An Exposition of John 3:16
By Lucien LeSage
Many times men will quote one verse from the Bible and develop a doctrine without examining that verse in the light of its context. One such verse is John 3:16. Let me say up front that I believe John 3:16 with all my heart. I absolutely believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” My faith rests in Jesus Christ and Him alone.
Before we examine the context of John 3:16, I would like to point out that Jesus said in another place that unless a man repents he will perish. “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:3). He said also, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).
So let’s now look at the context of John 3:16. A thing to remember is the setting of the text. What was the time and who was it spoken to? In the case of John 3:16, John the apostle is telling us what Jesus said to a particular man. The setting is when Jesus had gone up to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover and had thrown the money changers out of the temple (see John chapter 2). Many of the Jewish religious leaders were upset with him and wanted a sign by which he did these things.
So Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover and a certain man came to him by night. Who was this man? Well he was no ordinary man but a Pharisee whose name was Nicodemus and a religious ruler of the people (John 3:1). And a master of Israel as Jesus confirmed in John 3:10. Not just a teacher in Israel but of Israel. This same master of Israel, being a member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus by night probably so no one would see him but it also illustrates the darkness that the Pharisees were in at this time.
Now the text of John 3:16 says, “FOR God so Loved...” The word “for” looks back to what was said to Nicodemus before Jesus makes this statement. Well, what did Jesus tell Nicodemus before that? “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Now let us examine what Jesus is referring to. Certainly Nicodemus knew of the Old Testament narrative concerning the serpent that was lifted up in the wilderness. But let us examine it for a moment. And remember Nicodemus, being a teacher of Israel, certainly knew what Jesus was referring to even if he did not know of what or whom it was picturing.
Concerning the serpent in the wilderness: Israel was murmuring against the Lord, and the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, which bit them so that some of the people died and others were perishing from their poisonous bites. It was the serpent in the garden which enticed man to fall into sin and thereby he inflicted a mortal wound on man. Here we have man being bitten by sin and some have perished and others are perishing. So why was a serpent lifted up for men to look on and be healed? Notice from the scriptures in Numbers 21:9 that Moses did not place one of the fiery serpents which had bitten the people on a pole, but rather MADE a serpent of brass and placed it on a pole. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Numbers 21:8-9)
Now, God gave the law to Israel and commanded them to keep it. May I now ask, what is sin? “For sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4). All those that were bitten were told to LOOK to the serpent of brass that was lifted up on a pole. Who looked? Those that were bitten looked. Did they know they were bitten? Well, yes otherwise why look. Did they know the serious nature of the bite? Well of course, because Numbers 21:6 says “much people of Israel died.” One thing for sure, those that looked did not play with the fiery serpents. They knew the serious nature of their condition. They were about to perish. The people came to Moses and said, “We have SINNED, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7). And Moses prayed for the people in an intercessory manner and that is when the Lord told him, “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” Notice that the people recognized what the real problem was for they said “we have sinned.”
The only thing that those who were bitten (and knew they were bitten) could do was to look. They were not told to try and kill the serpents and besides they were already bitten and knew it. They were not told to say some “sinner’s prayer.” They were not told to run for their lives and what good would that do for they were already bitten and perishing. They were not told to manufacture some ointment for their wounds. They were not told to minister to others. They were not told to fight the fiery serpents. They were not told to make an offering to the serpent on the pole. They were not even told to pray to the serpent on the pole. They were not told to look to Moses. They were not told to look at their wounds. (taken from A. W. Pink’s exposition of John’s gospel). They were only to LOOK at the serpent on the pole and behold it and be healed of the bite. It did not matter how many times they were bitten, just look, just look. “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:22).
The serpent was a reminder and an emblem of the curse of sin and “the sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.” And we read that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:” (Galatians 3:13). In 2 Corinthians 5:21 we read, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” And remember Moses was commanded to MAKE a fiery serpent. And what did Paul say concerning Jesus Christ? “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was MADE in the likeness of men:” (Philippians 2:7).
Brass is a symbol of judgment and sin is to be and must be judged. Christ received that judgment in the place of sinners. So the narrative of the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness is a picture of substitution. It is a picture of Christ being raised up in a substitutionary or vicarious manner and the sins of the redeemed being placed upon him. “For he hath made him to be sin for us...”
