John 3:16 is one of the best known and most quoted Bible verses in the New Testament.
“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.” (KJV)
Let’s take a look at the first part of that verse: ““For God so loved the world,”. Many of us hear the word “so” in the wrong way. We hear it in terms of degree. We understand it to mean, “For God loved the world a lot .”
The word “so” can indeed mean “a lot” in modern usage, but when we look at the original Greek, that is not how it is used in this verse.
The original Greek word is “houto” (Strong 3779). According to Strong, the word means “thus, in this way, so, in this manner”. It doesn’t mean “a lot” or “so much”. A better understanding of this phrase would be:
“For God thusly loved the world,”
“For God loved the world in this way,”
“For God loved the world in this manner,”
I am not saying the word “so” is mistranslated. Most translations of it are accurate. What I am suggesting is that many of us understand the word “so” to mean something that it does not mean in this verse. “So loved” doesn’t mean “loved a lot“. It actually means “loved in this way”. In this verse, Jesus is telling us how God loves the world, not how much He loves it.
With that in mind, consider the following translations of John 3:16:
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not be lost but have eternal life.” (International Standard Version)
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (New Jerusalem Bible)
So, if John 3:16 is saying that God loved the world “in this way“, what way is Jesus talking about? To what is He comparing God’s love of the world? For the answer to this question, we need to read the preceding verses 14 and 15.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15 KJV)
Here Jesus is referring to a happening recorded in Numbers 21:8. Let’s read it:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” (KJV)
As they traveled through the desert, the Jewish people began grumbling and complaining to Moses about the boring food that they had, and the limited amount of drinking water. This was the group of people that had witnessed the ten plagues, the first Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, water from a rock, and God leading them personally in a cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night.
God had done all these things and more for them, but all they did was complain. As a punishment, He released poisonous snakes among them, and many were bitten and died.
The people realized they were being punished, and begged Moses to ask God for forgiveness. Moses did, and God told him to erect the brass serpent on a pole. The snakes were not removed from their area, but if anyone was bitten, they had only to look upon the brass snake on the pole, and they would be healed.
John 3:16 is saying that God loves the world in this same manner as He loved the ancient wandering Jews. Jesus was lifted up on the cross to save us from our sins. Evil is not removed from around us, but if we are “bitten by sin”, all we have to do is look at Him. (believe in Him) and we will be healed (saved). Just like the serpent was lifted up to save the Jewish people from an earthly death, Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross to save us from eternal death.
With all this in mind, let’s read all the verses together:
"As Moses lifted up the snake [on a pole] in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. Then everyone who believes in him will have eternal life."
God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life” (John 3:14-16-God’s Word Translation)