For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16
And the original:
Οὕτω γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον
John has been gradually revealing Jesus as God (e.g. John 1:1-4) – first explicitly and then through narration.
Chapter 1 begins with the witness of John the Baptist; then Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of Nathanael (John 1:48-49).
Chapter 2 describes His first miracle in Cana (authority over the natural world) and the cleansing of the temple, again pointing to Jesus’ deity (His authority over worship).
In the verses preceding what we call chapter 3, Jesus has already prophesied His future death and resurrection (John 2:19-22), followed by an emphasis on faith, genuine and false. This is key in understanding the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
The opening verse (3:1) uses “δε”, a conjunction that ties the previous passage (2:25) with this one. We are to understand that this conversation continues the issue of genuine and false faith, and especially the fact that Jesus actually knows His own (cf. John 10:27).
- γὰρ (for, because): An explanation of the snake in the wilderness of v.15. Jesus has already spoken about eternal life. He has mentioned His death and atonement, but He puts it in a context that Nicodemus can understand (cf. v.4), and that draws upon Scripture for evidence. Salvation by faith is not something new and unheard of; it has been exemplified and foretold in the word of God. It is also a subtle indictment of the Jews lack of understanding of the Scriptures (cf. v. 11-12).
- Οὕτω (in this way/manner, so much): Signifies the intensity of God’s love for a fallen, sinful, rebellious world. The driving force behind Jesus’ sacrifice is the love (ἠγάπησεν) of the Father for sinful creatures. How different a view to the legalism that Nicodemus must have been used to! Also note that the passage begins with God. Salvation originates with God’s sovereign will, not man’s worth or need or misery.
- τὸν κόσμον (the world): Does this refer to the entire world, or only the elect? Taken on face value, Jesus is telling us that God loved the world, indiscriminately. However, John himself will make it very clear in his gospel that this love translates into the salvation of only those whom God will draw, not everyone (John 6:44).
- ὥστε (that, so that): God’s love results in specific action. It is not a mere nebulous sentiment; it also exemplifies the way Christians should demonstrate love – in action, not in mere word (cf. 1 John 3:18).
- τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν (He gave His only Son): Salvation involves the Trinity. Also an emphasis on God’s voluntary sacrifice; the Cross cost God deeply and profoundly.
- ἵνα (so that): The end result of God’s loving action, and the way of salvation.
- πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων: Literarily “everyone who is believing” rather than the usual “everyone who believes”. The person that will be saved is now characterised by continuous saving faith. Faith is the key, and persevering faith marks the true believer. Again, we see an implication for the sovereign work of God in salvation.
- εἰς αὐτὸν (in Him): Saving faith has a specific object – Jesus Christ. It is not faith in itself that saves as if it were a work to be rewarded with eternal life. Saving faith demands the complete resignation from our own good works, talents, abilities, resources and righteousness and replacing that with a complete trust, clinging and submission to the perfect righteousness of Christ. Believing in Christ means I stop believing in me.
- μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον (will/should not perish, but will have eternal life): The great promise of the gospel is not simply to avoid God’s judgment on our sin and be saved from eternal damnation in hell – though that would certainly be enough! Believers in Christ enjoy the restoration of unquenchable life within them. They taste it on this side of eternity, but they will drown in it in the glory of heaven.
In this passage Jesus tells us that salvation cannot be bought by redeemable good works. Instead, it is a work of God and the key to it is complete faith in Christ rather than ourselves. So simple, and yet so profoundly difficult and hurtful to human pride that it requires God’s drawing in order to take place (cf. John 6:44).