For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
John 3:16 is undoubtedly the most famous verse in the Bible, being seen everywhere from religious literature to T-shirts to sporting events. This key verse deserves great attention, especially in its greater context. Many who know John 3:16 would actually be surprised by the surrounding verses.
Jesus Christ was explaining to a ruler of the Jews about how a human being could enter the promised Kingdom of God (John 3:3). Though Nicodemus knew the Holy Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament), he was having trouble understanding Christ’s references to what we know as the Messiah’s first coming. The Old Testament prophecies of a conquering Messiah were in the forefront of the Jews’ minds, though we now see that those prophecies won’t be fulfilled until Christ’s return—His second coming.
Christ compared His crucifixion—being “lifted up” on a stake or cross—with an event that occurred in the time of Moses (John 3:14-15). During a terrible plague of poisonous snakes, God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on the top of a pole and to tell those who were bitten to look at this pole (Numbers 21:8-9). Obeying the command to look at the detestable, dreaded snake was intended to demonstrate the snake-bite victim’s belief in God to heal him. The bronze serpent was not supposed to be an idol (though it seems Israel later treated it that way—see 2 Kings 18:4 where King Hezekiah had to destroy it).
In the same way the snake-bite victims were doomed to death, sinful humanity is doomed to perish. But by giving His life on the dreaded cross, Jesus paid the penalty of sin and made it possible for those who believed in Him to be forgiven and given the opportunity for eternal life.
The following verses explain more fully what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. Instead of loving darkness to hide their evil deeds, believers come to the light—striving to reflect the light by living the way Jesus Christ did (John 3:20-21). This means repenting of evil deeds and dedicating ourselves to obeying God’s good and perfect laws.
For more about Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for us, see our article “Sacrifice of Jesus.”