What Does John 3:16 Really Mean?
James Scott Trimm
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.
(John 3:16 KJV)
This verse is without a doubt this is the single most quoted passage from the “New Testament”. It has appeared on bumper stickers and T-shirts and even Tim Tebo’s eye black. I have even seen a book about chess that had “Jn. 3:16” written in one corner.
John 3:16 is also one of the most misunderstood verses in the “New Testament”. Christians generally interpret this verse with no regard for the surrounding context. By their interpretation this verse has Yeshua teaching Nakdimon (Nicodemus) the doctrine of salvation through the crucifixion of Messiah when he had yet to be crucified. They characterize this verse as their “ticket to heaven”.
However if we take this verse in context, we find that the following verses reveal, the phrase “believe in him” in John 3:16 refers not to simple acceptance of the fact of Yeshua’s existence, or his death (which had not even happened yet), but to belief or trusting faith in his words and teachings.
Verse 17 goes on to say:
For Eloah did not send his son into the world
to condemn the world
but to give life to the world through him.
(John 3:17 HRV)
The Messiah was the Torah incarnate and the original Torah giver. The Messiah gives life because he is the Torah incarnate and the Torah giver. In teaching us Torah he gives us life, as the Torah itself says:
Take to your heart all the words with which I am warning you today, which you shall command your sons to observe carefully, even all the words of this Torah. For it is not an idle word for you; indeed it is your life. And by this word you shall prolong your days in the Land, which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.
The next verse defines “he who believes” vs. “he who does not believe”:
He who believes in him is not judged,
and he who does not believe is already condemned
because he does not believe
in the name of the only begotten son of Eloah.
(John 3:18 HRV)
Here Yeshua clearly breaks all of mankind into two categories. Those who “believe” and are “not judged” and those who “do not believe” and are “condemned already”. The Aramaic word for “believe” here is the Aramaic equivalent of Hebrew EMUNAH . Emunah refers to belief in the sense of trusting faith. Torah is the “way of EMUNAH” as the Pslamist writes:
Remove the false way from me,
And graciously grant me your Torah.
I have chosen the way of faith (EMUNAH);
I have placed your ordinances before me.
“believe in him” from verse 16 becomes “believe in the name of the only begotten” in verse 18. This is an idiomatic way to say “believe in the reputation and teaching” of Messiah, which begins to becomes evident in the next two verses:
And this is the judgment,
because the light has come to the world,
and men loved darkness more than that light,
for their deeds are evil.
For everyone who does a hateful thing
hates the light and does not come to the light
lest his deeds be reproved.
(John 3:19-20 HRV)
This verse clarifies the two categories laid out in verse 18. Those who “believe” are “not judged” but those who “do not believe” are “condemned already”. These who “do not believe” love darkness more than light, hate the light, and do not come to the light lest their evil deeds be reproved. Note that the key word here is “deeds”. What is the light and what is the darkness? The answer to this question is to be found in the Tanak:
For the commandment is a lamp;
and the Torah is light…
Your word is a lamp to my feet,
and a light to my path.
To the Torah and to the testimony;
if they speak not according to this word,
it is because there is no light in them.
…for a Torah shall proceed from Me,
and I will make my judgment to rest
for a light of the people.
Elsewhere Yochanan speaks of those who “walk in darkness” (Jn. 8:12; 12:35; 1Jn. 1:6; 2:11). These who “do not believe” love darkness more than Torah, they hate the Torah, and do not come to the Torah lest their evil deeds be reproved.
The next verse says:
But he who does truth comes to the light
that his works may be known
that they are done in Eloah.
(John 2:21 HRV)
“he who does truth” This familiar phrase also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls in the
Manual of Discipline in which members of the Qumran community were instructed to
“do truth” (Col. 1,5; col. 5, 3)
Who is “he who does truth”? What is “truth”? How is it that “truth” is something that one “does”? The Torah is truth; all of the commandments are truth (Ps. 119:142, 151). See more detailed information on truth in comments to Jn. 8:31-32. Note that “truth” here is something that one does. He who does truth comes to the light of Torah so that his works may be known that they are of Eloah.
From John 3:16-21, 36 we may construct the following chart that will help us to understand the meaning of John 3:16:
|"believe in him"||"do not believe"|
|“not judged”||“already condemned”|
“comes to the light
that his works may be known”
|"Loved darkness more than light”
“their deeds are evil”
“does not come to the light
lest their deeds be reproved”
|[Obeys the son]||“does not obey the son”
We can see that those who “believe in him” in John 3:16 are those who believe in him as the incarnate Torah and who accept the Torah which he taught. This is made clear in verse 36 in which it is clear that “believe in him” means “obey the son”. They accept the Torah of truth and walk by its light. They are set apart from Torah rejecters who reject the light of Torah:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life,
and he who does not obey the Son will not see life:
on the contrary, the wrath of Eloah will remain upon him.
(John 3:36 HRV)
Yeshua the Messiah is the Torah incarnate, and thus if we reject the Torah as bondage, we are rejecting the very substance of who the Messiah is. Is is not keeping Torah that is the key, it is accepting and embracing the Torah, keeping it simply naturally flows from that process.
You do not earn salvation any more than you get clean to take a bath.
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