John 3:16 Meaning (What We Often Miss About This Verse)

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John 3:16 is maybe the most quoted verse in the whole Bible. Almost everyone has some part of it memorized. While most people know what the verse says they know little about the context in which the verse was written. So I what to look at John 3:16’s meaning with a fresh perspective. 

I’ve written before on verses that are misquoted and misused (Jeremiah 29:11, Revelation 3:20, Most Common Misused Verses) But this verse is a little different. I don’t see it being misused often. But I do think the significance of this verse is often glossed over. This is one of the most significant passages in the whole Bible and yet most only know a single verse. 

My hope for this post is that you would see this verse in a new light and be amazed by what Jesus has done for you. So let’s look at John 3:16 and the meaning it holds for us. 

The Verses Before John 3:16

Before we can look at John 3:16’s meaning we need to understand how we got there. 

John 3:1-2 opens up with a man, Nicodemus, coming to Jesus and posing a question. There are a few things we need to know about this interaction. 

Nicodemus was a religious leader

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, essentially the Jewish version of the Supreme Court. This guy knows his stuff, he’s studied the Scriptures his whole life and likely has most of it committed to memory. Not only does he know his stuff, but he leads it. In other words, this guy has street cred. 

He came at night 

This is a detail we often gloss over. But it should cause us to ask why. Why would he not seek Jesus out during the day? 

Remember who this guy is, he’s a Pharisees. A religious leader. This is the same group that is trying to arrest Jesus. That will eventually nail him to a cross. He’s coming at night because he’s ashamed, he doesn’t want to be found out by his friends. He didn’t want anyone else to know that he was interested in what Jesus had to say.

Some people argue he’s trying to lay a trap so the Pharisees can arrest him. But that seems unlikely since the Pharisees weren’t afraid to lay traps in broad daylight.

He wants something

Nicodemus has heard about Jesus and maybe even seen him teach. He’s curious, he wants to know if Jesus is legit or just another imposter. Because he came at night he’s probably unsure and wasn’t ready to rock the boat with his religious friends. But interested, maybe even on the verge of following Jesus. 

The Interaction

Now that we know the setting let’s look at the interaction between Nicodemus and Jesus. 

In John 3:2 Nicodemus addresses Jesus. He calls him, Rabbi, a term of respect. Jesus had none of the formal training Nicodemus had. Yet Nicodemus recognizes something is different about Jesus and addresses him with respect. Something very few Pharisees did. Again, it show’s he’s probably genuinely seeking Jesus. 

But then Jesus says something crazy. 

You have to be born again to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

If you grew up in church that probably doesn’t sound that crazy. But forget what you know for just a minute. Pretend this is the first time you have heard this statement. What a crazy concept, right?! What would you think Jesus meant?  

The second piece to Jesus’ statement is the kingdom of God. To the Jews, the Kingdom of God was a big deal. Nicodemus is greatly confused and concerned. He wants to see and enter the Kingdom of God, but he has no idea what Jesus is talking about. He’s nervous and confused, just as you and I would have been.

Nicodemus Asks The Obvious 

Nicodemus is grasping at straws here. He doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about and he assumes (as you and I would) that Jesus is telling him that he must be physically reborn. (John 3:4)

What Nicodemus doesn’t understand is that Jesus isn’t talking about a physical rebirth, rather a spiritual one. 

What Jesus is driving at is that in order to enter the kingdom of God you must be reborn. Why? Because Nicodemus, as good as he was, was sinful. He was united with sin, he was one with death. Therefore he could not enter into life, the kingdom. (John 3:5-8) 

For more about sin and it’s seriousness check out: What Is Sin? 

But Nicodemus still doesn’t get it (John 3:9). Let’s not point the finger, we live on this side of the cross. If we were in his shoes we too would be struggling with this idea. 

Jesus offers a rebuke (John 3:10). But I don’t think he’s angry. I think Jesus is more frustrated that even the religious elite didn’t get it. 

