The Meaning of John 3:16: ‘For God So Loved the World’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

John 3:16 is one of the most famous and oft-quoted verses in the whole of the New Testament. Indeed, biblical scholars often view John 3:16 as the epitome of the whole gospel: this is the word the nineteenth-century scholar Alvah Hovey used to sum up the central importance of this single verse.

But what is the meaning of this significant passage from the Gospel of John? The verse reads:

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.

This quotation is from the Authorised King James Version, published in 1611.

The context of John 3:16

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John begins with a Pharisee or Jewish elder named Nicodemus (a figure not mentioned in the other three gospels) coming to speak with Jesus at night.

Nicodemus is depicted as being sympathetic to Jesus and accepting of the notion that Jesus is ‘come from God’ (John 3:2). He asks Jesus a series of questions about how a man can be born again when he is old, so that he will be accepted into the kingdom of God.

Jesus engages in a series of questions and answers with Nicodemus: a back-and-forth which sets the tone and character for the Gospel of John. Whereas the Synoptic Gospels (the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are often grouped together because of the various overlaps between them) tend to display Jesus relating parables which are principally intended for his Jewish audience, the Jesus we find in the Gospel of John engages in debate, what we might even call a form of Socratic dialogue, with others.

This Nicodemus, by the way, is the one who will later stand up for Jesus and insist on a fair trial, and, after the Crucifixion, is said to have taken care of Jesus’ body, with the help of Joseph of Arimathea. Nicodemus is even credited with the authorship of an apocryphal gospel which describes the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

Anyway, during his dialogue with Jesus, Nicodemus finds it difficult to wrap his head around Jesus’ teachings. ‘How can these things be?’ he asks (John 3:9): in other words, how can a man be born ‘of the Spirit’, as Jesus states?

Jesus counters (in John 3:12) that if Nicodemus cannot believe the things which Jesus has said have happened here on earth, how can he expect Nicodemus to believe of the heavenly things Jesus could tell him? Jesus goes on (3:13):

And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.

This is a rather knotty way of saying that no one has ever gone to heaven and returned. The only person who is now present on earth who was once in heaven is Jesus himself.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that man must be lifted up into heaven, so that ‘whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (3:15).

And it is then that Jesus explains to Nicodemus (John 3:16):

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.

The meaning of John 3:16

So we arrive at the crucial verse of chapter 3 of John’s gospel. Charles J. Ellicott, in his commentary on the Gospels, described John 3:16 as ‘the revelation of the nature of God, and the ground of our love to God and man.’ But who speaks these words?

In the preceding verses, Jesus has been speaking directly to Nicodemus. There appears to be no doubt over who is speaking the words in John 3:15. But what about John 3:16?


In his commentary on this verse, Hovey suggests that the phrase ‘only-begotten Son’ should give us pause. Nowhere else in any of the gospels does Jesus refer to himself as such, but this idiom is one that is common in the Gospel of John, and the Evangelist uses it elsewhere: for example, John 1:14 states, ‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.’

Here, ‘only begotten’ clearly refers to Jesus, and the one who ‘speaks’ these words is clearly John himself, the author of the gospel. But in John 3:16?

It’s possible, then, to view John 3:16-21 as John himself speaking to us and concluding the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus which had preceded this point in chapter 3 of John’s gospel. The word ‘For’ (‘For God so loved the world …’) would certainly suggest that a shift in voice or perspective is possible at this point. However, we cannot say for sure.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, since John (if it is John who writes these words) is glossing and reinforcing what Jesus has already said. God gave his own son to the world because he loved the world and wanted to give mankind the chance of salvation. To go back to his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus provides the link between the earthly realm and the heavenly domain; through Jesus, he argues, mankind can access the kingdom of God.

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