Probably the most well-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16 which announces God’s initiative to provide eternal life to the people of the world. Some have it so tightly fixed in their minds, they can dash it off from memory with hardly a thought of what it is saying. That is what I discovered about myself as I review it, so it seems appropriate to put it under the “microscope,” so to speak, of the whole counsel of God and explore the depths of truth the verse holds.
It breaks down into nine sub-parts, like this:
For God—so loved—the world—that He gave—His only begotten Son—that whosoever—believes in Him—should not perish—but have everlasting life.
But first, what about the suggested microscope? Is it a valid tool to probe the depths of truth in the Scriptures? The sufficiency of Scripture is said to be complete for finding the knowledge of God. What the Apostle Paul said to the elders from the Ephesian church seems to indicate that the claim is right. He said, “I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
The Scriptures offer some guidelines, internally, for correctly finding the whole counsel of God, such as these features:
- 2 Timothy 3:16 – “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
- 3 Timothy 2:15 – “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
- Isaiah 28:9a &10 – “Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
Two other provisions are noted, too, for our help in understanding: one in Old Testament times and one for the times of the New Testament:
- Amos 3:7 – “Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets.”
- John 16:13 – “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.”
With that in place, let’s get into the discovery mode for John 3:16.
“For God” is a good starting point, like “in the beginning, God….” Why is God the one who is able to make such a promise? Who is He to make such a promise?
Many quotes in the Bible tell us of this God’s qualifications to make this promise. Here are three:
- Psalm 90:2 – “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”
- Titus 1:2 – “…in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began.”
- Numbers 23:19 – “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”
Summarized, it says God is eternal; He made His plans and promises before He created time, and He does not lie or change His mind.
“So loved” indicates a love that surpasses any type of affection that can be imagined. There are no easy examples of it, but one in the Old Testament comes about as close as finite minds can bring it. When Jacob loved Rachel so much that he gave himself to her father for seven years in order to win her to himself, it pictures the John 3:16 love (See Genesis 28-29). When Laban tricked Jacob for the hand of Rachel and gave him Leah, another daughter, Jacob again gave himself to Laban another seven years to gain Rachel for his wife. This could be seen as a picture of Jesus denied by the Jews, for whom the gospel was meant first, as in John 1:11,
“He came to His own and His own did not receive Him.” The authority figure over Rachel did not allow Jacob’s desire, just as at the trial of Jesus, they cried out, “Crucify Him, crucify Him; let His blood be upon our hands and those of our children!”
Yet Jesus prayed as He hang dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do!” In the prophecy of Zechariah, we see that they will “look upon Him whom they have pierced” and will see Him as the Messiah they had rejected (Zechariah 12:10), and that a small remnant of them (one-third) will be protected and survive to enter the millennium as mortals to replenish the earth’s population (See Zechariah 13:5 and Revelation 12:13-17).
Jacob was given Leah, then, and she bore him more sons than Rachel did later, as in John 1:12, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.”
As the Scriptures show, God’s love for mankind did not cease when His presence was rejected by His own. A wild olive branch, the Gentiles, was grafted into the natural olive branch, the Jews, and many more offspring has resulted. God so loved, unconditionally. (See Romans 11)
“The world” can only be recognized as people of the whole world, not just a select few, nor the physical world, for the word “whosoever” clearly identifies it. 1 John 2:2 specifies that truth, saying, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
Otherwise, why would Peter, an apostle, write that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance?” (2 Peter 3:9), or Paul, also an apostle, say to those men of Athens these words:
“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31)?
It is clear, then, that these Scriptures, as well as many others that use the inclusive word “all” to mean, as the Greek indicates, plainly “all” of mankind is offered salvation and must first repent before God.
“That He gave” is evidence that great love was the motivator in the mind of God, as we will later learn when we look at what He gave. The kind of love that gives rather than takes is described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a. It is selfless:
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
The fulfillment of this segment of John 3:16 is dramatically shown in the declaration Jesus made in John 10:18, that “No one takes it [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.”
“His only begotten Son” could be said as “the only Son that God ever personally fathered,” and thus broaden the meaning and the implication of that gift. Mortal man, it seems, cannot grasp the totality of that, but its significance may be somewhat magnified in Romans 8:32, “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?” In other words, the best is already given, so anything else is so much less.
By that gift of redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus in our place, when accepted, makes the believer an adopted child of God. In any court of law an adoption is legally binding upon the one who adopts another, and rejection is not allowed. Thus John 6:37 states firmly, in the words of Jesus, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”
“That whosoever” cannot mean a select few who are already decided upon. It is “whosoever” of that “whole world” of people, or the meaning of John 3:16 is made null and void of any kind of promise—empty and without integrity, even contradictory. And God does not contradict Himself; His integrity is without question. Like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, everyone who comes to Christ does so because the Holy Spirit brings conviction upon their consciences that they are sinners before God.
“Believes in Him” excludes any other object of faith man can invent that will accomplish what this belief claims it will do for the one who believes. Acts 4:12 is Peter’s resounding declaration to challenge anyone who claims there are other ways to heaven than just by Jesus Christ: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
There are some who hold that your sincerity is the main thing—you must be sincere in whatever you believe. They subscribe to the “more ways to heaven than through Christ” theory. Of course, it is obvious these have not carefully checked the Scriptures for what the qualifications are for a Savior. They are self-centered, self-willed, and do not acknowledge the reality of God as sovereign in all things. Take a lesson from Cain in that time long ago.
“Should not perish” seems to indicate a total elimination of a person, but the Scriptures tell a totally different story. The rich man in Luke 16:20-23 suffered an agonizing burning in his tongue when he came into an awful place. In other passages we are told of some being cast into “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” and finally, after the great white throne judgment, being cast into the lake of fire to be burned forever and ever! (See Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30, and Revelation 20:13-15.) It is not a pleasant thought for anyone without the blessing of salvation who is only a heartbeat away from that destiny!
“But have everlasting life!” What hope, what joy, what reassurance is found in that single phrase! “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil” (Hebrews 6:19). Just as the preceding phrase told us of everlasting death, this one tells us of everlasting life. What a contrast! And what a decision to be made!
That microscope, the whole counsel of God, has many references that point the way to that better choice, everlasting life, and 1 John 5:11-13 says it with much certainty:
“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life,and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” (NKJV and KJV include that last phrase of verse 13 while others do not, but I like it, for “know-so” is much better for our walk of faith than is “hope so” or “guess so.”)
Thus the microscope of the whole counsel of God embraces John 3:16 and magnifies its truths that have made that verse and promise one that is universally remembered by many people. May its truth transform the lives of the many who know it.
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