What does John 3:16 really mean?


by Shawn Brasseaux

John 3:16 is the most translated, the most quoted, and the most memorized verse. It appears on bumper stickers, T-shirts, coffee mugs, bracelets and pendants, and Gospel tracts. In fact, even many non-Christians are familiar with it. Everyone knows about John 3:16—or at least they used to know it—but seldom do people understand what that verse really means. Sadly, the true meaning of John 3:16 has been lost amidst religious tradition (denominationalism). In this study, we want to examine John 3:16 and its context in order to discover its (rather fascinating) meaning. Rather than appealing to religious tradition, we ask, “For what saith the Scriptures?”

The King James Bible says in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Unfortunately, modern English Bibles have removed “begotten,” thereby destroying the correlation between Psalm 2:7, John 3:16, Acts 13:33, and Romans 1:4. According to the Bible, “begotten” refers to Jesus Christ’s resurrection, not Him being born in Bethlehem.) God has many sons, but only one “begotten” Son (see John 1:12; Romans 8:14; Galatians 4:6-7).

Beyond all question and doubt, John 3:16 is God’s inspired Word. However, John 3:16 is not sufficient to lead a person to salvation today. Let me show you how we know that. In order to understand John 3:16, we need to approach it God’s way. We are instructed to, “Study… rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). God has made distinctions in His Word, so we need to recognize those distinctions and separate them with divisions. All of the Bible is written for us, but not all of the Bible is written to us or written about us.

According to Matthew 10:5-7, Matthew 15:24, John 4:22, and Romans 15:8, the Four Gospels record the earthly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ to the nation Israel under the Law. We are not the nation Israel, and we are not under the Law of Moses (Romans 6:14-15; Romans 11:25; Galatians 3:28). It is clear that John 3:16 has nothing to do with us today. It belongs in Israel’s program because it is a statement spoken to Nicodemus, a religious leader of Israel (see John 3:1,10).

Furthermore, we understand that Jesus Christ never spoke of Paul’s Gospel of Grace during His earthly ministry (Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:1-9; Colossians 1:25-29; 1 Timothy 1:11). The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ were never proclaimed as a salvation message until we get to Paul’s ministry. (More on this later.) If John 3:16 is not a reference to Calvary, then what does it mean? In order to answer this, we need to go back and briefly look at the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.


Firstly, let us look at the Abrahamic Covenant, found in Genesis 12:1-3: “[1] Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: [2] And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: [3] And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.”

The first two verses refer to the establishment of a new race, the nation Israel (Jews). Notice the last portion of verse 3: “in thee [Abraham] shall all families of the earth be blessed.” To wit, God would use the nation Israel as a channel of blessing to reach the rest of the world with salvation. According to the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised to bless those who blessed Israel and curse those who cursed Israel.

In Exodus 19:5-6, some 500 years after Abraham, and just after the deliverance from Egyptian slavery, the LORD promised to make Israel a “kingdom of priests.” Nevertheless, God does not reveal the details of this kingdom until King David’s time, some 500 years after Moses and Exodus chapter 19. The LORD promised King David that one of his descendants would become the everlasting King of Israel (this is Jesus Christ).

Examine the details of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7:8-17, where God speaks to King David through the prophet Nathan: “[12] And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. [13] He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever…. [16] And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.”

Understand from Abraham to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, the nation Israel had the hope of being a “kingdom of priests.” Israel was God’s covenant people, and Christ ministered to Israel to fulfill the promises made to Israel’s patriarchs, particularly the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants (cf. Romans 15:8).

Throughout the Old Testament when God dealt predominantly with the nation Israel, He was still concerned with the salvation of Gentiles. God had to first save all of Israel, and then He would send Israel to minister to the lost Gentiles. In that kingdom promised in the Davidic Covenant, every Jew would evangelize the world. Read from Zechariah chapter 8: “[20] Thus saith the LORD of hosts; It shall yet come to pass, that there shall come people, and the inhabitants of many cities: [21] And the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, Let us go speedily to pray before the LORD, and to seek the LORD of hosts: I will go also. [22] Yea, many people and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD. [23] Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.”

Here the Bible says that once Israel was in her kingdom, the Gentiles would come to God’s light to receive salvation! Gentiles would follow the Jews to meet Immanuel, “God with us [Israel].” God in the Person of Jesus Christ would be ruling the planet from Zion in Jerusalem! Compare this to Isaiah chapter 60: “[1] Arise, shine; for thy [Israel’s] light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee [Israel]. [2] For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee [Israel], and his glory shall be seen upon thee [Israel]. [3] And the Gentiles shall come to thy [Israel’s] light, and kings to the brightness of thy [Israel’s] rising.”

