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What John 3:16 Says About a Wonderful World Worth Saving

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At our wedding, we played Louis Armstrong’s famous song, What a Wonderful World.

That song would later become pretty problematic for me because of some poorly formed theology, some of which you may be familiar with.

  • The world is bad and evil, as are all the people living in it.
  • The world is temporary and disposable and will burn up someday.
  • The world is the plan God scrapped when he created heaven.
  • Don’t get too attached to this world. Focus on the next one.

So while I’ve always had an affection for certain things about the world in which I live, I’ve also reminded myself repeatedly of these more cynical ideas concerning the world as a whole.

And then there is perhaps the most famous verse in the New Testament, John 3:16, which says,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV)

I’ve preached probably a dozen sermons on this verse over two and a half decades of ministry, and as I read it more closely, I realize that I’ve read far more into the text than the writer ever intended.

In fact, tradition, intertwined with sentimentalism, has caused most modern Christians to misunderstand the verse and its context.

What John 3:16 DOESN’T Really Say

First, We’ve said, “For God SO loved the world…” means that he loved the world very, very much. He loved it SOOOO much.

But a better translation is, “For this is how God loved the world…,” or “For God loved the world in this way….”

Second, We assume “He GAVE his only begotten Son…” to be a reference to the cross – the sacrificial death of Jesus. But the text simply tells us that God gave his Son to the world – the person and work of Christ – not necessarily in reference to his death at all.

Perhaps we’ve taken John’s reference to the exodus story of the serpent lifted up on the pole as a symbol for the cross, but when John quotes Jesus as saying, “so must the Son of man be lifted up,” he could just as well be referencing Jesus’ exaltation and public recognition as King and Redeemer.

Third, We assume that to “perish” means to spend eternity being consciously tormented in hell and “everlasting life” means to go to a blissful heaven. But again, the text doesn’t refer to heaven or to hell. It’s about life and death.

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Brandon Cox is Lead Pastor of Grace Hills Church, a new church plant in northwest Arkansas. He also serves as Editor and Community Facilitator for Pastors.com and Rick Warren's Pastor's Toolbox and was formerly a Pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. In his spare time, he offers consultation to church leaders about communication, branding, and social media. He and his wife, Angie, live with their two awesome kids in Bentonville, Arkansas.