If asked to sum up the Christian faith, many of us would immediately think of John 3:16 and for good reason. It’s an incredible verse. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” In twenty-five words, this passage speaks of God’s great love for us and His seemingly universal gift of eternal life for all who believe. Or does it?
I was shocked to read multiple commentaries that saw this familiar passage as a rather poor translation of the original Greek, but because it is so widely known, subsequent translators have been hesitant to amend the wording. I don’t know much about NT Greek, but I learned recently that individual words are often in a very different order than they appear in English. To change the emphasis, a word might be pushed forward in the sentence or put in an unexpected place.
Therefore, whenever we see unusual sentence structure we should pause, recognizing that this literary technique was used to increase the significance of the out-of-order word. Consider another familiar verse (Ephesians 2:8) that states “By grace, you have been saved through faith …” rather than something like “Your faith has saved you by God’s grace.” By putting grace at the beginning of the sentence, Paul is indicating that God’s grace takes precedence over our faith or even our salvation. Life is not about us. It is about God and His glory.
In NT Greek, the “so” comes first in John 3:16, causing theologians to suggest the verse would be better translated, “For so God loved the world …” or “In this manner, God loved the world …” putting the emphasis on God and how He loves rather than the more familiar “so loved,” which implies “so much” or an amount of love and implies that God loved each of us so much that He was willing to give up His Son on our behalf. This might seem like semantics to some, but I prefer to see the passage as revealing something about the infinite nature of God’s character rather than extolling any inherent worth of man since Scripture teaches we were enemies of God before being justified by Christ’s blood (Romans 5:8-10).
Then there’s the word “world” itself—this thing God chose to save. The Greek word kosmos is translated in various ways throughout the Bible and can mean universe, the earth, mankind, or various world hierarchies such as cultural, political, or religious systems. Since Jesus had just been talking to Nicodemus, who believed salvation was only for the Jews, it’s possible He used this broader context to include Gentiles or even to evoke the image of God’s glorious, orderly, and sinless creation, rather than individual people like you and me. If we put the emphasis on God rather than on ourselves—as we always should—and the perfect manner in which He loves, then God sent His Son to redeem those whom He carefully crafted and created in His own image. Even salvation is not primarily about us. It is the way God chose to reveal His love and mercy, to honor His name, and bring Himself glory.
Finally, is eternal life for everyone? Some Christians, called Universalists, point to the “whosoever” in John 3:16 and teach that “world” means all men without exception and, therefore, everyone is going to heaven. But if that were true, why did Jesus say the way is narrow and few find it (Matthew 7:14)? Or that He delays judgment, not wishing for any to perish (2 Peter 3:9)?
For me, the answer hinges on whether eternal life is an offer, which can be refused, or a gift of God, which we have no choice but to accept. Without getting into Calvinism at this point (a Christian theology that teaches only those whom God predestined to believe can come to faith), there are those who think this passage applies only to the elect—those chosen by God—based on verses like Romans 8:29-30.
Either way, eternal life in John 3:16 is clearly limited to “whosoever believes.” I discovered that the word translated “believes” in this verse is technically a nominative participle meaning “the one who has faith in.” If you’re like me, you may want to revisit Wrestling with Scripture #7, “Believing isn’t Easy,” which explores what it means to truly believe.
Finally, we’re probably all guilty of focusing on the Good News of John 3:16 and ignoring the implicit warning. Despite God’s great love and mercy, without a saving belief, some people will perish. The word perish in both the OT and NT can also be translated “separated”, “apart from”, “ruined”, “lost”, or “destroyed”. Clearly, whatever your view of heaven and hell, perishing is the terrible opposite of spending eternity in the presence of God.
If we need any further incentive to pray for the lost or to share the Good News, the idea of family and friends perishing without the Lord should provide it.