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.” Its 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?
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’s 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)
What a difference one little word can make. I hope this breathes 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.
Originally published Feb 21, 2019, updated May 18, 2021.