One would think that after nearly 2000 years we’d have John 3:16 figured out. This beloved and most memorized summary of the Gospel has shaped Western culture for millennia. Recent paraphrastic versions of this verse, however, seem to be shaping the Gospel to fit the culture.
The bone I’m picking here has to do with the little term “so,” which translates the Greek, houtō.
Solid modern translations follow the King James Version’s ambiguous rendering—“For God so loved the world.” Undoubtedly, this is partly to retain the ring and resonance of how millions of saints have read it, heard it, and ingested it for centuries; and this is great. I also appreciate the ambiguity of the “so.” Ambiguity leads to one of two things. On the down side, it allows room for the reader (or worse, preacher) to impose their misunderstandings into the text. Nevertheless, the up side is that ambiguity often drives the reader to do some study of their own, to dig and try to spiral into the mind and heart of the author, which is where the meaning resides.
So, what does this “so” mean? And how could it make that much difference?
The immensely popular paraphrase, the New Living Translation has sought to expunge any ambiguity for the reader by making clear that the “so” is qualitative or quantitative in its connotation. It reads,
“For God loved the world so much that...”
This emphasis on the magnitude, depth and breadth of God’s love for a world of wayward rebels is as theologically faithful as his love is wide. For instance, John, writing in his first Epistle, makes this point when he says,
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the Children of God; and so we are” (3:1).
But the question remains, Is this what John was meaning in 3:16?
If the New Living Translation’s emphasis on the “so” isn’t enough to convince, then consider the Amplified Bible’s indulgent treatment of the verse.
“For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that...”
Okay, come on, the “dearly prized” is a bit over the top, don’t you think?. But this does reveal a shift in emphasis on the part of the translator. It seems to place the stress of the verb, “loved,” on its object, “the world.” This gives the sense that the world as such is inherently lovable, an object worthy of God’s love. Whether or not someone thinks this observation is fair, there’s little question that 99% of Western readers hear Jn 3:16 this way.
However, the term “world” (Gk. kosmos) never carries these connotations in John’s writings. John uses “world” in one of two ways. It’s either “the world,” and that the world is so big; e.g., the “world” doesn’t have the capacity to shelve the books that could be written on the words and deeds of Jesus, the Son (Jn 21:25). Alternately, it more often means “the world,” and that the world is so bad and thus antithetical to God’s love (1 Jn 2:15—17); it’s in a constant state of cosmic treason against its Creator. Nowhere does John give us the sense that the world is something that is so “dearly prized” by God.
So, back to “so.”
In the 20-plus times that John uses the term, houtō always carries the instrumental sense, e.g., “in this way or manner..” Likewise, the reader could supplant “so” with its synonym, “thus.” “God loved the world ‘thus’...” In this sense, with “so” John is communicating the “how” of God’s love for the world; it emphasizes what it was that God did to make the “Way” (Jn 14:6) for his love for us and our reciprocation of responsive love to him. The English Standard Version offers this alternate reading in a text note.
“Or For this is how God loved the world"
The Holman Christian Standard Bible is not so cautious. It translated the verse this way:
“For God loved the world in this way: He gave his One and Only Son...”
Therefore, whether one thinks that Jn 3:16f are the words of Jesus or they’re John’s concluding summary of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, the “so” of v. 16 is telling us the Way of God’s plan to rescue from death a wicked world in rebellion against its Maker, the “How” of his plan and purpose.
For those who have always assumed the qualitative sense of “so,” as “so much,” the above observations and subsequent interpretation could come as a shock. If so, first consider Nicodemus’ experience, if indeed this is what the words meant. Yahweh’s supreme demonstration of love wouldn’t be cloistered to a people within the walls of the temple nor even the boundaries of Palestine, as Nicodemus assumed; the crowning act in redemption has the entire cosmos in its scope, Jew and Gentile. In Jesus, the Son, him being incarnate, being “lifted up” unto death and subsequently raised from the dead, every tribe and tongue and people and nation—all those born of God, born again—will enter the Kingdom. This is the mirthful new wine of the New Covenant and the provisional categories of the Old Covenant (infinitely less Second Temple Judaism) is an old wineskin. God loved the world in this way: the Son!
Does this interpretation somehow diminish the emphasis on the quality or quantity of God’s love in this passage? On the contrary! If John means “the world” in the sense that it’s so bad, as I’ve briefly argued, and he meant “so” in the sense of “thus, how, or in this way,” then this interpretation would help to make clear that God does not love the world, individually or collectively, because he finds it so lovely. But, rather, in spite of the world's unloveliness, he gave and delivered up to death his only Son. “In this way,” then, God in Christ was faithful to his command to us: “But I tell you, love your enemies...” And love has no greater one than this, does it?
This interpretation of verse 16 is clearly how the divines of the synod of Dordt understood it. Consider the clear reference to the instrumental sense of verse 16 in the Canons of Dordt, First Head of Doctrine, Article II.
Article 2: The Manifestation of God’s Love
But this is how God showed his love: he sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.