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John 3:16…and 17 and 18

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Without question, the best-known verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Martin Luther called it the Bible in miniature, and some even go so far as to say that if the Bible were lost except for John 3:16, we would have all the Scripture we need in order to be saved. Here is how the Golden Text reads: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Guy N. Woods outlined John 3:16, saying,

In it we are told of the greatest giver (God), of the greatest gift (his only begotten Son), of the greatest measure (the world) and the greatest future blessing (eternal life). It is a refutation of Atheism (it begins with God); of agnosticism (it reveals God), of Calvinism (it extends God’s provisions to all the world, and not to an arbitrarily selected few), of Unitarianism (it establishes the deity of Jesus and shows him to be of the same nature as God), of Oneness Pentecostalism (it demonstrates God and Christ to be separate and distinct persons), of Universalism (it reveals that men will perish who refuse the way of escape) and the doctrine of denominational creeds which allege that Jesus died that God might love us whereas this teaches that Jesus came to the earth and made salvation possible because God loved us. (John, 66-67)

Is John 3:16 all we need? Jesus didn’t think so. John 3:16 is just one verse in a lengthy conversation with Nicodemus. And when we look at the whole picture, we are better able to flesh out what Jesus meant to summarize in this verse.

John 3:16 has often been cited to support the idea that a person can be saved by faith alone. In other words, it has been argued that since John 3:16 does not mention baptism or other commands, belief without any corresponding action is all that is necessary for salvation. Those who make this claim have not carefully studied the whole chapter.

The following information gives context to what Jesus proclaimed in John 3:16:

  • Near the beginning of his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). “Water” is clearly a reference to baptism. Later in the narrative we read of Jesus and John baptizing in the Jordan River (Jn. 3:22-23; 4:1-2).
  • In the two verses prior to John 3:16, Jesus alluded to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness as a symbol of the crucifixion. In consulting the original account of that event, it is evident that the case of the bronze serpent was one of obedient faith: those who were bitten by the fiery serpents were not healed by merely believing in the bronze serpent; they had to look upon it to live (Num. 21:9).
  • In the verses following John 3:16, Jesus explains what he means by “believe” in terms of “coming to the light.” In verse 21 he says, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” What is meant by “does what is true” and “works” in this statement? Do these terms not apply to the conditions for salvation described in verse 5? If not, then the only alternative is to apply them to the meritorious works of the Law of Moses, which is powerless to save, according to the gospel (Rom. 3:27-28; Eph. 2:8-9).
  • Finally, the last verse of John 3 reads, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” The close observer will notice that John the Baptist, who is speaking here, uses the terms “believes” and “obey” interchangeably. The faith of John 3 is like the faith throughout the New Testament—an obedient faith.

John 3:16 will remain the favorite text of Christians. But if we are not careful, we will damage a priceless piece of revelation with reckless interpretation. We must be careful in our excavations not to separate the Golden Text from its context.