3 Questions to Ask When Reading John 3:16

We often quote John 3:16 independently from other verses. We print it on placards and hoist it at football games. To fully uncover the power of this verse, therefore, we must journey with Nicodemus in his conversation with Jesus.

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Published Mar 13, 2023
3 Questions to Ask When Reading John 3:16

I grew up on a small west-coast island that boasted glamorous oceanside trails, hikes through majestic forests, and beautifully cultivated gardens. Each year, visitors from around the world would descend upon the island.

They would snap pictures for their photo albums and delight at the scenery before them. For me, however, the surrounding views were ordinary and mundane.

The gardens were just another patch of flowers, and the seaside walks were commonplace. I was so familiar with my surroundings that the scenery no longer held an impact on my life.

The fact is when we become familiar with something, we often fail to recognize its beauty or power. I wonder if a similar dynamic occurs with Scripture. Can we become so familiar with a text that it fails to resonate deep in our souls?

For example, when was the last time that you really listened to the glory of John 3:16? This verse is perhaps the most beloved of all the verses in Scripture.

Martin Luther even claimed it to be “the gospel in miniature.” So familiar are we with this text that anyone reading this article can probably recite the words without thought or hesitation. Go on, you know you want to.

For a verse so beloved and familiar, how might we guard against these words simply falling on familiar ears? Can we hear these words in a way that unlocks their transformative power in our lives?

To rediscover the power of Christ’s proclamation in John 3:16, we must ask ourselves three questions.

1. What Keeps Me Up at Night?

We often quote John 3:16 independently from other verses. We print it on placards and hoist it at football games. Yet John 3:16 doesn’t arrive out of nowhere.

It is part of a larger conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. To fully uncover the power of this verse, therefore, we must journey with Nicodemus in his conversation with Jesus.

What can be easily missed is the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “at night” (John 3:2). Nicodemus sought out the Lord when all is quiet, but he himself is awake.

Some commentators suggest that Nicodemus does this to ensure safety in his interaction with the Lord. He fears reprisal from his fellow Pharisees.

I think there is more to this. Nicodemus is awake in the late hours of the night because he wrestles with what Christ’s presence means for him and his faith.

This is inferred by Christ’s response to him. Jesus speaks to what lies upon Nicodemus’ heart; “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from again” (John 3:3).

Nicodemus sought out Jesus so that he could learn what it means to enter the heavenly kingdom. In short, he is concerned about his life with God and the assurance of his salvation.

The glory of John 3:16 is that Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ restlessness. Jesus articulates how the incarnation is God’s loving response to the plight of all human life and a world that is “subject to frustration” (Romans 8:20).

In Jesus, God seeks to save the world, not destroy it (John 3:17). To the frustrated and anxious, Jesus speaks the assurance of new life. This is the message Jesus conveys to Nicodemus.

What keeps you up at night? Is there a worry, anxiety, or a question that weighs heavy upon your heart or your mind? What might it look like for you to take that burden to the Lord, who meets you in the quiet hours of the night?

Jesus does not run from our times of restlessness. As we bring our burdens to him, we hear his words of redemption.

2. Where Do I See New Life?

John 3:16 flows out of Jesus’ discussion about being “born again.” Jesus says that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of “water and Spirit” (John 3:5).

In response, Nicodemus asks a question that we all have voiced at one time or another: “how can this be?” In other words, what does it mean to be born again?

Christians have often tried to define being born again by an appeal to dogmatic requirements or institutional allegiances.

Occasionally, activities such as praying the sinner’s prayer, or speaking in tongues, may be highlighted as definitive signs of spiritual birth. Jesus, however, never mentions any of these things.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus clearly teaches that human effort does not bring about spiritual birth. Our life in the Spirit never results from human-powered actions. New birth (whether physical or spiritual) happens to us, not by us.

This is the point behind the curious conversation regarding the wind. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from and where it is going.

So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (3:8). Nicodemus no more controls his entrance into God’s kingdom as he controls the wind moving across the desert plain.

Jesus teaches that spiritual birth is an action of the Holy Spirit within us. In fact, this is the very definition of eternal life. Later in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they know you, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Eternal life begins when we accept the new life that Jesus offers us. When Jesus promises that “all who believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16), he is not speaking of one’s eternal destiny beyond the sky but of the “life in all abundance” that Jesus alone offers (John 10:10).

Where do you see the Spirit working new life within you? Where does Jesus invite you to explore his abundant life today? Rather than trying to manage your own efforts to merit eternal life, new life is gifted to you. Yet just like any gift, we cannot leave it unexplored.

3. How Might I Respond?

John 3:16 is not a doctrinal lesson; it is an invitation to new life. We must respond to the gospel message by turning to Jesus as Lord and Savior. Jesus is the “one and only son” (John 3:16), the second person of the Trinity, God incarnate.

He is the Word-made-flesh, the one in whom God’s love and forgiveness are met in real life. Jesus’ entire conversation with Nicodemus served as an invitation for him to respond to this truth.

And respond Nicodemus did! In fact, Nicodemus takes an active role in caring for Christ’s body following the crucifixion. While we often remember that Joseph of Arimathea asked permission to bury Jesus in his family tomb, Scripture records that he was joined by Nicodemus.

The two men took the body of Jesus, covered it with spices, and wrapped the body in linen (John 19:39-40). By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus clearly considered himself a disciple. His night-time conversation eventually worked a deep transformation within him.

The same transformation can occur in our lives today if we allow the truth of John 3:16 to rest deep in our hearts. John 3:16 holds before us the radical truth. In Jesus, we find satisfaction for our weary or anxious souls.

Jesus is the ultimate answer to all our late-night wrestling. Furthermore, Jesus alone ushers us into the new and eternal life of God’s Kingdom.

Being a follower of Jesus, therefore, is not about being able to rattle off this verse without hesitation but involves following the example of Nicodemus and responding to the Lord with dedication and faith.

For further reading:

What Is the Significance of ‘For God So Loved the World’ in John 3:16?

How God Loves the World

What Must I Do to Be Saved?

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/worshae

SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.

Christianity / Life / Bible / 3 Questions to Ask When Reading John 3:16