It is in this context that Jesus says what he says to Nicodemus. It is those that have repentance for their sins (“for we have sinned” as the people said to Moses) which are told “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” To believe on him as their substitute and why? Because they have been bitten with sin and KNOW they are perishing. For those that find themselves in that condition I can say, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” In Numbers the ones that looked had repentance for they said, “we have sinned.” I can tell the heavy laden sinner to look to Christ and you will not perish. Just look in faith to Him as your substitute, otherwise you will perish and die in your sins. He told the religious Jews, “for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Now another point about the context of all this, and it is a very important one. Why does the sinner now look? Why does he now see himself in such an undone condition? Evidently he now sees something that he did not see before. But why now? Well let us go back to the context of John 3:16. When Jesus spoke of the serpent in the wilderness he began that verse with the word “and”. Also in the verse before that he also used the word “and” in its beginning. So Jesus had related to Nicodemus something before all of this. Please note that this was the beginning of Jesus’ words to this religious Pharisee. A man who thought he was what he was by his own effort. A man who thought he was right with God by his own religious activity and self-righteousness and yet was dead spiritually. And what was it that Jesus brought up FIRST? Being born of the Spirit! He said a man must “BE born again” or “from above” as the Greek word means. If you look up the tense of that, it is passive and past tense. The person that is born from above is passive in the matter and Jesus explained it exactly that way in terms that even a child can understand. “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8). So Jesus likened the Spirit to the wind that blows where it wants and when it wants and how strong it wants. It cannot be seen but only the sound of its activity can be heard. Just as men do not direct the wind so also the Holy Spirit is absolutely sovereign in His work. It is the sovereign work of the Spirit of God that Jesus brings up to Nicodemus first. All of his religious self-righteousness availed him nothing unless the Spirit of God would move upon him. It is after the Spirit moves and has done His work that we see the evidence of it by repentance and faith in the sinner. These are given in regeneration to a spiritually dead sinner. We sing a song in many Churches that has in its lyrics, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.” That is exactly what Jesus was telling religious and lost Nicodemus. He needed the quickening power of the Holy Spirit or he would never see or perceive the Kingdom of God. You see the Bible is very clear that all men are dead in trespasses and sins. Paul said, “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins.” He went on to say a few verses later in Ephesians chapter two, “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (See Ephesians 2:1-5). In the natural realm when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, did Lazarus cooperate with Jesus or was he passive in the matter? So how do men have saving faith one may ask? Well, it’s by the “fruit of the Spirit” according to Galatians 5:22. So we see that without the Spirit all is vain and He is sovereign in His doings. As Jesus said, “For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.” (John 5:21).
So I ask, is faith a necessity? Absolutely it is. Without repentance and faith men are not saved. “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” But that repentance and receiving of Christ by faith is the result of being born of God. Listen to the words of John in chapter one. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13). Again, the ones that were born of God were passive. Notice not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God. Without the Holy Spirit men cannot please God. Paul tells us, “So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” And Jesus told Nicodemus “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Would not repentance and faith in His Son be pleasing to God? Yet we are told that those in the flesh (born of the flesh) cannot please God. How very true then are the lyrics, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.”
One last point to make about John 3:16 and its context. Nicodemus was a Jew and a teacher of Israel. John Gill said, “The Jews had a notion that when Messiah came that the Gentiles should have no benefit or advantage by him, only the Israelites; so far should they be from it, that, according to their sense, the most dreadful judgments, calamities, and curses, should befall them; yea, hell and eternal damnation.” The serpent on the pole was for the Israelites to look to. The Egyptians had no dealing in the matter. On the annual day of atonement it was the sins of the children of Israel that were confessed and put on the head of the scapegoat (see Leviticus 16:21). But that was for the nation of Israel. It was a lamb that was slain for each household on the night of the Passover. All these are types of Jesus Christ and his work as our high priest. “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us:” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
So Jesus is telling this religious Jew that God so loved Jews and Gentiles (the world) that whether Jew or Gentile all who believe in Jesus as their substitute as pictured by the serpent on the pole “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It is all men without distinction. They are the whosoever of John 3:16. John Gill says the Lord is telling Nicodemus, "But I tell you, God so loved the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, that he gave his only begotten Son; to, and for them, as well as for the Jews; to be a covenant of the people, the Gentiles, the Saviour of them, and a sacrifice for them... and yet such is his love to the Gentiles, as well as Jews, that he has given him, in human nature, up, into the hands of men, and of justice, and to death itself." (See Romans 11:12-15 where the word “world” is used to refer to the Gentiles.) “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17). “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Romans 4:8).
A last thought on Nicodemus if I may. He did come to Jesus seeking his knowledge. He even said “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” At this time Nicodemus needed to be born again and it seems by God’s sovereign grace the Spirit did move on Nicodemus at some later time for we read that Nicodemus appears to be defending Jesus in John 7:50-51, and then we read the following concerning the burial of Jesus. “And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight” (John 19:39). I truly believe that the Lord in a sovereign way saved Nicodemus.
To those lost in their sins I can say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” Look by faith to Jesus being lifted up in the place of sinners!
May God Bless,
Grace Bible Baptist Church
26080 Wax Road
Denham Springs, LA 70726