“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16), writes the fourth evangelist, drawing out the implications of Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus (with the majority of commentators, I take John 3:16-21 as the explanatory words of the evangelist rather than the words of Jesus). While Nicodemus is struck by Jesus’s miracles (John 3:2), Jesus announces to him the arrival of God’s Son who was to be lifted up on the cross so he could take away the sins of the world. This, in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), would have implications not merely for Israel but for the entire world. God’s love has global implications. Expositors often focus on the greatness of God’s love that is affirmed in this beloved verse, but today I’d like to focus on the expression of God’s love for the world: the gift of his only Son. The gospel of grace is not given in a vacuum. While still powerful even when quoted out of context, the verse is most compelling when interpreted in its historical, literary, and theological contexts, both Jewish and Greco-Roman.
Israel’s Story and the Covenantal Narrative
With regard to its Jewish context, God’s gift of his only Son powerfully culminates Israel’s covenantal narrative. When speaking to Nicodemus, Israel’s teacher, Jesus affirmed that his death on the cross would typologically fulfill Moses’s lifting up of the bronze serpent in the wilderness during the exodus: whoever would look at the exalted Son in faith would live (John 3:13-14; cf. Num 21:8-9). He also intimated that regeneration by water and spirit would fulfill the prophets’ vision that God would give his covenant people a new heart and a new spirit in the post-exilic, messianic age (John 3:3-5; cf. Ezek 36:25-27). The “lifting up” of God’s servant would also fulfill Isaiah’s vision of the suffering, exalted Servant (John 3:14; cf. Isa 52:13-53:12).
In all these ways, the fabric of Israel’s covenantal narrative finds its fulfillment and climax in Jesus. In fact, John 3:16 hints at yet another way in which God’s gift of his Son fulfills OT typology: it fulfills the Abrahamic narrative where the patriarch was called to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah and received him back as a type (Genesis 22; cf. Heb 11:17-19). And yet, God’s gift – indeed, sacrifice – was so much greater: unlike Abraham, God actually did bring the sacrifice; and unlike Isaac, Jesus actually did accomplish the removal and forgiveness of sins, not merely for Israel but for all of humanity, by his death on the cross. Whether or not Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees had a problem with legalism, they must embrace the fact that Jesus is the God-sent Messiah who came at God’s appointed time to climax Israel’s story and history and fulfilled God’s mission.
Greco-Roman Gift-Giving and God’s Perfect Gift
With regard to its Greco-Roman context, God’s gift of his only Son took place within the context of gift-giving and reciprocity. In the cultural institution of patronage and patron-client relationships, goods and services were exchanged by which some benefit or favor was bestowed on the recipient and some reciprocal return was expected that allowed for the continuation of the relationship. In this context, God bursts on the scene as the Perfect Giver, evident in the character of the giver, the nature of the gift, and the giver-recipient relationship established. Jesus is God’s perfect gift (2 Cor 9:15) – the only Son, God himself (John 1:1, 18), whom to sacrifice must surely have broken the Father’s heart. God gave the perfect gift – but how are we to understand God’s giving of his only Son in a Greco-Roman context? John Barclay, in a recent monograph, lists six ways in which we can understand what God did in Christ:
- Incongruity: God’s gift was given without regard to the worth of the recipient; the gift was not rooted in our worthiness; it was completely undeserved.
- Non-circularity: God’s gift expected nothing in return; this is what love does – it gives simply because it chooses to; nevertheless, it would be rude for its intended recipients not to reciprocate.
- Priority: God’s gift was given prior to any action on the part of its recipients; God took the first step and took the initiative when we were dead in our sins.
- Singularity: The sole and exclusive mode of operation of God’s gift were benevolence and goodness; God, and he alone, is good!
- Superabundance: God’s gift was exceedingly generous; God’s love for the world, and the people, he made is very great, and thus his sacrifice – his only Son – likewise is supreme.
- Efficacy: God’s gift fully achieved the purpose it was designed to accomplish. “It is finished!” Those who receive it are given the right to become children of God (John 1:12).
Reading John 3:16 against its Jewish and Greco-Roman backdrop can deepen our appreciation for God’s gospel of grace. As John Barclay observes, the New Testament “theology of grace characteristically perfects the incongruity of the Christ-gift, given without regard to worth.” As a result, the Christian community’s norms should be reset around God’s gift of his Son by a theology of grace that suspends other criteria of worth and helps us rethink our identity and social location in the pluralist context in which we find ourselves.
Applying John 3:16
Reading John 3:16, we learn three vital truths. First, God’s love for the world is very great. It is so great that God gave the greatest, most perfect gift – the gift of his one and only Son.
Second, therefore, God’s sacrifice in giving his only Son is supreme. Fathers (and mothers), can you imagine sacrificing your only son, even for a worthy cause? To see his beloved Son die must have caused great pain in God’s heart.
Finally, third, God’s offer to those who believe is great as well: eternal life, that is, not only everlasting life but an entire different quality of life – life in the presence of God rather than apart from him.
Therefore, believe: respond with trust to God’s gift of the Messiah and Savior, Jesus Christ. Don’t just believe intellectually, but entrust your very life to Him.
Understand how in Jesus, God’s covenant faithfulness reaches its climax and how in Jesus we see that God is faithful and keeps his Word.
Be struck by the incongruity, non-circularity, priority, singularity, superabundance, and efficacy of God’s love gift to the world.
And don’t forget to tell others about God’s great gift!
For Further Study
John Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).
Andreas Köstenberger, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday (ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough; Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 141–59.
N. T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).