John 3:16 has been the most famous verse in the Bible for a long time. It’s familiarity might not breed contempt, but it might perhaps make one callous to its content and ignorant of its context.
So, as we’ve done a few times already, let’s practise a more careful approach to reading the Bible.
vv. 1-2 The event: A Pharisee (very religious, knows much of OT) who recognised that Jesus is a teacher with Divine authority comes to chat
v. 3 Jesus cuts to the heart issue of re-birth, avoiding the distraction of religiosity
v. 4 Religiosity has no real place for true conversion, for religious people are already OK
vv. 5-6 Re-birth is a spiritual reality and essential for entry into God’s kingdom (the somewhat confusing reference to water and spirit most likely simply refers to spiritual cleansing that is internal rather than the religious external washings Nicodemus would have performed)
v. 7 That a new spiritual life is necessary should not be a surprise to an OT expert (Cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27)
v. 8 An illustration to help a Pharisee understand how the internal change should produce the external. The Spirit performing the new birth is the true source of a truly righteous life
vv. 9-15 A religious person should know better, and in Jesus Christ he can not only see and understand better, but also believe and have eternal life (Cf John 1:9-12)
(vv. 16-21 An excursus for more detail on how true salvation works.)
v. 16 God is the source of the rebirth, through Jesus His Son, for all who believe
v. 17 God is a saving God, and Jesus’ first coming is for the purpose of saving
v. 18 Belief VS Unbelief regarding the truth about Jesus is the determining issue for salvation (not religiosity!)
vv. 19-20 The natural response of man will be unbelief because of a love of wickedness and a fear of exposure.
v. 21 True believers “do what is true” (obey) and “come to the light” (love truth even to the point of exposure) so that they might be a testimony of God’s saving work.
John 3:16 is therefore rightly one of the most famous evangelistic verses – especially to those who are so religious.
This reading exercise hopefully put John 3:16 in its context. The remaining task for you is to take John 3:16 by itself, writing a short sentence explaining the significance of each word or phrase in that verse. The result will be a broader understanding of the verse (context), and a deeper understanding of the verse (each word and phrase).