Scripture is to be a lamp to our feet and a guide to our path. And it is; however, only when rightly understood and applied can it be brought to bear in our lives. When scripture is misunderstood and misapplied it can be a dangerous thing. Remarkably, the best loved verses are often among the most misunderstood ones. Sometimes it is because those verses are taken out of context, other times we simply fail to rightly understand them because we have retained an archaic translation that meant something very different in the past than it does today, and often it is simply a matter of the human heart, when we want to read our desires rather than God’s in a text.
Of course we all want to understand scripture rightly and use it correctly. And to help you do just that, we are kicking off a new series on Parking Space 23, “You’re Using It Wrong” and I am going to kick it off with one of the best loved and most memorized verses of the Bible, John 3:16.
I hate to break it to you, but you might be using it wrong.
If you are reading this blog, odds are you can quote John 3:16 from memory. Here is how it comes out of my own memory: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but would have eternal life. I could have quoted it even before the Lord saved me.
And the common interpretation of this passage is that God loved the world so, so, very much that he sent Jesus, and if anyone chooses to believe in Him they will have eternal life. That is often how it is used, and at times it is mistaken even for a full presentation of the gospel (sometimes it is just painted on a sign and held up or printed on the bottom of a fast food cup, as if that is a bold witness for Christ.)
I hate to have to tell you this, but if this is what you think the verse means you’re using it wrong! This verse isn’t about the extent of God’s love, but about the instrument of His love. The key problem is that little word “so”.
The word “so” translates the Greek word outos (Οὕτως). The basic meaning of this word is thus. The third edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (AKA BDAG), the definitive lexicon of Koine Greek, defines the word this way:
“referring to what precedes – in this manner” or “pertaining to what follows in discourse – in this way, as follows.”
In rare instances it can be used to convey degree, but it is very, very rare.
So why is it translated “so”? Because that is what “so” meant when this verse was first translated into English in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although in King James Only circles, this verse is often used to defend the most radical forms of arminianism, when the King James translators rendered this verse “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” so meant “this is how.” And because this verse is so memorized and well known, most translation committees value retaining the traditional translation above accuracy in translation.
The second problem with the common interpretation of John 3:16 is the word “whosoever” or “whoever.” And the problem there is that that word is nowhere to be found in the Greek text. Let me present exhibit A, the text of this verse from the United Bible Society 4th Edition of the Inter-linear Greek New Testament:
Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν
οὕτως γάρ ἀγαπάω ὁ θεός ὁ κόσμος ὥστε ὁ υἱός ὁ
Thusly for loved the God the world so that the son the
μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται
μονογενής δίδωμι ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύω εἰς αὐτός μή ἀπόλλυμι
only born he gave that all the one trusting into him not might be destroyed
ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
ἀλλά ἔχω ζωή αἰώνιος
but might have life eternal
You don’t have to be a Greek scholar to notice that there is no word there that means “whoever”, there is not even anything close. So what gives? Again it is the retention of archaic English in modern English translation and use. “Whosoever believeth” (or whoever in contemporary translations) translates ho pistoon (ὁ πιστεύων) literally “the believing.” This is a grammatical construction called the characteristic use of the participle, and it refers to a person who has the defining characteristic of being one who believes (in this case in Him, the Son of God). Again when this verse was first translated into English that is exactly what “whosoever believeth” meant, there wasn’t even a hint of the will he or won’t he interpretation that is common in the popular modern interpretation.
Although some claim that John 3:16 demolishes the doctrine of election, it doesn’t, in fact it bolsters it. It clearly teaches that God loved the world in a very specific manner, by sending Jesus into the world so that those who believe in Him would have eternal life. Furthermore when read in context, it is clear that those who do not believe in him, not only don’t have the option of choosing Christ, they are condemned already, and it is also very clear why.
I think that the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) gets this verse and the context just about right, and captures the sense of the Greek far more accurately than most other translations:
“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.”
So please keep using John 3:16 in evangelism, but use it rightly. God did love the world He created greatly, but He loves the world in a very specific way. He sent Christ to live a perfect life, to die as an atoning sacrifice, and to rise from the dead in defeat of sin and death so that there would be one single way for sinful men to be reconciled to a holy God. Repentance and faith in Him.