A go-to verse for so many regarding salvation and the source of that salvation.
It is a wonderful verse and should never be degraded as it is also a part of the Word of God.
Unfortunately, this has not stopped many from ripping this text from its surrounding context and effectively reading into it what they want it to mean–this is called eisegesis. They often take this action even further still and rip it from the context of the rest of Scripture and make it say all kinds of things it was never made to say.
To do this passage proper honor, we must not tear it from the rest of the equally honorable text to which it is a part.
So let us dive into this verse and seek to understand it as it was meant to be by its writer, the Apostle John, and the ultimate inspiration, the Lord God.
What does John 3:16 say?
Well, to get to the root, it is best to read it in the original language it was written. There are those who have gone at least this far many times before; however, they often target specific words rather than the entire text. Here, we’ll be looking at the entire verse in Koine Greek (the original language it was written in).
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
Let’s break that verse down and parse out the meanings and verbs. (I’m going to go a bit overboard deliberately here. I know most would simply zero in on specific words, like “world”, but I want to be thorough and present each of the words within the Greek context of the verse–above and beyond for the reader’s use and reference.)
- Οὕτως – adverb. in this way, thus
- γὰρ – conjunction. for
- ἠγάπησεν – aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb (to love) from ἀγαπάω. He/she/it loved
- ὁ θεὸς – articular nominative masculine singular noun. God
- τὸν κόσμον – articular accusative masculine singular noun
- ὥστε – conjunction. so then, therefore, so that
- τὸν υἱὸν – articular accusative masculine singular noun
- τὸν μονογενῆ – articular accusative masculine adjective
- ἔδωκεν – aorist active indicative 3rd person singular verb (to give) from δίδωμι. He/she/it gave
- ἵνα – conjunction. in order that, so that
- πᾶς – nominative masculine singular adjective. everyone
- ὁ – nominative masculine singular article. This article goes with the following participle.
- πιστεύων – articular present active participle, nominative masculine singular (to believe) from πιστεύω. believes/believing
- εἰς – preposition. in
- αὐτὸν – personal third-person accusative masculine singular pronoun. he/she/it
- μὴ – negative. no/not
- ἀπόληται – aorist middle subjunctive 3rd person singular verb (to perish) from ἀπόλλυμι.
- combined with the previous, this often becomes “(he/she/it) shall not perish”; there’s a potential/possibility here to not be destroyed
- ἀλλὰ – conjunction (contrasting). but
- ἔχῃ – present active subjunctive 3rd person singular verb (to have) from ἔχω.
- this connects to the previous subjunctive as it is in the same mood and is contrasted to it because of the ἀλλὰ
- but he/she/it shall have
- ζωὴν – accusative feminine singular noun. life
- αἰώνιον – accusative feminine singular adjective. eternal
So let’s unpack a few things here.
By no means do I intend to turn this into an entire English/Greek lesson but it does not hurt to have some of the terms used above listed here for your reference.
|accusative||noun/participle case; used to identify the direct object|
|adjective||modifies a noun; the extremely hot day . . .|
|adverb||modifies a verb; he quickly ran the race.|
|article/articular||presence of what would be the or a/an in English.|
|conjunction||connecting words; so, and, but, for, etc.|
|dative||noun/participle case; indirect object; preposition object|
|genitive||noun/participle case; possessive case; noun modifier|
|indicative||mood; communicates something factual or real|
|nominative||noun/participle case; used to identify the subject|
|subjunctive||mood; communicates something potential or a possibility|
There is so much that we can dive into here such that a lengthy article (or more) could be written on the Greek alone. However, instead, let us focus on the very beginning words we see here in Greek. We get meanings like “for” and “thus”. In other words, we cannot simply take this verse by itself as the very beginning words make it clear there is preceding material that is part of the meaning conveyed here. These starting words point back to the preceding text which gets us to the next section of this article.
What about the surrounding text?
When someone has stated to me that their view on belief in Christ is founded on John 3:16, I have responded with the question, “what about John 3:17?” The point I was making is that verse 17 is not only important as well but has its own additions to the message. In other words, context is important!
14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal ife. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.John 3:14-17 (NASB1995)
Here, I expanded the text to four verses. I could have done 15 to 17 or simply added 17. Regardless, the point is to expand the amount of text being looked at to see more of the context of the section that is of focus–in this case verse 16. Adding verse 14 makes sense when you look at 15 and realize it is directly connected to 14 by a “so.”
Read the above passage a few times. You are bound to notice some parallels and more going on besides simply talking about belief.
Notice that verse 16 begins with a quotation mark but we do not see the following one after 17. So to see the entire quote in its entirety, our viewing window must become verses 16 to 21.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”John 3:16-21
So why did I bother looking at anything before verse 16? Anytime you see a “for” at the start of a verse, you have a connection to the previous. What’s being said is a result of the previously connected component. It follows what came before. And so, you always want to look at what came before the “for” to get the fuller picture.
Since this is part of a quotation, it is also important to think about why. Is someone speaking? If so, who is it? Is this a quotation from another area of Scripture? If yes, where is this–what book, who’s the author, etc.?
How does this all fit in with John’s Gospel?
The natural next step is to look at how verse 16 fits in with the rest of the chapter and then from there, the rest of the Gospel of John. This can be a big undertaking but I will highlight some key considerations.
- What text structures are present in John?
- What theme or themes are there?
- Who was the originally intended audience of the Gospel of John?
- How does the passage (in this case 3:16) fit in with the entire structure of the text (in this case the Gospel of John)?
- Does your study bible provide any clues as to how the text all fits together?
I would recommend getting a good study bible to help you as they will often include useful background information and book structure details before each book of the bible. This is in addition to the notes listed at the bottom of each page. I would personally recommend studying bibles like the Reformation Study Bible.
I want to end by summarizing key things you, the reader, need to get out of this article:
- Use this document, this blog post as a tool. The point was to get you to think about how you dig into the Bible and interact with what it contains.
- This tool is already set up for you to use as a springboard to dig into John 3:16. Use it. Go deeper even. What is here already gives you a start to any deeper study of John. This article was never meant to provide you all the answers but to provide you the tools to find them yourself. Perhaps in a future article, or more, I will provide my own analysis but not at this time.
- Look to sources like those listed at the end of this article as resources to help you in any Scripture-studying endeavor you may take on.
Sources for this article:
Aland, Kurt, Barbara Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, and Bruce M. Metzger. Novum Testamentum Graece. 28th Edition. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012.
Arndt. William, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Decker, Rodney J. Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2014.
Holmes, Michael W. The Greek New Testament: SBL Edition. Lexham Press; Society of Biblical Literature, 2011-2013.
New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.