We’re reading John 3:16 as the story of the kingdom of God, the lens Jesus used. God is sovereign. The world resists him. The sovereign persists in loving his resistant realm. He does so by sending the most amazing gift.
Queue the questions:
- What does it mean to say God gave his Son?
Some have read John 3:16 as if it said God sacrificed his Son, but that really doesn’t fit. It’s not that God so hated the world that he killed his Son. John’s Gospel is quite clear about who killed Jesus: it was the rulers of this world — the Jewish leaders, in collusion with imperial power. Pagans have imagined murderous gods, but that isn’t the God revealed in Jesus.
John’s message is that the heavenly sovereign so loved his rebellious world that he sent us a gift, his most treasured gift, his one and only Son. His gift was an offer to make peace between heaven and earth, to reconcile with the rebels.
It’s doubly surprising that God is the one offering this reconciliation gift. If I’ve offended my wife, I should be buying the flowers and seeking to reconcile. Or in a relationship where one person has all the power, it’s usually the party without power who suffers sanctions and must seek reconciliation. But in the case of God versus the world, it’s the sovereign who comes to us on his knees. For God so loved the world …
- Who was his Son?
This term already had a rich Jewish heritage, before the Christian community took it to a new level.
The descendants of David who reigned on the throne were declared to be God’s son on the day of their coronation (Psalm 2:7). God is the ultimate ruler enthroned in the heavens (Psalm 2:4), so the prince who conducts his reign on earth functions as his son, i.e. the Lord’s anointed ruler in his earthly realm (Psalm 2:2).
The kingship had failed long before Jesus’ time. So you can imagine the excitement when he, as son of David, began to announce that God’s reign (the kingdom of God) was about to be restored. It was enough for a Sanhedrin member to approach him to see if Jesus might be the one sent from God so the kingdom of God would reappear (John 3:1-3).
- Why his unique Son?
Jesus wasn’t just a son like the sons of God who represented heaven’s reign on earth during their lifetime and were then gathered to their ancestors. The word John used (monogenēs) means Jesus is in a class of his own. He’s the unique son who defeated death and received the kingship forever. No other son has always been with the Father, sharing his throne.
As early Christians meditated on Jesus as God’s Son, they developed christological language to describe his uniqueness: human and divine natures coexisting in one person. They developed terms like Trinity to describe one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Theological thought is helpful, but it should not replace the Old Testament roots of this sonship language.
So this is the significance of the gift. God sent his unique Son, the only one who could reconcile the heavenly sovereign with the rebels on earth, the only one who could bring us back under divine kingship, the only one who could give us eternal life under his reign.
John 3:16 tells us:
For God (the heavenly sovereign)
so loved (the unfailing love of a faithful ruler)
the world (the realm that resists his kingship)
that he gave (a peace-making, reconciliation gift)
his Son (the anointed who brings heaven’s rule to earth),
his unique Son (the undying ruler who eternally shares the Father’s life and reign).
We’ll talk further about what it means to believe in him, and to have eternal life instead of perishing.