Every year, BibleGateway.com—the world’s most visited Christian website—publishes a list of the most read Bible verses on its website. The list always includes a number of familiar Bible verses (Proverbs 3:5–6; Psalm 23:4; 1 Corinthians 13:4; Romans 12:1–2; Philippians 4:6, 13; Romans 8:28; Jeremiah 29:11). But it will come as no surprise to you that, consistently, the most read verse on BibleGateway.com is perhaps the most loved verse in the Bible: John 3:16.
Bruce Milne calls John 3:16 “the best-known and most often preached text in the entire Bible. It is a masterly and moving summary of the gospel, cast in terms of the love of God.” Luther referred to it as “the Bible in miniature.” It is arguably the greatest verse in the Bible—because it neatly encapsulates the greatest truth in the Bible: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But as beloved as it is, this verse is frequently misunderstood. Often, people read of God’s love for “the world” as encapsulating the wideness of his love. Missions appeals are built on this verse, urging people to go everywhere because Christ’s love reaches everywhere. But while the Bible certainly teaches the broadness of God’s love, that is not the focus of John 3:16. This verse focuses our attention, rather, on the depth of his love.
When we read of “the world” in John’s Gospel, we read of a system that is opposed to God. It always carries a negative connotation in this Gospel. For example, Jesus identified these rebellious people who hate and reject him as “the world” (14:17). He condemned the Pharisees as “of the world” (8:23), identified the devil as “the ruler of this world” (14:20), and identified his followers as “not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (17:16).
As Skye Jethani summarises, “Jesus uses ‘the world’ as a shorthand to describe everything evil, wicked, and in rebellion against God and his character.” When John describes Jesus’ sacrificial love for the world, therefore, he is “not saying God’s love is remarkable because of its wideness, but that God’s love is astonishing because of the world’s wickedness.”
All week long, we have been considering God’s great love for us and our only appropriate response of love to him. What greater way to conclude this brief series of considerations than with the greatest love verse in all of Scripture? And how marvellous to consider that God’s love is demonstrated in the face of our utter rebellion and wickedness. The message of the gospel is that Christ Jesus sacrificed himself for a world steeped in utter wickedness and rebellion. There was nothing attractive to God about the world, and yet he loved the world anyway.
It can be truly disheartening to witness the depths to which people will sometimes stoop in their rebellion against God. If we are honest, it can be disheartening to see the depths to which we will sometimes stoop in our rebellion against God. The message of John 3:16 is that God’s love is deeper than our wickedness. His love is displayed in sacrifice despite our wickedness.
As you go about your day, reflecting once again on God’s amazing love in Christ, meditate on his love in the face of your wickedness. Realise that the immensity of his love is displayed not primarily in its breadth but in its depth. John 3:16 is testimony to God’s sacrificial love in the face of our utter wickedness. Thank God for his great love displayed at the cross, and commit to live with greater love to him than ever before.