There is little doubt that John 3:16 is the one passage in the entire Bible that is best known to all who claim to be Christians. “‘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.’” Three cardinal doctrines are present in this verse: (1) the depth of God’s love for a rebellious world; (2) that this love is demonstrated by the gift of His Son to the human race; and (3) that sinners who accept this Gift will not perish, but will receive eternal life.
Jesus tells us that God “gave” His Son to the human race. God did not lend His Son for some 33 or 34 years and then take Him back. The Gift is permanent, and the end result is everlasting life for those who open their hearts and accept this Gift. Ellen White informs us that “it was Satan’s purpose to bring about an eternal separation between God and man; but in Christ we become more closely united to God than if we had never fallen. In taking our nature, the Saviour has bound Himself to humanity by a tie that is never to be broken. Through the eternal ages He is linked with us. ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son.’ John 3:16. He gave Him not only to bear our sins, and to die as our sacrifice; He gave Him to the fallen race. To assure us of His immutable counsel of peace, God gave His only-begotten Son to become one of the human family, forever to retain His human nature.”2
Could there possibly be a greater demonstration of God’s love for our fallen race, and Jesus’ love as well, than the “forever-gift” of His Son? The mystery of this love was beyond the comprehension of Lucifer. “That the Son of God should come to this earth as a man filled him with amazement and with apprehension. He could not fathom the mystery of this great sacrifice. His selfish soul could not understand such love for the deceived race.”3 No wonder the apostle Paul cried out, “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:15, 16).
Purpose of the Gift
John follows Jesus’ famous statement in John 3:16 by stressing again God’s purpose in sending His eternal Gift, “‘For God did not send His Son into the world,’” Jesus said, “‘to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned’” (John 3:17, 18). The redeemed are freed from condemnation through God’s Gift, but this is not all. We are told that they are “more closely united to God”4 than if they had not fallen. How is this possible? There is no group of beings throughout the universe that has one of the Godhead as a member of their family except humanity. That puts the redeemed in a unique position. In fact, “those who in the strength of Christ overcome the great enemy of God and man will occupy a position in the heavenly courts above the angels who have never fallen.”5 It will take the redeemed the endless ages of eternity to fully understand and appreciate such love.
Jesus tells us in John 3:17 that it was not God’s purpose in giving His Son to the human family to condemn the world, but to save it. However, if one refuses His Gift, for all have the freedom of choice, there is no other option for God but condemnation, for He will bring the Great Controversy to a conclusion. This is stressed by Jesus in verse 18: “‘He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’” What is it about the name of the Son of God that brings such disaster as condemnation if one does not believe in it?
In the New Testament, especially the Gospels, many names are given to the Son of God. Jesus and Christ are seen most frequently in the Gospels, but He is also named “the Good Shepherd,” “the Bread of Life,” “the I AM,” “the Light of the world,” etc. But it is John who gives us the name of “the Son of God” that has true significance for this study. In Revelation 19, John describes the firefight between good and evil that brings human history, as we know it today, to its conclusion.
On one side is “the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies” (Rev. 19:19). They have been united by the deceptions of Satan to make war against Christ in the person of His faithful people.
On the other side is Christ. He is pictured riding a white horse, and He is followed by the armies of heaven. It is a verbal picture of a cavalry charge against the beast and his armies. As John describes the One who leads the armies of heaven, he says, “He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God” (vs. 13).
Upon reading the name given to the One riding the white horse, “The Word of God,” one’s mind goes back to the opening verse of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Is it possible that the name “The Word” is what is rejected by those mentioned by Jesus in Revelation 3:18, and as a result are condemned? If it is, what does this name communicate to the world?
The reader of the Gospel of John cannot help being impressed that the apostle is set on establishing Jesus’ divinity. One of the most obvious examples is his record of Jesus’ statement that He is the “‘I AM’” (John 8:58). In this recorded statement is a name that Jesus gave to Himself. As John preserved the record of Jesus’ words, he wrote a phrase translated as “‘I AM’” in English. This phrase combines the first person singular of the verb “to be” with the emphatic use of the personal pronoun, “I.” This Greek phrase is a transliteration of the Hebrew word YHWH, which is often translated into English as “Jehovah,” and is derived from the Hebrew verb translated as “to be.” Thus, Jesus claimed to be the God that the Hebrews worshiped. It is obvious that His hearers understood exactly what He was saying because in the next verse John tells us, “They took up stones to throw at Him” (vs. 59). In their eyes, Jesus, being a man, blasphemed. He claimed to be God.
