For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 NIV
This is the first of 20 memory verses that I will use as a guide/focal point to writing these articles. The “Table of Contents” is available here in the series introductory article. Unlike the other memory verses and articles, this is a special verse and it has been added to the list of other verses because, like most kids who grow up in a church environment, it is the most in-grain and memorised verse from the bible.
As part of any bible study and reading of a verse, it is always important to read it in context. The cultural and historical context helps to provide additional meaning to the words that make up our key focal verse. In this case, John 3, verses 1 to 21 are framed as Jesus Teaches Nicodemus. This conversation has two sections, the first being verses 1 through 8, verse 9 acting as something of a bridge to the second half, which spans verses 10 through 21.
Now, to help with background for framing this narrative, Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish community, specifically a Pharisee and on the Sanhedrin. This means he was a religious teacher. To be a Pharisee also carries additional identification and position within the first century Jewish society: they believed that all Jews had to observe the purity laws (which applied to the Temple service) outside the Temple. They continued to adhere to the laws and traditions of the Jewish people in the face of Roman assimilation. As Josephus, the Romain historian noted, the Pharisees were considered the most expert and accurate expositors of Jewish law. For Nicodemus, in spite of this religious knowledge and reputation, the concept of being born again was new to him. Thus, in Nicodemus’ dialogue, we are able to draw a distinction between having religious knowledge and being born again/in the Spirit:
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Nicodemus was taking Jesus literally instead of the allegorical reference that being born again in the Spirit constitutes. This is in fact what Jesus attempts to explain further in verse 5 through 8:
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
In The Message version, the terminology given to being born of the Spirit is to be “Born from above”. To be born of the Spirit or above is a reference not a reference to baptism, but more specifically the call to be baptised in the Spirit. Verse 5 is quite clear that in order for us to join Him in the Kingdom of God, we must be born again. Further, Jesus distinguishes between a water birth (cleansing) and a Spiritual birth.
Verse 8 probably requires a little further – it makes reference to God’s nature and free will in bestowing this gift of the Spirit on us:
8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Our new life and the experience of rebirth is all from the Holy Spirit. In Greek the word for wind and the word for Spirit are in fact the same, so the wind is being treated as a picture of the Spirit. Three characteristics of the Holy Spirit are jam-packed into the verse:
- The Holy Spirit, as one of the three persons of God’s nature, has His own free will.
- The Holy Spirit operates in the spiritual realm, unseen but yet manifested through the outcomes and fruit – the sounds and physical effects. Indeed, being born again of the Spirit causes one to bear much fruit.
- There is an element of mystery and unknown when it comes to understanding the nature of the Holy Spirit. Abiding in God helps us to connect with the Spirit.
Let’s continue through the passage:
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
The point made by Jesus across verse 9 and 10 is that what He is saying in terms of the necessity for a second Spiritual birth is not really something new, but instead intrinsic in the teachings of the Old Testament – Ezekiel 36:24-28:
24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
Jesus then leads the conversation on from focusing on the physical birth and earthly concepts towards the heavenly and eternal nature of God:
12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
As you can see we’re slowly building up towards the key verse John 3:16, Jesus now explaining His nature as the Son of Man. Indeed verse 14 and 15 are another version of John 3:16.
A subtle tension may not have been evident in the passage, given verse 8 characterised the nature of God and how it is ultimately His decision who, how and when He chooses to bestow the gift of a Spiritual birth.
John 3:16 should also be read more completely together with verses 17 and 18:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
John Piper’s sermon on God So Loved the World, analyses verse 16 using seven keywords, which I will summarise here – read his sermon at the link for more details:
God, being Holy and Eternal, sent Jesus on a mission, in the form of a gift freely given, to the entire world – particularly those that don’t believe. The nature of Jesus as the Son of God/Word of God demonstrates the intrinsic nature of God as a triune deity manifested for our human comprehension as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Father and Son are different persons of the Godhead; the mission and purpose of the Son was to save the lost and provide reconciliation back to the Father. Believing in the truth of God and all He has done is liberating. There are two outcomes articulated as a result of this verse – eternal life for those who believe while those who do not believe will perish/die.
In our believing, by just the fact of choosing to believe, the Holy Spirit will unite us with Christ in whom we find life. In that moment, we are born again, we believe, we are united with the Son of God, and we have His eternal life.
Verse 17 extrapolates further in that the default position was that we as sinners were condemned to die and remain separated from God. However, God in His wisdom gave us this alternative for salvation and restoration.
It is interesting that the Sonship of Christ to God the Father is a central component of this passage. Islam stands opposed against this very belief – in denying Jesus as the Son of God and the trinity. Indeed, the Islamic understanding of trinity is different to the biblical Christian concept. Islam thinks the trinity includes Mary, mother of Jesus, whereas Christians understand God’s three persons as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit and spiritual birth are foreign concepts that have no place within Islam.
In this way, John 3:16 is not just a nice memory verse to learn, but can be studied in greater depths to fully appreciate the nature of God, and His gift of life eternal. That God seeks us, loves us and has already done it all in sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins – it is all there for us to accept and believe, or perish to live a life separated from God.