John 3:16 is well known in the King James translation: “God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Now, here’s an interesting bit of translation (and exegetical) detail regarding this verse. For most of us, when we read this verse (or recite it), I think we tend to give an interpretive nuance based on the little word “so.” At least that was true for me for a long time. Under this kind of nuance the verse would be understood to be saying something like: “God loved the world so much that He gave . . ..” But a careful look at the Greek in which John’s gospel is written is much more accurately translated: “God loved the world in such a way that He gave His Only Begotten. . ..” When you read the first part of the verse in this way, it is clear that the emphasis is not upon the “quantity” of love that motivated God, but upon the –qualitative nature of God’s love. John 3:16 is telling us about the very essence of the love that God has for His human creatures and His world. That essence is pure self-giving, us-oriented sacrificial love.
When people say that God loves us “unconditionally,” I know they mean well and even think they are being biblical by describing God’s love in this way. But the word “unconditional” is misleading and it is not nearly strong enough to describe the love that God has and shows. Of course, the kind of love God shows (because this is the very nature of God) is not something we could ever merit by some action on our part. In fact, if we could merit it (or earn it) that would mean we deserve it. So, God’s action toward the lost world by sending His Only Begotten would not be an act of love. Rather, it would be a matter of God acting justly towards us: giving us something we are due. However, the action of God in giving to the world His Only Begotten is a sacrificial offering that the term “unconditional” cannot begin to describe. God’s love for us is utterly unmerited and is absolutely a gift of God’s self-giving concern for the miserable condition in which human beings have placed ourselves. God loves us by giving us His One and Only.
In seeking to redeem and save us, God does not look to one of his angelic messengers to bring us instructions and communication from God. He does not tell us what we need to change. Nor does God send one of His angels to die for us. He has many angels who do his bidding. How many we do not know, but the Christian tradition has insisted that there are a host. The point being…God has a vast supply of angelic servants. Rather than look to send one of the multitudes of heavenly hosts to save the world (John 3:17), God sends us His One and Only Son. The Greek word in John 3:16 is monogeneis, which literally translated means the Only One of Its Kind. Further, in the Greek this monogeneis is called ton huion – the Son. Think about this verse in a new light: For God’s self-giving, us-oriented sacrificial love for the world is so majestic and gracious that He gave the Only One He had – His Son – so that any who would believe in the glory and grandeur and grace of this gift do not have to experience death as the final word, but can be filled with LIFE from God’s own Son. The very nature of God’s love is that He is utterly self-giving towards us, even before we could recognize we needed anything.
So, God sent His Son into the world, into darkness and into despair and into a sin-deadened world, so that by believing in Jesus those who believe could receive life. It is important for us to remember that John 3:16 is kind of the capstone of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus who Jesus tells any person who wants to seek God’s Kingdom and really belong to God must be born again. To be born again does not mean we “get a second chance.” It means we get recreated into something that we could not be without the gift of God’s saving grace.
God did not send Jesus into the world just so our sins could be forgiven. He sent Jesus into the world so that we could be made into something new and glorious. When we receive Jesus, we are being Reborn into new persons – persons who refuse the darkness, despair, deception, and death of sin. We are Reborn into persons who should reflect the greatness of the gift…persons who are the children of God (John 1:12) …persons who begin to live in the power of God’s One and Only Son…persons who live out our lives like Jesus, the gift of God’s love. The problem so often is that we recreate Jesus into the image we want him to be, rather than being recreated into what he wants us to be. He came that we could be restored to moral holiness that embraces God’s law, spiritual fullness always depends on grace, and loving selflessness that helps others find God’s will and presence.
Who does your life look like?