"What's in a name?" Juliet muses. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." The daughter Capulet's sentiment is certainly true on some level. But the same cannot be said of the name applied to Jesus in John 3:16. Jesus' identity as God's "only Son" so sweetly enhances our understanding of this verse that without this name the gospel loses its fragrance.
God's Only Son
"Only Son" describes Jesus' filial relationship to the Father as the second person of the Trinity. What is the nature of this relationship? The only Son's relationship to the Father is eternal: "In the beginning," before the incarnation, before creation, He "was with God" (John 1:1). The only Son's relationship to the Father is a relationship of equality: the Son who eternally existed with God "was God" (v. 1). The only Son's relationship to the Father is unique: though God wills to draw many "children" into His family through adoption (v. 12), the only Son does not belong in a class with God's creaturely sons and daughters. He, unlike us, is God's Son by nature. He dwells eternally at the Father's side (v. 18; cf. 13:23), set apart from all the rest, as the unique object of the Father's love and affection, His most precious treasure (17:24).
The Sacrifice of God's Only Son
The identification of Jesus as God's "only Son" identifies Him as the supreme object of the Father's affection: "the Father loves the Son" (John 3:35). Though God created the world very good, the world through sin made itself subject to God's eternal wrath and condemnation (3:18–19, 36). In the midst of this perilous situation, John 3:16 proclaims the astounding nature of God's love for unworthy sinners: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son." As Abraham demonstrated his supreme reverence for God through his willingness to sacrifice his "only son" Isaac (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16), so God demonstrates His amazing love for us by giving His only Son to be "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, 36; 3:17–18; Rom. 5:6–10; 8:32).
The hymn rightly wonders, "What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?" What wondrous love indeed that the first person of the Trinity would give the second person of the Trinity to redeem His enemies from death. But the wonders do not end there.
Eternal Life in God's Only Son
The Father gave His Son not only to bear our condemnation but also to bestow "eternal life" (John 3:16). Jesus' identity as God's "only Son" determines the nature of this gift as well: "God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son" (1 John 5:11; see John 20:31). The Father, who loves the Son eternally and supremely, who gave His beloved Son as a sacrifice for sinners, displays His loving purpose for us by uniting us to His only Son, giving us "the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).
In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus describes the character of the eternal life we receive in Him as God's adopted sons and daughters. Before creation, the only Son dwelled at the Father's side as the supreme object of His love and affection. As a consequence of His redeeming work, the only Son prays that we too might dwell with Him at the Father's side: "Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am." He prays that we might see His Father's love: "to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). And He prays that we might share His Father's love: "I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (v. 26).
What's in a name? The name of God's only Son in John 3:16 is like a fragrance poured out (Song 1:3): at once a costly sacrifice and an aroma of life unto life. Rightly do we savor and sing His name.