God loved human beings so much that he gave his one-and-only Son to bring our alienated world back to himself (John 3:16). That Son, whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth, also loved us so much that he laid down his life to restore us to healthy relationship with the Father (John 10:17-18). By his life and death, Jesus brought into being an objective reality that did not exist before — a state of friendship between God and the estranged world. The gospel (which means a “happy announcement”) is the good news of this restored relationship between the Creator and his human creatures everywhere. Just as the Father loved us before he gave his Son, the Son restored our friendship with the Father before we heard about it or believed that it was true.
With the gospel announcement comes the promise that all who trust in Jesus will immediately experience the reality of the renewed relationship with God which Jesus has brought into being. Because this seems too simple to be true, Jesus points to God’s equally unbelievable promise given long ago to the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21). When the venomous complaining of the rebellious people finally wore out God’s patience, God punished them with a plague of poisonous snakes. In mercy, God then instructed Moses to mount a brass snake up on a pole, and to promise the people that every snake-bitten person who looked at that brass snake would live. In that same way, promises Jesus, once he has been lifted up on the cross, whoever believes in him will experience life that is out-of-this-world in quality and that will never end (John 3:14-15).
This story of God’s incredible promise to the snake-bitten Israelites provides the setting for the familiar words recorded in John 3:16, which is why verse 16 begins with the connecting word “for.” The ancient promise points us to the present promise, as each clause in verse 16 drives us to the clause that follows. “FOR God so loved the world, THAT he gave his only begotten Son, THAT whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” God’s love resulted in his giving us Jesus. Jesus’ “lifting up” resulted in every believer experiencing eternal life.
The alternative to believing is to disbelieve, to deny that God’s happy announcement is true, to reject the reality of Jesus as God’s Son and of the restored relationship that Jesus has brought about between God and the human world. Just as believers enjoy eternal life, those who persistently reject God’s love will finally perish. The ultimate cause of perishing is rejecting God (notice the “because” in verse 18). Although believing in Jesus in response to the good news results in enjoying eternal life, the ultimate cause of eternal life is not our believing, but the inexplicable, unbounded love of God. Those who experience eternal life must give God all the credit. Those who finally perish must themselves take all the blame.