God so loved the world… For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. Verse 16 provides the link between the two parts of the discourse. It sums up vv. 14-15 by reiterating the salvific dimensions of Jesus’ death, but moves the argument forward with its reference to God’s love. God gave Jesus to the world because God loves the world.
The verb translated “give” (didōmi) Is regularly used in the Fourth Gospel to describe God as the source of what Jesus offers the world (3:35; 5:22, 26, 36). John 3:16 is the only place in the Fourth Gospel that says God “gave” his Son to the world; the more common expression is that God “sent” Jesus, as in 3:17. (Two Greek verbs meaning “to send” [pempō and apostellō are used interchangeably see 3:17; 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 36-37; 6:38.) “send” Jesus is more clearly associated with will for the world, whereas didōmi seems to used in 3:16 to underscore that the incarnation derives from God’s love for the world as well as from God’s will.
“World” (kosmos) in John refers often to those human beings who are at odds with Jesus and God (1:10, 7:7; 15:18-19). The use of the term here suggests that God gives Jesus in love to all people, but only believers accept the gift. Verse 16 also reiterates the theme of eternal life from v. 15, but advances the argument by naming the alternative to eternal life: to perish. This verse makes clear that there is no middle ground in the Johannine vision. God’s gift of Jesus, which culminates in Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, decisively alters the options available to the world. If one believes, one’s present is altered by the gift of eternal life; if one does not believe, one perishes.
God’s gift of Jesus to the world begins the judgment of the world. Verses 17-21 explain this judgment and exemplify what is known as John’s “realized eschatology.” To speak of realized eschatology means that God’s judgment of the world is not a cosmic future event but is underway in the present, initiated by Jesus’ coming into the world. God sends the Son into the world in love in order to save the world, not condemn it (v. 17). Yet the very presence of Jesus as incarnate Word in the world confronts the world with a decision, to believe or not to believe, and making that decision is the moment of judgment. If one believes, one is saved; if one does not believe, one condemns oneself unwittingly (v. 18).
Light and Darkness. Verses 19-21 portray this intricate balance between judgment and decision in the metaphorical language of light and darkness. This language recalls the language and imagery of the Prologue (1:5, 9-10). To love darkness more than light is the same as not believing, and it results in judgment (v. 19). The way a person acts in the presence of the light is the defining mark of a person’s identity. Whether someone is good or evil is revealed solely by the decision he or she makes in the encounter with Jesus (vv. 20-21);86 it is not predetermined in advance. “In the decision of faith or unbelief it becomes apparent what [a person) really is and … always was. But it is revealed in such a way that the decision is made only now.”87 Christology and anthropology are thus inseparably linked in the Fourth Gospel. Who people are is determined by their response to Jesus. These verses provide a telling conclusion to the Nicodemus narrative. Nicodemus did not believe (3:12); therefore, he remains in the darkness. He came to Jesus at night and will stay in the night.
The Fourth Gospel does include traditional understandings of eschatology and the final judgment (5:28-29), but judgment and eternal life as present tense are at the theological heart of this Gospel. It is crucial for the Fourth Evangelist that God’s judgment of the world arises precisely out of God’s love for the world. When God sent Jesus into the world, God presented the world with a critical moment of decision. God sent Jesus to save the world, but each person must decide whether to accept that offer of salvation. The world will thereby judge itself in its response to Jesus. Decision and self-judgment define Johannine eschatology. As Bultmann has written eloquently, the Fourth Gospel expresses “a radical understanding of Jesus’ appearance as the eschatological event. This event puts an end to the old course of the world. As from now on there are only believers and unbelievers, so that there are also now only saved and lost, those who have life and those who are in death. This is because the event is grounded in the love of God, that love which gives life to faith, but which must become judgment in the face of unbelief.”
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007). 434-37
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 129-49
- Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 985-86
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) 105-20
- Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998) 88-103
- John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989) 64-70
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 546-555
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
- David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
- Harold Remus, Miracle (NT), 4:856-70
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970