John begins his Gospel with a statement on the divinity of Jesus by using the name given to Him in Revelation, “The Word of God.” As we have seen in John 1:1, “Word” is used three times: (1) “the Word” was already in existence at the very beginning; (2) “the Word” was associated with God; (3) “the Word” was God. The third of these three statements is rendered “and the Word was God” in the English translation, but in the Greek text it reads, “and God was the Word.”
This simple statement on divinity is not accepted by all. Some who claim to be Christians believe that Jesus is not divine. Rather, He is the Michael who is spoken of in the Bible, who is said, by them, to be the first being created and the first among the angels. This first created being, it is claimed, is perhaps Michael the archangel, but certainly not divine, nor equal with God.
The name Michael means, “Who is like God” In Daniel 12:1, Michael is introduced to Daniel as the great prince who takes care of his people. Archangel is made up of two words, archē, which is “beginning” in English and angelos, “angel.” Archē has two meanings, an active meaning and a passive meaning. If the word is used passively, Michael the archangel was brought into existence by a power out of and beyond himself. In other words, he was created. If the word is understood to be active, Michael was the originator of the angels. The New Testament makes it clear that all things were created by Jesus (John 1:3, 10; Col. 1:16, 17; Heb. 1:2, 3). Therefore, in summary: Michael, “Who is like God,” can, first of all, be understood to be Jesus, the great Prince. Then archangel, understood actively, means that Michael is the Creator or Originator of the angels.
The second point made by those who do not accept Jesus’ divinity is that Jesus is not equal with God. This position flies in the face of a clear and precise statement made by the apostle Paul: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (Phil. 2:5, 6).
Going back to “the Word” in John 1:1, as noted above, Word appears three times in this verse. Each time it is accompanied by a definite article. In the second of the three phrases contained in verse one—“the Word was with God”—the word God is also accompanied by an article. In the third phrase, however, there is no article with the word God. This is stimulating to a person who enjoys tinkering with Greek grammar.
According James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, there are 15 ways the Greek definite article can be used in a sentence.6 The fifth use of the 15 is to call attention to a proper name. In English, we seldom use the article in front of people’s names. But in Greek, the article is often used to emphasize the name. In John 1:1, the articles used in front of Word are present “to call special attention to a proper name,” as Brooks and Winbery put it.7 The articles are translated into English. The reason for this is to indicate also that the noun Word is monadic, that is to say, “the Word” in this verse “is the only such thing there is”—there is nothing else in existence like it.
The last thing that needs to be noted in John 1:1 is the structure of the sentence. All three phrases have a linking verb, that is, the verb “to be.” In a sentence that has the verb “to be,” the subject is in the nominate case, as is true with all sentences. But the noun that would function as the direct object in any other sentence, which would be in the accusative case, is in the nominative case. So, the subject is called a “subject nominative,” and the noun following the linking verb is called a “predicate nominative.”
If one of the two nouns accompanying a linking verb has a definite article and the other does not, the noun with the article is the subject of the sentence or phrase. An example is Luke’s comment about Elizabeth, the wife of Zachariah: “Elizabeth was barren” (Luke 1:7). The linking verb comes first, was in English. Elizabeth and barren, or sterile, are words connected by the linking verb. Elizabeth has a definite article before it, but the word barren does not have a definite article. Therefore, Elizabeth is the subject of the phrase.
If two words connected by a linking verb have definite articles, either one may be the subject and the other would be the predicate nominative. For example, Jesus says in Matthew 6:22, “‘the lamp of the body is the eye.’” Both lamp and eye have a definite article in front of them, so either one could be the subject. The sentence could read as it is translated into English, “the lamp of the body is the eye,” or it could be translated as “the eye is the lamp of the body.” Lamp and eye are interchangeable; they would be considered identical.