You can also read Isaiah 11:1-9, Isaiah 61:5-6, Daniel 2:44, and Psalm 2:6-9 for additional insight regarding that kingdom. Throughout these verses and passages, the recurring theme is that Israel would rise to kingdom glory, and Gentiles would receive salvation and blessing through Israel. This is very important.

Okay, so let us go back to John chapter 3 and sum it all up. In John chapter 3, Jesus Christ is speaking to Nicodemus, a religious leader of Israel (verses 1 and 10). Despite his religious education, Nicodemus is totally ignorant of the Old Testament prophecies (the promises we just discussed). When Christ tells him, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus fails to understand this is a spiritual birth for Jews, and so inquires how a man can be born again of his mother’s womb (physically) (verses 3 and 4). Nicodemus “marvels;” verse 7 says he is puzzled. Jesus Christ has to explain to Nicodemus God’s original purpose in forming the nation Israel (verses 9 and 10). In John 3:16, Christ tells Nicodemus (I paraphrase): “God loves the whole world! I am here because God wants to save Gentiles too. Before salvation goes to the Gentiles, ye [the nation Israel] must be born again! Your whole nation must trust Me as King-Messiah.”

John 3:3-5 makes references to “the kingdom of God.” What else could this be but a reference to the kingdom promised by the Old Testament prophets? The Lord Jesus Christ tells Nicodemus that every Jew must be “born again” (John 3:3,5). Every Jew must be saved in order for the earthly kingdom to be established. The Jews must be saved first, and then God can use them to minister to the whole world (Gentiles). John 3:17 says: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” How would God save the world, as prophesied in the Old Testament? Through Israel!


Now, friend, notice why John 3:16 has nothing to do with us as people living in this the Dispensation of Grace. The Lord Jesus Christ knew that the Jews would reject Him and kill Him. He knew the prophetic program and the earthly kingdom would be delayed for a time. Nevertheless, He kept that information secret from everyone during His earthly ministry. None of the Old Testament prophets—not Peter, James, John, or anyone else in the Four Gospels either—knew of this dispensation in which we live, the Dispensation of the Grace of God.

God kept Calvary’s cross hidden from Satan so that he would willingly participate in his own defeat (1 Corinthians 2:6-8). I emphatically remind you that John 3:16 is not to be confused with our Gospel of Grace that we preach today. God did not reveal our Gospel until He revealed it to Paul (in Acts chapter 9). This is why Paul called it my gospel” (Romans 2:16; Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 2:8). God first revealed it to Paul and entrusted it to him. When we come to Paul, we come to a new Gospel, the Gospel of the Grace of God, as found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “How that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

Notice what Paul writes in Romans 11:11-12: “[11] I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. [12] Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?” In Paul’s ministry, salvation is going to the Gentiles without Israel—this is contrary to the Abrahamic Covenant! Recall that the salvation of Gentiles was no secret in the Old Testament. The secret was that Gentiles would receive salvation through the fall, not the rise, of Israel.


When the Lord Jesus spoke John 3:16 He spoke of the Old Testament promises regarding Israel rising in her coming kingdom. John 3:16 makes no reference to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not sufficient information to lead someone to Christ today. No one can be saved today by simply understanding John 3:16 because it is not the Gospel by which we are saved in this dispensation! Like we stated before, Jesus Christ was God, and foreknew our present-day Dispensation of Grace was coming, but He did not reveal our Gospel until the Apostle Paul. What people do is, unfortunately, take Paul’s information and “feed it back into” John 3:16. We should not use Paul’s epistles to interpret John 3:16—that is to ignore the Bible’s dispensational boundaries. Paul’s Gospel belongs in the mystery program and John 3:16 belongs in the prophetic program.

Hence, Paul never quoted John 3:16. Why do people quote John 3:16, yet seldom mention Romans 5:8? If you want a good verse to use to prove God’s love for the world, why not use Romans 5:8? “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” You always read John 3:16 in tracts, but you rarely see 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, if at all—the Gospel of Grace is not John 3:16, it is 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. If you want to use John 3:16 to show someone the way to salvation, that is okay, but this verse in its context has nothing to do with Calvary’s cross. It belongs in Israel’s program. Leave it there. You will save yourself and others from much confusion.

Also see:
» What does John 1:29 really mean?
» Should we use the book of John to evangelize the lost? (COMING SOON!)
» Is Acts 16:31 a sufficient Gospel message?