John 3:16, properly understood, may be one of the greatest verses in the Bible.
This verse is nearly ubiquitous, appearing on t-shirts, bumper stickers, and even on the inside rim of the bottom of In-N-Out cups. This one verse, among 30,000 others, has almost become a sort of perpetual ad campaign. In many football games it’s not uncommon to find JOHN 3:16 in large letters, held up on a poster in the end zone. David Robinson used to sign pretty much all of his basketball cards with this verse reference by his name. I myself have an autographed Orel Hershiser baseball with John 3:16 just as fluidly scribbled next to the seams.
More recently, Tim Tebow wore them most conspicuously on his eye black during the National Championship game in 2009, sparking 90 million Google searches for the verse.
But is it possible that John 3:16 as a familiar reference is eclipsing the actual content packed into this verse?
I think if you asked most Christians what this verse means, they would either say that this verse shows God’s love or that it shows how to be saved. While this is true, this is also a bit reductionist.
How does John 3:16 fit into the context of John chapter 3? Why does this chapter emphasize the divine life, not the divine love? Why does Jesus refer to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness immediately before verse 16? Why was this conversation recorded as transpiring with Nicodemus? Why does this chapter end with the Bride of Christ and an economic description of the activity of the divine Trinity? How is this verse related to God’s eternal purpose?
Questions like these begin to place John 3:16 in it’s special context and make this verse all the more billboard worthy.
The John 3:16 “12 greatests” extraction (I think it comes from Chuck Swindoll, correct me if I’m wrong) is a good start at really opening up this verse for what it’s worth. I found it on a number of blogs, but couldn’t find it in any image searches, so I made my own (see above)!
Here’s my rendition of it as a single sentence:
The greatest Lover loved to the greatest extent the greatest company and took the greatest action in giving the greatest Gift, thus presenting the greatest opportunity in the greatest simplicity, through the greatest attraction, and with the greatest assurance to produce the greatest difference according to the greatest promise for the greatest blessing.
Another way to look at these 12 greatests is through the modifying lens, “according to.” Just stick “according to _____” after each “the greatest _____.”
- His nature
- Their fall
- Their totality
- His economy
- His being
- His heart
- His requirement
- His beauty
- His word
- His life
- His dispensing
- His goal
John 3:16 is not a one-liner or one-dimensional. It is an exegetical universe waiting to be explored. It expands, enlarges, and becomes more breathtaking the more one pursues it. What seemed elementary at first, becomes profound. What seemed matter of fact becomes exhilarating, dynamic, astonishing. What seemed static becomes dynamic.
I agree with Witness Lee that it’s possible to give 15 messages just on John 3:16.
We should not go to speak to people in a superficial way. We may be able to speak John 3:16 to people… However, if someone asks us what eternal life is, we may not be able to tell them. It is possible to give fifteen messages on John 3:16. The first message can be concerning who God is, the second message can be on love, and the third message can be on the world. Then we can tell people how God gave His Son. God did not drop His Son down from the heavens to the earth. He gave His Son through incarnation. Then another message can be given on the only begotten Son. More can be said about what it means to perish and what it is to have eternal life. Message after message can be given on John 3:16.
John 3:16, on the one hand, is as basic as the gospel gets, or rather as elegantly simple as it can be conveyed. But on the other hand, it is a vein of revelation from which the unsearchable riches of Christ as the gospel (Eph. 3:8) can be mined.
Edwin Hodder captured this sentiment exactly in a hymn he wrote in 1863:
1. Thy Word is like a deep, deep mine,
And jewels rich and rare
Are hidden in its mighty depths
For every searcher there.
2. O may I love Thy precious Word,
May I explore the mine,
May I its glorious riches take,
May light upon me shine.
1. Witness Lee, The World Situation and the Direction of the Lord’s Move, p. 32