I have noticed how different media streams can take words from public figures and alter their meaning to fit an agenda. If we are not careful, we can do this to some extent with God's words. We should therefore constantly ask ourselves how we come to conclusions about God from His word. Do we try to make the meaning of His words agree with who we think He should be, or alter how we think of God according to how His word reveals Him to be. I think John 3:16 is one verse in particular that we need to approach with this discernment, especially because of its popularity.
I have seen the verse in some odd places such as billboards, eyeblack, picket signs, people's skin, and aloe vera drinks. It has got to be on the list of top 10 bible verses known worldwide. To gain a more thorough meaning of verse 16, I suggest the inclusion of at least verse 14,15,17, and 18. If they are, God's love will be understood in light of His judgment, and the Old Testament will be used as a primary contextual asset.
God giving the world His Son is the starting point in knowing His love according to John 3:16. Love is a major attribute of God emphasized and explained throughout the scriptures. Yet Jesus also said to Nicodemus in the same statement that his love was related to others perishing and having eternal life. Since the word love is a more favored relational word, it can overpower the word perishing in our minds and in our preaching. We will miss an essential piece to the love of God puzzle if with separate it from our state of perishing.
If we needed a good illustration for perishing in verse 16, God gave it to us in verse 14 and 15. Those verses refer to the time when Israel was in the wilderness and spoke against God and Moses:
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.
8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snakeand put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
Numbers 21:4-9 (NASB)
As the account tells, Israelites were dying from serpents sent by God as a judgment for their rebellion. It was only when they recognized their wrong, changed their mind, pleaded with Moses, and looked at the serpent on the standard that they were healed. Perishing for Israel equaled dying physically and healing equaled simply looking at the serpent on the standard. In John 3:16, the perishing of the world equals eternal death and trusting in the Son of God equals eternal life. Does the condition of perishing Jesus mentions in John 3:16 feel like a snake bite? In may not feel as sudden or dramatic, but with a little reflecting on my own life and the world, I am confident poison runs deep in our veins.
Why doesn't the condition of a perishing world get brought up more in conversation and from the pulpit? Once again, I believe Gods love has cast a shadow on His judgment by a lot of people these days. How many times have you heard people reference John 3:16 with 17 and leave out 18? My hunch as to why this commonly happens is people don't like talking about judgment and 18 is all about it. The verse says Jesus was sent not to judge the world but that it would be saved through Him. This statement makes it seem like Jesus and judgment don't go together. However, His second statement brings judgment back into the spotlight when He said "he who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God". Judgment, even if we don't like to admit it, is upon all people because all have rebelled. Until someone trusts in the Lord Jesus who overcame the judgment for sin on their behalf, they're doomed to perish.
Recently reading the book of Numbers inspired me to think and write this blurb about John 3:16. I get a little upset if love is barely or not at all presented alongside perishing by others and myself. Why do I get upset? Well, because people are in danger of being judged eternally by the One paradoxically revealed as love, and they need to know it. If folks recognize they are on the verge of dying eternally like they would recognize being bitten by a deadly snake, they may be more desperate to know and cling to Jesus. They may also better understand His love by the fact He came so that we wouldn’t die. The lesson to be constantly practicing is to accept God as He has revealed Himself to be, instead of choose how we want Him to be, even if we don't like it.