, the Son of God).
The Bible is about God. It is His story from beginning to end. Current religious thought has turned the Bible into a story about man, and to some degree, it is. The Bible certainly tells the story of the fall of man and the redemption available to man through Christ.
However, the entire story from Genesis through the Revelation focuses, not on the man who requires redemption, but on the God who authored the entire concept of redemption before the foundation of the world.
In this article, I want to illustrate how this failure to interpret all Scripture in light of the glory and the purpose of God at least weakens and at worst corrupts our interpretation of Scripture while diminishing the effectiveness of our evangelistic efforts.
I will do that by revisiting what may be the best known verse from the Bible – John 3:16. I will not evaluate the verse word-for-word, but will only look at four elements of the verse.
God so loved
These words that begin the verse are almost universally interpreted as “God loved so much…” More often than not, the word “so” is seen as a word of degree or quantity, making the verse a statement of the size of God’s love for mankind.
Yet the word “so,” while it can refer to degree or quantity, in the majority of cases where the word is used in the New Testament, including John 3:16, does not speak so much of quantity as it does of method.
Let me explain.
To interpret “God so loved…” as a measure of the size of God’s love would speak of quantity or of degrees of love, but God does not love by degrees and His love has no dimension other than infinite. The Bible says in 1 John 4:8, 16, that God is love, meaning that love is not a practice of God, but a characteristic of God. Love defines who God is. Since God is eternal, so is His love.
Think of God’s love in relationship to other characteristics.
God is righteous (Psalm 145:17), but He is not righteous by degrees. He is not more righteous at some times than He is at others. He is perfectly righteous all the time.
God is great (Job 36:26), but He is not great in increments. He is perfectly great – He is almighty.
God is holy (Psalm 99:9), and He is perfectly holy at all times – in fact, for all of eternity.
God is perfect in every facet of His being (Ps. 18:30), including love. He might demonstrate His love through varying methods or means depending on His purpose, but when God loves, He loves perfectly.
The Bible specifically says that God does not change (Num. 23:19; James 1:17) – He is immutable.
This means that God does not love you more today and less tomorrow.
God does not love you more when you are good and less when you are bad or disobedient.
He does not love you more when you succeed and less when you fail.
His love for you does not change with time or circumstances.
The word “so” primarily means “therefore” or “in this manner.” So (therefore), John 3:16 does not say, “Here is how much God loved…” but “Here is how God loved…Here is how God demonstrated or proved His love…He gave…”
If there is a word in John 3:16 that does address the size or dimension of God’s love, it is the word “world.”
While there is no universal agreement about the meaning of this word among biblical scholars and theologians, almost everyone agrees that the word demonstrates “that God loves more than one type of person or ethnic group. The death of Christ on the cross was not only for Jews but also for Gentiles (non-Jews). The love of God is not confined to national boundaries but extends to all kinds of nations, tribes, cultures, tongues, and peoples.” [i]
Nevertheless, there is a problem with such an interpretation of the word.
While “world” certainly refers to mankind, the word has become a source of conflict over the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of God’s love. Some say the word shows God’s universal love for all mankind. Others argue that the word only refers to the effective reach of God’s love to the elect.
Both arguments distract the reader from God by focusing the arguing on man. Both arguments cause us to miss the point of the verse by changing the focus of the verse away from the grace and the glory of God – the Giver – to mankind – the recipient of the gift.
There is something very grand being illustrated by the use of the word “world” that we miss when we make the verse about man. This interpretation of the word “doesn’t quite capture the jolting contrast between ‘God so loved’ and ‘the world’ that John 3:16 deliberately draws.” [ii]
On the one hand is the perfect, righteous, and holy God (God so loved…) demonstrating His love for the world, composed of people condemned to eternal damnation because of their sin nature and who are in open rebellion against that very God as evidenced by their love of sin.
B.B. Warfield (theologian, late 19th & early 20th century)
[World] is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when he gave his Son for it. [iii]
Only Begotten Son
Who is the only begotten Son and how was He begotten?
Without going into an extensive exposition of the Trinity, suffice it to say that the Bible teaches very clearly that Jesus is indeed God.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Hebrews 1:3 and 2 Cor. 4:4 tell us that Christ is “the express image” of God.
In other words, when God thinks about himself – when He images himself in His own mind – He sees the Son. This is all He sees. Therefore, Christ, the Son of God, is the only image begotten in the mind of God.
Since God is eternal and never changes, God has always had the same mind and thoughts of himself; therefore, God has always seen the image of the Son when He (God the Father) thought about himself. In this way, God the Son is eternally co-eternal and co-existent with the God the Father while being begotten of the Father at the same time.
“Whatever the divine essence is, Jesus is said to be its perfect expression.” [iv]
When the time came to execute the plan of redemption, God, the King of Heaven, did not call in His most powerful archangel and send him out on a mission of sacrifice.
Instead, God himself, in the form of the Son, left His throne, stepped out of eternity and into time, space, and matter, taking on the image of man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth so that He could do what a god cannot do – that is to die – to pay the debt of sin that mankind could not pay.
1 Timothy 3:16 Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. (KJV)
In the next article, we will continue our look into John 3:16 with a look at the final words of the verse, eternal or everlasting life. [v]
[i] John Tweeddale, “What Does ‘World’ Mean in John 3:16?” Feb. 09, 2018, www.ligonier.org blog.
[iv] Spiros Zhodiates, Complete Word Study Bible Dictionary.
[v] Just so you know, the word “redux” is an adjective which refers to something “that has been brought back, revived, restored, etc. (www.collinsdictionary.com) The word also means “revisited.” (www.wordhippo.com)