John 3:16 is, without a doubt, the most well known verse in the Bible. In fact, it might even be the most widely recognized statement in all of literature. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
This is a verse that is well known by all religious groups. Some call it "the golden text" of the Bible. Others refer to it as "the greatest passage" in the Scriptures. I suppose there is nothing wrong with having a favorite Bible verse, as long as one realizes that all of God's word is inspired, and thus, important (II Tim. 3:16,17). In conjunction with that fact, one must recognize that God does not compress all of the truth man needs to know into one simple verse. If God had only wanted us to focus upon one verse, then He would not have given us the sixty-six books of the Bible! Let me hasten to say, however, that there is nothing wrong with giving special emphasis to a certain Biblical passage, as we will do in this lesson, as long as one does so in harmony with the rest of the Scriptures.
So, with that being said, I believe there is a sense in which John 3:16 can accurately be called "the greatest" passage, not because it is better or more important than any other, but since it addresses nine of "the greatest" things. Allow me to elaborate. Let's break the verse down phrase by phrase and analyze it.
1. THE GREATEST BEING
The verse begins with the phrase: "For God..." Truly, man is a great being. Angels are even greater beings (cf. Heb. 2:9). But God Himself is the greatest of all beings! How is God the greatest of beings? Consider some of His marvelous attributes described in Psalm 139.
First, God is omniscient - "O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O LORD, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it" (Psalm 139:1-6). God is the greatest being because He knows everything.
Second, God is omnipresent - "Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall fall on me,' even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You" (Psalm 139:7-12). God is the greatest being because He is everywhere.
Third, God is omnipotent - "For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; when I awake, I am still with You" (Psalm 139:13-18). God is the greatest being because He is all-powerful. His design and creation of mankind is a testimony to this truth.
Fourth, God is absolutely righteous - "Oh, that You would slay the wicked, O God! Depart from me, therefore, you bloodthirsty men. For they speak against You wickedly; Your enemies take Your name in vain. Do I not hate them, O LORD, who hate You? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me. And lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:19-24). God will judge the world and punish the wicked. He is able to lead those who will submit to Him down the pathway of righteousness. Truly, God is the greatest being because He is perfect in righteousness.
Now, let's refocus our attention upon John 3:16.
2. THE GREATEST ATTRIBUTE
"For God so loved..." There are many great attributes to have: faith, hope, joy, peace, mercy, grace, etc. But, as Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:13 - "the greatest of these is love."
Love is an attribute of God. I John 4:8 says - "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love." God's love is impartial. Romans 5:5-8 declares - "Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Note that John 3:16 doesn't say: "God loved" . It says: "God so loved" . Don't overlook the two-letter word "so" ! It's there for a reason! It indicates the degree of God's love. Consider Romans 8:38,39 - "For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." The magnitude of God's love goes beyond our human knowledge and understanding. Ephesians 3:17-19 says - "That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height--to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."
One of my favorite stanzas among all of the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that we sing is found in F.M. Lehman's work entitled, "The Love of God," written in 1917. The lyrics for the third stanza are as follows: "Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made; were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade; to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry; nor could the scroll contain the whole tho stretched from sky to sky." Divine love is so wonderful. Love itself is certainly the greatest attribute.
3. THE GREATEST CREATION
"For God so loved the world..." Now admittedly, the physical Earth and the other planets are magnificent to consider, but comparatively speaking, mankind is the greatest creation of the Lord, and that is what is under consideration here. When John uses the word "world" here, he is not referring to planet Earth--he means all of humanity! Jesus died for the world, that is, the people, not the planet.
We are objects of God's love. Divine love is directed toward all, though many reject it. I John 2:1,2 teaches - "And He Himself [i.e., Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world." In contrast, human love is often narrow and restricted. Jesus said in Matthew 5:46 - "For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?" Having love that is narrow and restricted is better than none at all, I suppose, but God's love for the world is not narrow or restricted.
Truly, love is excellent when it is deserved. Love is more excellent when bestowed in the absence of deserving traits. And ultimately, love is most excellent when bestowed upon the undeserving. When God sent His Son, the world did not deserve His love. There was much in the world to repel His love. Yet, the love of God was and is most excellent because man was altogether unlovely--yet God still loved him! Humanity is God's greatest creation, and though undeserving, He has richly poured out His love upon us.
4. THE GREATEST ACT OF LOVE
How has God richly poured out His love upon us? Through the greatest act of love--giving! "For God so loved the world that He gave..." Jesus once said - "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Is there any greater act than giving--especially when the act is the sacrificial giving of one's life (as in the case of Jesus)?
God did not love merely in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth! Consider I John 3:16-18 - "By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth."
God is the greatest of givers! He is the giver of life (Acts 17:25). He is the giver of providential blessings (Acts 14:17). He is the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). He is the giver of that indescribable gift (II Cor. 9:15). Giving is the greatest act of love.
5. THE GREATEST GIFT
But what exactly did God give? "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." For God to have given one of many angels would have been great. For Him to have given one of many sons would have been even greater. But, for Him to give His only begotten Son was the greatest gift He could give!
The apostle John describes this love masterfully in I John 4:9-11 - "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. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sons. Beloved, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." God gave the greatest gift possible--what love!
6. THE GREATEST SCOPE
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever..." Making salvation possible for a few souls would have been great. Making salvation possible for many souls would have been greater. However, making salvation possible for all souls is the greatest, and that is what God did! Provisions for salvation have been made for whoever will accept it (on God's terms, of course). God desires that all come to repentance and be saved (II Pet. 3:9)!
The rest of the New Testament echoes this thought. Hebrews 2:9 teaches that Jesus tasted death for everyone. Jesus instructed His disciples to go and preach the gospel to everyone (Mark 16:15). Revelation 22:17 says - "And the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let him who hears say, 'Come!' And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely." Clearly there can be no greater scope for the possibility of salvation than "all the world." Praise be to God that He accepts anyone who "fears Him and works righteousness" (Acts 10:35)!
7. THE GREATEST CONDITION
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him..." All gifts have conditions for their reception, even great ones, like salvation. Gifts can be rejected.
It is certainly true that an object may be freely given with conditions for its reception. We see an allusion to this truth a few verses earlier in John 3:14 (which we discussed in yesterday's devotional) The Israelites in Numbers 21 who were bitten by serpents would physically die unless they gazed upon the bronze serpent God had instructed Moses to make. If they sat in their tents, refusing to get up and go look at the bronze serpent, they would die from the venom. This would be the case even if they believed that the bronze serpent could deliver them from physical death. Friends, the bronze serpent was a great gift from God, but no one would be healed by it without an active faith, that is, a faith that would motivate them to obey the divine conditions.
Such is still true today. Salvation is a free gift from God, and the greatest condition that God requires of man in order to receive that gift is faith-an active faith that submits to God's will completely. As Hebrews 5:9 says, Jesus is "the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him." A dead faith will not save anyone. A faith that says, "I believe, but I will not obey," will not save anyone. Those who truly believe the good news of Jesus Christ will obey the gospel (which includes faith, repentance, and baptism--e.g., Acts 16:25-34).
8. THE GREATEST CONDEMNATION
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish..." Those who believe should not perish, and they won't, as long as they remain faithful to the Lord. Revelation 2:10 says - "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." Jesus declared in Matthew 10:22 - "...he who endures to the end will be saved."
What does John mean when he speaks of perishing? "Perish" is a reference to hellfire! Matthew 25:41,46 declares - "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels'...And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." II Thessalonians 1:7-9 underscores the fact that those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of Christ will suffer God's vengeance in flaming fire; namely, "everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power." Rejecting Jesus Christ and His church will ultimately lead to the greatest condemnation possible.
9. THE GREATEST PROMISE
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." There are many great promises in the Bible, but the greatest pertains to a heavenly home with the Godhead! I John 2:25 says- "And this is the promise that He has promised us--eternal life." What could be better than the promise of life eternal? This is the opposite of everlasting death, which is promised to those who do not obey the Son (John 3:36, ASV).
Let us briefly consider some wonderful passages that speak of the heavenly realm. Revelation 21:4 - "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away." Revelation 22:5 - "There shall be no night there: they need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever." Truly, eternal life is the greatest promise of all!
Dear listeners, perhaps you've learned something new from this lesson; perhaps not. At the very least, I hope you have a deeper appreciation for John 3:16. It truly is a great passage in the Bible, when it is understood and applied properly. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.