Bible: What’s the true meaning of John 3:16?
John 3:16 is probably the most well-known verse in the Bible.
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.
You’ll find this verse written on T-shirts, bumper stickers, bracelets, necklaces, and most “gospel” tracts. You would think that this verse would be one that’s easy to understand. Certainly, on the surface, it is easy to see why so many people would think that. However, the true meaning and application of this verse has been lost in religious tradition. For instance, most people have no idea of the significance of the word “begotten” in the passage. Most English translations don’t even include the word. Here are some examples of that.
The International Standard Version translates it “uniquely existing Son.”
The New International Version translates it “one and only Son.”
The Good News Translation translates it “his only Son.”
The New Catholic Bible translates it “his only Son.”
The Living Bible translates it “his only Son.”
Therefore, it can be rightly concluded that they mistranslate the verse, leaving a very important part of it out. What does “only begotten” mean? I’m afraid most churchgoers don’t know. The Greek word from which this comes in the text of the Bible is MONOGENES. This is a compound word. MONO means one and speaks of uniqueness as with one of a kind. GENES comes from GENAO meaning to beget or to bring forth. GENAO is also where we get the word genesis which speaks of the beginning of something. Hence, we have a term that speaks of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. There’s never been anyone like Him. He is the one and only Son of God. Vine’s Expository Dictionary says that in His case, “The begetting is not an event of time, however remote, but a fact irrespective of time. The Christ did not become, but necessarily and eternally is the Son. He, a Person, possesses every attribute of pure Godhood [the state of being divine]. This necessitates eternity, absolute being; in this respect He is not ‘after’ the Father.” Jesus Christ is the God-man. He is true humanity and absolute deity in one unique Person. These other Bible translations therefore belittle His identity. They also dismiss the correlation between this verse and others [Psalm 2:7; Acts 13:33 and Romans 1:4] that speak of Christ being the resurrected, “begotten” Son of God. Yes, the term “begotten” speaks of Christ’s resurrection, not His birth. God has many sons [every believer], but only one “begotten” Son [John 1:12; Romans 8:14; Galatians 4:6-7]. The time for our resurrection will come, but right now there’s only one who has been resurrected, namely, the Lord Jesus Christ.
As with every passage of Scripture, context is extremely important. What is the context of John 3:16? First, people need to realize that it speaks of an event that occurred before our time when another gospel was in place, the gospel of the circumcision. And what was required for salvation in relation to that gospel? It was not faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. For instance, the apostles, although they may have all believed in the principle of resurrection, none of them were expecting Christ to rise from the grave. They were all in complete shock when it happened. Before the cross and resurrection events, the apostles, like Peter, tried to talk Him out of even mentioning such a thing.
21 From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.
22 Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.
23 But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. [Emphasis added]
Therefore, the twelve apostles and others of that time were not believing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the means for their salvation. Instead, what were they believing in for salvation? Answer: It was all about the identity of Jesus as the Christ, the promised Messiah of Israel. The idea of His crucifixion and resurrection had never even crossed their minds.
13 When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. [Emphasis added]
As much wonderful truth as this is, none of it provides the information one must have and believe TODAY for salvation. Why? Because there’s nothing in this about the cross and resurrection of Christ. Not one word, let alone an explanation as to what it meant. We only find a clear and full explanation of the gospel that is ours today in the writings of the apostle Paul.
I Corinthians 15:1-4
1 Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand;
2 By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.
3 For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: [Emphasis added]
The full picture of what this means for us is only explained in Paul’s epistles. Many passages speak of various aspects of it.
II Corinthians 5:18-21
18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;
19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.
20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.
21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. [Emphasis added]
Without question, John 3:16 is a wonderful passage with some marvelous truth, but there’s nothing there that’ll help a person know what they must know and believe to be saved. Knowing OUR gospel for today demands at least a little knowledge of what is called rightly dividing the word of truth.
II Timothy 2:15
15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. [Emphasis added]
Again, there is nothing recorded in Christ’s earthly ministry that provides anyone with a knowledge of the means to salvation in our time [Matthew 10:5-7; 15:24, John 4:22, and Romans 15:8]. The Four Gospels record the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ to the nation Israel under the Law of Moses. In contrast to that, the apostle Paul’s letters present Christ’s heavenly ministry to us in our time. We are not the nation Israel, we are not spiritual Israel, and we are not under the Law of Moses [Romans 6:14-15; Romans 11:25; Galatians 3:28]. Once again, John 3:16 has nothing to do with us today in relation to our salvation, even though you’ll find it given in nearly every “gospel tract” you’ll ever read. But that message belongs in Israel’s program, not ours. It is a statement spoken by our Lord to Nicodemus, a religious leader of Israel [John 3:1,10]. Jesus Christ never spoke of Paul’s Gospel of Grace during His earthly ministry [Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:1-9; Colossians 1:25-29; 1 Timothy 1:11]. It remained a mystery [a secret] until He revealed it to the apostle Paul. I’ll say it again, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ were never proclaimed as a salvation message until we get to Paul’s ministry.
