“So” Misunderstood – John 3:16 Might Not Mean What You Think

by | Faith and Reason | 13 comments

John 3:16 is arguably the best known verse in the Bible. It shows up on signs, cards, posters, billboards, t-shirts and even at football games. Martin Luther referred to it as “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.” It’s words are a delight for saints and solace for sinners.

“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.” (John 3:16)

But could it be that for all its familiarity we have been blinded to its meaning?As a pastor I learned what I thought was a cleaver way to illustrate the meaning of John 3:16. I would stand to the side of the pulpit, stretch my arms out wide and say, “Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross was God’s way of saying that he loves us ‘this much’”; giving my arms a little extra stretch for emphasis. But is that what John 3:16 is really telling us? Turns out that I was making the mistake that many make about the meaning of one little word – “so”.

So What’s The Big Deal About “So”?

Words like “so” are why so many people find learning English so difficult. Wouldn’t you say so? In most English Bibles John 3:16 begins like this: “For God so loved the world”. Read this way there are two possible meanings. One is for “so” to mean the extent or amount of God’s love for the world, as in the Message version of the New Testament which says:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son.”

The second is for “so” to mean the manner or way that God loved the world, as in the New Living Translation which says:

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son.”

So…which is it? The answer is the latter. The Greek word ‘houtos’ translated “so” in English actually means “thus” or “in this manner”. And yet most Christians have grown up being taught that John 3:16 is telling us how much God loves us. But then hey, does it really even matter?

So What?

It might not seem like a big difference but the meaning of “so” will completely change the way that you read, understand and be impacted by John 3:16. Here is why…

When we read “God loved the world so much” our focus is immediately put on us. It makes the Father’s motivation for sacrificing his Son the amount of his love for humanity, as if he simply could not do without us and would do anything to get us back. This idea has even crept into our music, like Hillsong’s “What a Beautiful Name”. In an otherwise wonderful worship chorus the one line that I can never bring myself to sing is this:

“You didn’t want heaven without us,

So Jesus, You brought heaven down.”

The biggest problem with this idea is that it’s not in the Bible. What’s more it completely reverses the truth of the gospel. It wasn’t our worth that brought Jesus down; rather his coming down brought us our worth. This difference is no small thing, especially in our idolatrous culture of self-love. One of the greatest lies is that God needs us. He doesn’t. That idea is the heart of all false religion. God doesn’t depend on and needs nothing from his creation. This was the Apostle Paul’s opening correction to the Greeks he brought the gospel to in Athens:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24-25)

When we read “This is how God loves the world” however, our attention rightly focuses on God. It reveals to us something about God and the nature of his love, namely that it is entirely boundless, selfless and gracious. It’s not because he needed us that God loved us this way; quite the reverse. It’s because we need him. The Father’s motive for sending Jesus was actually his love for the Son and his desire to glorify the Son. Listen to what Jesus says to the Father in John 17:24:

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.”

Salvation through Jesus death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is all about the Father glorifying the Son whom he loves. Christians are the Father’s gift to Jesus. We are his inheritance. And Jesus is glorified because through our union with him by faith he has drawn us into his eternal love relationship with the Father.  Listen to Jesus again:

“[Father] I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26)

Conclusion:

What a difference one little word can make. I hope this breaths some fresh life into John 3:16 for you. The wonder of the gospel is in the nature, not the amount of God’s love. By giving his Son God has shown his intention to make you his child. He wants to love you with the same love that he has for Jesus. How can this be? Because this is the way that God loves.

What a powerful gospel. 

What a glorious Saviour.

What a difference one little word can make.


13 Comments

  1. Sharlet Hodsgon

    Excellent post Scott!
    A fresh look at John 3:16 with the focus on God and his character, not us. That line in hillsong’s song has bugged me ever since I first heard it.

    Reply
  2. Jon Korkidakis

    Nicely done Scott. Always appreciate when the Greek is handled masterfully.

    Reply
  3. Jonathan Ferrier

    A good precise reminder Scott. Thank you. One caveat. When we think of how he loved us, it is an incredible love. However His love is not great because of the object, but rather the source. His love is so great because He is so great…it flows from His character. We still sing that song, but that line has bugged us so much, that we changed that line, to make it theologically correct.

    Reply
  4. Phil

    That’s really thought provoking and insightful, Scott. Thanks!

