John 3:16 is a favorite passage of many, telling as it does of God’s love for the world demonstrated by His giving His only-begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. And, as many will be reminded tomorrow, when the verse is part of the appointed Gospel Reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, the verse comes in context that mentions condemnation for those who do not believe and emphasizes faith in the Son Who was crucified and Who works through means of grace.
Jesus came primarily to save those who believe, but those who refuse His salvation by their unbelief are nevertheless condemned, already, Jesus says (John 3:17-18). Similarly, those who refuse to be baptized, that is, to be born from above by water and the Spirit, cannot enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:3-5). Elsewhere, Jesus even speaks of special condemnation for those who keep little ones from that saving means of grace (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2).
Saving faith in Jesus is not in some abstract figure, about Whom one can believe anything one wants, as Nicodemus seemed to do (John 3:2, compare v.10). Rather, saving faith in Jesus is in Him lifted up on the cross (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:31-36). St. Paul similarly says that he decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
That Jesus in John 3 refers to Moses’s lifting up a snake in the desert (see Numbers 21:4-9) is not insignificant. In Moses’s case, God chose to save only those Israelites who looked at the bronze serpent believing that God would work through their looking at it. In Jesus’s case, God chooses to save only those of us who receive the birth from above believing that God works through our receiving it.
John 3:16 taken in its broader context serves well as a favorite passage, the Gospel in a nutshell, as some have called it. For, truly we are saved by receiving eternal life as we trust in the crucified Jesus Who works through Holy Baptism.
The Rev. Dr. Jayson S. Galler is Pastor of Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Kilgore. You can reach him through the congregation’s website: www.pilgrimlc.org.