John 3:16

Original Koine Greek (1st century)

       Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
Houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho theos ton kosmon, hōste ton huion ton monogenē edōken, hina pas ho pisteuōn eis auton mē apolētai all᾽ echē zōēn aiōnion.

Latin Vulgate (4th century)

Sic enim Deus dilexit mundum, ut Filium suum unigenitum daret: ut omnis qui credit in eum, non pereat, sed habeat vitam æternam.

Context

In Exodus 4:22, the Israelites as a people are called “my firstborn son” by God using the singular form. In John, the focus shifts to the person of Jesus as representative of that title. The verse is part of the New Testament narrative in the third chapter of John in the discussion at Jerusalem between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is called a “ruler of the Jews”. (v. 1) After speaking of the necessity of a man being born againbefore he could “see the kingdom of God”, (v. 3) Jesus spoke also of “heavenly things” (v. 11–13) and of salvation (v. 14–17) and the condemnation (v. 18–19) of those that do not believe in Jesus. “14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:14–15) Note that verse 15 is nearly identical to the latter part of John 3:16.

Interpretations

Recent translation scholarship has struggled most with the Greek adverb οὕτως (houtos) which traditionally has been simply translated as “so” as in “so loved” in the KJV.

Theologians Gundry and Howell[4] believe that the sense and syntax of the Greek Οὕτως…ὥστε make it likely that the author of the Gospel of John is emphasizing both (a) the degree to which God loved the world as well as (b) the manner in which God chose to express that love—by sending his only son. Gundry and Howell write that the Οὕτως term more frequently refers to the manner in which something is done (see BDAG 741–42 s.v. οὕτω/οὕτως). However, they add that the ὥστε clause that follows Οὕτως involves the indicative—meaning that it stresses an actual but usually unexpected result. They conclude that the sense and syntax of the Greek construction here focuses on the nature of God’s love, addressing its mode, intensity, and extent. Accordingly, it emphasizes the greatness of the gift God has given.

There are other scholars agreeing with this assessment. “The ‘so’ (houtos) is an adverb of degree which points toward the clause which follows and here serves to express the idea of infinity, a love that is limitless, that is fully adequate.”[5] “The Greek construction…emphasizes the intensity of the love.”[6]

CHRYS. Having said, Even so must the Son of man be lifted up, alluding to His death; lest His hearer should be cast down by His words, forming some human notion of Him, and thinking of His death as an evil, He corrects this by saying, that He who was given up to death was the Son of God, and that His death would be the source of life eternal; So God loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life; as if He said, Marvel not that I must be lifted up, that you may be saved: for so it seems good to the Father, who has so loved you, that He has given His Son to suffer for ungrateful and careless servants. The text, God so loved the world, shows intensity of love. For great indeed and infinite is the distance between the two. He who is without end, or beginning of existence, Infinite Greatness, loved those who were of earth and ashes, creatures laden with sins innumerable. And the act which springs from the love is equally indicative of its vastness. For God gave not a servant, or an Angel, or an Archangel, but His Son. Again, had He had many sons, and given one, this would have been a very great gift; but now He has given His Only Begotten Son.

HILARY; If it were only a creature given up for the sake of a creature, such a poor and insignificant loss were no great evidence of love. They must be precious things which prove our love, great things must evidence its greatness. God, in love to the world, gave His Son, not an adopted Son, but His own, even His Only Begotten. Here is proper Sonship, birth, truth: no creation, no adoption, no lie: here is the test of love and charity, that God sent His own and only begotten Son to save the world.

THEOPHYL As He said above, that the Son of man came down from heaven, not meaning that His flesh did come down from heaven, on account of the unity of person in Christ, attributing to man what belonged to God: so now conversely what belongs to man, he assigns to God the Word. The Son of God was impassible; but being one in respect of person with man who was passable, the Son is said to be given up to death, inasmuch as He truly suffered, not in His own nature, but in His own flesh. From this death follows an exceeding great and incomprehensible benefit: viz. that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. The Old Testament promised to those who obey obeyed it, length of days: the Gospel promises life eternal, and imperishable.