    Reply
  5. Bill Bohlender

    The context tells us what the verse REALLY means. Nicodemus was a Jew. He like most of his race, believed that God only loved and would save only (His) people. Jesus was telling his that God so loved the WORLD – and that any in the world who believed the gospel would be saved. These are His people. Not all in the world, but those who trusted and believed would His people. There is no distinction between ANY race or people, but some from all will be saved.

    Reply
  6. JM

    While on the one hand I agree – the Greek is plain when you know how to read it – the extent and amount of God’s love is also made plain in scripture. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us that we would be called children of God – and that is what we are…” (just for example). His love is immense, and He has chosen to direct that love and affection at his creation.

    You make a big deal of the line in that song because you think it’s too man-centric, but then mix and match “want” and “need” as you please. God doesn’t need us! He doesn’t need anything, and we have nothing of worth in ourselves to offer Him. But He wants us. He endured the cross for the joy that would later be His – restored relationship with His children. If He didn’t want us, He wouldn’t have come… but He did come! And it’s not wrong to bask in humble amazement that the God of the universe would come… for me… because he wanted me back.

    That’s amazing love…

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      Hi John,

      Thank you for the time and thought you gave reading this post and commenting on it. I always appreciate when people interact with our material.

      There are a couple points worth discussing here if you like.

      1. Can you find a different verse that refers to the amount of God’s love? 1 John 3:1 actually doesn’t. The word “great” there is an English translation of the Greek word ‘patopos’, an adjective meaning “what kind, what sort, what manner of”. “Great” is being used here qualitatively, (e.g. “He was a great man”) not quantitively (e.g. “there was a great multitude”) This is why many other translations render it “Behold,what manner of love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God…”

      2. I wasn’t meaning to confuse the word “want” with “need”, but to clarify it. The word “want” on its own is ambiguous. I wasn’t arguing that God doesn’t want us. Of course, he does. Otherwise, you’re right, He wouldn’t have come.

      I’m also glad that you can worship and bask in amazement that the God of the universe would want you. I do also, and how amazing that is.

      The whole point of the article, however, wasn’t to diminish our amazement that God would want us, but to help us thinking more clearly and biblically about WHY God wants us. You’re absolutely right. It isn’t because God needs us. But then why does He want us?

      Reply
  7. sam

    But the verse also says about man’s role in salvation, believe or rather as the theme of John keep on believing.

    How can we say that it is not talking about Gospel.

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      Hi Sam. Thanks for your question. I don’t think that I ever said John 3:16 wasn’t talking about the Gospel? Can you tell me specifically which part of the article you got this impression from?

      – God bless!

      Reply
  8. Dawn

    Thank-you, for this lens on John 3:16 … I’m wondering how you read the “should” not perish.

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      Hi Dawn. Thanks for your comment and question.

      Translations vary from “should not” (KJV,ESV), “shall not” (NASB), “will not” (NIV,NLT). In the Greek there is no actual word there for “should”, “shall” or “will”. Rather, it is supplied by the form that the verb “perish” takes.(aorist subjunctive) In this case, the verb form carries the weight ofcertainty. “Will certainly not perish” would be another way of stating it.

      Reply
  9. Gi

    If Ezequiel 33:11 says God doesn’t want us to perish is becuase He wants us in heaven, doesn’t it?

    I understood by your article you were saying God doesn’t need us nor wants us in heaven. I hope you see this comment and clarify for me this questions have a nice day!

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      Thanks for your question Gi. Yes, I did say that God doesn’t need us, because he doesn’t. God is entirely complete and satisfied in his own being. (See Job 41:11; Psalm 90:2; Acts 17:24-25; Romans 11:35-36) So we must never think of his response or actions toward us as somehow coming from any need he has. He didn’t create us because he needed to, nor did he send Christ to rescue us because he needed us.

      I did not, however, say or mean to say that God doesn’t want us. Indeed he does, as the passage in Ezekiel 33:11 you quoted points out. Of course God loves us, and wants every person to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).

      The point is not whether God wants us (he does) but WHY he wants us. The purpose of the article was to help us shift our thinking about God’s love from ourselves to Him. And the reasons this is important is so that the praise and thanks we give to God for his love is 100% for his glory, and 0% for our glory.

      I hope that helps to clarify any misunderstanding for you.

      God bless!

      Reply

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