God So Loved the World

John 3:16 is one of the best-known verses in Bible. It is very simple in its content—so simple that it is one of the first verses Sunday school children learn. Yet its depths are inexhaustible. I set out to write a brief exegetical summary of its contents and its connection to the surrounding context, but I soon found that it was turning into an exposition much longer than the one page I am allotted for this column. Consequently, I have decided to focus on a single word in the verse and explore the possible meanings.

The text of the verse is as follows: οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλʼ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. The word I would like to focus on is οὕτως.1 The options are basically three. The first and most common is that it is communicating the degree of God’s love for the world. God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. οὕτως can carry this meaning, and does on a few occasions in the NT (Gal. 1:6; 3:3; Heb. 12:21; Rev. 16:18). Almost all of the major translations follow this interpretation and translate simply, “God so loved the world.” There is some warrant for going this direction since the word can communicate the idea of degree and since the degree of love mentioned in this verse is certainly the greatest degree conceivable.

But there are a few versions that have departed from the ordinary interpretation and gone with the more common meaning of the word that communicates manner. God loved the world in this way, namely, He gave His Son. Both the NJB and the NET follow this interpretation. Taken this way, the following statement would answer the question, “In what way?” This is possible, but not the most likely in my opinion. The word introducing the second clause is ὥστε, which almost always communicates result and occasionally purpose. So to say, “God loved the world in this way, with the result that He gave His Son,” leaves the question, “In what way?” unanswered. To make sense of it, ὥστε would have to be taken to mean “namely” or something akin to it that would explain the manner of that love. As I researched this, I found that there is one place where this meaning is possible. In 1 Corinthians 5:1 the force seems to be explanatory rather than result. So this might be possible, although I believe it is the least likely of the three.2

A final possibility, which I have not found in any commentaries, is similar to the previous view in that it communicates a manner of sorts, but it has more of a comparative force, pointing back to the preceding context. Verse 14 really begins the thought carried on through the passage: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of man to be lifted up, in order that everyone believing in Him would be having eternal life, for so God loved the world, so that He gave His unique Son, in order that everyone believing in Him would not perish, but would be having eternal life.” Jesus turns Nicodemus’ attention to the Old Testament and reminds him of Numbers 21:8-9 where God displayed His love for sinful, rebellious Israel by giving them a means of physical salvation from the poisonous serpents that He sent in judgment for their wickedness. Jesus makes the connection that just as the serpent was lifted up for their physical salvation, so He will be lifted up for their spiritual salvation. And it is to this statement, “it is necessary (δεῖ) for the Son of man to be lifted up,” that the first phrase of verse 16 is subordinated. Why is it necessary? It is necessary ultimately in order to (ἵνα) accomplish God’s objective of salvation (v. 15), and underlying both the lifting up of the some (the means) and the accomplishing of salvation (the goal) was God’s love (v. 16a). The force of οὕτως then is that just as God loved Israel and displayed that love through the lifting up of the serpent, so (or, in the same way) God loved the world and displayed that love by the lifting up of His Son.

While any of these are possible interpretations of οὕτως, and while each are theologically true and accurate, it seems best to conclude, based on the contextual and linguistic evidence, that the last of these options is the best. It was that same unmerited love that God had for Israel under the Old Covenant that He set upon all people groups under the New Covenant and displayed in the incomprehensible gift of His very own Son.

Footnotes

  1. The word occurs 208 times in the NT.
  2. Noteworthy is the fact that this is John’s only use of this word (of the 83 NT occurrences), so it is impossible to analyze his usage and notice anything particular patterns.
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