It’s one of the best-known and most memorized verses in all of Scripture:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16, NRSV)
But is this something Jesus said to Nicodemus, or is it John’s commentary?
Look at the translation you’re most familiar with. If you have the NIV, the quotation marks close at verse 15, meaning the translators take John 3:16 to be the words of John. But a variety of other versions end the quote with verse 21, making John 3:16 the words of Jesus.
Who’s right? In this world, we’ll never know for sure. (And in the next, we probably won’t care.)
Personally, however, I would side with the NIV. John, I think, is adding his comments to what Jesus said in the previous two verses: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The theme and many of the words are the same, as if John wanted to reiterate and then elaborate on Jesus’ words. Moreover, much of the language and imagery of verses 17 to 21 (especially the contrast of light and darkness, as we will see in an upcoming post) seems to be very much a part of the unique way John wants to tell the story of Jesus. To me, it makes more sense to think of these words as belonging to John.
Again, we’ll never know. But if it’s John’s editorial commentary, if he’s adding to what Jesus has already said, what is he adding?
I think he’s adding awestruck praise for the incomprehensible love of God.
“For God so loved the world…” There’s no completely clean way to capture it in English. Eugene Peterson says it like this: “This is how much God loved the world…” You would have to put the word “this” in bold type. Then italics. Maybe even underlined. “This is how God loved. Do you understand? This much!”
Well, bronze serpents are one thing.
But your only son? That’s something else entirely.
God gave — generously, graciously. He gave his Son to live for us. He gave his Son to die for us.
And more importantly, he gave in love. God is neither some cosmic CEO trying to balance the books nor a mechanic tinkering with a broken universe. God doesn’t roll his eyes or begrudge the world his only Son. What he does, he does according to his nature. And his very nature is love.
John looks through the cross and sees the astounding, matchless love of God.