Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

What's the Big Deal with "John 3:16"?

John 3:16 is the best known Bible reference in the Western world. What's the big deal?

The story behind the sermon (Craig Brian Larson)

The background of my approach to this sermon: As I began work on this sermon, I realized that it has been many years since I preached on this great verse, and so the process of writing this sermon was as delightful as running into a wonderful friend you haven't seen in years.

My one disappointment in the process was the frequent one expositors face of wishing we had the time to bring in more insights from the context. I could have employed the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus to good effect, as well as the story so strange to moderns of the snake on the pole, which immediately precedes 3:16, but the sermon had to end somewhere, and those elements would have needed major blocks of time to develop properly.

For the matrix, one point of decision that I went back and forth on was about the complement. Is the complement simply "He gave his one and only Son" or is there a second complement: "that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." I decided that the purpose clause, "that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life," develops the complement by application, and thus should not be a second complement to the subject.

A second point of decision was about the length of the conclusion that is the consequence of using four illustrations. I decided on the unusual move of using four brief illustrations in the conclusion because I felt that it was extremely important that this message not just speak to the head with the theology of the gospel, but that it make a strong appeal to the will and the heart as well. The body of the sermon demands that a person think, and so I felt that I needed to counterbalance that with an extended appeal to the emotions and the will through stories and a call to action to become a believer today.

A third significant point of decision was whether, under the point "God Loves the People of the World," to make the list of people whom God loves as long as I did ("God loves the poor and he loves the rich …."). Lists are typically boring. But the truth that God loves people and God loves sinners is general and can be clichéd, so I felt that the risk of a long list was outweighed by the need to have the edginess that comes with specificity. The other benefit was for people to hear their personal sin or situation mentioned by name and feel the relevance at a gut level. For example, no matter how boring the list might be to a woman, if she has had an abortion her attention will be riveted when she hears that God loves "those who abort babies."

The exegetical subject (What the text is about): How did God love the world?

The exegetical complement (What the text says about the subject): He gave his one and only Son.

The main idea of the biblical text: The way God expressed his love to the world was to give us his one and only Son.

How the main idea of the biblical text is primarily developed: By application—the final clause of 3:16 tells how we are to respond to God's love in Christ and how this changes our lives.

Structure and emphases of the biblical text: Looking at the grammar in John 3:16, the sentence's independent clause is "God so loved the world." The first subordinate clause is "that he gave his one and only Son." The second subordinate clause is "that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

According to the Discovery Bible,[1] the grammar of the Greek places the highest emphasis in the sentence on the words "one and only" (which are only one word in Greek); and places the next level of emphasis on three words: "loved," "Son," and "eternal."

In his commentary on John, D. A. Carson writes, "The Greek construction behind so loved that he gave his one and only Son (houtos plus hoste plus the indicative instead of the infinitive) emphasizes the intensity of the love, and insists that the envisaged consequence really did ensue; the words 'his one and only Son' stress the greatness of the gift. The Father gave his best, his unique and beloved Son."[2]

The effect of believing is emphasized by stating it both negatively—"shall not perish"—and positively—"but have eternal life."

The context of the biblical text and how that bears on its meaning: John 3:16 is in a section that addresses the need for salvation and regeneration, beginning with the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus (vv. 1-15) and continuing with the meditation of the narrator (vv. 16-21) (Carson writes: "In vv. 1-21, the words of Jesus probably trail off at the end of v. 15, to be followed by the meditation of the Evangelist in vv. 16-21").[3] Verses 11-18 highlight the importance of belief in Jesus. Verses 11-21 show that belief has a moral dimension to it, not merely an intellectual dimension, that belief in Jesus reflects a person's willingness to face the light of God's truth. The nature of authentic belief in Jesus as God's one and only Son is informed be the context of John 1:1-18, where the divinity of Christ is stated unequivocally, and by 3:11-21, where belief is seen to be far more than intellectual assent, and by 3:1-15, where belief is seen to be far more than religious respect.

The purpose of the human author of the biblical text: The biblical author aims to motivate readers to believe in Jesus Christ. John states his purpose in writing his Gospel in 20:31: "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." John 3:16 supports that purpose, motivating readers to come to faith by teaching them about the loving nature of God, about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, and about the benefit of believing in Jesus.

