“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
Quoting John 3:16, we Christians confidently declare that God loves the whole world entirely to bits. However, in response, many are duly stumped and silenced when asked by non-believers (and Christians too), “If God loves the world so-o-o-o much, why is there still so much suffering in the world?” And all our attempts to pass it off as God’s will, sovereignty, judgment, etc appear totally weak against the bold statement that God so-o-o-o loves the world!
Thanks to a teaching by David Pawson, I discovered that this has been the result of an inaccurate translation, or more precisely, an inaccurate placement of the little word “so”. In many English translations, John 3:16 reads as “For God so loved the world …” In our present day use of the language, we automatically read and understand it as, “For God loves the world so-o-o very, very, very much …” But is this the correct biblical interpretation? Join me as we go deeper into the text …
The word “so”, from the Greek root houtos, means “in the same way”, or “similarly”. With this understanding, the phrase now reads as, “For God, in the same way, loved the world …” or “For so God loved the world …” That sure sounds totally different from how we have heard it preached, does it not? Naturally, the question pops up, “In what same way did God love?” For this, we need to go to the preceding verses, John 3:14-15, for the proper context.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:14-15
Firstly, notice the repeated phrase in v15 and v16b: “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal/everlasting life.” Next, notice the parallel of the Son of Man and the serpent being lifted up. But don’t stop there! Don’t miss the surrounding condition or situation that led to this act of salvation and deliverance by God. As a teacher and leader of his day, Nicodemus would have known what Jesus was talking about. He would have been totally familiar with the wilderness account in Numbers 21:4-9.
In this account, the children of Israel had sinned against God and brought upon themselves God’s judgment. In case, you didn’t know, sin always brings the judgment of God and results in death (Rom 6:23a). In this case, the judgment came in the form of fiery serpents which bit the people, killing them. Moses mediates and cries out to God for salvation from this dreaded consequence and the solution God provided was somewhat odd. Moses was to make a model of the serpent, stick it up on a pole and whoever looked at it would be saved! Think about it. If you were dying from cancer, and your doctor told you to look at an X-ray of the tumor in your body to be saved, how would that sound to you?!? But that’s what the people were told to do, and that called for faith, to believe in something as foolish and as absurd as that (1 Cor 1:18). The bible records that those who looked, lived! I believe there were those who did not believe, hence did not look, and died.
Before you spiritualise this, notice something else in this account. When the people cried out for salvation, God did not remove the fiery serpents. Instead, He provided a way of salvation. In the same way, the consequences of sin continue to this day in our world. Left to our own devices, we will all die from the consequences of sin! The sad thing is that no one wants to admit sin in their lives and in our world, choosing rather to blame it on something and someone else. But in the same way, God has not removed the consequences of our sin but has provided a way of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ. Hallelujah!
In the wilderness, God loved His people and acted in love to save them. In the same way, God loved the world He created and acted through His Son to save them. When the people looked at the image of the serpent, they would be reminded of their sin and the judgment that ensued. In the same way, Jesus who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor 5:21) and took upon Himself the judgment of God. When we see Jesus lifted up on the Cross, we see both our sin and God’s judgment on Him! The question is, “Do we believe?” for only those who believe will not perish but have everlasting life! That’s why it’s called the Good News!
That said, whether we believe or not, are Christians or not, the same plight exists in our world. The way of salvation has been provided in and through Jesus Christ. In the meantime, there will still be sufferings, sicknesses, deaths, wars, tsunamis, earthquakes … “fiery serpents” that are consequences of fallen and sinful humanity. All these are here to stay until God restores all of creation with a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1). And make no mistake, only those who believe in Jesus will get to enjoy the fruits of everlasting life.
My dear friends, through this little hermeneutical exercise, I hope that I have not reduced the magnitude of God’s love for you. That is an impossibility for God’s love is eternal and infinite. With or without the word “so”, there is no measuring the width, length, height and depth of His love for us (Eph 3:17). But with a right understanding of the word “so”, my prayer is that you will experience a greater and deeper extent of His love for you through Jesus Christ. In the same way that God saved and delivered the Israelites in the wilderness, He will also save and deliver you if you put your faith in His Son.
Related Post: David Pawson: The True God and the True Gospel