Arguably the most well-known verse in the Bible is also the one describing the essence of our relationship with Jesus: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
From handheld signs at train stations to the bottoms of fast-food cups to a football player’s eye black, this message of the ultimate sacrifice for our ultimate salvation is a universal call to worship Jesus Christ.
When considering this verse, we often focus on its second half, which highlights the link between belief in Jesus and the hope of eternal life.
This article explores the verse’s first half, which summarizes the intensity of God’s love for humanity and how that love prompted Him to send down His only Son to be tortured and killed for our sake.
God’s Love for Us Is Everlasting and Sacrificial
Our bond with God has been a story about fatherly love from the beginning. God created the world and everything in it out of love, declaring His creations good and blessing it (Genesis 1). God showed His love for mankind in particular by making us in His image and entrusting us to be caretakers of the world (Genesis 1:27-28).
Emphasizing how important it was for humanity to live in love, Jesus Himself summarized the whole of Scripture into two commands about love: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. “All the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus continued, “hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40).
Expanding upon this binding theme of love, the Bible declares simply but powerfully that, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). When Scripture speaks of God’s love for us, it speaks of the highest level of love — or, agape love.
Agape is the Greek word for the highest form of love. Agape love is everlasting and sacrificial, freely given whether or not the giver receives the same level (or any level) of love in return. Agape love is the perfect love that God showed for humanity when He sent His only Son to be sacrificed in atonement for our sins so that, through our belief in Jesus, we may have eternal life.
God Sent His Son to Save Us Out of Love for Us
Since the Garden of Eden, God has loved us. Since the Fall of Man in that Garden, we have rebelled against God.
Undoubtedly, God has been brokenhearted over His children’s choice throughout history to sin and to turn against each other. To guide His children toward Christ, God handed down 10 commandments and included over 600 laws for His people to follow in the first five books of the Old Testament.
These laws included sacrifices the people could perform to reconcile themselves with God when they, inevitably, broke one of those many laws. As the people of old proved true, humanity’s expected obedience to hundreds of Old Testament laws proved futile, as our human nature skews us toward deception and selfishness, and away from obedience and self-sacrifice (Romans 8:7-8).
God knew that this myriad of laws would make one thing clear to us: People would sin no matter how many rules they had on hand to help them navigate the different situations they found themselves in.
This propensity to sin separated the human race from God and showed humanity its need for a Savior — someone to save us from the condemnation of the hundreds of Old Testament laws and to show us the way to salvation through faith.
Knowing that it was the right time in history for an intercessor, God then sent down His Son Jesus to be that Savior. Jesus taught us a new, more peaceful way of life, rooted in love and faith in Him as the long-awaited Messiah.
The New Testament message is that this faith in the teachings of the Risen Messiah and in His identity as the Son of God offers Man perpetual salvation and does away with the need for bloody Temple sacrifices. But this salvation was not without its price for God.
God Watched His Son Die Out of Love For Us
Jesus Christ freed humanity from the grip of sin by the lashes that dug into his skin as the Roman soldiers whipped him (John 19:1). Jesus freed us from the condemnation of the Old Testament laws by being beaten, mocked, spat upon, and made to carry His torture device on His back to Calvary (John 19:2-17; Matthew 27:27-31).
Jesus offered us the hope of eternal salvation by Himself, dying a criminal’s death, hung up on a pole to perish slowly and painfully. God not only watched His Son go through all of this, He knew it would happen.
As Jesus’ father, God knew the physical anguish that Jesus would suffer. Yet God loved us so much that He willed it to happen. God also knew the mental anguish that Jesus would suffer in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In fact, the human aspect of Jesus was so distraught at what awaited Him that Our Savior sweated blood as He prayed that God “take this cup” from Him (Luke 22:41-44). At that moment, God sent down an angel to strengthen Jesus because it was the Father’s will that the Crucifixion happen for us, for our salvation, despite the horror Jesus willingly endured because of it (Luke 22:43; Philippians 2:8).
Set against this backdrop of Jesus’ Passion, the words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” take on a crystal clear and heart wrenching reality that should bend the knee of even the casual believer. This is what perfect love, selfless and sacrificial love in action, looks like.
What Does This Mean?
While we were still sinners, God sent down His only Son to die in our place so that we might enjoy eternal life (Romans 5:8). In exchange, we’re to turn from sin and live our lives in a way that reflects our faith in His Son Jesus Christ.
We can never do anything to deserve God’s (and Jesus’) immeasurable sacrifice for us. In humble gratitude, we can only accept God’s grace and follow Jesus’ instructions in the gospel to attain the salvation that symbolizes how God so loved the world.
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Dolores Smyth is passionate about faith and seeks to be a peacemaker. Her work has appeared in numerous publications. You can follow more of her work on Twitter @LolaWordSmyth.