John 3:16 is perhaps the most memorized verse in the Bible. It begins with the familiar phrase: “For God so loved the world . . . .” The Greek word translated “so” can express both manner (“this is how God loved the world”) and degree (“God loved the world this much”). God shows his love in many other ways, of course, but this is the supreme demonstration of God’s love for human beings made in his image — that he gave his Son to bring us back to himself. Whenever New Testament writers mention God’s love, they most often tie it to the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. And the more we examine this expression of divine love, the greater we appreciate the extent of the Father’s love for his wayward and needy children.
It is extremely significant, I believe, that Jesus’ life and death expressed God’s love rather than causing it. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. We ought not to think of God as hating us all until one day Jesus comes and dies on the cross, causing God to love us instead. God loved the world first. That is why he gave his Son. The very next verse, John 3:17, underscores this reality. It reminds us that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn us but to rescue us. Before Jesus ever came to this world, God loved us already. Then, because he loved us — and loved us so much — God gave his Son. Sometimes Christian people make it sound as if God is trying to condemn as many people as possible. That is not true. It also misrepresents the Father who sent Jesus Christ his Son to die for the world.
When we hear that God so loved us that he gave his Son, we need also to remember the mysterious and unexplainable relationship between this Father and this Son — this unique, one-of-a-kind Son (which is the core meaning of the word translated “only-begotten” in the older versions). This is not like Abraham going out to sacrifice his son Isaac as a victim. This is not like those apocryphal evangelistic stories of a railroading father who saves a trainload of lives by switching a runaway engine so that it crushes his only son instead. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus claims to be one with the Father, in a way no other human can rightly claim. New Testament writers say that the fullness of God became human in Jesus Christ and that Jesus was God with us. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he will lay down his own life on his own initiative and that no one else takes his life from him. God so loved the world that he gave his Son, but this Son also loved us and gave himself for us.
Let us remember also that God loved (and loves) “the world.” Not just Jews (or everybody except Jews). Not just Americans, or white people, or people like us (whatever that might mean). God’s love did not favor “good” people, or the “religious,” or even the “spiritual.” God so loved the world. As we enter more deeply into this 21st century A.D., we who suppose that we know Jesus Christ and represent him to others must constantly reground our thinking in the reality that God so loved the world. If we do not love that same world of people, if we do not “so love” them that we will give ourselves for them, we are not ready to represent Christ to them or to share God’s love with them in a way that they will consider credible, inviting or attractive.