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

by | Faith and Reason | 20 comments

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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 wasn’t our worth that brought Jesus down; rather his coming down brought us our worth.

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’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:

The Father’s motive for sending Jesus was actually his love for the Son and his desire to glorify the Son. 

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 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.


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20 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
      • SLA

        I have to agree about the meaning of that line in the song. It used to trip me up, too, until I realized that God CREATED us for some reason. The reason was He wanted our companionship. It’s a little tricky to say He “didn’t want Heaven without us”, as I would say, “He wanted heaven to have us in it (subtle difference, but it’s there). But then as a musician I realize you have to work within the confines of the meter when writing lyrics, and therefore that’s probably the best way they could express it without messing with the meter.

        I will say that, while I love HIllsong Worship and Hillsong United’s music, occasionally I do detect some human-centric focus. I just don’t choose to listen to those songs. In many ways their music has helped me through days of feeling worthless and unlovable and like a failure as a Christian (things leftover from my childhood in a very conservative church), and they remind me Whose I am and that He is FOR me, not AGAINST me. (I realize you’re not attacking them at all, just throwing that in there because many do.)

        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
  10. Anne

    Thank you. I found this while looking up why God says … so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. It’s the might that I am focusing on since it requires something from us as His. This verse is so often used to sum up all a person needs to do. He wants us to be completely and fully His. God bless you and your ministry.

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      Thank you for your comments and blessing Anne. May the Lord continue to deepen your faith and knowledge of his grace, and his love for your in Jesus.

      – Scott Stein

      Reply
  11. P. forsythe

    In my reflection John 3:16, it is billions of dads seeking to transform their child’s like but in a combined move that gives a chance for a better world where love is unchallenged. Itis embarrassed by each family.

    It is because dads love their sons that they want to make the world a place where more caring , love, compassion exists.

    For dad’s dreams of a time when there is more heart in the minds of fathers like him. To create the dream a little bit in each heart makes the transformation of a neighborhood and then the world.

    Would you like to give some advice on how I could improve to something as beautiful as John 3:16?

    Reply
  12. Thomas

    John 3:16 (RVR)

    Porque de tal manera amó Dios al mundo, que ha dado a su Hijo unigénito, para que todo aquel que en él cree, no se pierda, mas tenga vida eterna.

    For of this manner showed love God to the world, that he gave to his Son only begotten, for that all who in him believe, they no perish, but have life eternal. (If the English is bad its because I was trying to follow the Spanish word order as much as possible.)

    I think that universe might be a better translation here for world.

    For in this manner God showed love to the universe, that he gave to his Son only begotten all who believe in him, that they should not perish, but have life eternal.

    Notice in Spanish (God in this manner showed) His love to the universe, not his love for the world. Also all who believe are given to the Son, not the Son given to the world.

    I understand most of the Greek for John 3:16, but the word order going into English is even harder to figure out with some words having to be understood.

    Reply
  13. Ray Bailey

    Well done! I have long seen John 3:1-21 as a larger context than just about salvation. John 3:16 is WHY he sent Yeshua Jesus. But the entire passage including, water, flesh, etc.. is certainly a cosmological explanation for the existence of the creation! That John 3:16 exists is because he created us as a hybrid spirit/physical person. Both 50/50 with no one part more or less than the other. Yet ino roder to keep the psirit life, and become fully human, we must receive Yeshua Jesus.
    So 3:156 is the center, but Jesus is teaching Nicodemus Cosmology!
    John deliberately wrote John 1 opening to explain Jesus was the “light” of Genesis 1:1. Here in 3:1-21, he explains the rest of the creation of spirit and physical world “Water” (physical) and spirit (soul) just as Adam was physically created from the ground (physical) and Holy Sprit blew Breath of Life (spirit) into him.
    Anyway, good catch on “So!”

    Reply
  14. Chad Newton

    I hear John 3:16 from people all the time and I have to admit I was using to tell others how to get saved; UNTIL, I was taught by my Pastor that verse in itself would have saved you back when Jesus walked the earth! Also, Jesus came to save his people the Jews and if a Gentile wanted to get saved, then the Gentile Men and Women had to convert to Judaism. That meant the Gentile Men has to be circumcised; boy ol boy a Gentile man had to have some serious Faith in Jesus and I am sure many walked away. Snip Snip did not bowed well with adult men, if you know what I mean. lol!
    Also, most people don’t even realize that the way people got saved changed later and after Jesus hung on the Cross. It went from Believing in the Name of Jesus to Trusting IN WHAT Jesus did on the Cross to pay for all our sins. My Pastor pointed out 2nd Timothy 2:15 that says to Rightly Divide the word of GOD… I see people quoting verses on Salvation that do not pertain to 1st Corinthians 15:1-4 as that is The Gospel of Jesus the Christ for us today and verse three refers to the Shed Blood of Jesus (so many miss what verse 3 means.) SO, they hang their own necks and will miss out on going to Heaven.
    Quite amazing how messed up people are on Salvation and all over the map on Salvation. It saddens my heart!

    Reply

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