We discussed the Nicodemus narrative in my Greek refresher course last Friday. While I was preparing for the class, I was struck by John 3:16. It’s such a clear statement about Jesus’ mission and God’s character. Sometimes it just takes reading a passage in a different translation or language to see familiar terrain in a new light. I’m sure you know what I mean. I ended up taking a pretty close look at the verse and wanted to share two kinds of observations about it, one sort of technical and the other devotional.
First, the technical. There’s been some debate about how best to translate the verse, particularly the little adverb “so” (οὕτως). Some think that it answers the question “how did God love us?” and, therefore, that it should read “God loved the world in this way….” (HCSB). Others think that it answers the question “how much did God love us?” and, therefore, that it should read “God loved the world so much…” (NCV). The Greek word could mean either, which is, of course, why there’s debate. As far as I can tell, the second translation is probably the better of the two for at least the following two reasons. (1) John says that God’s love resulted in this gift. That’s what the word “that” tells us (better: “so that”; on ὥστε + indicative, see Moule 141; Porter 235). A result fits better with an initial statement about how much God loves us than it does with one about how God loves us. “God loved the world so much, with the result that he gave…” sounds slightly better than “God loved the world in this way, with the result that he gave….” (2) John describes God’s gift as the “only” or “unique” son (μονογενής). This seems to emphasize the value of the gift. And, though the Greek text lacks the possessive pronoun “his” (αὐτοῦ), there are other ways of saying the same thing. In this case, the article “the” in the Greek text should be translated as a pronoun (“his”), which would once more emphasize the value of the gift and, thus, the extent of God’s love. It was his only son that was given for the world (see Rom 8:32; also Gen 22:2, 12). (Footnote: While Gundry and Howell show that it’s possible to read οὕτως…ὥστε as “in this way…and so” in about twenty texts commonly used to support my reading of John 3:16, I’m not convinced that their readings are to be preferred, especially when they insist that John 3:16b restates v. 14 [i.e., “and so”] rather than gives the result of v. 16a [“so that”].)
Second, the devotional. As I reflected on the verse, I was reminded that if I think about Jesus without also thinking about God’s love, then I’m probably not thinking about Jesus or God in the right way. Yes, it’s right to think about what Jesus would do in this or that situation. (I’d be better off if I did this more often.) And, it’s right and good to think about Jesus as the only way to salvation or as the God-man or as Israel’s long-awaited messiah. But, we cannot stop there. We must also think about Jesus as the most spectacular display of God’s great love for the world. Or, to put it another way around: it’s right and proper to think about God as holy, just, separated from sinners, brilliant in majesty, and exalted about the heavens. To think otherwise would be dangerous indeed. Still, John 3:16 reminds me that any “god” not full of extravagant love for the world is an idol. Period.
I was also reminded that this love is unearned. We can put the performance treadmill back in the closet. Pack it up, friends. Our efforts didn’t earn the cross and their purchasing power hasn’t increased one bit since then. This one has both liberating and convicting implications, doesn’t it? God loved you while you were a sinner. Nothing’s changed. And, if this is true, why do we—why do I—so often make our wives, our kids, our friends, and our neighbors work so hard for our love? What’s God-like about that?
Finally, I was reminded of one more thing. Credit for this one should probably go to C. S. Lewis. John 3:16 reminds me that God isn’t like an over-indulgent grandparent. He’s not going about “making sure the young folks all have a good time.” His love wasn’t meant to leave us where it found us; it wasn’t simply content to write checks without any concern for how we spend them. That wouldn’t be love. It’d be more like apathy or something much worse. It’d be like professing my love for my boys while encouraging them to keep playing in the busy street. Where’s the love in that? Perhaps you’ve wondered: “How can God be loving if he won’t accept me as I am?” If not, I’m sure you’ve met someone who has. Well, John 3:16 turns that question upside down. It reminds us that God loved us enough to send Jesus to save us from ourselves, from our sin, from everything that would keep us from being the sort of human beings he created us to be, the sort of human beings we were meant to be. It reminds us, in other words, that God cannot accept us the way we are precisely because he loves us.