f you are around church-going people long enough, you will hear this verse quoted. Perhaps, it is the most recognizable verse in the Bible. But what is behind this verse? Why did Jesus feel it was necessary to reveal this truth during a conversation with a skeptic disicple? These are some of the questions we look to answer in today's post.
"16 "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)
A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a man who had stopped by our church asking for money. He caught me red-handed, through the front windows of the church, unsuccessfully making a weak cup of coffee. After locking eyes for a few brief seconds, I walked outside and began to speak with him on the curb of our parking lot.
I will never forget our conversation. The dark-haired middle-aged man, who was sporting an oversized jacket that seemed to be a timepiece from the 60s, was both insightful and borderline crazy. I say I will never forget our conversation because, at that time, it was rare for me to find someone who wanted to talk about Jesus and yet had no clue about him.
Our conversation was on the topic of salvation, and although he had no idea about the Bible or Jesus, or practically anything, he knew two things. Number one, his life was messed up, and number two, he knew John 3:16. He could quote the scripture with the best of them. I was surprised, even more, today then I was then, on how well he knew John 3:16. Even more to my surprise, proceeding the days after our conversation, I have found so many more examples of people who have no clue about Jesus, but have memorized this scripture. (Other websites have talked about different reasons why this is true, you can find one here (https://www.biblica.com/articles/john-3-16)).
Behind John 3:16
As the conversation of this man rattles in my brain to this day, I recall the same situation presenting itself in the book of John, chapter 3. There we find a man who came to Jesus by night, seeking to ask Jesus some questions about His ministry.
"Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him" (John 3:1,2)
John is quick to remind us that this man Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. This reference is interpreted both practically and spiritually. On the one hand, Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, did not want to be seen by his peers hanging out with the man named Jesus. On the other hand, Nicodemus was dark in his understanding and faith in the God he had been following through the book of Law. Buried deep in his knowledge of the Law, was hidden questions about His faith in God. These questions were the precursor to his decision to find the man Jesus "by night."
"Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him." (John 3:2)
Nicodemus started his conversation with Jesus as the one who "knew" He was from God. This "knowing" is something that Jesus will then confront and address through His following discourse on being "born again."
"Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[b] he cannot see the kingdom of God." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:3,4)
The once-proud Nicodemus, who started the conversation out "knowing" that Jesus was from God, now resembles more of an infant in his understanding of the Kingdom of God — for Nicodemus, being a Pharisee, who would have had to memorize the first five books of the Bible. Something, even for the best of a Christian, struggles to do. He, like so many of us, depended on his good works to find God.
This is something, that if not adequately dealt with in faith (something that Paul alludes to in Romans), will be an obstruction to the working of grace in our lives.
Since Jesus has paid the ultimate price, by dying for us, our faith can now be realized not in principle, but an actual person - the man Jesus the Christ.
One may question, with all of this head knowledge of Scripture, why Nicodemus was so incomplete in his understanding in the ways of the Kingdom of God? It is on this premise that Jesus will begin his discourse preceding John 3:16.
"Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
Nicodemus, although a proud Pharisee, had never met one that would challenge him in this way. Jesus, in the way that only He can, begin to bring to light the things in Nicodemus' faith that had been darkened.
Could it be? The very same scriptures that Nicodemus had memorized in the Torah were now embodied through the person of Jesus and looking him square in his eyes? For Jesus himself says, later in Matthew 5:17,18:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."
When would the Law be accomplished? On the day that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
Closing Thoughts on Salvation
In both conversations, the one with the 40-year-old man and with Nicodemus, one thing is so obvious to me. Unless your faith has an encounter with the real living Jesus, it doesn't mean to very much. You can quote John 3:16 all day long, but if that doesn't bring you into an encounter with the love of God through the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be left with just as many questions before met Jesus, as Nicodemus illustrates.
Salvation means that the living God, through the work of sending His Son into the world, has restored life to those who are living in darkness. Since Jesus has paid the ultimate price, by dying for us, our faith can now be realized not in principle, but an actual person - the man Jesus the Christ.