Sentence Structure of John 1:1
Again, Word appears in all three phrases in John 1:1. Each time it has a definite article, thus indicating it is a proper name, as John says in Revelation 19:13, “His name is called The Word of God.” In the second phrase of John 1:1, God also has a definite article, although it is not translated into English. The article before God indicates that God also is a proper name. In the third phrase, however, God appears without an article.
In the Greek text, translated “and God was the Word,” because Word has a definite article and God does not, Word is made the subject of the phrase. Therefore it reads in our English Bibles, “and the Word was God.” The absence of an article with God has left some with the idea that the Word was not equal with God. They say that the Word is a prominent person in God’s government, perhaps the highest among His created creatures, possibly next to God Himself as far as power goes, but the Word is not divine. If God had an article, it would be crystal clear that this phrase with a linking verb is stating equality between the Word and God.
In this third phrase in John 1:1, a couple of fine points in Greek grammar must be considered. First, as has been noted, the word God in the second phrase has an article before it, thus indicating that God is a proper name. What is interesting is that throughout the four Gospels, any given name may appear with an article and then without an article. For example, in John 1:28 there is an article before the name John, i.e., John the Baptist. But in John 1:32, there is no article before John’s name.
The second point is absolutely crucial in understanding that the third phrase is a statement about the divinity of Jesus. God in the third phrase is a proper name although it has no definite article. The word is identified as a proper name in the second phrase, where it does have a definite article. Like John, as noted above, a proper name may appear with a definite article or without a definite article. Concerning the use of the article with proper names or proper names appearing without an article, Robertson says, “Here the article is used or not at the will of the writer.”8
Robertson now helps us understand the absolutely crucial point concerning the structure of a sentence or phrase with a linking verb that is missed by so many. He says, “In a word, then, when the article occurs with subject (or the subject is a personal pronoun or proper name) and predicate, both are definite, treated as identical, one and the same, and interchangeable.”9 Hence, when we have two nominatives with the article, one as the subject and the other one as the predicate, the two words are equal.
Robertson’s statement directly addresses the third phrase in John 1:1. God does not have an article, but it is a proper name. Word does have an article, and therefore is made the subject of the phrase. But because God is a proper name, it can be the subject, as it appears in the Greek text, “and God was the Word.” Although it does not have an article, because it is a proper name, both God and Word—which does have an article—are definite. The two words are to be “treated as identical,” they are to be looked upon as “one and the same,” and they are “interchangeable.” So the last phrase in John 1:1 can read, “and the Word was God” or “and God was the Word.” This insight states the divinity of “the Word.” “The Word” is God in reality.
This crucial point of doctrine was understood in the early church and is reflected in a variant reading in John 1:18. This verse reads as follows in the NKJV: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” This is the way this verse reads in later Greek manuscripts. The earliest manuscripts read, “The only begotten God” instead of “Son.”
Sometime in the process of copying the Gospel of John, a scribe changed God to Son. We do not know why. It may have been an innocent mistake by a sleepy scribe, or it could have been done by an Arian Christian who did not accept the divinity of Jesus. This change in wording has found its way down through the centuries in the line of manuscripts that formed the basis for the King James Bible.
How do these technical points on grammar impact what Jesus states in John 3:16 to 18? God sent His Son into the world as a permanent gift that we might find salvation in this wonderful Gift. Those who believe in Him will not face condemnation but have the gift of eternal life. We know from the study of Scripture that some will face condemnation because there are sins in their lives that have not been confessed and forsaken. Jesus speaks of these in Matthew 7:22 and 23: “‘Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”’”
But there are those who will be condemned for the reason stated by Jesus in John 3:18, “‘Because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’” And what is Jesus’ name? It is “The Word of God” (Rev. 19:13). And what is the significance of the name “The Word”? We are told in John 1:1 that “the Word” is identical to “God.” “The Word” and “God” are “one and the same.” John 1:1 tells us that “the Word” is divine. Those who believe that this name identifies Deity, and are willing to accept what this word means as it is used to identify Jesus, will not be condemned, but have the gift of eternal life.
George E. Rice, Ph.D. is a former Professor of New Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Associate Director of the Ellen G. White Estate, and Pastor.
NOTES AND REFERENCES