by Matthew W. Bassford
John 3:16 is surely the most well-known verse in the Bible, with even Matthew 7:1 running a close second. Most Christians are aware that the world’s understanding of the latter is dramatically off-base, but I think that even when it comes to the former, we miss the point a little bit.
The problem is the word “so”. Typically, we read that as “so much”, as an expression of the intensity of God’s love. Thus, we come away from the verse with the idea that God’s sending of His Son reveals the depth of His love for us.
I think that’s true, but it’s not really what Jesus is saying. The usual meaning of houtō, the Greek adverb translated as “so”, is not “so much” but “in this way”. The first appearance of the word in the New Testament is Matthew 1:18, which begins, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”
The KJV and all the translations that followed it weren’t wrong to translate houtō as “so”. In English, “so” can mean “in this way”. However, in the context of John 3:16, “so” introduces an ambiguity that usually is misunderstood.
Jesus, then, isn’t saying, “God loved the world so much that He sent Me.” He’s saying, “God loved the world by sending Me.” Of all the major translations, I think the CSB is alone in capturing the meaning here (“For God loved the world in this way. . .”).
This is a subtle distinction, but I think it reveals something significant about the love of God. This cornerstone verse of Christianity is telling us not that God loves us intensely (though He does), but that God loves us by acting.
When we are called upon to imitate the love of God, then, it is love expressed in action that we should be imitating. By contrast, much of the self-described Christian world gets hung up on feelings here: “I just love God so, so much!”
Well, that’s nice, I guess, but how is your love for God evident in the way you live? For that matter, how is your love for your brother and your neighbor evident in the way you live? There are an awful lot of folks out there who will shout their love for God to the rafters on Sunday morning then spend their week wallowing in selfishness and sin. That is not the way in which God loved the world!
Instead, love that is like the love of God always reveals itself in service and sacrifice. Maybe it comes from somebody who doesn’t get all teary-eyed during the Lord’s Supper every week, but every week, they’re out there tending to the needs of others. Love that meets our criteria for emotional intensity is neither here nor there. If you do get all teary-eyed during the Lord’s Supper, that’s fine too. What matters is love that manifests itself in a transformed life.