I am always amazed at how God can reveal something to us, even when we have closed our ears. Often this happens to me when reading a text which I had foolishly believed to be fully understood. You can picture the scene; there I am reading away, with all of my previous thoughts and understandings on the surface. Then suddenly, as if struck by a lightning bolt, something is revealed that I had previously not observed. What a wonderful experience it is to discover something previously unknown to us and it is even more incredible when it happens in verses that are particularly well known.
It is, arguably, fair to say that the text of John 3:16 is the most widely known verse of scripture. I have read it and heard it times beyond counting, and, until recently, I was pretty confident that I had a good handle on what it meant. Imagine then my surprise (and delight) when upon reading that same text in my Greek New Testament (which I do on occasion) the verse I thought I knew so well was not exactly what was originally written!
We can always prevaricate over the exact rendering of things, a hair splitting exercise that does not take us very far. So for example, do we make αἰώνιον mean everlasting or do we make it never-ending? This sort of thing does not interest me at all. What does get me excited is when we discover that a word means something so different as to change the flavour or even the meaning of a verse. Or perhaps when we are given an insight that changes our perception of God and how he works in and through us. This excites me, this enthuses me, for anything that helps me know my God a little better is more precious than gold. Now, in John 3:16 there is just such a word (Οὕτω) residing at the very beginning, and how we translate it affects the intention of the verse.
Οὕτω is where we get the ‘so’ in the ‘For God so loved the world…’. When we read it, the ‘so loved’ usually means that God loved the world so much that he was compelled to act. It is a quantitative statement, it talks about how much God loved. Indeed, this love existed to such a degree that the Son died. This leads us to the traditional translation, which usually goes:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.
However, the Οὕτω in question is not intended to be understood as a description of quantity of love. Rather, this ‘so’ in question is consequential in its purpose, telling us that the love of God was demonstrated in sacrifice (the death of the Son). The meaning would therefore work better as: God loved the world in this way; that the Son died.
At first, this may not seem to be a big difference so why did this sudden dawning excited me? Within the more traditional rendering the purpose of the verse becomes about the amount of love. One problem with this rendering that we get to define love and imagine that this is what God feels like, but on a bigger scale. This can be a very sorry affair, restricted to our best experiences, projecting them onto God.
It should be noted that the bible itself does this elsewhere on occasion. God himself will take the examples of a mother’s love (Isaiah 49:15), the love of a father (Jeremiah 31:9), a spouse (2 Samuel 17:3; Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 21:9), and he will equate it with the love he has for his people. On those occasions he is taking the very best that humanity can manage, for even in our endlessly broken and marred relationships we can understand that these loves should be the very best that we can offer. For all of the failed examples we can understand that the bond between a mother and her newborn child is such a precious thing. For all of the broken marriages we can understand the way in which the love for our spouse can be the best we can imagine. With all of these examples God says to humanity, imagine your best, your very, very best. Picture it, what it looks like, what it feels like, the strength of it, the intensity of it. Well, I am like that … but better. That is the best you can imagine and that is but a fraction of me. Hold onto your best though it be a shadow of what I feel for you.
However, that is not what is happening in John 3:16. We do not get to imagine that if he loved a little less the Son would not have died. We do not get to simply note that God loves us a lot, that it caused him to act, and remain simply grateful (though that is an appropriate emotion). John 3:16 is not trying to describe the scale of God’s love (an impossible task). Rather, it is a simple statement as to what love is. A better rendering of the full verse would be:
God loved the world in this way; that he gave the only Son so that all those believing in him would not be utterly destroyed but possess life never-ending.
The difference is firstly, that within this rendering we do not get to define love. When we understand that it is not describing an amount of love; we grasp that it is saying this is love! This is what love is. This verse tells us to stop imagining love in our own image, to stop basing it on our experiences, to stop equating it with our perception. There is, here, a perfect example of love and it trumps all other expressions. It is an example to which we can measure ourselves. It is a definition to correct how we might love; an epitome to which we should aim. It cries out not just for gratitude but for application. We cannot say that we love someone without a willingness to live sacrificially. We cannot claim to love God and not give up our favourite sin. Having seen what true love is, we can understand what love is and begin to use it as the definition for how we live.
John 3:16 tells us that this is love perfectly expressed: Selfless, sacrificial, rescuing; and the most incredible part of all is that this perfect love is aimed at us. This is a reason to be excited and to be endlessly astounded.
A final point
This issue is not to be thought of as an error in translation! When the KJV wrote the now traditional version the way that the English language worked was different. Originally those earlier English readers would have grasped the meaning of the text. Language however tends not to stand still and it is in the current use of the word that issue arises. Today the word so points to the quantity rather than the method. It means that there are things forgotten in our texts awaiting the excitement of discovery