The main idea of the sermon: When God gave the world his one and only Son, he left no doubt about his love for us—and his love for you.

The purpose of the sermon: The sermon's aim is that hearers will understand the message of the gospel, that they will feel God's love for them as uniquely expressed in Jesus Christ, and that they will respond with authentic belief in Jesus.


During the 2011-2012 playoffs for the National Football League, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow stirred up a lot of media attention when he led the Broncos to an amazing overtime victory against the favored Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only was the victory itself remarkable, but newspaper stories quickly surfaced calling attention to the numbers 3-1-6 in Tebow's game statistics. Tebow passed for a total of 316 yards during the game. His average pass completion went for 31.6 yards. The overnight TV rating for the last 15 minutes of the game was 31.6.

What makes those stats more than "coincidental" is that in 2009, Tebow played in the NCAA football national championship game. On his face for all the TV cameras and the world to see, Tebow had written "John 3:16" in the black smear beneath his eyes. Tebow stirred up a lot of curiosity, and over 90 million people googled the definition of John 3:16.

Long before Tim Tebow, zealous Christians have displayed "John 3:16" in public places. John 3:16 is the best known Bible reference in the Western world, even if people don't know what the verse actually says.

Why does this reference get so much attention? What's the big deal? Do you know what John 3:16 says, or what it means? If not, you're in the right place, because today we're going to talk about it.

John 3:16 is such a big deal for Christians because it gives a one-sentence summary of some of the most important truths of the Bible. John 3:16 announces the good news of the Bible in 25 words. You can even "tweet" the entire verse word-for-word without abbreviations. Here it is in 125 characters including spaces: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

In those few words there's a lot at stake. Notice the last seven words, which talk about a person either perishing or having eternal life. That's important stuff, relevant for every one of us. When all is said and done, when your life is over, do you want to perish or do you want to live eternally?

As I said, this verse summarizes what Christians call the gospel, the good news. That good news begins in John 3:16 with two amazing truths about God. If you are going to find eternal life, you need to understand these two truths. The first amazing truth about God is:

God loves the people of the world.

Now, that may be old news for you, something you already believe. Most in the United States believe that God loves people.

But notice something important in this verse. It doesn't actually say that God loves people; it says God loves "the world." Who, or what, is the world that God loves? The apostle John—who wrote the Bible book that contains John 3:16—had a specific group of people in mind when he talked about the world. You see this when you read the rest of his book. When he used the word world, he didn't mean planet earth. He meant the people who did not believe in and follow God. He meant the people doing their own thing. In other words, he meant "sinners." So when John 3:16 says that God loves the world, it means God loves people who don't love him back, people who take him for granted, avoid him, ignore him, or don't care about him or his commands. God loves people who stay home on Sunday morning instead of going to church because they are wasted from partying on Saturday night, or because they prefer to read the Sunday newspaper instead of the Bible, or because they prefer to watch the football experts on TV predicting who will win the games that day. God loves these people, these irreligious people, these non-Christians. God loves the world.

Does that raise questions in your mind? If so, there are good reasons for those questions.

First, many verses in the Bible talk about God's anger against sin and against sinners. There is even a word commonly associated with God's anger: wrath. You've probably heard the phrase "the wrath of God." From cover to cover, the Bible describes a final judgment when all people will stand before God and give account for their lives. Those who fail the test on that day will suffer God's eternal wrath. So how can God have wrath against sinners and at the same time love the world, love sinners?

There is another good reason to question God's love for sinners. The Bible narrates stories in which God judges people who sinned. For example, the story of Noah's ark records how God destroyed many, many people through a great flood because of their evil hearts and deeds. People literally died because they rebelled against God.

The Bible teaches consistently that God feels anger toward people who disobey him, ignore him, and take him for granted, and that he does, at the appointed time, punish them.

So how do we make sense of this? The answer is this: at once, God feels both anger and love toward those who ignore him. Every parent knows what that's like. Anyone who has been romantically in love knows what it's like to feel both anger and love toward a person.

So John 3:16 says that God loves all people, even those who make him angry as they disobey and ignore him. And because of his love, for a limited time God gives the people of the world an opportunity to make peace with him.

