I was with some friends a few nights back and we got to talking about all the great verses in the Bible that were based on 3:16. Of course the most famous of the texts is found in John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Without a shadow of a doubt this verse consists of some of the greatest words of comfort in Scripture. The context is Jesus talking to Nicodemus, a religious leader, who has come to speak to Jesus in an effort to better understand who he is and whether or not he could possibly be the Messiah.
For Nicodemus salvation consists of being a Jew by birth and thus a descendant of Abraham and keeping all the laws of the Torah to prove worthy of that gift. The law for Nicodemus was also God’s way of protecting or separating Israel from the heathen nations that surrounded their country.
Jesus breaks down all these preconceived and cherished understandings of Nicodemus in that one verse. He begins by saying, “God loves the world” and of course this would be a shock for Nicodemus because all his training, theory, and life experience was based upon the idea that God didn’t love the whole world.
God loved Israel. They were the special and separated people of God; the recipients of the covenantal blessings promised to Abraham. They were the heirs of Abraham and therefore the elite of the world. They, and they alone, were deserving of God’s blessing and love. To say Romans, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians, and Celts were loved by God as they were loved was a whack between the eyes for the pious and elitist Nicodemus.
Next Jesus presents salvation in terms that are beyond anything Nicodemus had ever heard or could possibly imagine. Salvation didn’t come from the Jews and flow out to the underprivileged nations. Salvation was not something you obtained by good works, striving, or privilege or nationality. Instead it was a gift from God. Jesus said, “God” loved the world and the result of that immense love was that, “He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Wow!
If it was not shocking enough that God loved the whole world now Jesus drops on Nicodemus that salvation comes through a gift, not by personal effort and obedience. The great gift that the Father gives to the fallen, indifferent, self-centered, sin-filled world is His Son. At this point Nicodemus isn’t confronted by the atoning death of Jesus, but the simple statement that the Father gave His Son and that salvation would come to everyone, regardless of status, nationality, or gender. And the absolute, mind-blowing, wild-and-wonderful thing about this salvation through the Father’s Son is that it is free!
OK, this verse is not finished with Nicodemus yet. Once again the “whosoever” encompasses all believers regardless of nationality. But, the “whosoever believes in Him,” is in the present. Right now a person could say they accept Christ and if they are honestly sincere they enter into the Kingdom of God.
Remember, Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43 Then there are all those wonderful texts in Acts where people like the Philippian Jailor, Lydia, Ethiopian, the five thousand at Pentecost were baptized “into Christ,” upon their believing.
Now here is another wonderful aspect of the verse. Even though salvation is right now for those who have genuine faith in Christ, the promise is not only for now but the future. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “whosoever believes in Him, shall not perish but have eternal life.” This verse has an eschatological aspect to it in that the blessing of salvation by faith is not only a present reality but has ramifications for all eternity. What we have right now when we accept Jesus is salvation. It is also guaranteed to be the form of salvation throughout our life and cumulate in eternal life.
Now we see why Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit in verses 5-8. No one will come to understand the Gospel, salvation by faith, grace, the promises of God and eternal life without the Holy Spirit touching our life. And according to Galatians we receive the Holy Spirit, as proven in Acts, at baptism. The two water and Spirit and water and fire take place at the same time. In fact Jesus tells as much to Nicodemus, “Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
Then in John 3:14, 15 Jesus presents Nicodemus a picture of how Jesus saves those who believe in Him and guarantees eternal life. 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
All these wonderful Biblical themes swirl together in these few verses. Salvation in Christ for all who believe with the guarantee of eternal life and the Holy Spirit leading us to Christ where we encounter the crucified and risen Christ. Also in these few verses we have the work of the Father God, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit all working together for redemption of mankind. And though we can’t say the texts teach Trinitarian theology they most certainly show the three persons of the Trinity working together for the redemption of society.
Next post we will see what the next 3:16 brings.