What is Jesus saying in John 3:16?
John 3:16 is arguably the most famous, most cited, and most quoted verses in the entire Bible. And for good reason: it is good news! It is one of Scripture’s most beautiful pictures of the gospel. It is also one of the verses we struggle to understand well.
A brief contextual aside
Before getting into the actual content of John 3, something worth noting is a very small amount of disagreement regarding these verses. But that disagreement has nothing to do with their content. It has everything to do with translators believe the words belong to.
Some translations like the NKJV, ESV, and CSB present John 3:16, and 17-21 with it, as continuing Jesus’s discourse with Nicodemus—so as the words of Jesus. Others, like the NET and NIV treat these verses as a theological reflection by John, in part because of their similarity to other such discourses, like the one at the end of chapter three.
So, depending on what translation you prefer, you might see John 3:16–21 in quotation marks. Or you might not. Either way, whether these are the words of Jesus to Nicodemus or John’s commentary, the effect is the same. (For whatever it’s worth, I lean toward it being Jesus who said it. I’m also pretty open-handed about that.)
With that said, back to the verses at hand.
God’s great love in John 3:16
Depending on your translation, John 3:16 is going to read a little differently. For example, here it is in the English Standard Version (ESV):
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 is probably the way you’re most familiar with reading it. “For God so loved the world,” which is how you’ll see it in the KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, and many others.1
But that’s only one way of reading it. Try it in the New English Translation (NET):
For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
And here it is again in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB):
For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
The differences in rendering seems small, but it is really important. And reading them together is helpful because the differences help us to better understand what Jesus is saying in this passage.
Does “so” mean what we think?
The difference in the rendering here is important because it helps us see the facets of what we’re reading here. As 21st century English speakers, we are most likely to read “For God so loved the world,” in terms of affection.
And there is a degree to which we’re certainly right to do so. Think about the kind of love that God has for people like you and me. To literally send his Son—his one and only, only begotten, eternally existent Son. To be the substitute that we so desperately need both in faithfully living in the way we cannot, and in taking the condemnation that is ours by nature.
That is incredible love.
It’s the kind of love that goes beyond anything a “good man or woman” might offer (Romans 5:7). Jesus laid his life down for his friends (John 15:13), but not while they were his friends—while we were yet his enemies, while we were helpless and hopeless, Christ died for us! It’s hard to imagine a greater degree of affection.
But does that mean that the “so” of this verse is referring to the degree of God’s love? Should we read it as though it’s intending to say “God loves the world so much”?
I don’t think so. At least, not entirely.
The way to read “this is the way”
When I was preparing to teach this passage at my church, I spent some time digging into this aspect of the passage. Why did these more recent translations—CSB and NET—deviate from the traditional rendering?
The short version? Because it’s more in line with the actual language of the text. The word in question is “houtos.” This is the word traditional renderings translate as “so,” which to our ears gives it that sense of a degree of affection. But scholar Bill Mounce explained that it cannot mean “so much” in this verse. It can only mean “this is how.”
So what John 3:16 is describing has less to do with how much God loves us, and is more about the specific way he demonstrates his love for us. He doesn’t love the world generically. God displays it in a particular way. How?
By sending his one and only son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Of all the ways that God loves the world, it is “in this way” his love is most clearly displayed! It is a definite, specific, assured kind of love. A love that is only emphasized by the punctuation point of John 3:17. That Jesus came into the world for this express purpose: not to condemn the world but to save it.
And whatever Jesus sets out to do, he accomplishes. He didn’t come into the world with good intentions and to leave us with a hope of salvation. He came into the world to actually save everyone who believes in him.2
What’s more, he actually did, declaring from the cross, “It is finished.”
A reading that makes John 3:16 better
This is really good news. Definitive. Beautiful. Clear. It’s good news that makes a familiar verse—the most familiar one—even better, if that’s possible. God loved the world in this way. And because of he loved the world in this way, everyone who believes in Jesus, the one who lived and died and lived again, defeating sin and death, will not perish. They will have eternal life. Every single one will be welcomed into the kingdom of God.
That’s good news worth sharing.
- By the way, Bible Gateway is really handy for comparing a verse in all English translations.[↩]
- Which necessarily precludes the notion of universalism.[↩]