In fact, God's love is so intense that in another place the Bible says that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). God is not like an unfeeling computer. God's love for all people is strong. The Bible emphasizes that God feels compassion for people.

God loves the poor and he loves the rich. He loves men and women, boys and girls. God loves the older person using a walker to shuffle down the sidewalk and the newborn dozing in her mother's arms. He loves the strong and healthy, and he loves the weak, sick, abandoned, and broken. God loves the educated and the illiterate. He loves those from every people group, black, white, and brown. God loves the self-disciplined, and he loves the addict. He loves the high and mighty, and he loves the low and powerless and oppressed. God loves liars, thieves, hustlers, men on-the-make, adulterers, pimps, prostitutes, whores, rapists, pedophiles. He loves the victims of sexual predators. God loves murderers, gang bangers, and those who abort babies. And he loves their helpless victims. God loves transvestites and homosexuals. God loves the greedy, the lazy, the good-for-nothing, the employed, the unemployed, the homeless. He loves dead-beat dads. God loves the divorced. He loves the happily married, the miserably married, the single, the widowed. God loves those who bow down to idols and those who bow down to sports teams. He loves those who are addicted to pornography. God loves atheists, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. He loves those who take his name in vain. God loves the world. He loves evil people. He loves his enemies. He loves those who hate him. He loves the gentle soul that wouldn't swat a fly. He loves selfish, mean, proud, vicious people. He loves everyone. He loves you, no matter what you've done.

And so, the first amazing truth that we learn about God in John 3:16 is that God loves the world; he loves sinners. The second amazing truth that we learn about God is:

God expressed his love to the world by giving his one and only Son.

John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son" (emphasis mine).

God didn't love us in words alone. The most important demonstration of God's love for sinners is Jesus. Giving Jesus to the world was an act of radical, unthinkable love.

How unthinkable was it? Call to mind the person you love most in the world: maybe your parent, your child, your spouse, a friend, a brother or sister. Now call to mind the person toward whom you have the worst feelings. Maybe you have an enemy. Maybe it's someone you work with, or a neighbor, or someone you've never even met, like a celebrity or politician, but you can't stand this person. Being around this person is like chewing sand. Suppose this person is in terrible need, let's say in the hospital in critical condition needing a kidney transplant in order to survive. Would you be willing to help that person in costly ways? Would you give thousands of dollars to help that person? Would you volunteer to donate a kidney? Would you ask the person you love most in the world to donate his or her kidney? Would you ask the person you love most to do this if you knew that the surgery would result in unthinkable suffering and loss? Would you sacrifice the person you love most to die so that the person you dislike most could live? Imagine saying goodbye to the person you love most and seeing him or her wheeled through the hospital door, and then seeing your enemy come out that same door sometime later. Would you do that?

Suppose the person you dislike most was about to be sentenced to a place of eternal torment forever. Suppose you could rescue that person by having the person you love most in the world beaten up by sadistic soldiers, mocked, and spit upon, then whipped on his back and chest and legs, and then nailed through his hands and feet to a wooden cross until he died. Would you do that?

This is what God did when he gave Jesus to the world. God did the unthinkable. This gift is the greatest evidence of his love for sinners. It is the greatest evidence of his love for you. God did this for you.

The Bible says, "At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:6-8).

That's what God did for you.

How did God do this? God sent his Son from heaven to earth to become a man and die for your sake. All human beings are under a death sentence because of their sins against God. God is the perfect judge who does not acquit the guilty. He doesn't just overlook your sins. This is why John 3:16 talks about the possibility of "perishing." This perishing is not just in the sense of dying physically, but perishing forever, being condemned by God and sent into a place of eternal sorrow called hell. So that sinful people would not have to perish, God sent his one and only Son, Jesus, who lived a perfect life of obedience to God, and then suffered torture and was nailed to a wooden cross for your sins, where he suffered until he died. You deserved to perish forever for your sins, but Jesus died as your substitute. Jesus "took the fall" for you. The Bible teaches that you can never be good enough to atone for your own sins, so Jesus atoned for your sins when he suffered and died at the cross.

Jesus could do this because he is a man like no other. No sinful human being could die on the cross to set others free from their sins. John 3:16 says that Jesus is God's "one and only Son" (NIV). Jesus is God's one, unique, specially loved Son. God the Father loves Jesus infinitely. Jesus is special to the Father beyond what you can fully understand.

