John 3:16 in Context

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Today’s evangelicals generally think that if we offend someone by pressing the claims of the gospel too firmly or too plainly, we’ve done something terribly wrong. The reality is that if you think the gospel can be proclaimed in a way that is always appealing and never upsetting to unbelievers, you have the wrong idea about what the gospel message says.

Jesus’ famous encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 is an illustration of this. The Pharisee might have expected warm encouragement when he approached Jesus with an emphatic affirmation that he believed Jesus was “a teacher come from God” (John 3:2).

Instead, Jesus deflated Nicodemus, responding to him as an unregenerate, unbelieving, lost sinner. “You must be born again” (v. 7). “You do not understand” (v. 10). “You do not receive our testimony” (v. 11). “You do not believe” (v. 12).

It was a severe indictment, punctuated with these words of condemnation: “Whoever does not believe is condemned already” (v. 18). By the time Jesus got to that point, Nicodemus understood full well that Jesus was speaking to him about his own eternal soul. And Jesus left the issue with Nicodemus on that note of condemnation. “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (v. 19).

The gospel is good news, but it is good news for “those who are being saved,” not “for those who are perishing” (2 Cor. 2:15). “To one [it is] a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” There is no good news for those who remain in unbelief. That’s the point Jesus stressed with Nicodemus. That’s why John 3:16 (like all Scripture) must be interpreted in context.

As a matter of fact, Jesus’ discourse on the gospel in John 3 ends on such a negative note that if this were the only place we encountered Nicodemus in all of Scripture, we might conclude that he left without saying any more and remained in unbelief all his life.

But despite Jesus’ severity with him—or perhaps because of it—Nicodemus retained an interest in Jesus. And at some point he did believe, making the passage from death to life.

The last time we meet Nicodemus in Scripture is in John 19:39, where he and Joseph of Arimathea hastily prepared the Savior’s body for burial. It was an act that could well have cost him everything. He clearly had become a different man than he was when he first approached Jesus.

Jesus knew something evangelicals today often forget: truth doesn’t defeat error by waging a public-relations campaign. The struggle between truth and error is spiritual warfare, and truth has no way to defeat falsehood except by exposing and refuting lies and false teaching. That calls for candor and clarity, boldness and precision—and sometimes more severity than congeniality. 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.