There is one verse that is the most recognizable verse in the Bible. This same verse is the most quoted verse of the Bible. For most of us, this verse was probably the first Bible verse we memorized. Of course, I am talking about John 3:16. A few weeks back, I asked my youth group students if they could tell me the verse prior to the 16th. A few surprised me by quoting the following verse, but none of them knew the previous one. Without looking it up could you tell me what John 3:15 states? I used this exercise to explain to my students that we pick out passages and sometimes run the risk of taking them out of context or miss a deeper message that God has for us. First, let me fill in the back story of this famous verse. The passage surrounding John 3:16 is a conversation with a man named Nicodemus, who happened to be a Pharisee. The fact that Nicodemus even sought Jesus out is very interesting. The Pharisees were religious leaders who took pride in their obedience to the law. As the popularity of Jesus grew, they became concerned that their power over the Jews would be challenged, so they looked for opportunities to “rid” themselves of this man named Jesus. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, so we might be able to assume that He was approaching Jesus in secret. When he did come before Jesus, he addressed Jesus as Rabbi or teacher. I believe this denotes a level of respect and reverence that he felt toward Jesus. They began a conversation about the spiritual rebirth, and that is where our passage picks up today.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 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. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
This concept of missing a deeper meaning is not foreign to me. I grew up in church from nursery to now, and I have quoted this passage more times than I can count. However it was not until I grew in spiritual maturity and became serious about Bible study, that I saw a deeper meaning here. As I read this passage I see love expressed in four ways, so let’s take a few minutes to examine this passage together and let me show you what God showed me. Most of us would see the first expression of love; it’s simply the words themselves, “For God so loved the world”. Jesus is verbally telling us that we are loved. In the same manner that you and I would tell our loved ones our feelings toward them, Jesus tell Nicodemus and us today that God does indeed love us. The second expression of love that I find in this passage maybe a little harder to see. Think back to when you were a small child wanting to put your hands on the stove. Did your parents tell you just once? I have a nine month old daughter who is already putting her hands on things that we don’t want her to touch. I find myself saying “no” more times than I can count. Why do we repeat ourselves… because we love them and do not want them to get hurt. I say that another expression of love is the fact that Jesus repeats himself. John 3:15 and 16, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.” These verses are saying practically the same thing. This is not because Jesus forgot that He had already said it. It’s not because He was talking in circles. No! Jesus knew his audience; we are stubborn people who have to be told multiple times not to put our hand on the stove. After I saw this I became a student of God’s repetition. It fascinates me that God loves us so much that He would repeat Himself just so that we would get the point. The third expression of love in this passage is the sacrifice. Those of us who love know that true love is expressed in sacrifice. I can say that I love my wife all day, but until I pay a price on that love those words are just words. The love is expressed by the fact that God gave His only begotten Son. In biblical times, the most valuable thing to a man was the first son born unto him, and we understand that anything is more of a prized possession if it is the only one that a person has. The love that God spoke of in this passage was backed up by Him giving His only begotten Son. God sacrificed His most prized possession just to tell us that He loved us. On a side note here, if you think that you are too… whatever, fill in the blank for God to love you. Remember, he paid a price to be able to say I love you to YOU. The fourth expression of love that we find is the gift of eternal life. We give gifts to those that we love. This passage states twice that God is giving us a gift of eternal life. If there be a fifth expression of love to be found, I believe that it would be the fact that this message stood the test of time to be shared with us, and that it was first a message spoken directly to a man who belonged to the very group of people who would ultimately kill Jesus. Jesus talked about eternal life to Nicodemus despite his past. Today, despite our past or what groups we may have been associated with, God is bringing us the message that He loves us. He tells us that He loves us. He repeats Himself to convey that He loves us. He sacrificed to prove His love to us, and gives us gifts to show that He loves us. Hopefully the next time you read the Bible’s most famous love verse, you will see His love in more than just the words.
Dear Loving Heavenly Father, thank you for showing your love to us. Thank you for the love that you give, the love that you show, and the love that compels you to forgive us. Now that you have given us your love in our lives, God, I pray that we can be a people that will pass on your love to all of those around us. We all stand in awe of your love, oh Lord. Thank you for loving us all. In the name of the loving Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.