What Does John 3:16 Really Mean
When the Bible was first written it did not have chapter and verse divisions. These were added centuries later. We take the chapter sections and verses for granted today. These divisions are helpful in locating and referencing passages in the Bible. It is much easier to locate John 3:16 rather than to say “turn to page 1386 and look at the fourth sentence in the third paragraph from the top.” Even if we tried to do this it would not work because different Bibles have different page numbers. The chapter and verse divisions are helpful but they can also lead to confusion if we are not careful. Because of the verse notations, some people treat each verse as if it stands alone. I call this “Proverbialization.” I use this invented word to sarcastically say that people treat the entire Bible as if it should be read the same way we read the Proverbs.
The Book of Proverbs is unique even in the wisdom literature genre. It contains short, pithy statements that are memorable and impart wisdom. The verses from the Proverbs are easily made into mottoes with little danger because the book was written for that purpose. Books like John are not wisdom literature. They are structured as a narrative. The book is closer to a story or an account of what occurred. Verse 16 of John chapter 3 is located in a very important conversation. The chapter gives the account of a religious expert talking to Jesus and the non-response of Jesus to him. I say non-response because if you read chapter 3 from the book of John you might be shocked to notice that Jesus does not acknowledge the opening statements of Nicodemus.
It only takes a few minutes to read the whole chapter. Even a slow and careful reader can finish the chapter in about 4 or 5 minutes. Take a few minutes now to read John 3. I have removed the verse references for the purpose of establishing context. Do not be tempted to skip reading the chapter. Please, just read it now. 2
Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so, must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
Be honest. Did you think for a second, “I am not going to read that. I already know it"? If so, then you just proved my point. Familiarity breeds contempt. I hope this is not the case. If you did not read it please go back and do so now. You will need to read the text before we proceed or else what I am going to say will not make any sense. When Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus and when John recorded these words through the power of the Holy Spirit, there were no chapter and verse references. By looking at the text without the divisions or verse numbers as we read the text, we can see the connection and flow of the conversation. Please notice that John 3:16 is one sentence in a conversation between two people. We can take one sentence from any person and develop a false or incomplete view of what they said. We do this often with Scripture. I don’t think it is intentional or malicious but I do think it is dangerous.
There is a terrible tendency to treat every book of the Bible is like the book of the Proverbs. The tendency is to take one verse separated from the context and attempt to develop doctrine from that one verse. When we talk about the interpretation of Scripture, context is essential. Let me give a few examples of what I mean.
While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body. Matthew 26:26
If all we had was this one verse alone, or just the phrase “Take, eat this is my body,” we could argue that Jesus is teaching that cannibalism is acceptable. After all, He invites us to eat his body. Of course, this is ridiculous and you might say no one would teach that but people do the same thing with so many other verses. Here is another example:
...The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging, we are healed. Isaiah 53:5b
This verse is used by some people to teach that God guarantees to heal all Christians of sickness and disease. They further develop this doctrine by bringing in pieces of other texts to conclude that if a person is not healed it is because of sin that has not been confessed, demonic oppression or the lack of faith. But they miss the point of the text by removing the verse from the context. When we remove a verse from its context it is very easy to twist that verse and make it mean almost anything, including interpretations which have nothing to do with the original intent of the author.
Verses 1-4 of Isaiah 53 tell us that the text is about the “suffering servant” and the point being taught is that He will pay for our sins (v.4b- 5a: “Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities...”). This passage is not about physical healing but about spiritual healing. Jesus will pay for our sins and we will be healed from the disease of sin which we inherited from Adam.
When we come to John 3:16 we must recognize that the only way to properly interpret this verse is in light of the context. By context, I mean both the immediate verses and all the other passages of Scripture. Every verse has a “home” and we cannot remove it from its place. We also have to consider every verse in light of the entirety of the Bible. No verse in the Bible can contradict any other part of the Bible. All verses are “God-breathed”3 and therefore of equal weight and authority. We must first establish what was meant when the verse was originally spoken or written. Any interpretation of verses must agree with the original intent and also not contradict the rest of the Bible.
The Bible is one unit and one story with one author. God is the author of all Scripture. Each verse comes from Him and it would be impossible for a perfect God to contradict Himself or to say anything that is not true.