BEDE; Note here, that the same which he before said of the Son of man, lifted up on the cross, he repeats of the only begotten Son of God: viz. That whosoever believes in Him, &c. For the same our Maker and Redeemer, who was Son of God before the world was, was made at the end of the world the Son of man; so that He who by the power of His Godhead had created us to enjoy the happiness of an endless life, the same restored us to the life we have lost by taking our human frailty upon Him.

ALCUIN. Truly through the Son of God shall the world have life; for no other cause came He into the world, except to save the world. God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

AUG. For why is He called the Savior of the world, but because He saves the world? The physician, so far as his will is concerned, heals the sick. If the sick despises or will not observe the directions of the physician, he destroys himself.

CHRYS. Because however He says this, slothful men in the multitude of their sins, and excess of carelessness, abuse God’s mercy, and say, There is no hell, no punishment; God remits us all our sins. But let us remember, that there are two advents of Christ; one past, the other to come. The former was, not to judge but to pardon us: the latter will be, not to pardon but to judge us. It is of the former that He says, I have not come to judge the world. Because He is merciful, instead of judgment, He grants an internal remission of all sins by baptism; and even after baptism opens to us the door of repentance, which had He not done all had been lost; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. Afterwards, however, there follows something about the punishment of unbelievers, to warn us against flattering ourselves that we can sin with impunity. Of the unbeliever He says, ‘he is judged already.’ – But first He says, He that believes in Him is not judged. He who believes, He says, not who inquires. But what if his life be impure? Paul very strongly declares that such are not believers: They confess, he says, that they know God, but in works deny Him. That is to say, Such will not be judged for their belief, but will receive a heavy punishment for their works, though unbelief will not be charged against them.

ALCUIN. He who believes in Him, and cleaves to Him as a member to the head, will not be condemned.

AUG. What did you expect Him to say of him who believed not, except that he is condemned. Yet mark His words: He that believes not is condemned already. The Judgment has not appeared, but it is already given. For the Lord knows who are His; who are awaiting the crown, and who the fire.

CHRYS. Or the meaning is, that disbelief itself is the punishment of the impenitent: inasmuch as that is to be without light, and to be without light is of itself the greatest punishment. Or He is announcing what is to be. Though a murderer be not yet sentenced by the Judge, still his crime has already condemned him. In like manner he who believes not, is dead, even as Adam, on the day that he ate of the tree, died.

GREG. Or thus: In the last judgment some perish without being judged, of whom it is here said, He that believes not is condemned already. For the day of judgment does not try those who for unbelief are already banished from the sight of a discerning judge, are under sentence of damnation; but those, who retaining the profession of faith, have no works to show suitable to that profession. For those who have not kept even the sacraments of faith, do not even hear the curse of the Judge at the last trial. They have already, in the darkness of their unbelief, received their sentence, and are not thought worthy of being convicted by the rebuke of Him whom they had despised Again; For an earthly sovereign, in the government of his state, has a different rule of punishment, in the case of the disaffected subject, and the foreign rebel. In the former case he consults the civil law; but against the enemy he proceeds at once to war, and repays his malice with the punishment it deserves, without regard to law, inasmuch as he who never submitted to law, has no claim to suffer by the law.

ALCUIN. He then gives the reason why he who believes not is condemned, viz. because he believes not in the name of the only begotten Son of God. For in this name alone is there salvation. God has not many sons who can save; He by whom He saves is the Only Begotten.

AUG. Where then do we place baptized children? Amongst those who believe? This is acquired for them by the virtue of the Sacrament, and the pledges of the sponsors. And by this same rule we reckon those who are not baptized, among those who believe not.

