“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.”—John 3:16, King James Version.
That is one of the best-known and most widely quoted texts in the entire Bible. It has been said that no other verse “so succinctly summarizes God’s relationship with humanity and the way of salvation.” For that reason, in some countries this scripture or simply the reference “John 3:16” is often displayed at public events, on car stickers, in graffiti, and elsewhere.
In all likelihood, those who display the text feel convinced that God’s love guarantees their everlasting salvation. What about you? What does God’s love mean to you? And what do you think God has done that demonstrates his love for you?
“GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD”
Many people are willing to credit God with the creation of the physical universe, nature, and humans themselves. Living organisms are so intricate and well made that there must surely be some great intelligence behind their existence. A good number of people thank God daily for the gift of life. They also recognize that they are completely dependent on God for all of life’s necessities—such as air, water, food, and the earth’s natural cycles—so that they can continue to live and enjoy what they do.
We do well to thank God for all these things, for he truly is our Maker and Sustainer. (Psalm 104:10-28; 145:15, 16; Acts 4:24) We can appreciate God’s love for us when we think about all that he is doing just to make life possible. The apostle Paul put it this way: “[God] gives to all people life and breath and all things. For by him we have life and move and exist.”—Acts 17:25, 28.
God’s love, however, is expressed in more ways than just caring for us physically. He has also elevated and dignified us by giving us spiritual capacity and helping us to satisfy it. (Matthew 5:3) In this way, obedient mankind has the prospect of becoming part of God’s family, his “children.”—Romans 8:19-21.
As John 3:16 goes on to say, God showed his love for us by sending his Son, Jesus, to the earth to teach us about his God and Father and to die for us. Many, though, will admit that they do not truly understand why it was necessary for Jesus to die for mankind and how Jesus’ death is an expression of God’s love for us. Let us see how the Bible explains the reason for Jesus’ death and its value.
“HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON”
All mankind is mortal, subject to the scourge of sickness, old age, and death. Yet that is not what Jehovah God originally purposed. He gave the first humans the prospect of living forever in a paradise on earth. But there was one condition: They had to obey him. God said that if they chose not to, they would die. (Genesis 2:17) The first man did indeed rebel against God’s authority, and he brought death upon himself and his offspring. “Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because they had all sinned,” explains the apostle Paul.—Romans 5:12.
God, however, “loves justice.” (Psalm 37:28) Even though he could not ignore the deliberate act of transgression on the part of the first man, God has not condemned all humanity to suffering and death forever on account of one man’s disobedience. On the contrary, by applying the legal principle of “life for life,” he has balanced the scales of justice and made everlasting life possible once again for obedient humans. (Exodus 21:23) The question is, How could Adam’s loss of perfect human life be recovered? The answer: Someone had to offer up, or sacrifice, a life of equal value to Adam’s—a perfect human life.
Clearly, no imperfect descendant of Adam was capable of offering such a price, but Jesus was. (Psalm 49:6-9) Born without the stain of inherited sin, Jesus was perfect, just as Adam had been. Thus, by surrendering his life, Jesus ransomed mankind from slavery to sin. By so doing, he offered descendants of the first human couple the opportunity to enjoy the same perfect life that Adam and Eve once did. (Romans 3:23, 24; 6:23) Is there anything that we need to do to benefit from such a magnanimous act of love?
“WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH IN HIM”
Going back to John 3:16, we note the words “whosoever believeth in [Jesus] should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This means that gaining the gift of everlasting life is conditional. If we are to “have everlasting life,” we need to believe in Jesus and obey him.
You might wonder: ‘How is obeying involved? Did Jesus not say that “whosoever believeth in him” will have everlasting life?’ Yes, belief, or faith, is essential. However, it is important to remember that in the Bible, faith is much more than simply believing. According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the word used by John in the original language signifies “reliance upon, not mere credence.” In order to have God’s favor, one needs more than a mental recognition that Jesus is the Savior. The believer must also sincerely endeavor to apply what Jesus taught. If there is no action, any profession of faith is hollow. “Faith without works is dead,” says the Bible. (James 2:26) Put another way, what is required of the believer is that he exercise faith in Jesus—that is, he must live in accord with his belief and faith.
Paul explains the point this way: “The love the Christ has compels us, because this is what we have concluded, that one man [Jesus] died for all . . . And he died for all so that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised up.” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15) Sincere gratitude for Jesus’ sacrifice should move us to make changes in our life—from selfishly living for ourselves to living for Jesus, who died for us. That is to say, we need to give priority in our lives to practicing what Jesus taught. Such a change will necessarily affect our values, our choices, and everything we do. What will be the reward for those who do believe and exercise faith in Jesus?
“SHOULD NOT PERISH, BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE”
The last part of John 3:16 expresses God’s promise to those who exercise faith in the ransom provision and live according to divine standards. God intends that such faithful ones “should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Different destinies, however, await individuals who benefit from God’s love.
To one group, Jesus promised everlasting life in heaven. He clearly told his faithful disciples that he was about to prepare a place for them so that they might rule with him in glory. (John 14:2, 3; Philippians 3:20, 21) Those resurrected to life in heaven “will be priests of God and of the Christ, and they will rule as kings with him for the 1,000 years.”—Revelation 20:6.
Only a limited number of Christ’s followers would receive such a privilege. In fact, Jesus said: “Have no fear, little flock, for your Father has approved of giving you the Kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) How numerous would that “little flock” be? Revelation 14:1, 4 says: “I saw, and look! the Lamb [the resurrected Jesus Christ] standing on [the heavenly] Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who have his name and the name of his Father written on their foreheads. . . . These were bought from among mankind as firstfruits to God and to the Lamb.” In comparison with the countless billions who have ever lived, 144,000 individuals constitute just a “little flock.” These are described as kings, so over whom will they rule?
Jesus spoke of a second group of faithful ones who will receive benefits from the heavenly Kingdom. As seen at John 10:16, Jesus noted: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; those too I must bring in, and they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd.” Those “sheep” look forward to everlasting life on earth—the same prospect that Adam and Eve originally entertained. How do we know that their future is earthly?
On numerous occasions, the Bible speaks of Paradise conditions to come on earth. To see this for yourself, you might wish to open your Bible and read the following passages: Psalm 37:9-11; 46:8, 9; 72:7, 8, 16; Isaiah 35:5, 6; 65:21-23; Matthew 5:5; John 5:28, 29; Revelation 21:4. Those verses foretell an end to war, famine, sickness, and death. They speak of a time when good people will have the joy of being able to build their own houses, cultivate their own land, and raise their children in peaceful surroundings.a Does such a prospect not appeal to you? We have good reason to believe that those promises will soon be realized.
GOD HAS DONE MUCH
If you pause to consider all that God has done for you and for mankind as a whole, it is clear that he has already done a great deal. We have life, intelligence, a measure of health, and the means necessary to support life. More than that, God’s gift of the ransom through Jesus, who died for us, can mean even greater blessings, as we learn from John 3:16.
Everlasting life in peaceful, pleasant conditions, without the threat of illness, war, famine, or death, would surely open the door to endless happiness and blessings. Whether you will receive those blessings depends entirely on you. The question that remains really is, What are you doing for God?
a For more information on those prophecies, see chapter 3 of the book What Does the Bible Really Teach? published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.