One of the most well-known and loved verses in the Bible is John 3:16.
Have you ever examined it closely and looked at its context? Someone once said, “A verse taken out of context is a pretext.” That is true and is sometimes the problem when using verses from the Bible. We have to be careful not to make the Bible say something it doesn’t mean.
John 3:16 begins, “For God so loved the world ...” Sometimes that is all that is quoted and folks go on without paying attention to anything else.
Some go further, “For God so loved the world, that he gave ...” Little moralisms are then spoken about how we ought to give because God has given.
Others go a bit further, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son ...” That is better, if we know the Son is Jesus Christ who is the God-man, fully God and fully man without sin.
But it is still only half the verse. The rest states, “... that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We have come to a contrast. Do you see it?
Whoever believes (trusts) in him (Jesus) will not perish but have eternal life. So, having eternal life and not perishing requires true believing faith in Christ.
Notice Jesus doesn’t say whoever lives a good life or does religious works and also believes.
It also implies those who do not believe will perish. When we think about it, Jesus is saying that the one who has eternal life would have perished without faith in him.
Perish and eternal life are the two options. People either perish or have eternal life, and the difference is real faith in Christ.
Now for the context. John 3:16 comes right after Christ spoke of being lifted up (his crucifixion) that whoever believes in him may have eternal life in verses 14, 15.
This explains what Jesus meant that God gave his Son. He gave him to die as a substitute for those who believe in him.
In verse 17 we read that Christ was not sent to earth from heaven to condemn the world, but to save the world through himself.
In verses 18 Jesus explains why he wasn’t sent to condemn the world. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already ...” Why condemned already? “... because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
People perish because they remain in a state of unbelief. Unbelief can be rejecting Christ, but it can also simply be not trusting in him to save us from the condemnation we are under.
In verses 19, 20 Jesus uses the same word judgment or condemnation again to explain why people will not and do not believe in him. “And this is the condemnation: the light (see John 1:9-11) has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
According to Jesus, the reason people reject the gospel and himself is not intellectual or because it is unreasonable, as many would claim, but moral. People don’t come to Christ and don’t believe the Bible because of having to deal with how sinful we really are and the guilt before God that comes with our sins.
Christ goes on in verse 21 to describe those who have trusted in him alone. “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been wrought in God.” How do you deal with the light?
Charles Fitzpatrick is the pastor of Reibers Reformed Baptist Church near Shermans Dale.