John 3:16 is one of the dearest of all Bible verses for many Christians. It is a great summary statement of the Gospel. But all too often the verse is miscited, misquoted, and mistranslated. The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) provides a clear reading of what the Greek text is communicating.
For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
The point of the text is that God showed his love by giving his son as the means of salvation to all who believe in him. However, this is not how many laymen and pastors alike understand the verse. Too often it is preached as, “For God so intensely loves you that He gave His only Son.” I suspect the New Living Translation (NLT) Bible has some responsibility in the matter. The NLT completely mistranslates the Greek:
For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Beyond the NLT’s influence is most likely a deep seated sentimentalism and/or emotionalism pushed upon the very Word of God whereby the verse loses its intended meaning. In this month’s edition of SBC Life, the journal of the Southern Baptist Convention, former SBC President Dr. Frank Page misses the mark in quoting John 3:16. In the section, “A Word From Frank S. Page,” Dr. Page writes:
I think it goes without saying that John 3:16 is the favorite verse of more people than we can imagine. This often quoted verse gives us a precious motivation for mission. In John 3:16, we see that our Lord is the Great Giver. In the phrase “so loved” we see the Great Motive. In the designation of the recipient of this love being the world, we see the world, we see the Great Mission Field.
Page wrongly interprets the verse similar to the NLT, asserting that the phrase “so loved” is describing the degree of God’s love and not the manner of God’s love as the Holman states, “in this way.”
Jerry Garrard, also writing for SBC Life, makes the same mistake in his February 2009 article “God the Son ~ His Redeeming Work on the Cross.” Garrard writes:
John 3:16 has been branded upon so many of our hearts, and rightly so. God loved the world so much that He sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sins and provide a way for us to have eternal life.
So how does this happen? How is such a beloved biblical text so often mistranslated and violated even at the hands of denominational leaders and men with doctorates? I believe two things are at play: tradition and emotionalism. Both of which must always be dealt with when studying the Word of God. Tradition must be assessed and accounted for in our approach to Scripture. Emotionalism should be earnestly fought against lest we twist God’s Word. I love John 3:16, it is a powerful witness to the love of God. It is because we love God and His Word that we must defend its proper handling and interpretation. We must take heed to Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”