Every year, BibleGateway.com, which bills itself “the world’s most visited Christian website,” publishes a list of the most read Bible verses on its website. Every year, the list includes a number of well-known and beloved verses, such as Proverbs 3:5–6; Psalm 23:4; 1 Corinthians 13:4; Romans 12:2; Philippians 4:6; Romans 8:28; Philippians 4:13; and Jeremiah 29:11. But it will probably come as no surprise that, at least for the last three years, the most read verse on BibleGateway.com is perhaps the most loved verse in the Bible: John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Bruce Milne calls John 3:16 “the best known and most often preached text in the entire Bible” and notes that “it is a masterly and moving summary of the gospel, cast in terms of the love of God.” Luther once called this verse “the Bible in miniature.”
I think few would dispute the claim that John 3:16 is the greatest verse in the Bible, for it indeed encapsulates the greatest truth in the Bible: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. As you survey this verse, which is the gospel in brief, it is easy to see why it is the greatest verse in the Bible. There are at least six reasons that this is so.
1. The greatest giver. First, this is the greatest verse because it tells us of the greatest giver. It begins, “For God.” The verse begins with God because the gospel begins with God. God is the great giver; the gospel is a reality because God chose to freely give. The Bible makes it clear that, apart from God’s initiative, we would be without hope. Without God’s initiative, we are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). The dead have no ability to do anything, and our sin renders us utterly incapable of performing any spiritual activity that might earn us merit with God. Ephesians 2 further tells us that our sin alienates us from God (v. 12). In order for us to be brought into relationship with him, he had to do something. And he did do something.
2. The greatest motive. Second, this is the greatest verse because it tells us of the greatest motive. It tells us that God “so loved.” The motive behind the gospel was love. God loved those who were dead in trespasses and sins, who were alienated from him. To appreciate the full weight of this love, we need to understand just how unloveable we were. If you think that you were not that bad, you may fall into the trap of thinking, “Of course God loved me! What’s not to love?” But hear the testimony of the New Testament on your fallen state before God:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
The consistent testimony of Scripture is that there is nothing in us that God found loveable—and yet he freely chose to love us anyway! This love is not the warm, fuzzy feeling that you might feel for a cute puppy, but is a love that is based on deliberate choice and consideration. Though there was nothing to be loved, God chose to freely love those who had rebelled against him.
3. The greatest need. Third, this is the greatest verse because it reveals the greatest need. God so loved “the world.” When you read “the world,” do not think primarily of the number of people whom God loved, but of the character of those whom he loved. God loved the world—the world that had rejected him and rebelled against him. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Everything that the world ever did was in rebellion to God, and he would have been perfectly just to have allowed the world to reap the consequences of its sin, which is to perish, to “be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). “The world” was in dire straits, and it needed an act of outrageous mercy to deliver it. And so God loved the world!
4. The greatest gift. Fourth, this is the greatest verse because it tells us of the greatest gift. God so loved the world “that he gave his only Son.” His love was not a nebulous feeling; it drove him to act. His love was giving love; it was sacrificial love. His love drove him to give the greatest gift imaginable: “his only Son.” In what way did he give his only Son? In at least two ways.
First, he gave his Son in what Christians call the incarnation, which is celebrated every year at Christmas. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who existed from eternity past in absolute glory in heaven. In the incarnation, he took upon himself the form of a human being. He lived on earth as a human, feeling our pain and sharing our experiences in every way, except one: He never sinned.
Second, and more specifically, God gave his Son in death. Jesus was crucified for those whom he came to save. He died as a substitute for the world that God loved, “in order that the world might be saved through him” (v. 17). His death was that of Roman crucifixion (vv. 14–15). Death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). It is not a natural part of the human experience, but is an enemy that has intruded into humanity through sin. Because he never sinned, Jesus ought never to have died—but he died in the place of those whom he came to save. He died the death that we deserve so that we can obtain the life that he offers.
5. The greatest requirement. Fifth, this is the greatest verse because it speaks of the greatest requirement. What is required to be saved? It is simple: “that whoever believes in him.” The glory of the gospel is that it is so simple: You need only believe. God has done everything that needed to be done; we need only believe what he has already done. Do you believe that you are a sinner in need of salvation? Do you believe that God, motivated by love, took the initiative to provide that salvation? Do you believe that he sent his Son to earth as a human being? Do you believe that Jesus lived a perfect live and died a sacrificial death so that you can be saved? If you believe this, you will be saved (Acts 16:31).
6. The greatest promise. Sixth, and finally, this is the greatest verse because it reveals the greatest promise: “should not perish but have eternal life.” Every human being has an eternal destiny. The death that we die on earth is temporary. “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement” (John 5:28–29). In the words of John 3:16, some will “perish” while others will inherit “eternal life.” The difference is belief. Those who believe in the Son will receive “eternal life,” while those who do not believe will “perish.”
What will be your destiny? There are only two choices: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Will you believe and inherit eternal life, or will you reject God’s free offer of salvation in Jesus Christ and perish?