Mining the Golden Text – A Study of John 3:16

Intro: John 3:16 is one of the all-time beloved and well-known verses in the entire Bible. It is frequently called the “golden text” of Scripture. This passage is no more “golden” than any other of the precious words of God, but certainly it is an important passage.

Although it is well known, this great passage is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented texts of the Word of God. Many sincere people, who dearly cherish John 3:16, have little idea what this marvelous verse actually is teaching.

Let us carefully look at the passage in its constituent elements.

I. For… In the Greek New Testament, John 3:16 begins with the conjunction gar, which is used to explain a foregoing statement. In this case, the writer has just alluded to an historical situation that occurred in the days of Moses.

A. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14 – ASV).

1. This event is recorded in Numbers 21. After the Israelites were led from Egyptian bondage into the wilderness of Sinai, many of them began to murmur against Jehovah. Num 21:5-6 5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6 So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

2. When the people acknowledged their sin, God sent deliverance in the form of a serpent. Num. 21:8-9 – 8 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.

3. Note the use of the connective, “even so,” in John 3:14. The incident of the serpent was, of course, typical of the death of Christ, i.e., it was a symbol or picture.

a. The desired cure was not to be realized in simply “believing” that such could occur; but through both intellectual faith and obedience to the command to go and look on the image of the serpent. This faith required in vs. 15 is not absent of obedience to specific commands.

4. Jesus Christ would be “lifted up” on the cross and men would be called upon to trust in that sacrifice. John 12:32 – 32 And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” NKJV

II. …God so loved… God’s love is the primary force of our salvation. It preceded every other activity associate with it.

  • 1 John 4:88 He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.9 In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. It is this magnanimous love of God that motivates man to seek his grace. John later wrote: “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

A. The term “loved” translates the Greek verb agapao. The noun form agape is not a love which is merely emotional. It is the love of genuine interest, that of determined dedication. It is the love which acts out of concern for others. It is the love that sacrifices oneself for another. Eph. 5 – husbands give yourself for your wife. .

B. The extent of divine love is underscored by the use of the adverb “so” (houtos), a term marking the degree of intensity. This love is not abstract. It can be measured in the activity of giving.

III. …the world… The Greek word for world is kosmos. In a literal sense, the term denotes the orderly universe created by the intelligent God (Acts 17:24), or, in a more limited sense, the earth (Mark 16:15 – “go into all the world“). Denotes a geographical place.

A. Frequently, though, “world” stands for all people of the earth (the container is put for the contents, i.e., the world stands for its inhabitants.) 2 Cor 5:19 – 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

B. God loves all people. A couple of important points here:

1. God’s universal love does not translate to universal salvation. God loves sinners, even as they sin, but He hates sin and will not excuse it. 2 Peter 3:9 – 9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance .

2. God’s universal love demands that we love people as well. His love defines the parameters of our love. Eph 5:2 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.

IV. …that he gave… Giving is characteristic of God. He has given us life (Acts 17:25) and He is the source of all good gifts (James 1:17), and the greatest was the gift of his Son.

A. Seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah announced: Isaiah 9:66 For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; Surely we must say with Paul: “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

B. The gift of God’s Son is freely given in that we did nothing to deserve it and God did not hold Him back. Rom 8:31-32 – What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?

C. Is God’s gift unconditional? For a gift to be given it must be received. There must be a concurrence between the will of the giver and the will of the benefactor.

1. Now the tragic fact of the matter is, though God willingly gave his Son, not all have been disposed to receive him. Of some it was said: “… they that were his own received him not… ” (John 1:11). Men do have the power to reject gifts!

D. A gift can be conditional and still be free. In the days of ancient Israel, Jehovah informed Joshua, “See, I have given into your hand Jericho… ” (Joshua 6:2). In spite of the fact that Jericho was a gift, the Lord subsequently specified instructions for the taking of the city. An inspired writer later comments: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were compassed about seven days” (Hebrews 11:30). Those who would receive Christ, as God’s gracious gift, must submit to the conditions required by the Lord and his apostles. Acts 2:41 – 41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.

V. …his only begotten Son… “Only begotten” renders the Greek monogenes, found nine times in the New Testament (five of these of Christ – John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). The term derives from two roots, monos (only, alone) and genos (race, stock). What does this tell us about Jesus?