  « Dieu a tellement aimé le monde qu’Il a donné son Fils unique » ; c’est le grand passage de l’Ancien Testament au Nouveau Testament qui est dit là. Dieu aime le monde, c’est-à-dire l’humanité : on le savait déjà dans l’Ancien Testament ; c’était même la grande découverte du peuple d’Israël. La grande nouveauté du Nouveau Testament, c’est le don du Fils pour le salut de tous les hommes.

« Dieu a tant aimé le monde qu’Il a donné son Fils unique afin que quiconque croit en lui ne se perde pas, mais obtienne la vie éternelle. » Si je comprends bien, il suffit de croire en lui pour être sauvé. Voilà la grande nouvelle de l’évangile, et de celui de Jean en particulier ; voici ce qu’il dit dans le Prologue : « Mais à ceux qui l’ont reçu, à ceux qui croient en son nom, il a donné de pouvoir devenir enfants de Dieu. » (Jn 1, 12). Et encore un peu plus loin au chapitre 3, Jean rapporte cette parole de Jésus : « Celui qui croit au Fils a la vie éternelle » (Jn 3, 36 // 6, 47 )

            Et quand il dit « vie éternelle », Jésus évoque autre chose que la vie biologique, bien sûr, il parle de cette autre dimension de la vie qu’est la vie de l’Esprit en nous, celle qui nous a été insufflée au jour de notre Baptême. (Jn 5, 24 ; 11, 26) ; pour lui, c’est cela le salut. Être sauvé, au sens biblique, c’est vivre en paix avec soi et avec les autres, c’est vivre en frères des hommes et en fils de Dieu. Pour cela, il suffit, nous dit Jésus, de nous tourner vers lui. Pour pouvoir être en permanence inspiré par son Esprit qui nous souffle des comportements de frères et de fils.

Pour parler à la manière de la Bible, on dira : « Il suffit de lever les yeux vers Jésus pour être sauvé. » C’est une nouvelle extraordinaire, si on veut bien la prendre au sérieux ! Il nous suffit de nous tourner vers lui, et d’accepter de le laisser transformer nos cœurs de pierre en cœurs de chair.

Pourquoi ? Parce que sur le visage du crucifié, qui donne sa vie librement, l’humanité découvre enfin le vrai visage du Dieu de tendresse et de pardon, à l’opposé du Dieu dominateur et vengeur que nous imaginons parfois malgré nous. « Qui m’a vu a vu le Père » dit Jésus à ses disciples dans le même évangile de Jean (Jn 14, 9).

La seule chose qui nous est demandée, c’est de croire en Dieu qui sauve pour être sauvés, de croire en Dieu qui libère pour être libérés. Il nous suffit de lever vers Jésus un regard de foi pour être sauvés. C’est ce regard de foi, et lui seul, qui permet à Jésus de nous sauver. Et là, on ne peut pas ne pas penser à toutes les fois dans les évangiles où Jésus relève quelqu’un en lui disant « Ta foi t’a sauvé ».1

Cette annonce de Jésus, dans son entretien avec Nicodème, Jean la médite au pied de la Croix. C’est là que lui revient en mémoire une prophétie de Zacharie qui annonçait le salut et la conversion de Jérusalem à la suite de la mort d’un homme aimé comme un « fils unique » : Dieu dit « Je répandrai sur la maison de David et sur l’habitant de Jérusalem un esprit de bonne volonté et de supplication. Alors ils lèveront les yeux vers moi, celui qu’ils ont transpercé… Ils pleureront sur lui comme sur un fils unique… Ce jour-là une source jaillira pour  la maison de David et les habitants de Jérusalem en remède au péché et à la souillure. » (Za 12, 10).

Je pense que, pour saint Jean, cette prophétie de Zacharie est une lumière très importante ; quand il médite sur le mystère du salut accompli par Jésus-Christ, c’est à elle qu’il se réfère. On la retrouve dans l’Apocalypse : « Voici, il vient au milieu des nuées, et tout œil le verra, et ceux mêmes  qui l’ont percé ; toutes les tribus de la terre seront en deuil à cause de lui. »  (Ap 1, 7).

