Jesus on the cross

A Reflection on John 3:16

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Greetings, friends. Quite often, when I’m reading Scripture, I have a ‘wow’ moment when a passage speaks to me in a way it didn’t previously. Today I’d like to share a new understanding I came to of perhaps the most quoted verse in the Christian Bible, John 3:16.

The ESV translation says this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

There are other translations that say ‘everlasting life’, ‘only begotten Son’, ‘whosoever believeth’ and other slight variations, but the meaning tends to be the same.

However! There’s a footnote in the ESV version (my favourite translation) which says that the first phrase, ‘For God so loved the world‘ can just as well be translated from the Greek as ‘For this is how God loved the world‘.

The difference may seem minor, but this blew my mind! You see, my whole blogging life I have written about the absolute sovereignty of God, and the understanding of Christianity that I have come to embrace depicts God as the author of creation, who is animating and unfolding all events (hence the title of my book, God’s Grand Game).

The alternative translation of the Greek, quoted above, perfectly aligns with my worldview. The difference is significant; instead of the meaning being ‘God loved the world to such an extent that he gave his only Son…‘, the meaning becomes ‘God chose to express his love for the world by giving his only Son…‘. I feel this is a significant difference because it puts God more firmly in the creatorial driving seat.

If any scholars of Greek would like to shed further light on the verse in a way that my limited education does not allow, please feel free to leave a comment below. God bless you all and thank you for reading.

22 comments

          1. I think it’s a more congratulatory word than “cool” … hard to translate it precisely though because it’s not only yeshivish Hebrew (which is not Modern Hebrew) – it’s also slang.

            But at its core, it is a combination of two words – ‘yashar’ – which means ‘straight’ – and ‘koach’ – which means strength.

            Liked by 1 person

      1. Right, you said the latter β€œGod chose…” puts God more in the creative seat. But you have said how this linguistic distinction does that, which is why I was curious for your thoughts πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Dylan, you’re misinterpreting the distinction I’m drawing by focusing on two words rather than the whole phrase. I will say with finality that I cannot state the argument more clearly than I did in the post. I’m really sorry if the distinction is not apparent from my explanation.

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        2. hi, Dylan. I can’t speak for Steven, but I can see what he’s saying in at least one way.

          If God chose to do something, that suggests that he could have chosen something else, which suggests that he was employing creative agency in his choice.

          Also, the word ‘express’ suggests creative agency to me, personally.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Hi Ben, thank you for replying. That is very helpful. I think I am starting to understand. I think even if it’s β€œGod so loved”, at least for me, that also means God choosing to express love of creation. So I wasn’t quite getting how they were different, and simply wanted to understand more of this revelation Steven was seeing πŸ™‚

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            1. Sorry Dylan for not being as patient as David! I repent for that, I’m sorry. For me, the first expression indicates more of a distinction between the God / world relationship, whereas ‘express’ in the second statement implies control.

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  1. I never noticed that about John 3:16. Nice observation. It piqued my interest, and since you offered that we could give explanations of the Greek, the key word here is οὕτως (pronounced: ooh-toes; with the emphasis on the first syllable and a soft “s” at the end). It basically has the same ambiguities of the English word “so,” in that it can mean “a lot” or “thus.” Interestingly, the BDAG Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament lists John 3:16’s οὕτως in the latter category, concurring with the ESV footnote. Sometimes the footnoted alternative in a modern translation is actually the one agreed upon by the majority of scholars, but the translating committee has found it more prudent to place in the footnotes because changing the reading people are used to would create backlash for some reason or another. (Then after enough time for acculturation, sometimes such an alternative reading may eventually make it into the main text.)

    I don’t think this is necessary where you were going with your comments on the passage, but I actually rather like the alternative translation you noticed because it emphasizes the quality of God’s love (not merely the quantity, as the other translation suggests) – a big point especially in John’s epistles – that God’s way of loving is unique, revealed, and different than what we might otherwise think love is had we not seen it in Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for the post πŸ™‚

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Tyler, this is wonderful, thank you so much. I’m very grateful for these insights. Also, I like the quality / quantity distinction which you drew, I hadn’t looked at it quite like that. As David would say, Shkoyach! πŸ™‚

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  2. Hi Steven! What a great insight! It does change the meaning when you consider that this is the manner that God chose to show his love to the world, rather than showing the extent of his love. Cool!

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  3. The word famously translated “so” (houtos) can be used to convey both manner (“This is how God loved the world…”) and degree (God love the world so much…”) Generally, when it is used of degree, it modifies an adjective, as in Galatians 3:3 (“Are you so foolish…”). If this holds true in John 3:16, it would be better translated as in the NET: “For this is the way God loved the world…” However, John absolutely loves to use words that can carry a double meaning – does it so frequently that it is impossible to miss. So it is possible that John was going for both meanings for price of one word, indicating degree (“how much”) and manner (“in this way”).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Fascinating, thanks Shayne! Something in me resists believing that John would have intended a double meaning (probably my desire for clarity), but I appreciate the scholarly argument and reasoning that you put forward for this, and I have no knowledge that would be grounds with which to dispute what you have said, so I’ll thank you and keep an open mind!

      ‘Manner’ and ‘Degree’ are useful terms which help to clarify the distinction.

      Thanks again!

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  4. Hi, Steve. Great questions! I will leave a short postulation to see your thoughts since the following will be part of a later blog I am working on. Your questions may be governed by a blend of creation ex nihilo and creatio continua. There must be a way for God to remain Creator while also remaining free without projecting human qualities and the limitations of matter to Him. Is there a way to describe God in which His Substance is His Nature? This may entail a consideration of what the true definition of freedom means, as well as act, potency, and God’s Will (e.g. “Let there be…”).

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