10 Things You Should Know about the Most Famous Verse in the Bible

John wants us to reflect in our hearts upon the immeasurable character of so great a love, and that we do so by placing in contrast, one over against the other — God and the world.

What is the finite sum of mankind when set opposite the infinitude of God? As B. B. Warfield once said, we could as well measure the strength of the blacksmith by declaring him capable of supporting a feather on an outstretched palm! The primary force of this text is certainly to magnify the infinite quality and majesty of God’s love. 

 

The most famous verse in the Bible, at least among Christians, is John 3:16. But do we really understand what it means? Here are ten things to keep in mind as you reflect on it.

(1) Are the words of John 3:16 the words of Jesus or John the Apostle? Probably the latter. John 3:10-15 are clearly the words of Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, but it appears that John himself is reflecting on the significance of Jesus’ death in the verses that follow.

(2) What is the focus of the word translated “so”? Is John here merely describing the manner in which God loved the world? Is he telling us that it was in this particular way that God’s love was made manifest? Or could he also be emphasizing the intensity of the divine love, as if to say, God loved the world “this much”? The answer is probably a bit of both. God’s love was so great and so magnanimous that it expressed itself in the most stunning and breathtaking gift imaginable: that of his own Son.

(3) Often the interpretation of John 3:16 begins with the term “world”, for it is believed that here lies the key to a proper appreciation of the dimensions of divine love. “Just think,” we are told, “of the multitudes of men and women who have, do now, and yet shall swarm across the face of the earth. God loves them all, each and every one. Indeed, God so loves them that he gave his only begotten Son to die for each and every one of them. Oh, how great the love of God must be to embrace within its arms these uncounted multitudes of people.”

Is this what John had in mind? It is undeniably his purpose to set before us the immeasurable love of God. But are we able to perceive how immeasurable God’s love is by measuring how big the world is? I don’t think so.

What is the finite sum of mankind when set opposite the infinitude of God? As B. B. Warfield once said, we could as well measure the strength of the blacksmith by declaring him capable of supporting a feather on an outstretched palm! The primary force of this text is certainly to magnify the infinite quality and majesty of God’s love. But such an end can never be reached by computing the extent or number of its objects. Do we to any degree heighten the value of Christ’s death by ascertaining the quantity of those for whom he died? Of course not! Had he but died for one sinner, the value of his sacrifice would be no less glorious than had he suffered for tens of millions of worlds!

John wants us to reflect in our hearts upon the immeasurable character of so great a love, and that we do so by placing in contrast, one over against the other — God and the world. What does this reveal? Of what do we think concerning God when he is seen loving the world? And of what do we think concerning the world when it is seen as the object of God’s love? Is the contrast this: that God is one and the world many? Is it that his love is magnified because he, as one, has loved the world, comprised of many? Again, certainly not.

This love is infinitely majestic because God, as holy, has loved the world, as sinful! What strikes us is that God who is righteous loves the world which is unrighteous. This text takes root in our hearts because it declares that he who dwells in unapproachable lighthas deigned to enter the realm of darkness; that he who is just has given himself for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18); that he who is altogether glorious and desirable has suffered endless shame for detestable and repugnant creatures, who apart from his grace respond only with hell-deserving hostility! Thus, as John Murray has said,

“it is what God loved in respect of its character that throws into relief the incomparable and incomprehensible love of God. To find anything else as the governing thought would detract from the emphasis. God loved what is the antithesis of himself; this is its marvel and greatness” (“The Atonement and the Free Offer of the Gospel,” in Collected Writings of John Murray[Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976], I:79).

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