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God loved us how much? (John 3:16)

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

Shalom,
Iain

Iain Hepburn is Ministry Associate at Gilcomston Church in Aberdeen.

To further explore how we understand Scripture come along to our conference Eyes to See, Ears to Hear. Iain will be looking at the Old Testament in Edinburgh (14 May) and Aberdeen (28 May), and Marion Carson will be looking at the New Testament in Glasgow (11 June).

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3 thoughts on “God loved us how much? (John 3:16)

  1. Thanks for bringing this up and for pointing out how what may have been once a good way to express it in English has become unhelpful as English has developed. I wonder whether οὕτω works with ὥστε in the way that you might pair up “in this way…” with a colon. And in v 15 we see a similar structure going on with a οὕτως then ἵνα. (Καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς…, *οὕτως* …, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. *οὕτως* γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, *ὥστε* τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾿ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.)

    As you then very clearly point out, the giving of his only son is the clear demonstration of God’s love. It’s not so much an answer to the ‘How much does God love us?’ question as an answer to the question ‘How do we know God loved the world?’ Of course if we assume God should love the world because it’s his job, then we might miss how striking that is.

    In our translation office (in Nigeria) we had recently also been discussing the issue that γαρ doesn’t exactly indicate a reason like ‘because’ or ‘for’ so much as giving a background explanation or a foundational principle. If you find advertising slogans like “Because you’re worth it” annoying then you might find Bible verses beginning with “For…” annoying since it’s just a frustrating (ab)use of English. A more normal way of expressing γαρ in this case might be “You see…” which when combined with your insight gives us:

    Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert [as God’s provision to be saved from death], in this way the Son of Man needs to be lifted up so everyone trusting him would have eternal life. You see how God loved the world: he gave his only son so everyone trusting him wouldn’t die but have eternal life.

    (‘in this way’ ≈ ‘how’)

    It’s very much like the way John describes true love in 1 John, isn’t it?

    1. Hi David,
      Thank you for the response. I think that there are ramifications beyond this verse once we start ‘updating’ some of the terms. I myself have begun to think how this impacts the use of the Greek term elsewhere. The relationship with ὥστε which I translated as a consequential ‘so’ certainly appears elsewhere and some sort of relationship could be expected.
      For me the exciting thing is the reappraisal of how we grasp what is revealed about God in this text – which is a lot bigger than is often assumed.
      As for the translators, I appreciate having the time to expand on a verse, finding a simple way of expressing it can often lead to unforeseen difficulties down the line, particularly as language changes.

  2. Now I know why sometimes people think I overthink things – a theological education can do that! I’m having a laugh at the expense of any theological education another the same lines of “if you want to give God a laugh tell him what your plans are”.

    For many people I would suggest that this eureka moment for you may not have the same or similar effect. Though I’m glad to read that your thinking has for you resulted in a new revelation of God and/or love.

    So your definition of love being that God gave his son so that all that believe in him may not be destroyed but posses life never ending. OK – the impact of your idea surely would have more relevance for a parent and more specifically for a parent that has lost a child than for anyone who isn’t or hasn’t? For s God not withholding even his son out of love for humanity showing the level to which he chooses to go to, to show love? to sacrifice and serve humanity to that level? Mind blowing when considering his needs are met without humanity.

    Would I give up a son who says to me “forgive them the don’t know what they are doing” for people who hate him? Would you? I think I would be raging and I think I would feel like wiping them out!

    What about life for anyone who is living in abject misery? For the childless couples? What might impact anyone in these kind of circumstances to the same effect? I can’t imagine “life never ending” being appealing to someone who’s life is miserable in the present. So it’s hard to have one size fits all on this.

    I would suggest that there are some examples of human sacrifice – for example in the military, serving out of honour and duty and dying on the battlefield that re the same or similar in human cost. But not withholding one;s life as a definition of love? One can give up one’s life out of service but not be loving I would suggest. I think therefore that the surrender of the Son’s life is a measure of the importance that the Father places on love.

    I think it is a form of love – the willingness to surrender one’s life – a measure to which one is willing to weigh up the cost and that acts of love can find forms in infinitely different forms.

    In one sense it’s like grace. If you try to examine love and grace, it can be like slicing a scalpel through a frog to examine it internal organs – thereby killing the frog.

    Which then takes me back to my earlier point about giving God a laugh.

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