It is probably the best known and most frequently quoted passage in the New Testament, affectionately labeled, "the Golden Text of the Bible." This single verse is often printed, framed, and reverently displayed as though it encapsulates the entire Christian faith. In his book 3:16: The Numbers of Hope (2007), best-selling author Max Lucado concludes his somewhat shallow (albeit emotionally stirring) treatment of the passage with these simple words: "Believe in him and you will . . . not . . . perish" (130). While this popular evangelical interpretation is also advanced in a number of modern English versions, does it give a genuine account of what the Lord actually said? If this twenty-five-word affirmation to Nicodemus is of such monumental consequence, surely it deserves our utmost care to ensure that it is accurately translated, correctly understood, faithfully observed, and consistently taught.
While Jesus, in all likelihood, originally spoke these words in Aramaic, they have come down to us in the form of John’s Greek translation. As we try to make sense of the statement from a contemporary, English-speaker’s perspective, we need to break it down, analyze each word, and then put it all together to grasp its full implications.
The translation starts with the term gar ("for"), even though it is not the first word in the sentence, because it is a postpositive and thus marks the beginning of the conveyed thought. It is important to realize that "for" immediately calls our attention to the fact that John 3:16 does not stand on its own. It is a continuation of the preceding discourse and is therefore just a small portion of a larger context.
In the expression ho theos (lit. "the God"), the article ("the") is left untranslated because its use simply identifies theos ("God") as the subject. The verb ēgapēsen (the aorist form of agapaō = "he loved") encompasses God’s entire action. The adverb houtōs ("thus, in this way, so") is emphatic, i.e., its position at the beginning of the sentence adds intensity to the action: "For God so loved . . ."
The expression ton kosmon ("the world") is the direct object of the leading verb, followed by the conjunction hōste ("so that, so as"). The next verb is edōken (the aorist form of didōmi = "he gave"), and the object of this verb is ton huion ("the Son"). But this is not just any son (cf. Galatians 3:26; Hebrews 2:10); this is ton monogenē, the accusative form of monogenēs. This compound word, from monos ("alone, only") and genos ("offspring, kind"), signifies "the only one of his kind" (cf. Hebrews 11:17).
The conjunction hina ("that, in order that") is followed by pas ("every") and then by the articular participle ho pisteuōn (lit. "the believing"). A participle is a verbal noun, which is typically conveyed with an "-ing" word (e.g. "Believing is important"). Since the participle here is accompanied by an article, to complete the thought it is rendered, "the believing one." This is significant because the articular participle is not a description of what the person has done but is indicative of who the person is. In other words, "the believing one" is not merely someone who has cognitively accepted a truth in his heart; rather he is included among those who are distinguished from the unbelieving world that rejects the gospel of Christ. Consider, for example, Acts 2:44, where pantes hoi pisteusantes ("all the believing ones") describes those who have responded to the gospel in obedient faith, viz. penitent baptized believers (vv. 37-44). While they are referred to as "the believing ones," they have obviously done more than simply "believe" in their hearts!
The preposition eis can denote "in," "into," "unto," or even "for," depending on its use in the sentence. Here it runs parallel to the preceding statement in v. 15 ("that every believing one in [en] him . . ."), so the comparable expression eis auton in v. 16 appears to be "in him." This reminds us of Paul’s well-known "in Christ" motif, where the preposition eis is also sometimes employed (2 Corinthians 1:21; 11:3; Galatians 2:16; Philippians 1:29; Colossians 2:5).
On a side note, a person who is unfamiliar with New Testament Greek can still figure this out. Remember that John 3:16 opens with the word "for," indicating that it is part of a broader context and is not to be viewed in isolation. Those who attempt to get "faith only" out of the verse, discounting obedience in general and baptism in particular, have failed to consider the rest of the paragraph. Jesus has already affirmed the essentiality of baptism (v. 5) and goes on to highlight the necessity of obedience (v. 21). In fact, the chapter ends with this sentiment: "The believing one [ho pisteuōn] in the Son has life everlasting; but the one not obeying [ho apeithōn] the Son will not see life . . ." (v. 36). To be a "believing one," in the biblical sense, is to be obedient.
The term mē is a particle of negation and means "not." Apolētai is the aorist passive subjunctive form of apollumi. In the active sense, apollumi conveys the idea of "destroy," whereas in the passive sense (as here) it means to "perish." For some curious reason, many modern versions render this expression as a future passive indicative ("shall not perish"), advocating the Calvinistic doctrine of the perseverance of the saints or "once saved, always saved." However, the inspired writer does not use the indicative mood (the mode of reality) but rather the subjunctive mood (the mode of potentiality). Thus, the phrase is more accurately rendered, "should not perish." All’ (or alla) is a conjunction that means "but." The verb echē (present active subjunctive of echō) is "should have," and zōēn aiōnion denotes "life everlasting."
What does John 3:16 actually say? "For God so loved the world that he gave the one/only Son, that every believing one in him should not perish but should have life everlasting." What are the implications? For (the greatest reason), God (the greatest Being), so (the greatest intensity), loved (the greatest virtue), the world (the greatest cause), that he gave (the greatest sacrifice), the one/only Son (the greatest gift), that every believing one (the greatest commitment), in him (the greatest location), should not perish (the greatest tragedy), but should have (the greatest assurance), life everlasting (the greatest destiny).
– Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: New Testament "Believers", Perseverance of the Saints?