John 3:16 is the Church’s most favorite Bible verse. In it one finds the heart of the Gospel of John, the heart of God for humans and the heart of Jesus for everyone. This most popular of Bible verses then is the heart of God in the heart of the Bible. To get us going, I will cite the expanded translation of Murray J. Harris (teacher, colleague, friend), from his new book John 3:16 :
This rebirth from above is possible for everyone who believes, because God the Father loved all humans to such an extraordinary extent that he actually sent his dearly loved one and only Son into the world and then gave him over to an atoning death, so that everyone, without distinction or exception, who believes in Jesus will not suffer God’s wrath and thus be lost, but, on the contrary, will both now and in the hereafter enjoy intimate fellowship with God and actually share in God’s own life (26).
The problem with popular verses like John 3:16 is they can easily become “Ho-hum, I’ve heard that one before. Got anything fresh for us?” Let us step back to see the profundity of this verse.
First, Nicodemus was a Pharisee (equivalent to an insider group of those who are known for special spirituality), a leader of the Jews, a champion of due process, and very wealthy. He comes to Jesus at night. So, a rich religious man meets Jesus so he can get quality time with the Man. What’s Jesus got for him?
Second, God the Father is his message, and what he says about this God the Father is that this God the Father loves extraordinarily. Love needs to be defined, of course. Harris: “it is clearly a strong, selfless, gift-giving love that is totally focussed on the welfare of others” (11). That is, it is a rugged commitment to be with, for and unto others (as I define love in A Fellowship of Differents).
Noticeably, third, this Father loves the world. Harris:
There it refers to “all humans without distinction or exception” …. in spite of the fact that we are part of a world that is hostile to God and alienated from him. This makes the love of God all the more unprecedented and astonishing. Gods love knows no bounds in its intensity (it is limitless) or in its scope (it includes all humans) (13).
There is, fourth, in the Bible a kind of tragedy: God the Father’s love for the world, that which is in rebellion against God, is expressed finally and most completely in sending the Son to us and for us. As God’s Son, Jesus reveals the Father uniquely; as the Son who had always been in the bosom of the Father, Jesus knows the Father the best. It is that Son whom the Father sends to us and for us. Thus, Harris: “The content of God’s gift was beyond imagination… the value of God’s gift was beyond calculation” (18).
But this Father’s Love, fifth, in the Son knows no limits since “whoever” includes all. No one is excluded. Each has the opportunity to believe, which means “the total commitment of one’s whole self to the person of Christ as Messiah and Lord for ever” (20). Harris provides a helpful chart distinguishing “believing that” from “believing in”:
Deals with facts vs. Deals with a person
Involves the mind vs. Involves the heart
Involves recognition of the truth vs. Involves allegiance to Jesus, the Truth
Can be momentary vs. Must be continuous
Alters nothing vs. Alters everything
Is a natural experience vs. Is a “rebirth from above”
Is a prerequisite vs. Is the proper outcome
Which leads, sixth, to the promise: those who believe will not “perish,” which Harris reads as final separation from God, but will have eternal life, which Harris reads as quality and quantity. That eternal life is embodied, localized, personal, active, corporate and personal.
The heart of God is love, the heart of Jesus is loving us for the Father’s love, and the heart of John’s Gospel is the love of the Father in the Son for us.