Therefore, if John 3:16 was to Israel and not us, what does it mean? To understand this, we need to look back to the origin of some things. First, we need to notice some things about a covenant God made that is called the Abrahamic Covenant. Let’s look at it.
1 Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:
2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. [Emphasis added]
Question: Is there anything in this passage addressed to us? Answer: Not one word of it! This was all promised to Abraham and his spiritual progeny. Please notice that He promises him a new race and a new nation. Then He promises him that his progeny would be a blessing to those of all the Earth. Then over five hundred years later after their deliverance from Egypt He promises his progeny through Moses that He’s going to make them a kingdom of priests. Question: Do we in any way relate to this as a promise given to us today? Answer: We do not!
5 Now therefore, if ye [the people of Israel] will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. [Emphasis added]
However, God does not reveal the details about this kingdom until some five hundred years later when He reveals it to King David. Here He spoke to David about it through His prophet Nathan.
II Samuel 7:12-17
12 And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom.
13 He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever.
14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men:
15 But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.
16 And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.
17 According to all these words, and according to all this vision, so did Nathan speak unto David. [Emphasis added]
Are the promises of this passage somehow to us today as Gentiles? Does God plan to use us to establish His long-prophesied kingdom on Earth? No! That’s all to do with His plan for Israel. Gentiles are in no way a part of God’s plan to establish a kingdom on Earth where God’s will is done here as it is in Heaven. Today, God is carving out a new people who are spoken of in Scripture as the Body of Christ. That’s us! If a Jew is saved today, even he becomes a part of this body of people comprised of both Jews and Gentiles.
I Corinthians 12:13
13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. [Emphasis added]
Such a relationship between Jews and Gentiles was unheard of until it was revealed through the apostle Paul and came into being beginning with his salvation. It was Paul who was the first member of this body of believers.
I Timothy 1:16
16 Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first [Paul] Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. [Emphasis added]
Paul’s salvation and what began with him was a major interruption to what had gone on before. From Abraham to the ministry of Jesus Christ, the nation Israel had the hope of becoming a “kingdom of priests,” serving to represent Christ to the Gentiles. Israel was God’s covenant people, and Christ ministered to Israel to fulfill the promises made to them.
8 Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision [Israel] for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: [Emphasis added]
Christ’s earthly ministry was in no way directed to the Gentiles. But a radical change occurred with the salvation of Saul of Tarsus who became the apostle to the Gentiles. Israel’s rejection of Christ, their Messiah, would bring on a complete change of many things.
12 Now if the fall of them [unbelieving Israel] be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness [which will come about completely in a future day]?
13 For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I [Paul] am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: [Emphasis added]
This “magnification” of Paul’s office speaks of Peter and Israel’s fall and Paul’s subsequent rise to this position of prominence where he is spoken of as the apostle to the Gentiles. Sometimes we are accused of making too much of Paul. No, that’s not at all what we do. A huge problem for Christendom today is that they make way too little of Paul’s office and message. We just know now that there’s been a shift, a major change in things. Peter’s ministry was always directed to Israel first. Paul’s ministry was as well for a time, but only until the end of the timeframe of the book of Acts.
27 For the heart of this people [Israel] is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
28 Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it. [Emphasis added]
After that, the Jews aren’t excluded but the focus is then on the salvation of the Gentiles. Because of their unbelief, Israel is now in a place of spiritual darkness. Because of prophecy we know that will change after what is called the Rapture of the Church. But until then, the focus is now on the salvation of the Gentiles.
Throughout the Old Testament times, when God dealt predominantly with the nation Israel, He was still concerned with the salvation of the Gentiles. But God had to first save all Israel, and then through them He would evangelize the lost Gentiles. It is in a future time when Israel will rise to a position of prominence where the Gentiles will seek salvation through Israel.
20 Thus saith the Lord of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities:
21 And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts: I will go also.
22 Yea, many people [Gentiles] and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the Lord.
23 Thus saith the Lord of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations [the Gentiles], even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. [Emphasis added]
None of this will occur in our time. But it certainly will occur after the Church which is the Body of Christ is completely formed and removed at the Rapture. The prophet Isaiah also writes about this special time for Israel.
