“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.” – John 3:16
This Bible verse, John 3:16, is one of the most well known passages of scripture in the Bible. Children throughout Sunday School’s memorized this verse and it was a favorite of preachers in many revivals, such as Billy Graham preaching to a stadium. Even those who never read the Bible may remember people holding up signs that read “John 3:16” at various sporting events such as seen in the picture above.
Yes, that is how popular John 3:16 has been. The passage has been a source of debate. Is it really true that we simply must believe in Jesus to receive the promise of eternal life? Well, that is what the passage says. Ok, then. But what about repentance and baptism? Doesn’t Jesus call people to repentance and re not those who respond to the gospel message in the book of Acts called to be baptized? And, of course, the answer to all of these questions is an easy “Yes!”
But these questions also seem more like a big adventure in missing the point because they are not the questions John is answering when he wrote John 3:16.
This might make more sense if we first recognize that John 3:16 is not the words of Jesus, but the commentary of John in response to a conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus. That conversation is about being born again and seeing the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5-8:
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
While some interpreters see water and Spirit as a reference to baptism, these terms have more to do with life. For example, the vision in Ezekiel 36:25-27 suggests “a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195). Such newness of life comes from God alone and that is Jesus’ point to Nicodemus.
Keep in mind that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such, he believes that God will restore the kingdom when Israel returns to a strict observance of the Law and its traditions. While Jesus is not anti-Law, he is correcting the misunderstanding of Nicodemus. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God depends on the work of God but Nicodemus doesn’t get this and asks how this is possible (v. 9). So Jesus says in vv. 14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believesmay have eternal life in him.” Alluding to his own pending crucifixion and resurrection (Slovan, John, 46), Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this is how God is ushering in the kingdom and this is what he must believe.
The point is simple but important: whoever wants to participate in the kingdom then must believe that God is at work in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe in Jesus and why John sums up the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus by saying in v. 16-17, “…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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
This is gospel or good news to us. It’s good news for fundamentalists and legalists but such people may have the hardest time accepting this good news. Those who are trapped in fundamentalist and legalism often believe they must “get themselves right with God” so to speak. In my own experience, participating in the eternal kingdom of God required “sound doctrine” and attending the “right” church. For others it might have to do with not watching any movies, using the KJV Bible only, and so forth. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not trying to suggest that doctrine doesn’t matter or that moral relativism is ok. The point is this: we will only see the kingdom of God by believing that it is possible because of what God has done in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.
Anything else is doomed to failure and we know this because we know we are sinners. Even if we give an A+ effort, we still come up with the results of B or C or… Yes, sometimes we even get an F. The good news is that we’re no longer burned with the task of trying to get a good enough grade, because God loves us and has given his only Son, Jesus Christ, for us so that we too might see the kingdom of God and thus share in eternal life with God.
This I believe!
Can you believe?