NOTE: For many years I have desired to write a longish tract that would effectively open up the Bible’s message of redemption to thoughtful seekers of spiritual truth. I hope this is it. I post it here not only for seekers, but also for saints, in further hopes that it will help them share their own faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Pearl of Greatest Price.
John 3:16: A Pearl of Great Price
Every student of history, Christian or not, knows that the Bible’s majestic story of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ turned the Roman Empire upside down, laid the foundation for Western Civilization, and even today is transforming people and nations all over the world.
But here’s something you may not have known: John 3:16—the most famous verse in the Bible—contains the whole message of the entire Book. It’s like a beautiful pearl tucked deep inside a giant clam or oyster. Here Christ himself gives us the heart, the core, the very essence of the Word of God.
So then: For folks who may be new to the Bible, here are a few thoughts designed to display the truth and beauty of this pearl of great price.
GOD: This is the Supreme Being whom we encounter in nature, conscience, and the sacred scriptures of the Jewish people, through whose holy prophets and apostles he was pleased to reveal far more than nature or conscience ever could. In these scriptures we learn that there is one God—the omnipresent creator, possessor, sustainer, and ruler of the universe—eternally existing in three divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here in John 3:16 Christ is specifically referring to God the Father: He who gave God the Son to the world.
SO LOVED: God is love. Throughout all eternity the three divine Persons have known and delighted in one another, living together as a Holy Family in a bond of perfect love. But the love of the triune God also overflows onto his creation, and in particular onto us human beings—creatures uniquely fashioned in his own image and likeness, and who are therefore endowed with a capacity to know God and live with him as his children. In our text, Christ is telling us that God the Father, moved by his great love, has gone to extraordinary lengths to make that capacity ours again.
THE WORLD: The reference here is primarily to the family of man that God, in the beginning, created to rule with him over the earth, and to journey with him down the long corridor of universal history. The human father of this family was the man Adam. In the Garden of Eden God was pleased to test Adam, to see if he would love and honor his creator by believing and obeying his word. It was a test with the greatest possible consequences, since, by God’s wise decree, Adam stood in Eden as the head and representative of both man and nature. As subsequent history reveals all too well, it was a test that Adam failed, with the result that evil, suffering, and death invaded the very good world that God had made. In particular, because of Adam’s plunge into sin, all of his children would henceforth be born in a state of sin: alienated from the life of God, centered on self, driven by various dark passions, hostile to God, and disobedient to him in thought, word, and deed. What’s more, because of their willful sin, many of those children stood—and now stand—beneath God’s righteous anger, and therefore in danger of eternal punishment. Yet despite the depth of its sin, God still loves this family, just as he did its father, Adam. Indeed, he loved it so much . . .
THAT HE GAVE: It is God’s nature to depend on nothing; it is man’s nature to depend on God. It is God’s nature (and joy) to give to man; it is man’s nature (and joy) to receive from God. As the Bible teaches, God is the One who gives life, breath, and all things to his beloved creations. Knowing well our need of spiritual rescue and restoration—and knowing well the Father’s purpose and plan to meet it—Christ speaks here of God’s greatest gift to the sinful family of man: his uniquely begotten Son.
HIS UNIQUELY BEGOTTEN SON: Throughout all eternity the divine Father uniquely begets the divine Son whom he loves. With neither beginning nor end, the Son is “God himself from God himself.” With a view to saving sinners from eternal punishment, with a view to begetting them afresh as his own beloved children, and with a view to uniting them with the Holy Trinity, the Father, in an act of supreme love, gave his uniquely begotten Son to the world in the form of the God-Man: the Lord Jesus Christ. Through his incarnation the Son entered the world as the last Adam: as the head and representative of a new human family that God had purposed to create. Through his holy life Christ treasured up a perfect righteous—a righteousness that God will credit to the account of all who believe in him. Through his death on a Roman cross Christ fulfilled the righteous requirement of God’s (broken) law, suffering the penalty of death on behalf of all who will trust in him. And through his resurrection from the dead Christ was displayed to the whole world as its God-appointed Prophet, Priest, and King: the all-sufficient Redeemer of the fallen family of man.
