A Second Look at 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.”  — John 3:16 (KJV)

The above verse is one of the most familiar and often memorized Bible verses in the English language, whether among orthodox or heterodox, Christian believers and non-believers alike. (The only rival I can think of is Genesis 1:1, the first verse of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Scriptures).) The above wording from the King James translation is arguably the most well-known version, too. It is fairly easy to memorize and is essentially a summary of the Gospel message, which is why it is so popular.

Recent linguistic studies coupled with careful exegesis, however, indicate that not only has the phrasing not been the most accurate, but most of us probably misunderstand what a few key words/phrases mean. There are four sections I would like to address. (Note: The proper, contextual understanding of the Greek word often translated “perish” (<apollumi>) is a potential fifth area for (re)consideration and discussion, but I’m not prepared to dig into that particular subject at this time.) I only present this information for educational purposes and am *not* looking for a debate. I am tempted to address the four in sequential order, but I think it best if I do the two less controversial ones first.

1) “so loved”: Ever since I was a kid, I always thought that it was talking about how much God loved the world. This was reinforced in sermons, poems, and quotes like the one pictured above. But, as you may have noticed, some Bibles these days state it differently (e.g., “For God loved the world in this way” (HCSB); “For this is the way God loved the world” (NET); “For this is how God loved the world” (ISV)), indicating that the proper connotation is not “how much” but “how” or “in what way”. Many other translations still keep it “so loved the world” (e.g., NKJV, NASB, NIV), but at least the ESV includes a footnote about the alternate phrasing.

Why have some translations opted for this change? As per the HCSB footnote (at Biblegateway.com),

“The Gk word <houtos>, commonly translated in Jn 3:16 as “so” or “so much” occurs over 200 times in the NT. Almost without exception it is an adverb of manner, not degree (for example, see Mt 1:18). It only means “so much” when modifying an adjective (see Gl 3:3; Rv 16:18). Manner seems primarily in view in Jn 3:16, which explains the HCSB’s rendering.”

The NET translation note is a bit more involved, including references to academic works, but it concludes thusly:

“With this in mind, then, it is likely that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love. This is in keeping with John’s style of using double entendre or double meaning. Thus, the focus of the Greek construction here is on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent.”

2) “only begotten”: This phrase trips up a lot of people, since the act of “begetting” elsewhere in the KJV (and other older translations) usually refers to producing physical offspring. While the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, was indeed birthed in a biological manner, the Second Person of the Trinity was not. So, our understanding of this verse may impact our understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God.

As with the previous phrase, you may have noticed that some newer Bible translations use — or, at the very least, footnote — variations like “one and only Son” (NIV, NET) or “One and Only Son” (HCSB) or “uniquely existing Son” (ISV) or even “[One and] [a]only begotten Son” (AMP w/ footnote). Others keep “only begotten”, but even the NASB has an appropriate footnote (i.e., “Or unique, only one of His kind”).

Why? First, allow me to throw a little Greek at you by way of James White’s The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (2009):

“The translation only-begotten is inferior to unique. It was thought that the term came from <monos>, meaning “only” and <gennao>, meaning “begotten.” However, further research has determined that it derives not from <gennao> but from <genos>, meaning “kind” or “type.” Hence the better translation unique or one of a kind. [White then lists three books, which titles, etc., I’d be happy to provide upon request.]”

I will also cite the translation note from the NET, which I think is helpful:

“Although this word is often translated “only begotten,” such a translation is misleading, since in English it appears to express a metaphysical relationship. The word in Greek was used of an only child (a son [Luke 7:12, 9:38] or a daughter [Luke 8:42]). It was also used of something unique (only one of its kind) such as the mythological Phoenix (1 Clement 25:2). From here it passes easily to a description of Isaac (Heb 11:17 and Josephus, Ant. 1.13.1 [1.222]) who was not Abraham’s only son, but was one-of-a-kind because he was the child of the promise. Thus the word means “one-of-a-kind” and is reserved for Jesus in the Johannine literature of the NT. While all Christians are children of God (<tekna theou>), Jesus is God’s Son in a unique, one-of-a-kind sense. The word is used in this way in all its uses in the Gospel of John (1:14, 1:18, 3:16, and 3:18).”

Discussion of the next two phrases can be a bit more heated, since they touch on the doctrines of election and predestination and, therefore, impact the question of who is / can be saved.

3) “the world”: When writing on matters of Creation and the Flood, I have pointed out the wide range of uses of “world” in biblical and extra-biblical texts. Just by himself, John is known for using <kosmos> (the Greek word) in several ways. So, how do we know what definition is meant in this passage?

In Debating Calvinism, White points out that it can’t be “the ‘world’ that Jesus says He does not pray for in John 17:9, a ‘world’ that is differentiated from those the Father has given Him…. Neither is it the ‘world’ that is arrayed as an enemy against God’s will and truth, as seen in I John 2:15.” Exegetically, then, the most we can say is that “the world is shown love through the giving of the Son so that a specific, particular people receive eternal life through faith in Him. Since we know that not all are saved by faith in Christ, it is utterly unwarranted to read into <kosmos> some universal view of humanity.”

At this point, White digresses into the second part of verse 17. “[M]any see ‘but that the world might be saved’ as some kind of weak affirmation, when in fact the idea is, ‘God did not send the Son for purpose X but, instead, to fulfill purpose Y.’… While the subjunctive can be used in conditional sentences, it is also used in purpose/result clauses without the insertion of the idea of doubt or hesitant affirmation. The word might, then, is not to be read as ‘maybe,’ ‘hopefully,’ or ‘only if other things happen’ but as in ‘I turned on the printer so that I might print out this letter.’ The idea here is purpose, not lack of certainty.”

So, will the “world” truly be saved through Christ? “When we see the world as the entirety of the kinds of men (Jew and Gentile, or as John expresses it in Revelation 5:9, where every ‘tribe, tongue, people, and nation’ means world) the passage makes perfect sense. God’s love is demonstrated toward Jew and Gentile in providing a single means of salvation for both.”

4) “whosoever believeth” (or “whoever believes” in NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV, TLV, etc.): Given the above, what are we to make of this phrase? Doesn’t it make it clear that ANYone who puts his/her trust in Christ will receive eternal life? Not necessarily.

“In the Greek, the phrase ‘whoever believes’ is <hina pas ho pisteuwn>. In the English translation the term whoever is meant to communicate ‘all without distinction in a particular group’; specifically, ‘those who believe.’ <Pas> means ‘all’ and <ho pisteuwn> means ‘the one(s) believing’; hence, ‘every one believing,’ leading to ‘whoever believes.’ The point is that all the ones believing have eternal life. There is no such thing as a believing person who will not receive the promised benefit; hence, ‘whosoever.’ This is a common form in John’s writings…. All the passage is saying is that all the ones who believe will have eternal life. It does not even attempt to address who will believe or any of the related issues like human ability or inability and the nature of saving faith.”

Thus, I prefer the phrase “everyone who believes”, as found in some translations (e.g., HCSB, NET, ISV, LEB). In fact, for comparison’s sake, here is the full verse as found in three of my favorites:

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (HCSB)

“For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (NET)

“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his uniquely existing Son so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life.” (ISV)

There ya go. That’s the rationale, anyway, for why the beloved John 3:16 is partially misunderstood. Whether you agree with all, some, or none of these arguments, the end result should be, at the very least, an increased familiarity with the text and possibly a more precise understanding of what God was communicating via the Apostle John and, hopefully, of the Gospel message.

P.S.  Again, comments are welcome, but I am *not* looking for a big theological debate here.

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