For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.( John 3:16)
We find ourselves at this point in our study of John chapter three at perhaps the most beloved and well know verse in the Bible. Certainly it is the singularly most widely translated sentence of any kind in the world. With reverence we approach these words of glad tidings from heaven.
But it is possible, in fact probable, that the sheer familiarity of these words to many in our culture, has an unfortunate deadening effect, rather than the one intended by the gracious Saviour who first uttered them. For example nearly everyone can quote John 3:16 these days , but how many can quote John 3:14-15, or John 3:17-21?
This beautiful verse has a context, and can only truly be understood by putting it within the flow of thought that preceded it.
For example, even the words “for” and “so” in the verse have an important meaning. “For God so Loved the world…”.
Obviously “For” would refer to what had been said up to that point, ie the discussion about the New Birth, Ezekiel 36, the new heart and the washing that God would give Israel, as well as to the immediate context, the story of the Brass Serpent in Numbers 21.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life…For God So Loved the World…”(John 3:14-16)
The word “so” is very misunderstood by many modern readers, for the tendency is to interpret it as being a description of intensity, “God so loved the world….He loved the world so much…”.
I gained what I believe to be an insight into this verse, in a little book* by a British Bible teacher, David Pawson. He pointed out that the word “So” should be placed before the word “God”…in other words, it should read “For So God loved the world…”.
What is being said? That “In this way God loved the world…” or “in thus manner did God love the world…”. In what manner? The way He loved Israel when snakes were killing them in the wilderness!
What was happening in Numbers 21 that Jesus says gives us an insight into how God loved the world?
Because of the people’s sin, a judgment fell in the form of poisonous snakes being sent to bite and kill them. People were dropping right and left, but Moses and Aaron fell on their knees and interceded for them.
God’s instruction? They were to make a brass serpent and erect it on a pole, and tell the people that whoever looks up to that serpent would live! That is how God loved the world.
He didn’t wipe out the serpents, people all around were dying of snakebite. God didn’t organize the people into serpent killing groups, nor did he call on them to go back into the past to see where they had gone wrong. He didn’t indulge the rebels, “eradicating” all that was harming them, leaving them as they were.
What did God do to ‘love the world’?
He gave them a way out! He lifted up a “cross” for them to see. Brass is a metal that symbolizes Divine judgment, for example, when Israel wouldn’t obey the Lord, God told them there would be “brass heavens”, for He wouldn’t answer their prayers.
The serpent is the great enemy of mankind, but in the offering of Jesus, the serpent came under judgment, Death itself died. “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the prince of this world be cast down, and If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto me”.(John 12)
Saving faith involves a believing look. The people of Israel were required to look away from their snake bites, from their neighbors and their past, and to gaze upon the God appointed, lifted up brass serpent in order to be healed.
Even so the people of the earth are required to look by faith at the Son of God, lifted up, bearing our judgment upon the tree. By death,”destroying death” for us, Jesus set us free from the mortal snakebite of our sins.
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.(Hebrews 2:14-15)
This love of God is amazing! In view of the cross it would be blasphemy to question it, or the goodness of God. But it is not “unconditional love”, in the sense that the serpents are still biting, people are still perishing and going to the eternal judgment that they deserve, God has not removed snakes or fires.
But in Jesus, He has given us a way out, He has made a Righteous way of escape. A holy God has made a Holy way for us sinners to come into his Holy heaven. We are to look away from ourselves and our situation, with faith and worship unto Jesus, crucified and lifted up as our substitute.
* The book is called “Is John 3:16 The Gospel?”by David Pawson,Terra Nova publications.