by Fred Sanders
It’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible, the hit single everybody knows even if they don’t listen to the rest of the album. You can wave it on a banner, paint it in your eyeblack, or print it underneath your In-N-Out cup; John 3:16. No matter how often I see it, no matter what kind of knuckle-head has stuck it to their bumper, no matter how out-of-the-blue or isolated it is from its context, it always gets me.
Focus on the Family put it in the mouths of children and bought air time where a mass audience sensitized by Tebow hoopla would see and hear it. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This verse has everything.
Start with the little word “so.” It’s actually the first word in the sentence, at least in the original Greek of John 3:16. It’s a great big pointer word. Its primary meaning isn’t “so much,” but “in this way,” or “thus.” The verse doesn’t say “God loves the world so much that he sent his Son,” rather it says “Look at this, this right here is the way God loved the world: he sent his Son.”
God loved like this! As a pointer-word, “so” directs your attention like an index finger toward a thing so unparalleled and singular that all we can do it look and learn. And it points to a past action, an event already accomplished. Think how much we lose when we unconsciously simplify this verse down to “How much God loves the world” (present tense, emphasizing magnitude) rather than what it wants to show us: Right over here is how God did decisively love the world!
If you do follow the pointing word to the recommended object of attention, you see vast expanses of doctrine opening up in front of you. God is in action here: He loves, he gives, he saves the perishing. J. Sidlow Baxter wrote a whole book on this verse, published under the title The Best Word Ever (and released in America as God So Loved). Baxter noted that this Best Word Ever contains at least ten vocabulary words which could practically stock a Christian understanding with everything it needs. Just look at them isolated in Baxter’s list form:
(3) the World
(4) Gave/Gave Over
(7) Believe/have faith
(9) To Have/ Possess
It would be worthwhile to expound on the biblical meaning of each of those words, but I would like to do something else: show how John 3:16 carries an entire systematic theology within itself, implicitly…
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