“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16 NASB
The meaning of this most famous text has frequently been obscured by interpreters who, unfortunately, have failed to place it in the broader context of what Scripture as a whole says concerning the divine attribute of love.
Often the interpretation of John 3:16 begins with the term ‘world’, for it is believed that here lies the key to a proper appreciation of the dimensions of divine love. “Just think,” we are told, “of the multitudes of men and women who have, do now, and yet shall swarm across the face of the earth. God loves them all, each and every one. Indeed, God so loves them that He gave His only begotten Son to die for each and every one of them. O how great the love of God must be to embrace within its arms these uncounted multitudes of people.”
Is this what John had in mind? It is undeniably his purpose to set before us the immeasurable love of God. But are we able to perceive how immeasurable God’s love is by measuring how big the world is? I think not. What is the finite sum of mankind when set opposite the infinitude of God? We could as well measure the strength of the blacksmith by declaring him capable of supporting a feather on an outstretched palm! The primary force of this text is certainly to magnify the infinite quality and majesty of God’s love. But such an end can never be reached by computing the extent or number of its objects. Do we to any degree heighten the value of Christ’s death by ascertaining the quantity of those for whom He died? Of course not! Had He but died for one sinner, the value of His sacrifice would be not less glorious than had He suffered for ten millions of worlds!
Rather, let us pause to consider the contrast that the apostle intends for us to see. John surely desires that we reflect in our hearts upon the immeasurable character of so great a love, and that we do so by placing in contrast, one over against the other -God and the world. What does this reveal? Of what do we think concerning God when He is seen loving the world? And of what do we think concerning the world when it is seen as the object of God’s love? Is the contrast this: that God is one and the world many? Is it that His love is magnified because He, as one, has loved the world, comprised of many? Certainly not…
This love is infinitely majestic because God, as holy, has loved the world, as sinful! What strikes us is that God who is righteous loves the world, which is unrighteous. This text takes root in our hearts because it declares that He who dwells in unapproachable light has deigned to enter the realm of darkness; that He who is just has given Himself for the unjust; that He who is altogether glorious and desirable has suffered endless shame for detestable and repugnant creatures, who apart from His grace respond only with hell-deserving hostility!
“It is what God loved in respect of its character that throws into relief the incomparable and incomprehensible love of God. To find anything else as the governing thought would detract from the emphasis. God loved what is the antithesis of Himself; this is its marvel and greatness.” John Murray