Everyone knows John 3:16, right? Christians and unbelievers alike have seen this verse advertised at nearly every sporting event for the past thirty years. It speaks of God’s love for man. “For God so loved the world…”
While it is true that this verse tells us of the depth of God’s love (after all, he gave his Son), an important point I think we have often missed is that this verse also tells us of the nature of God’s love.
Generally speaking, I think many have missed the significance of the little word “so” in John 3:16.
Typically it has been understood to signify degree. “For God ‘sooo’ loved the world.” In other words, “God loved the world “so much.” But I don’t believe that is the significance of the word “so”in this verse. Rather I believe the word “so” is used as an adverb of manner. In other words, “in this way” God loved the world.
Consider what Jesus just stated in the immediate context (verses14-15). He explained how God saved Israel with the brazen serpent. The people had sinned by complaining (Numbers 21), therefore God sent poisonous serpents among them to punish them for their sin. Moses made intercession, and God told him to make a brazen serpent wrapped around a pole, and those who looked to it would be healed. Notice though, God didn’t cause the serpents to go away. People continued to be bitten as a divine retribution for their sin. But those who looked to this brazen serpent would be saved.
Now, why would Jesus tell that story just before John 3:16? For it is in this same manner that God loves us today. Notice that John 3:16 even begins with the word “For.” This indicates there is a connection between what was just said and what he is about to say.
Just as when God’s love for Israel moved him to save them from punishment when they looked to the brazen serpent, “SO” he does today for those who look to Jesus! His love for us isn’t such that he is willing to remove the punishment for sin. It’s still there. But those who look to Jesus can be saved from God’s retribution.
The next time you read John 3:16, instead of seeing the “so” as a term of degree (God sooo loved the world…) see it as a word describing manner, connected to the immediate context of verses 14-15 (God, in “this manner” loved the world…).
If we understand the term “so” as an adverb of manner, connected to the “brazen serpent” story in Numbers 21, we will see that the common and popular notion that says, “Since God loves us so much, surely he won’t punish us” is mistaken. On the contrary, John 3:14-16 teaches us as clearly as any passage I know that the nature of God’s love is such that it can and will punish those who sin if they do not meet his terms of pardon.
Give it some thought.