For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son …”
Probably no verse of Scripture is better known than John 3:16, as even people who don’t habitually read the Bible—or even believe in Christ—seem to know this verse so beloved by Christians. The Son’s death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin truly shows that God’s love for the world is great.
But a closer look at the Greek adverb (houtós) that lies behind the English word so can deepen our understanding of the apostle John’s message to us. In The Oxford American College Dictionary (2002), the adverb so is defined in English as “to such a great extent.” But in the Greek, the word is used to refer to the preceding thought, and may be translated “in this manner” (see A Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature).
If we consider that sense of the adverb in John 3:16, we find that a reference to the cross of Jesus immediately precedes the verse: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). In other words, John is saying that the manner in which God loves the world is the crucifixion of Jesus. This narrows the focus of John’s thought from the extent of God’s love (“so much”) to the specific way He expressed that love (“in this way”).
Another listing in the lexicon defines the adverb houtós as a word that refers to what follows, also meaning “in this manner.” Given this ambiguity in the Greek, it’s interesting to observe that what follows houtós in 3:16 is also a reference to the crucifixion. In fact, some modern translations now render John 3:16 with the adverb pointing to the thought following it: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son” (NLT). With either reading of the Greek adverb, the cross of Jesus is, according to John, where God reveals His love for the world, and the ultimate expression of that love.
It’s certainly correct to recognize in Jesus’ sacrifice the great extent of God’s love for the world, but let’s reflect for a moment on how and why the crucifixion is such an appropriate expression of the way God cares for us. It has to do with forgiveness. God loves the world deeply, but because He is just and holy, He doesn’t offer us a lenient love, one that looks the other way when a trespass occurs. Indeed, considering how sin harms us, to let us continue in sin wouldn’t be love at all. And to punish our sin as it deserves would destroy us in the process. So, in the incarnation and crucifixion of the Son, God’s love and justice are brought together.
This analogy might help to clarify: A man robs a gas station, is arrested, and appears in court before a judge. He confesses to the crime but begs the judge for mercy on the basis that he had never done anything criminal in his past, and that the only reason he stole the money was to pay for the medical care his desperately ill child needs. The judge knows this to be true, but he has sworn to uphold the law and punish violations of it. Clearly the law had been violated, and so the judge sentences the man to the prison term demanded by the law. The man is distraught, especially because he will not be able to care for his child while in prison. But then the judge does something unprecedented. He stands up, takes off his judicial robe, and out of his compassion announces that he will serve the prison term in the man’s place. The law will be upheld, but the man who committed the crime is free from its consequences.
Although this illustration is imperfect, the resolution of God’s justice and God’s love is similar. While the most heinous criminal may escape punishment by the courts, God’s justice cannot be escaped. But because of His very great compassion and love, the Son took upon Himself the consequences of sin, coming into the world to die on the cross in our place. Though freely given, forgiveness is not free; it’s costly. The price paid for forgiveness reveals both the extent and the manner of God’s love for us.
The mystery of the crucifixion deepens when we consider how Jesus’ execution came about. The Gospels show that the very people Jesus came to save rejected Him at every turn. John’s passion account reveals the universal rejection of Jesus—by both the Jewish and Gentile authorities—in the name of political expediency. The irregularities in the way Jesus was interrogated suggest that He did not receive the due process of either Jewish or Roman law. And death by crucifixion, though commonly practiced by the Romans, was not sanctioned by Jewish religion. Despite being innocent of all accusations against Him, Jesus did not receive justice in this world. Yet Luke’s gospel tells us that while hanging on the cross, Jesus asked the Father to forgive those who put Him there (Luke 23:34). Even though the cross was both the culmination of God’s redemptive plan and the revelation of His love, those implicated in Jesus’ death were still responsible for their sin and needed to be pardoned.
This should teach us something about the nature of forgiveness. If we think we can sin as often as we want because God forgives freely, we err and devalue His costly love in Christ. For John tells us that Christ died to put an end to sin in our lives (1 John 3:5-6). Another thing we must learn is to do God’s work in God’s way. Sinful means will never lead to a godly goal. God didn’t commend the people involved in Jesus’ execution for their part in His plan of redemption; they were condemned as sinners in need of the very redemption accomplished by the cross. So let us never think that by doing wrong, we can help God’s work. At the same time, we should also recognize that God’s loving plan for the redemption of the world can never be thwarted by sin. And that’s the great mystery of forgiveness.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft