John 3:16: The Favorite Phrase

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.  (NKJV)

This is perhaps the best-known and most quoted verse in the Bible.  Years ago, a very popular tract said, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”  People without the slightest interest in the subject were assured that God loves them:   “Smile, God loves you.”  The love of God is celebrated in sermon, song and literature.

Scripture does indeed teach that God has a redemptive love for mankind.  Titus 3:4 speaks of the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man.  He did not choose to redeem fallen angels.  Instead, He chose to redeem fallen, sinful men and women.

For verily he [Christ] took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham, Hebrews 2:16 [KJV].  Other versions translate the first part of this verse, He does not give aid to angels [NKJV], or, For surely it is not angels he helps [ESV].  However, the word translated as “give aid” or “helps” means “to take hold of” and is translated like that in 1 Timothy 6:12 in the ESV, take hold of the eternal life…, and in the NKJV, lay hold on eternal life….  God chose to save men and women, not angels, yet notice that the writer of Hebrews said that Christ took on him the seed of Abraham.  He didn’t say that He took on Himself the seed of Adam.

Even though multitudes in the time between Adam and Abraham knew and worshiped the true God, nevertheless, it was relatively early in human history that God’s saving purpose focused on and was accomplished through one family, that of Abraham, into which family our Lord was born.  By the time of Christ, many Jews believed that when Messiah came, He would destroy the Gentiles.  They thought that no Jew, no matter how wicked, could be lost, and that no Gentile, no matter how good, could be saved, except by becoming a Jew.  They thought God loved only Israel.

Though there’s some discussion about whether John 3:16 records part of the conversation between the Lord Jesus and Nicodemus or if it’s just a commentary by John, we believe it is actually part of the conversation.  The reason for that is that the Lord is correcting Nicodemus’ narrow and provincial view.

As a Jew, Nicodemus would have been raised from the cradle with the knowledge that Israel had been God’s chosen people, redeemed from slavery in Egypt and brought into the land of Canaan as their land, an idea, by the way, still under dispute.  Further, he would have been leery of associating with Gentiles – anyone not a Jew – because of all the trouble Israel had gotten into for doing that very thing.

Even in the early church, though some time later, this was still a big controversy.  When Peter returned home to Jerusalem after his visit to Cornelius in Caesarea in Acts 10, those of the circumcision (in the church) contended with him, saying “You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!” Acts 11:1-3 [NKJV].  This was no gentle discussion.  You can hear the outrage.

Peter described what had happened and why he had gone to this heathen city – heathen as far as the Jews were concerned.  He had been told to go there in a special vision from God, and when he got there, he didn’t even get to finish what he was telling Cornelius and his friends, but, as he told the church at Jerusalem, as he began to speak to Cornelius, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us as the beginning, Acts 11:15.  I don’t think he got much more than started when he was interrupted by the Spirit.  In v. 17, Peter’s reasonable conclusion to those who questioned him was, “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

This satisfied those who had before been so contentious, v. 18:  When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”

Getting back to Nicodemus, I believe that he would have understood, however little that might have been, that the Lord Jesus was telling him that God loved Gentiles, too, and not just Jews.  It’s unlikely that he would have understood it as commonly understood in our day.

Considering the emphasis on the “love of God” in modern churches, it seems strange that the early church in the Book of Acts never mentioned it in a single sermon.  In fact, the only occurrence in Acts of any of the words translated “love” in our New Testaments is found in 28:2, where, in his description of their narrow escape from a shipwreck, Luke says of the inhabitants of the place where the survivors found themselves, that they showed us unusual kindness.

Having said all that, I’m very thankful, as a Gentile, that God extended the golden scepter of His mercy to Gentiles, cf. Esther 4:10; 5:5.  Without it, and considering the animosity that exists toward the Jewish people in a great part of this world, there would be very little hope of salvation if one had to become a Jew or a proselyte.

However, the door has been opened for all people to come to the Lord Jesus.

Have you come to Him?

Will you come to Him?

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved,” Acts 16:31.

Comments? Feedback? Much appreciated. Thanks.

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