For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16
What? The favorite memory verse of Evangelical Christianity has been misunderstood all this time! What are we to do!? Thankfully, the error and misuse involved here is actually mostly harmless, so take a deep breath, have a beer or whatever, and continue reading once that initial panic has subsided 🙂
The first mistake: awkward grammar
I’ve heard this mostly from music team leaders during worship services at non-liturgical churches. You know the drill, the band has to change the music on their stands or something, so the leader half-preaches-half-prays for a minute to buy them some time. And then out comes some strangely paraphrased Scripture quotes that sound real nice but actually misinterpret them: “God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son…” Actually, that’s not what the word “so” means here. Rather than “so much” it actually means “thus” or “how.” A few translations (like the NET) render this more understandably “This is the way God loved the world…” It’s not about the quantity of God’s love, but the method of God’s love. As I said, it’s not a huge mistake; this shouldn’t rock anyone’s world. But do please try to get it right!
The second mistake: theological imprecision
There’s actually a second issue in how this verse is often translated. Many Bibles describe Jesus here as God’s “one and only Son.” A more accurate translation is “only begotten Son” (kudos to the NASB, KJV, Douay-Rheims, and Young’s for getting this right). Again, the difference between “one and only” and “only begotten” is minimal in terms of English language clarity. The reason “only begotten” is better is because “begotten” is a key term in Christian theology, describing the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus is not just any ole’ human, part of creation, he’s also the eternally-begotten Son of the Father. His sonship is one of being begotten – he shares the same substance as the Father. In other words, Jesus is God too. This is a different kind of sonship than what we have; we’re adopted into God’s family. Jesus has always been a part of it.