One of the most well-known and well-loved verses in Scripture is John 3:16. This passage is shared and appealed to by so many, and rightly so. It is an amazing passage about God’s love and his desires for the salvation of mankind. However, it is simply one text which is part of a greater and quite necessary context.
The verse itself says this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” To read it without also taking into account the previous and following verses is to in fact do it a degree of injustice.
One ends up with a rather skewed understanding of just what is being said here without keeping the full context in view. In many ways the third chapter of John is a complete unit, so all 36 verses must be read to properly ascertain the true meaning of verse 16.
John 3 begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to question him. Verses 1-21 provide the full context here, with his three questions answered in depth by Jesus. Jesus begins his answers by telling Nicodemus that he must be born again. While that phrase may sound like something specific to evangelicals – and it certainly is a key phrase for them – it is of course just plain biblical, and should be on the lips of all true Christians.
We all should be telling our unsaved friends that they need to be born again. This is not just an evangelical cliché but a fundamental truth of the gospel. While we are all born into this world in the flesh, we must have a spiritual rebirth to get right with God and have eternal life with him.
The two verses immediately following v. 16 must always be read together with it. There we see the full gospel message on display. Those two verses say this: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
These passages are very important because they explain why we are in need of being born again. They explain why we need to be saved. The biblical truth is simple: we are all under the just condemnation of God, because we are all sinners.
That is our natural condition because of the first birth, and cannot be rectified without the second birth. God’s rightful wrath lies upon all of us, and until we own up to our sin, confess it and repent of it, and receive his spiritual rebirth, we will remain in this condition of condemnation.
Of course these are not very palatable truths to most folks. They like to think they are pretty good actually, and are doing quite alright in God’s books. The idea that they are actually under his just condemnation seems just too incredible and far-fetched.
As James Montgomery Boice writes, “Most men and women do not like this teaching. Yet it is a fact that sin has consequences and that one of these is alienation from God and God’s judgment. . . . We have gone our own way. We have already committed the crime. Therefore, every one of us already stands under God’s judgment.”
As Craig Keener comments, “Salvation is a central aspect of Jesus’ mission. . . . But judgment is a central motif in this gospel. . . . Judgment occurs in the context of Jesus’ ministry as people’s hearts are exposed by how they respond to him and his message (9:39; cf. 12:31).”
Verses 22-36 are concerned with the testimony of John the Baptist about Jesus. There we find John offering us the exact same truths: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (v. 36). The wrath of God remains on sinners, unless they repent and turn to Christ. That is our condition and that is what we need deliverance from.
J. Ramsey Michaels’ comments are worth quoting here at length: “As in verse 18, the point is not that the disobedient are now suddenly condemned by a vengeful God, but, on the contrary, that their spiritual condition and the relation to God remains unchanged. In verse 18, the unbeliever was said to be ‘already condemned,’ while here ‘the wrath of God remains on him.’
“This last echo of John’s testimony of the Spirit’s descent on Jesus (1:32-34) is ironic: just as the Spirit came down and ‘remained on him’ (1:32-33), so God’s wrath ‘remains on’ the unbeliever. . . . [D]ivine wrath is merely a future threat but a present reality as well. Human beings are already under ‘the wrath of God,’ just as they are already in ‘darkness’ (compare 1:5; 3:19).
“Those who remain unchanged by the coming of the Light ‘remain in the darkness’ (compare 12:46), and the wrath of God ‘remains’ on them. The grim verdict of this verse is that for some hearers and readers nothing has changed. As Jesus will put it later to some of the Pharisees, ‘Your sin remains’ (9:41). The joint testimony of Jesus and John is that a person gains eternal life only by ‘coming to the Light’ (vv. 20-21), or ‘believing in the Son’ (v. 36).”
This ‘bad news’ of the gospel must always accompany the ‘good news’ of the gospel. Indeed, without these hard truths about our being under the wrath of God and already condemned, the good news of forgiveness in Christ will make no sense and offer no solace.
It is terrific indeed to proclaim the love of God, and his desire to see the whole world removed from condemnation. But condemned we are, and until we face up to the holiness of God and the wrath of God, the love of God will make little sense.
Sure, it will take on the form of worldly sentimental notions of love, but it will not be biblical love. Only by letting God’s word speak in its fullness can we see what the genuine gospel message is all about. And that means faithfully proclaiming the context of every text.
God most certainly does love the whole world. But at the moment the whole world lies in condemnation and under his wrath. That is the fuller background to the message of Jesus and the cross. That is what Christ came to deliver us from. May we all choose wisely here, and experience what Jesus told Nicodemus about: the second birth.