An amazing comment, John 3:16—21

John 3:16 is arguably the most well-known verse in the whole Bible.  It was likely the first verse you memorized as a child in Sunday School.  It is such a simple verse; it is hard to believe there is actually some controversy surrounding it!  Bible scholars, who always love a good debate, are divided as to whether these are Jesus’ words or John’s.  Did Jesus speak the famous John 3:16 or is John 3:16 part of John’s comments on what Jesus had said to Nicodemus?

The translators of the NIV have decided that Jesus spoke these words, and so in “red-letter” editions of the NIV, John 3:16—21 is printed in red.  That same body of scholars changed their collective mind with their revision of the NIV, which is known as the TNIV.  In the TNIV, John 3:16—21 is attributed John and footnoted thusly:

Some interpreters end the quotation with verse 21.

For my part, I have always thought that this paragraph represented John’s thoughts, not Jesus’ words.  But regardless who you think is responsible for John 3:16—21, the paragraph is definitely inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the words are profound and life changing.

1.  Limitless love, verse 16

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.

This, the golden text of the Bible, declares that God’s infinite love was manifested in an infinitely glorious manner!  God’s love is a major theme in John’s Gospel, yet this is the very first mention of it.  Hendriksen has succinctly observed that this single verse sheds much needed light on the very essence of God’s love:

  1. It’s characterso loved.  In the Greek, the tense indicates a timeless quality to God’s love, for it reaches back into eternity and stretches forth into infinity, but it came to fruition in the Person and work of the Son of God.  Like God, His love had no beginning and will have no end.  The implications are startling!
  2. It’s AuthorGod so loved.  This love originated in the heart and mind of God.  He loved us before we were even capable of loving Him back!   Once again, the implications are staggering.   For example, God’s love for me is not conditioned by my love for Him or my behavior.  I cannot make God love me more by being nicer.  Because of my faith in His Son, God loves me as He loves Jesus.
  3. It’s object:  the world.  Though mired in sin, all human beings (Jew or Gentile) still bear the image of their Creator to a certain degree.  As beautiful as the rest of God’s creation may be, “the world” refers only to human beings, as indicated by their need to “believe.”
  4. It’s gift:  God’s unique Son.  The way this phrase appears in the Greek emphasizes the incredible greatness of God’s gift:  “that his Son, the only-begotten, he gave.”  Though this act of giving is often described by the verb “sent” elsewhere in this Gospel, the idea here is that Jesus Christ’s coming into our world is God’s singular gift to man.  The tense of the verb “gave” speaks of the total act of giving.  God gave without holding anything back.   He gave His “one and only Son,” which is a way of describing the precious and unique nature of God’s unspeakably great gift.
  5. It’s purposethat whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  Here the alternatives are set:  life or death!  God’s gift of Jesus Christ has made it possible for man to make the choice; to respond in faith.  Interestingly, the verbs “perish” and “have” are written in two different tenses.   “Perish” is in the aorist tense, meaning “once for all time” exiled from God’s presence.  “Have,” as in “to have eternal life,” is in the present tense, indicating that eternal life may be possessed right now and carried into eternity by the one possessing it.  The contrast is stark:  to receive eternal life, one has to believe in Christ.   But to perish, all one has to do nothing.

Salvation is God’s remarkable gift to man, but it is a gift received only upon believing God for it.  Belief (or faith) means accepting something, not doing something.  The direct result of belief is that the one believing in Christ receives eternal life; he is no longer under condemnation for his sins and is free to live in peace with God because he knows that he has nothing to fear from God ever again.

2.  No more condemnation, verses 17, 18

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

How these two verses must have rocked Nicodemus’ world!  As far as the Jews were concerned, when the Messiah comes, He would come with condemnation and judgment for all the nations that opposed and oppressed Israel from its birth, but not for Israel.  Though this misunderstanding of prophecy was taught by the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, it was soundly condemned generations earlier by one of their very own prophets!

Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD ? That day will be darkness, not light.  (Amos 5:18—20, verse 18 cited)

The plain teaching of verse 17 is crystal clear and stands against the Pharisaic exclusivism that characterized Judaism in NT times.  God’s Son, the Messiah, had arrived, and instead of bringing condemnation and judgment, He brought salvation.  Of course, judgment is inevitable; but it is man who brings it on himself if he stubbornly refuses to accept God’s Gift.

God’s purpose in sending Jesus Christ into the world was to show His love and to draw sinful man to Himself.  Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev once wrote, “Man is free to choose torment without God rather than happiness in God; he has a right to hell, as it were.” If any human being is lost, it is solely because they have not committed themselves to God.

Judgment and condemnation, however, are not part of the believer’s life.  Literally, verse 18 looks like this:  He who puts his faith into him [Jesus Christ] is not being judged.  In vivid contrast to the believer stands the unbeliever who refuses to believe.  The strength of the contrast brought out in verse 18 is strengthened by the verbs “is not condemned” and “have not believed,” which are written in the prefect tense in the original, which means that the present state of the unbeliever (condemned) is a fact; because of his unbelief, he has already been judged.

3.  The verdict is in, verses 19—21

The TNIV’s translation of verse 19 is more accurate than the KJV and captures the sense of the original Greek—

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  (KJV)

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  (TNIV)

With verse 19, the light/dark imagery comes into play as John attempts to explain what he has just written regarding the current condemned state of unbelievers.  Some people may not have accepted the truth of the standing of unbelievers; surely such a truth would have been difficult for Nicodemus to swallow!  The big difference between the believer and the unbeliever does not lie in the guilt or innocence of either, or whether some found pardon or not; it lies in their attitude toward the “light.”  The unbeliever ignores the light because it reveals his sin.  In fact, not only do unbelievers prefer the darkness, they actually “love” it!  The unbelievers John is referring to are those who could not be described as ignorant, never having heard the Gospel, rather those whose works are evil.

Both faith and unbelief have their inevitable consequences, which are enumerated in verses 20 and 21.

All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.  (verse 21)

There are two striking things about the unbeliever in this verse.  First, an unbeliever does not believe in and does not have faith in Jesus Christ and as a result hates Him.  It is not a question of having some love for Christ; one who has not confessed Christ as Savior has no love for Him; he hates Him.  There is no in-between.  And to “hate the light” is love evil and do evil.  Second, this person consciously avoids the light; they will have nothing to do with anything that comes close to Jesus Christ.

Ever wonder why there is so much antipathy toward the Church?  Every wonder why some people just won’t come to church?  The answer is simple:  the Church is the Body of Christ, and those who don’t love Him won’t love His Church.  This person not only avoids the Church, but avoids the Bible and other Christians.  Why does this person hate the light and anything associated with the light?  It is because the light exposes his sin.

The sequence is very clear:  unbelief –> darkness –> evil deeds.  Unbelief and evil living go hand in hand.  A person who says they are “good” even though they have no relationship with Christ is deluded.

On the other hand, however, and in contrast, in a person of faith—

But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.  (verse 22)

Note the sequence of events for the believer:  faith–> life –> light –> good deeds.  To live a “good life,” one must live in the light. To be a “good person,” you have to be a holy person.  The two are inseparable.  Another contrast between those who believe and those who do not is this:  though the unbeliever may in fact do good things, they count for nothing because they are done in the darkness; the believer’s good deeds, because they are done in the light, are seen by God.

Here is the point.  Some people may be tempted to confuse acts of kindness and good citizenship with a relationship with Christ.  Without Christ, a person cannot be considered a “good person,” no matter how good they may appear to be.  Why?  Because they are not living by the truth.  A believer lives by the truth so that when they do “good deeds” they are doing them with a pure motive and in the light.  Even though a believer and an unbeliever, side by side, may do the same “good deed,” only the believer has done his in the light, in the sight of God, seeking God’s approval, according to God’s law.  Nothing an unbeliever can do can bring him from the darkness into the light; only a work of God in his heart can do that.  For that work of God to take place, this person  must believe in Christ and place his full faith and confidence in Him.

(c)  2010, WitzEnd

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