SO THAT WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM: In the Bible, redemption is twofold: rescue from evil, suffering, and death, and restoration to the manifold blessings of life in union with God. Because God’s law is written on our hearts, we naturally think that we can redeem ourselves by being good and doing well. But Scripture is emphatic: Sinful man can never be good enough, nor can his good deeds cancel his bad. Therefore Christ tells us how we really can be redeemed: by believing in him. Such believing is also twofold. First, by God’s grace—and usually in the midst an honest search for spiritual truth—we must see who Christ is and what he has done for us. And secondly, having seen, we must respond. That is, we must turn from our self-centered life governed by various lusts, to a Christ-centered life governed by love, receiving him as the all-sufficient Redeemer that God intended him to be. When we do this, God will forgive us all our sins—past, present, and future—and will declare us perfectly righteous in his sight. Furthermore, on those grounds he will embrace us as his children, and therefore grant us a whole new life of righteousness, peace, and joy in fellowship with him, together with various trials wisely designed for his glory and our good. In the Garden of Eden God tested Adam to see if he would believe and obey him concerning the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Today he is testing Adam’s children to see if they will believe and obey him concerning the Tree of Life, which is Jesus Christ. Will we turn from our sin? Will we come to Christ? Will we partake of him for eternal life? Will we trust in him alone for full redemption?
WILL NOT PERISH: Sinful man is perishing day by day. By willfully rebelling against his creator, and by knowingly keeping his redeemer at arm’s length, he falls further and further away from the life of God, and deeper and deeper into sin, corruption, and death. Here Christ is telling us that if this fall continues—uninterrupted by repentance and faith—God will give to the sinner in hell that which he chose for himself on earth: separation from the life and gifts of God under eternal punishment. Understandably, our finite and fallen minds recoil from this prospect: We cannot comprehend the apparent severity of eternal punishment. But neither can we (fully) comprehend the towering holiness and sovereignty of the creator, the scandal of the creature’s sin, the injury it inflicts upon God’s glory, the necessity of divine retribution, the dimensions of Christ’s sufferings, or the perfect justice of the Judge of all the earth. Therefore, our only safe course is to recuse ourselves from judging God, and to humbly receive the words of his Christ, who graciously promises eternal life to all who believe, but who solemnly warns of eternal punishment for all who disobey. And we can rejoice that here on earth—in the anteroom of eternity—the choice is ours.
BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE: Here Christ affirms that from the moment of their new birth into the family of God, believers do in fact have eternal life: Once and for all, they have crossed over out of death and into life. This is the kind of life lived by the triune God, and that life lived forever. It begins when believers personally receive Christ as Savior and Lord, with the result that the triune God, by the Holy Spirit, comes to live in them, and they in him. During the days of their pilgrimage on earth, and through their faithfulness to basic Christian disciplines, this life grows and develops, as God slowly conforms his children to the image his Son. At the moment of their death it attains full flower, as believers’ spirits enter heaven, there to dwell in perfect holiness and joy with their exalted Lord. And it is consummated at the end of the present evil age, when Christ will come again to resurrect the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and create glorious new heavens and a new earth: the eternal home of the redeemed.
The Pearl of Greatest Price
Yes, John 3:16 really is a pearl of great price, seeing that it perfectly distills the whole message of the entire Bible into a single sentence.
But someone will ask, “How can we be sure its message is true? How can we know the Bible really is the Word of God?” It’s a fair question—a question that many thoughtful Christians have addressed at length, and whose books on the subject are readily available to all who seek.
But let me close here by offering a short reply of my own.
I believe the very best way to know that the Bible is the Word of God is simply to read it—all 66 books, written by some 40 different authors, over the course of nearly 1600 years. For when we do so with an honest heart that is fully intent on discovering spiritual reality and complying with it, we will unfailingly hear the Father’s voice speaking to us on every page, disclosing precious truths about the Person and Work of his uniquely begotten Son, and how they meet our deepest needs.
Whether in the Old Testament—where all events, laws, institutions, poems, promises, and prophecies point forward to Christ—or in the New Testament, where the Old Testament is fulfilled, good news is proclaimed, truth is revealed, miracles are performed, Christ is raised, lives are redeemed, and saints are filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory—the story is always the same: Here we find God the Father addressing each and every seeker of spiritual truth, saying:
“This is my beloved Son. This is the world’s one and only Redeemer, given for you. This is the Pearl of Greatest Price, he of whom John 3:16 and the entire Bible sing. So come to him, speak with him, open to him, learn from him, trust in him, draw upon him, walk with him, serve him, endure with him, cling to him, hope in him, delight in him, and cherish him all of your days. So shall you never perish. So shall you have eternal life.”