John 3:16, The Gospel in Miniature
By the Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
Martin Luther said of John 3:16 that it contains ‘the Gospel in miniature.’ It may well be the most famous verse in scripture – it was the first one I taught my children to recite. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’
As food for our pilgrimage to heaven, let us reflect on this feast of a verse. Some doctrinal observations:
1. It is unclear in the Greek text whether Jesus said these words or whether they form the Spirit inspired reflection upon Jesus’ exchange with Nicodemus. This ambiguity should draw us deeper into the mystery of the verse – our reflection on the love of God is united with our Lord’s teaching.
2. God’s love is the bedrock and reality with which we must all reckon. God’s love is the leading theme of the verse and the leading theme of the gospel. John Owen preached on our verse: ‘The Scripture positively asserts this very love as the chiefest act of the love of God.’
3. The use of the word ‘so’ indicates that God’s love is not a vague undefined force, but is revealed and demonstrated to us in a concrete way. God loves us in a specific way – the giving of his Son.
4. The extent and cost of God’s love is seen in the preciousness of the gift – the Son is the Father’s only begotten – his only precious loved Son. Sacrificed for the world.
5. The world is – in John’s main usage – the cosmos in wicked rebellion against its creator. The focus is not on every person (that would contradict John’s emphasis elsewhere that Jesus laid down his life for his sheep) but rather the undeservedness of a world that rejects God.
6. A response is demanded from such a great display of costly love –- we are urged to believe on Jesus. Our faith will be fitted to the object — a loving object of faith requires a loving faith. So our trust in Jesus will be warm-hearted, enthusiastic and passionate.
7. It is important that people hear of God’s love and respond because the Son will return to judge. The future reality of a division of all persons into those who perish and those who live eternally makes the gospel verse vital and urgent. To use the technical theological language, the atonement is eschatological.
Many sermons have been preached on this verse – many more will doubtless be. Likely many of us have learned John 3:16 years ago. That said, the themes it speaks of are never exhausted.
The Revd Dr Peter Sanlon is the Rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells.