John 3:16… I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Quick! Quote a Bible verse! Any verse. What comes to mind? What is the first verse that you remembered? There are 31,273 verses in the Bible. Which one came to mind first?

Was it Ecclesiastes 10:19?
“A feast is made for laughter,
wine makes life merry,
and money is the answer for everything.”

Judges 3:21?
“And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out.”

Luke 14:26?
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

Probably not! If you are like most people, the first verse that came to your mind was John 3:16…
“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.”

That verse has been plastered on more banners, shirts, bookmarks, and Facebook statuses than any other, and with good reason. John succinctly sums up the Gospel in a single sentence. Well done, John! He seems like he was a gentle, soft spoken kind of guy who thought before he spoke. I like John. However, this verse is perhaps too famous for its own good. It’s actually a pretty bad English translation, but it has become so firmly entrenched in our collective theology, that most translators won’t touch it. What does it sound like to you? “For God so loved the world…” What does that mean for you?

The Message translates it as “This is how much God loved the world…”. The Living Bible translates it as “For God loved the world so much…” and the Contemporary English Version says, “God loved the people of this world so much…”

We have generally taken the “so” in this verse to mean that God loves us so much. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s true! God is your biggest fan, but that’s not what this verse is saying. To get at the heart of it, we need to look at the verses before…

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. 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.”

The “so” in “for God so loved the world” is the Greek word οὕτως (houtos) which means “likewise” or “in this way”. John is saying that God loved the world in the same way that God loved the Israelites when they had their snake problems.

If you’re thinking, “Wait, what snake problems? We didn’t learn this in Sunday School. What madness is this?” You’re in luck! Let’s dive in.

In Numbers 21, we read a story about the Israelites wandering the wilderness as they were known to do in those days. Also, as usual, they weren’t happy about it. They were complaining about having boring wilderness food and generally being unhappy about their situation. Then… suddenly…

SNAKES! SNAKES EVERYWHERE!

It was bad. People were getting bitten by poisonous snakes all over the place. The people were in a panic, so they asked Moses for help. God told Moses to make a bronze snake and attach it to a pole. Anyone who was bitten by a snake could simply look at the bronze snake and be healed of the poison. God didn’t take away the snakes. God didn’t automatically cure the people. God didn’t give them anti-snake spray or send them kevlar pants. No, he had Moses make a bronze snake and everyone who looked at it would be cured of the poison. I’m sure there were plenty of people who would have prefered God to simply get rid of the snakes, but God had other plans.

Just like the Israelites and their snakes, I would have prefered if Jesus came and got rid of all the evil and suffering in the world in one fell swoop. I would love to live in a world without snakes (metaphorically and literally), but that is not how God chose to reconcile the world. God chose to leave evil and suffering where it is for now, but to give us a way out if we choose a reconciled relationship with our creator. If we choose to look to Jesus, then the poison is cleaned out of our veins and though we still live in a world of snakes, we know that they can never destroy us. In this way, we know that God prioritizes relationships over simple problem-solving. Relationships are messy and they require multiple independent parties to work. It’s always easier to just focus on policies, rules, and utilitarian solutions, but that is not how God loved the world. God loved the world in THIS way, that if anyone wants to be saved from the poison in their veins, they can look up at Jesus and accept the freedom that comes from a relationship with the risen Christ. He offers no easy answers, no quick fixes, and no paved highways to easy living. God didn’t love the world in that way. Not yet, at least. God loved the world in a complicated, messy, and relational way.

So when you feel the poison of loneliness, isolation, and fear coursing through your veins, do not panic. You are not alone. Because God loved the world in THIS way that whoever takes their eyes off of themselves and looks to Him will not be overcome, but will have life and have it abundantly!

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