The John 3:16 of the Old Testament

I’ve talked to many Christians who were taught and believed that God’s people Israel in the Old Testament were saved by works, rather than grace.

Of course, looking at the prologue to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 will show that’s simply not true. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Ex. 20:2).

God acts. God does the work. God does the saving.

Then he gives them his law. The order goes like this: God rescues his people. Then he tells them what their lives should look like under his kingly rule.

Add to that Hebrews 11 where we see that those saints who have come before were saved, not by their commitment to the law, but for their faith. That’s the whole point of that chapter.

That should be enough.

But another passage stuck out to me this morning I hadn’t noticed before. Deuteronomy 4:37: “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength.”

That sounds a lot like John 3:16, doesn’t it? That verse says, “God loved the world this way: he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

  • “Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them” → God loved the world
  • “He brought you out of Egypt” → will not perish but have eternal life 
  • “By his Presence and his great strength” → he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him

When you lay the two passage side-by-side, we see that God’s love is the initiating motivation for salvation. His very real presence and grace is the power of salvation. And finally, freedom and life with God–the rescue from bondage and death–is the result of God’s salvation.

Whether Old Testament or New, the salvation of God does not come because of the obedience or conformity to God’s law, in part or in whole.

It comes freely and only to his people by his grace, his power, and his very Presence.


Other Important 3:16 Verses

Many Christians have John 3:16 as their favorite verse. It is an important verse, to be sure. I wonder if so many pick that because they simply don’t know any others. I’m probably just being skeptical.

Whatever the case, there are other great “3:16” verses, besides the one in John’s gospel, in the New Testament:

  • Luke 3:16 – I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
  • Acts 3:16 – And his name–by faith in his name–has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
  • 1 Corinthians 3:16 – Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
  • Galatians 3:16 – Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”
  • Colossians 3:16 – Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
  • 1 Timothy 3:16 – Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
  • 2 Timothy 3:16 – All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
  • 2 Peter 3:16(b) – There are some things in them [that is, Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do with the other Scriptures.
  • 1 John 3:16 – By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
  • Revelation 3:16 – So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
Life Theology

B is for Begotten

Perhaps the most famous verse in American sports history is the King James Version of John 3:16.  How many times have you seen this on a banner or a huge sheet behind the end zone?  So much so that even non-Christians can recite it word-for-word.  It says, “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.”

This verse is packed with incredible spiritual realities. Too many for this post. The buzzword from the verse we’ll focus on here is the word “begotten.”

A question that you might ask is: why is “begotten” used when speaking of Jesus coming from God the Father when it is also used in Matthew 1 (and other places) of the KJV when it says, “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob” and so on? Was Jesus created like Isaac and Jacob? Was he born to God in heaven like Isaac and Jacob were born to their fathers here on earth?

The word “begotten” does not mean “birthed,” and “begat” does not mean “to give birth to.” In Greek the word used for “only begotten” is monogenēs, which means “single of its kind, only.”  To “beget” something, then, means to produce something of the same kind as itself.  Abraham begat Isaac because they are both human beings. In the same way, a dog begets dogs. Maple trees beget maple trees. Fish beget fish. God creates human beings, dogs, maple trees, and fish. But God begets God.

Jesus is the exact representation of God (see Heb. 1:1-3; cf. John 1:1-3, 14). He was not born to God in heaven, and he was not created by God like you and I were created. So when John writes, “God…gave his only begotten Son,” he means that God gave the world the only thing in the entire universe that is like him.  Jesus is of the same essence, nature, and being as God the Father.  He is God.

Is “begotten” the best translation for John 3:16 and other verses? Probably not for our 21st century minds. Most modern translations do not use this word. Whatever the case, we can rejoice and celebrate the fact that Jesus is not created and is not like you and me.


Thunderstorms, Intense Heat, and Frigid Winter Nights

When I arrived in Omaha a few weeks back, the humidity was so high that it was literally hard for me to breathe.  I was coming out of a climate in South Africa that, in winter, is very, very dry.  Those first few days in Omaha were filled with extremely high temperatures, even reach a heat index of 110F a few days.

After a day of being home, Carly and I went to Aurora, Nebraska, about two hours west of Omaha, to visit her parents.  A day before we left, there was a massive tornado in Aurora that left a country house to shreds and ripped off some paneling from a building across the street.  During the first night in Aurora, lightning, loud claps of thunder, and heavy rain rolled through.

As I thought about these summer phenomenons, I couldn’t help but think about the polar opposite effects of winter: unbearable cold, numbing winds, ice showers, blizzards, early darkness and the like.

The weather — be it intense heat, frigid cold, white-hot lightning, or freezing snowstorms — is a whisper of God’s power.  We might be tempted to think there is nothing more frightening than a powerful tornado raging toward a farming community or a blizzard that is just waiting to strike a metropolitan area.

But there is something more frightening.  Imagine the intense heat of God’s judgment for those who do not believe in his Son Jesus.  Imagine the sound of God’s voice thundering in the heavens over an unrepentant sinner.  Imagine the lonely, frozen darkness he will experience in his heart for all eternity.

The good news is that there is hope for everyone who’s still alive.  The good news is that we do not have to be judged because Jesus, on the cross, became a curse for us, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.  The invitation is for all those who are near and far off.  It is free for the taking, but if it is rejected, the worst summer and winter that could be imagined will shudder in comparison.