1 Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
2 For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.
3 And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. [Emphasis added]
There are many other passages that speak of this special time for Israel when they will rise [Isaiah 11:1-9; 61:5-6; Daniel 2:44; Psalm 2:6-9]. It is then that our Lord’s words will be fulfilled as they evangelize the world with their gospel of the Kingdom.
14 And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come. [Emphasis added]
Now let’s go back to our John 3:16 passage. The context tells us this is a part of a conversation our Lord was having with a religious Pharisee named Nicodemus. Here He told him that despite his religiosity, he needed to be born again if he was to ever be a part of the promised coming kingdom on Earth.
3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus had been born physically, but he needed to be born again spiritually. Because he can only understand things of a material or physical nature, he initially does not understand what Jesus is talking about. That’s why Nicodemus replies as he does.
4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
Nicodemus then marvels at what Christ tells him.
5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. [Emphasis added]
God’s plan was to evangelize Israel, then the world through regenerate Israel. But again, Israel had to be saved first. It would be then and only then that they would be spiritually equipped to go to the nations with their gospel of the kingdom.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him [that Jesus was their Christ, their Messiah] is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name [the true identity of Jesus as their Messiah] of the only begotten Son of God. [Emphasis added]
This kingdom Christ spoke of is the earthly kingdom spoken of by the prophets. Every Jew had to first be saved to be a part of it.
Today, in our time, people also must be made alive spiritually to end up, not in an earthly kingdom, but in Heaven. At birth we are all spiritually dead. To get into Heaven that must change. We must be made alive spiritually. That occurs for us the moment we are saved.
1 And you hath he quickened [made alive], who were dead in trespasses and sins; [Emphasis added]
The apostle Paul speaks of the new birth that must come to us for us to be saved and to enter Heaven.
5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
The word regeneration comes from the word PALINGENESIA in the original Greek text of the Bible. It is a compound word with PALIN which means again and GENESIS which means birth. Therefore, it can be literally translated born again. In our time, this new birth takes place when a person puts their faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the sole means for their salvation. The Titus passage on this continues as follows.
6 Which he [the Holy Spirit] shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;
7 That being justified [made perfectly righteous through faith in Him] by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. [Emphasis added]
Though this new birth comes to us today through our acceptance of a different gospel message, it is nevertheless the means by which we gain eternal life. To have spiritual life, anyone of any time in history must be made alive spiritually by a work of God. Even Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden needed regeneration, a new spiritual birth after they had sinned. The fact that the crucifixion of Christ and His resurrection would be the heart of our gospel for us today was a secret, a mystery, until it was revealed through the apostle Paul. None of the Old Testament prophets, including Peter, James, John, and all others, knew anything about it. Even Satan knew nothing about it.
I Corinthians 2:6-8
6 Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought:
7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:
8 Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. [Emphasis added]
The apostle Paul spoke of this as his gospel because it was first revealed to him and because it was different from Peter’s.
16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel. [Emphasis added]
25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, [Emphasis added]
Other passages tell us the same thing, even though most of Christendom has paid no attention to it [2 Timothy 2:8; Galatians 2:7], causing major confusion.
This new gospel was given to us today through the writings of the apostle Paul.
Again, I Corinthians 15:3-4
3 For I [Paul] delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: [Emphasis added]
As wonderful a message as John 3:16 is, it does not tell a person what they must believe today to be saved. As we’ve noted, there’s not one word about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in that passage and that such must be the object of one’s faith for salvation to occur. You can try to read that message into it, but a person with no knowledge of the cross and resurrection would never figure that out from John 3:16 or anything else they might read in the whole book of John. As we’ve seen, the record of the cross and resurrection is there, but there’s no mention that faith in that event provided the way for our salvation. In our time, one must go to the writings of the apostle Paul for a full explanation of the means to their salvation.
In all his evangelistic endeavors, the apostle Paul never presented the message of John 3:16 or anything like it as a part of his gospel presentations. Principles like those found in other writings of Paul are just not there in that verse. I’ll leave you on this subject with another passage written by the great apostle Paul, for it is in such passages as this that one finds the information needed by which one can be saved forever.
8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners [totally undeserving], Christ died for us.
9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved [delivered from condemnation] by his life [His resurrection life]. [Emphasis added]
It is by faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection that one can be eternally saved today. Again, as wonderful a verse as John 3:16 is, there’s nothing about these things in that whole passage. Therefore, if we’re going to be effective in leading people to salvation, we need to be sure we’re providing them with the information they so desperately need.