Et, du coup, nous comprenons mieux l’expression « fils unique » : « Dieu a tellement aimé le monde qu’Il a donné son Fils unique ». Déjà, au tout début de l’évangile, Jean en avait parlé : « Le Verbe s’est fait chair et il a habité parmi nous et nous avons vu sa gloire, cette gloire que, Fils unique plein de grâce et de vérité, il tient du Père ». (Jn 1,14). Il est l’unique parce qu’il est la plénitude de la grâce et de la vérité ; il est l’unique, aussi, au sens de Zacharie, parce qu’il est l’unique source de vie éternelle ; il suffit de lever les yeux vers lui pour être sauvé ; il est l’unique, enfin, parce que c’est lui qui prend la tête de l’humanité nouvelle. Là encore je retrouve Paul : le projet de Dieu c’est que l’humanité tout entière soit réunie en Jésus et vive de sa vie qui est l’entrée dans la communion d’amour de la Trinité. C’est cela qu’il appelle le salut, ou la vie éternelle ; c’est-à-dire la vraie vie ; non pas une vie après la vie, mais une autre dimension de la vie, dès ici-bas. Ailleurs saint Jean le dit bien : « La vie éternelle, c’est connaître Dieu et son envoyé, Jésus-Christ » (Jn 17, 3) ; et connaître Dieu, c’est savoir qu’Il est  miséricorde.

Et c’est cela le sens de l’expression « échapper au jugement », c’est-à-dire à la séparation : il nous suffit de croire à la miséricorde de Dieu pour y entrer. Je prends un exemple : si j’ai blessé quelqu’un, et que je crois qu’il peut me pardonner, je vais me précipiter dans ses bras et nous pourrons nous réconcilier ; mais si je ne crois pas qu’il puisse me pardonner, je vais rester avec le poids de mon remords ; comme dit le psaume 51/50 : « ma faute est devant moi sans relâche » ; c’est devant moi qu’elle est sans relâche ; mais il nous suffit de sortir de nous-mêmes et de croire au pardon de Dieu pour être pardonnés. 

          Il nous suffit donc de croire pour être sauvés mais nous ne serons pas sauvés malgré nous ; nous restons libres de ne pas croire, mais alors nous nous condamnons nous-mêmes : « Celui qui ne croit pas est déjà jugé, du fait qu’il n’a pas cru au nom du Fils unique de Dieu. » Mais « Celui qui croit en lui échappe au jugement » ; c’est bien ce qu’a fait le bon larron : sa vie n’avait rien d’exemplaire mais il a levé les yeux sur celui que les hommes ont transpercé ; et en réponse, il a entendu la phrase que nous rêvons tous d’entendre « Aujourd’hui même tu seras avec moi dans le Paradis ».

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Note

1 – Le mot « croire », Chouraqui le traduit par « adhérer » : il ne s’agit donc pas d’une opinion ; croire, chez Jean, a un sens très fort ; adhérer à Jésus, c’est être greffé sur lui, inséparable de lui. Ce n’est pas un hasard si c’est le même Jean qui évoque l’image de la vigne et des sarments. Saint Paul, lui, emploie l’image de la tête et des membres.

Complément 

– Une fois de plus, Paul est très proche de Jean : « Si, de ta bouche, tu confesses que Jésus est Seigneur et si, dans ton cœur, tu crois que Dieu l’a ressuscité des morts, tu seras sauvé. » (Romains 10, 9).

References

Gundry, Robert H. and Russell W. Howell. “The Sense and Syntax of John 3:14–17 with Special Reference to the Use of Οὕτως…ὥστε in John 3:16.” NovT 41 [1999]: 24–39).

^ George Allen Turner and Julius R. Mantey, The Gospel according to John (The Evangelical Commentary on the Bible 4; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.) 98.

^ D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Leicester: Inter-Varsity/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 204.

^ Rudolph Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to St John (HTCNT; New York: Herder, 1968) 398.

^ Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (i–xii) (AB Garden City: Doubleday, 1966) 129.

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