God made this clear when Jesus was baptized at about 30 years of age. After Jesus came up out of the river where he was baptized, everyone who was present heard a voice from heaven that said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).

To make sure that people got the message, a few years later Jesus went up on a mountain with a few of his disciples, and God spoke the same message again from heaven, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Matt. 17:5).

When God gave the world his one and only beloved Son, he left no doubt about his love for us—and his love for you.

Maybe you have experienced things that make you doubt God's love for you. Perhaps you have suffered sexual abuse, or you have had physical problems, disabilities, or diseases, or you have suffered failure after failure. Perhaps people have rejected you, and life has been hard, even agonizing. Perhaps you grew up in a painful family situation, or with no family, or your parents ignored you. You may have suffered one setback and heartbreak and failure after another.

Whatever has happened to, those things do not mean that God does not love you. When God gave the world his beloved, one and only Son, he left no doubt about his love for all people—and his love for you. When you think of Jesus on the cross, you should hear God the Father saying, "This is what I am willing to give for you. This is how much I love you." You should also hear Jesus, God the Son, saying from the cross, "This is what I am willing to give for you. This is how much I love you."

So, are these two amazing truths the end of the story? God loves the world, he loves you, and so now everything is okay? God demonstrated his love by giving his Son Jesus to die on the cross, so now everything is okay? Does that mean you can go on with your life as you are now, and when you die you go to heaven? No. John 3:16 says that something is expected of you. You must respond to God's love.

You must believe in Jesus Christ.

John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (emphasis mine).

"Whoever believes in him." It's crucial to notice what this does not say. John 3:16 does not say, "Whoever obeys all the commands and laws of the Bible shall not perish but have eternal life." It says, "Whoever believes in him," that is, in Jesus. It doesn't say, "Whoever does good works, donates to charity, reads the Bible, says their prayers every day, and goes to church every week shall not perish but have eternal life." It says, "Whoever believes in him." It doesn't say, "Be good enough so that you deserve God's approval, or you earn merit with God." It says believe in Jesus Christ. No one can be good enough for God, and the Bible actually says if anyone thinks they can be good enough for God they will be rejected by him. John 3:16 says you must believe in Jesus Christ.

However, some people have authentic belief and some just have "head" belief. Authentic belief is not just a head thing; it's a heart thing. Authentic belief is like what athletes have when they follow the instructions of the coach they trust. Athletes with mere head belief may acknowledge that their coach is in charge, but then they train and compete in a way that ignores the coach. The person with mere head belief goes his or her own way. On the other hand, athletes with heart belief trust the coach knows what he is talking about, so they train and compete in line with what the coach says to do. The sign of authentic belief is when athletes submit to their coach to be molded into a champion.

"Whoever believes in him." Belief rather than personal merit—this goes against all of our instincts about how to gain God's approval and acceptance. We think that our good behavior precedes God's acceptance. John 3:16 teaches that God accepts us by his mercy because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, not because of what we try to do to merit his acceptance. This is the gospel in a nutshell, the good news of Jesus Christ. We cannot earn God's approval; instead we receive God's approval as a gift through authentic belief in Jesus Christ.

Don't misunderstand. If you truly believe in Jesus, you will then follow him and his teachings. You will make him your "life coach." Much more than that, you will make him your Lord. If you truly believe in Jesus, you will repent of doing life your way and start the lifelong process of learning to do life his way. He will enable you to repent of your sins. But that comes as a result of true, heartfelt belief in Jesus.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the one and only, beloved Son of God? Do you believe that he died for your sins on the cross? Believe in Jesus Christ, and you will not perish. You will receive eternal life.


I urge you to put your faith in Jesus Christ today before you even leave this room. As I have been speaking, you have probably felt a number of things going on in your soul. You may have experienced a sense that God is calling you to himself, a sense that he wants you to come to him by putting your belief in Jesus Christ and becoming his follower. At the end of this message, I'm going to pause briefly to give you an opportunity to respond to that call from God by praying to him and saying "yes." Becoming a follower of Jesus is sort of like a wedding ceremony in which you say, "I do." You will pray right where you are in a silent prayer in your heart. At the end of this message I'll coach you about the simple, brief prayer that you can pray in order to say "yes" to God.