A. In the contexts in which it applies to Jesus, it undoubtedly denotes that he is “unique in kind” (F.W. Danker, et al., Greek-English Lexicon, University of Chicago, 2000, p. 658). It is used “to mark out Jesus uniquely above all earthly and heavenly beings” (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Colin Brown, ed., Zondervan, Vol. II, p. 725).

B. Jesus is unique in His nature as God, and as well as the Son of God. He also described as the Unique revelation of God to man in John 1:18 – 18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

C. this also reminds us the language that God uses to describe Isaac as Abraham’s only son whom he was willing to sacrifice. It certainly gives emphasis and meaning to the sacrifice God has made.

VI. …that whosoever believeth on him… Again, the term “whosoever” (literally, “everyone”) reveals the universality of God’s saving plan. The gospel is addressed to “the whole creation” (Mark 16:15), and, as the final great invitation of the Bible has it, “… he that is athirst, let him come: he that will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).

A. The word “believes” is a present tense participle, literally, therefore, “the keeping on believing ones.” But exactly what is the biblical “belief” of which God approves?

B. Some have defined the term as simply an acceptation of the historical facts regarding Christ, along with a willingness to trust him as Savior. This is the view of those who advocate the doctrine of salvation by “faith alone.” But the truth is, there is more to faith than a mental disposition.

C. The verb “believe” in the Greek New Testament is pisteuo. The word includes the meaning, “to comply,” as Liddell & Scott observe in their Greek Lexicon, (Oxford, 1869, p. 1273); and, as they further point out, it is the opposite of apisteo, which means “to disobey… refuse to comply” (p. 175).

1. W. E. Vine declared that faith involves “a personal surrender” to Christ (Expository Dictionary, Vol. II, p. 71).

2. J.H. Thayer noted that belief is “used especially of the faith by which a man embraces Jesus, i.e. a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah – the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ” (Greek-English Lexicon, T. & T. Clark, 1958, p. 511; emp. added).

3. Saving faith cannot be divorced from obedience. Belief and disobedience are set in vivid contrast in the Bible. Note this verse: “He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that obeyeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36 – ASV)

a. Similarly, the Israelites of the Old Testament that were “disobedient” were condemned “because of unbelief” in Hebrews 3:18, 19; 4:3, 6).

b. While John 3:16 promises eternal life to him who believes, Hebrews 5:9 attributes eternal salvation to such as who obey, thus demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive, rather, saving faith includes obedience!

4. Other components in the plan of salvation sometimes figuratively represent the entire process. Repentance is said to result in life (Acts 11:18), but certainly not repentance alone! And baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21), but not baptism by itself. The notion that salvation is effected by “faith alone” is strictly a human doctrine.

VII. …should not perish… Does this phrase indicate that the lost simply cease to exist? The Greek word, here rendered “perish,” is apollumi, a very strong term meaning “to destroy utterly.”

A. Apollumi does not suggest annihilation. This word is employed to describe the miserable condition of the prodigal son, when separated from his loving father. In that state the son was “lost” (Luke 15:24), but he had not ceased to exist.

1. As Vine pointed out: “the idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (Expository Dictionary, Vol. I, p. 302). Prof. Thayer declared, with extreme clarity, that apollumi suggests “to be delivered up to eternal misery” (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 4).

B. Matthew 25:4646 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life

VIII. …but have eternal life – eternal life is here promised to those who pursue the life of obedient trust. But exactly what is eternal life?

A. It is not mere eternal existence, for the wicked will exist eternally. Eternal life is the exact opposite of everlasting death. The final abode of evil persons is called “the second death” in Revelation 2:11. Since “death” always connotes the idea of separation, in some form or another the final death is obviously eternal separation from God.

B. Conversely, eternal life is everlasting communion with God.

1. It is a state of glory – 2 Corinthians 4:17 17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,

2. Rest – Hebrews 4:11 – 11 Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.

3. Joy – Matthew 25:21 – 21 His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ NKJV

Conclusion John 3:16 is truly a marvelous text. It is the gospel in capsule form. Do you appreciate what God has given? Have you received the gift through faith?