But I don’t think Jesus is mad at Nicodemus. What Jesus is talking about is an entirely new concept. It is something different than the way anyone was living or thinking about God. It’s a new way of life, a new way of approaching God, it was a new system.

This new birth can only come from above. And it changes everything. 

But Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. 

Jesus Clarifies 

Jesus breaks it down even further (John 3:11-15). 

This time Jesus references a story that many of us don’t know, but Nicodemus was very familiar with. 

What Jesus does is brilliant. In John 3:14-15 Jesus refers to Numbers 21:4-9. Let me briefly explain the story, because it’s significant. 

In Numbers 21 God had just delivered the Israelites victory over their enemies and now they are on the move as God guides them. But human nature kicks in and the Israelites start to complain… About everything. 

So God sent in snakes. Yes, snakes. And they go around biting all these complainers. Maybe an idea for you the next time your kids complain…

The strategy works, the Israelites repent. God instructs Moses to build a bronze snake and put it on a pole in the middle of the camp. Whoever looks at the snake will be healed. 

Think about that picture. A snake was lifted up on a wooden pole. All who looked to it were healed. Sound familiar? 

Soon Jesus would be lifted up in a similar fashion. And all who look to him will be saved. 

Nicodemus wouldn’t understand this at this moment, but in a short while when he saw Jesus hanging on the cross it all would make sense. 

Jesus on the cross is the way to the spiritual rebirth. He’s the way to the kingdom. 

But Jesus is just getting started. What he says next is not only the most famous verse but one of the most important theological points in the Bible. 

For God So Loved The World Meaning

The question we should be asking is why would Jesus do this? The answer, because he loved us. Sin separated us from God and set us on a path to destruction. But God loved us and sent his son to right our wrongs. To reunited us with him. (John 3:16-17)

We have such a terrible understanding of sin, I’m not going into here but I have written about it before. Again, check out: What Is Sin?

I know we typically stop here. But Jesus continues on and gives, if you will, his mission statement. This is why Jesus came to earth in a nutshell: John 3:16-21 

When Nicodemus heard this, it would have been shocking. For the Jews, they thought they were God’s people. And they were. But they thought the coming Messiah was only for them. Jesus says, no I’m here for the world. 

The word Jesus uses for the world is kosmos. The connotation of kosmos is that God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad.

Jesus came to save the religious and the wicked. God’s love is so big that even the worst of the worst can find hope and healing in Jesus. 

John 3:16 Meaning

So what does this mean for us? How should we live in light of John 3:16? 

Let me give you two steps you can take. 

Step Into God’s Light

This is painful. It’s like walking out of a dark theater into a bright sunny day. Light hurts. 

When we step into God’s light he’s going to illuminate some painful parts of our life. Not to hurt us, but to bring healing. But’s it’s going to hurt before it heals. 

What we need to understand is that on the other side of that pain is a new life.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that in this passage Jesus calls our new life a spiritual rebirth. My wife and I had our first child in 2018. And let me tell you when she went into labor it was not pleasant and enjoyable for her… Or me, but mostly her. It was a LONG 24 hours. 

But on the other side of that pain came a new life. And it was TOTALLY worth it. 

The same is true for us. When we step into God’s light, when we are spiritually reborn it’s painful. The old parts of us are dying and it’s tough. But don’t miss this, the life that’s on the other side of that pain is TOTALLY worth it.

Shine God’s Light

Once we step into the light God gives us a new life. While that new life is a free gift, one that we can do nothing to earn, it does come with expectations. It’s our responsibility to live John 3:16 to those around us, to shine God’s light everywhere we go. 

I know the temptation is to hide your light. To keep it hidden. Nicodemus was certainly going to face that temptation as he returned to his colleagues who were largely hostile toward Jesus. But the command of anyone who claims to follow Jesus is to take his light with us and let it shine for others to see. 

I’d love to hear from you! Drop a comment down below!

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Jeffery Curtis Poor
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