Since the time that Jesus lived, millions of people have responded to God's call by believing in Jesus. Virtually all of those believers have been unknown people like you and me, living our everyday lives. Our stories aren't necessarily dramatic, but they are infinitely important.

But then there are the remarkable stories that catch our attention, and they remind us how wonderful God's love is for sinners, and how he really can take people out of the worst darkness and give them eternal life. Here are four such stories, each told in about a minute.

1. Saul
The first story occurred two thousand years ago, a few years after the time of Jesus. There was a young, religious, Jewish man who hated the name of Jesus, hated the message of the gospel that I've explained today, and was doing all he could to get Christians arrested, imprisoned, and killed. The blood of many Christian martyrs was on his hands. His name was Saul. But one day God knocked him off his horse and spoke to him, and Saul repented and became a follower of Jesus. He became the apostle Paul. And he started preaching the gospel he had once hated all over the Mediterranean world. He even wrote many of the letters in the Bible.

Saul's story shows us that God really does love the world. God really does love sinners.

2. Chuck
For the second story, we fast forward two thousand years to the White House. Richard Nixon is the president of the United States. The Special Counsel to the President is a man named Charles (Chuck) Colson. Colson is known in the political world as Nixon's "hatchet man." He is a former marine. He is a tough guy who takes no prisoners. But then Watergate happened, and he went on trial for criminal actions related to Watergate. During that time several Christians reached out to Colson, and he became a believer in Jesus. He was found guilty and went to prison. When he got out of prison, it became plain that his conversion was real because he spent the rest of his life leading a ministry to prisoners, teaching the Bible, writing Christian books, and serving Jesus. You can read his story in the book Born Again.

Chuck Colson's story shows us that God really does love the world. God really does love sinners.

3. Liz
For the third story, we journey to the 1980s. A radio station DJ named Liz Curtis Higgs has been living a wild, reckless life. In her own words she describes her conduct this way: "I spent a decade out there doing all the things we pray our kids never do: it was sex, it was drugs, it was rock and roll, it was pot, it was cocaine, it was booze, and it was men, men, men."[4] For a time she worked at the same radio station as shock jock Howard Stern, and even he told her she needed to get her life together. Eventually Liz Curtis Higgs hit bottom, and when she did, she reached out to some Christian friends who helped her become a follower of Jesus. She, too, became a Christian author.

Liz Curtis Higgs's story shows us that God really does love the world. God really does love sinners.

4. Brian
The fourth story is that of a rock star named Brian Welch, guitarist for a band called Korn. For years Brian Welch had experienced everything that rock stars are known for: cocaine, meth, alcoholism, wild parties every night, rolling in money. Today he says, "I was an idiot." He had been divorced from his wife, and he had custody of his young daughter. For his daughter's sake, he was desperate to clean up his life. One day he walked into a church, heard the good news of Jesus, and became a believer. He left Korn. He gave away huge amounts of money to the poor.

Brian Welch's story shows us that God really does love the world. God really does love sinners.

There is one last interesting bit of history that I want to share with you about Watergate figure Chuck Colson. In 1973, the year Colson became a follower of Jesus, the Boston Globe, knowing Colson's tough-guy reputation, wrote in a commentary, "If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody."

That commentator was right. There is hope for everybody. There's hope for you. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Turn to him today. Surrender to him today. Believe in him and begin following him today.

1 Gary Hill, author, Gleason Archer, consulting editor, The Discovery Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1987), p. 187.

2 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 204.

3 Ibid, p. 185.

4 http://hopeforwomenmag.com/women-we-love/liz-curtis-higgs. For more of her story, see http://www.lizcurtishiggs.com/about-liz/lizs-journey-of-faith/.

Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan). He blogs on Knowing God and His Ways at craigbrianlarson.com.

Related sermons

Costly, Messy, Beautiful Obedience

Finding favor in the eyes of the Lord

God's Protection and Delight

Zephaniah paints a picture of love.
Sermon Outline:

The story behind the sermon


I. God loves the people of the world.

II. God expressed his love to the world by giving his one and only Son.

III. You must believe in Jesus Christ.