John 3:16 is probably the most overused passage in the Bible, and most of the time not well interpreted. “For God so loved the world…” Invariably taken out of context. You see, we are Nicodemus. We struggle to understand earthly things. The heavenly things are beyond us. We are like Paul said, sitting in a darkened room, staring into the mirror, trying to catch a glimpse of our true person.
You see, people read these words and think that believing is all that matters. They feel if only they can get these others to believe in Jesus, they will be saved. But a very wise preacher once said it this way: Do you believe in Jesus? Do you believe he is the Son of God? That is good, but the devil also believes this.
Jesus is not talking about believing here, at least not in an earthly sense. Oh, the flesh can believe. The flesh can believe all sorts of things but that kind of believing will save no one. To take this passage in that sense is to take it out of context, because the context is a contrast.
Jesus is contrasting earthly things and heavenly things. He is contrasting fleshly things and spiritual things. He is contrasting birth by water and birth by the spirit. And he tells Nicodemus, a teacher of the law who studied these things all his life, that even he can hardly understand earthly, fleshly, water birth things. How can he understand heavenly, spiritual things?
Nicodemus might have caught the earthly reference to the serpent being lifted in the wilderness. A plague had come upon the people and Moses was told to lift a serpent on a pole in the wilderness. God promised that every person who looked up at that serpent would be healed. That serpent and pole was a crucifixion image – clearly. And Nicodemus might have grasped something from that when Jesus said the son of man must be lifted up (though Nicodemus could not have grasped it fully because the crucifixion had not yet happened). But Nicodemus could not have caught the spiritual reference, because the Holy Spirit had not yet been given. So the image, for him at that time would do him no earthly good.
Likewise, he might have grasped theoretically or philosophically the notion of being born again – being reborn by the spirit or born from above. The Pharisees and others probably debated this. After we are dead, God will remake us or restore us to his image. The idea of a spiritual rebirth is a good way to put it. Nicodemus, though, could not possibly understand the true spiritual dimension or the reality that Jesus was talking about that would happen here, long before death. Why? Because the Holy Spirit had not yet been given.
The bottom line is the kind of belief that saves and grants eternal life is spiritual or heavenly belief. Fleshly belief does nothing. One must be reborn by the spirit to receive eternal life, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. That is why the Holy Spirit was given.
I believe Paul understood this as well as anyone. He said Faith (the kind that saves) is not of our doing, lest we boast. It is (strictly) the gift of God.
“For god so loved the world…” And it is not God’s will to condemn. And it is God’s desire to save the whole world. But instead of struggling so hard to get people to believe in Jesus, perhaps we should pray much harder for God (the Holy Spirit) to bring people to a spiritual rebirth so then the belief (faith) in Jesus that the Holy Spirit gives them may actually save them for eternity.