Was Joseph’s bloodline under a curse?

Jehoiachin-Jeconiah‘Tis the season to be reading the nativity passages found in Matthew and Luke. One of the more perplexing features of these narrative sections is the presence of two different genealogies for Jesus in Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 when we might expect to find matching records. Recently, one of our church members asked for my thoughts on an interpretation that addresses these genealogical anomalies and since I thought others would be interested in the discussion I decided to share it here.

First an overview of the interpretation in question followed by my (emailed) response to the inquisitor.

Jeremiah 22:30 records a curse on King Jehoiachin (referred to as “Coniah” in Jer 22:28 and “Jeconiah” in Mat 1:11-12). The pronouncement reads “Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man down childless / A man who will not prosper in his days / For no man of his descendants will prosper / Sitting on the throne of David / Or ruling again in Judah’.” Interestingly, it turns out that Jeconiah is included in Matthew’s genealogy but omited from Luke’s, a variant some suggest is due to the Jeconiah curse. The thinking goes something like this:

  • The reason we have two genealogies is that the gospels record two ancestral lines: Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph but Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Mary.
  • The respective genealogies are identical from Abraham–David. At that point, Matthew moves from David to Solomon but Luke moves from David to Nathan. Jeconiah descended from Solomon (not Nathan) which is why he appears in Matthew (1:11-12) but not in Luke.
  • Jeconiah was cursed to be without a Davidic heir. Jesus is a Davidic heir through Joseph and Mary; however, the virgin birth preserved Jesus from Jeconiah’s curse which would have been passed down through Joseph but not Mary.

[Name]: I spent a good part of my morning re-reading the paper(s) you passed on to me and doing some additional reading on my own. I feel like my head is about to explode and I still don’t think I can offer much clarity.  In short, several interpretations exist concerning the differences between Matthew & Luke’s genealogies, but I’m not convinced the differences are due to the curse on Jeconiah in Jer 22:30 because:

  1. If descent from Jeconiah disqualified someone from being the promised Messiah, we have to explain why Matthew would include Jeconiah in the Messiah’s genealogy at all. Remember, there would be a period of time when Matthew might be the only gospel account people had access to—they wouldn’t have been able to compare Matthew to Luke—and it must be that Matthew saw no problem with presenting the Messiah as descended from Jeconiah. Also, since Matthew’s gospel is more “Jewish” in nature, I would expect Matthew to be the one to drop Jeconiah from the genealogy on account of an OT curse.
  2. It’s doubtful that Luke’s genealogy is actually a record of Mary’s line since we have no clear indication of that in the text. Anyone who read Luke on its own would naturally assume that the genealogy is through Joseph since he’s the parent who’s mentioned at the start. The comment in 3:23 that Jesus was “as supposed, the son of Joseph” is an unlikely way to point to Mary’s genealogy (as some have inferred); the simplest explanation is that Luke was reminding his readers that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit & was the son of God (Lk 1:35). Luke wasn’t alluding to any problems in the Davidic line.
  3. We may need to allow for a little poetic license (i.e. hyperbole) in the Jeconiah curse in Jer 22:30. First, the curse says “Write this man down childless” but Jeconiah obviously wasn’t childless (1Chr 3:17). Second, the curse may be limited in scope since Jeconiah “would not prosper in his days.” A limited curse makes good sense contextually since many people would have preferred to see Jeconiah restored to the throne in place of Zedekiah his uncle whom the Babylonians installed. Third, a narrow time frame for the curse makes sense because the curse would be oriented to the coming exile. The curse was a promise that no one in Jeremiah’s day (young or old) would see a rightful Davidic king on the throne again because Jerusalem would be conquered & the people would go into exile.

The Jeconiah curse is a good observation and it’s worth considering if it played a part in the way Jesus’ genealogy was presented in the Gospels. However, the more I look into it the more convinced I am that we should consider other options. I’m afraid this only muddies the water but it’s the best I can do at this point.

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you on this. Keep reading! –JM

That is, literally, not the way language works

Boy 1 & 2 are reading through a textbook on worldviews which includes this, uh, embellishment of Gen 1:31.

After creating humans and imbuing them with purpose, God said it was “very good” (v 31). In Hebrew, the phrase is “meod tob.” It is almost impossible to exaggerate the resonant awesomeness this phrase is meant to convey. It literally means “exceedingly, heartbreakingly, abundantly, richly, loudly, immeasurably good in a festive, generous, happy, intelligent, charming, splendid way.

To paraphrase Alice’s response to Humpty Dumpty: that’s a great deal to make one phrase mean.

An egghead says “sorites”

Perhaps this isn’t the best time to profess my love, admiration, and (occasional) envy of academic elites. That kind of sentimentality could get you tarred and feathered in these days of fervent populism. But as Dave Shive said after being told that his eclectic theology would cripple his chances for fame and renown: What have I got to lose?

Admittedly, we are neither worse if we do not attain an academic degree, nor the better if we do. Even so, ignorance is no virtue for the Christian which is at least one reason why we need our egghead brothers and sisters. Their knowledge lends precision to our understanding and stokes our love for the Scriptures and, ultimately, God.

Consider 2 Pet 1:5-7 and its seemingly random list of Christian character traits:

Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence,
[by] your faith supply moral excellence,
and [by] your moral excellence, knowledge,
and [by] your knowledge, self-control,
and [by] your self-control, perseverance,
and [by] your perseverance, godliness,
and [by] your godliness, brotherly kindness,
and [by] your brotherly kindness, love.{NAS}

Most of us probably read this passage and find ourselves unable to get beyond two related questions: (a) why these characteristics? (b) what, if any, logic lies behind the chain? Speaking for myself, I found that my inability to discern any meaningful significance beyond the bare text actually dissuaded me from lingering over the text.

Enter Richard Bauckham and his research in NT and early Christian literature. His expertise uncovered so many features of the text that I felt as if I had been granted access to a previously hidden venue for meditation:

  • on the structure — 2Pet 1:5-7 uses a literary device known as sorites, a set of statements that progress, step by step, to a climactic conclusion. Not only was it “widely used and recognized in the early Christian period” but “there is some evidence that a catalogue of virtues beginning with pistis (“faith”) and ending with agape (“love”) was an established Christian form.”
  • on the significance of faith being listed first — By occupying first place in the list, faith represents “the root of all the virtues.” [Me: I couldn’t help but notice that Peter already referred to our faith as something we have received (1:1), which means that even the root of our virtue has its origin outside of us.]
  • on the (dis)placement of knowledge — “. . . in the non-Christian lists [knowledge] was usually first or last in the list [i.e. the root or the climax of all the virtues]. In most Christian lists it has been displaced from these positions by “faith” and “love.”
  • on the significance of love being listed last  — “the last, climactic term of a sorites is not of equal weight with the others” which means that Peter has preserved “very faithfully the place of love in Jesus’ ethical teaching, as the virtue which encompasses, coordinates, and perfects the others.”
  • on similarities with non-Christian philosophy — Although some of the virtues are found in Stoicism, in Peter’s list they “are not only rooted in Christian faith but also encompassed by Christian love. The borrowings testify to the fact that Christian ethics cannot be totally discontinuous with the moral ideals of non-Christian society, but the new context in which they are set ensures that they are subordinated to and to be interpreted by reference to the central Christian ethical principle of love.”

So if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and befriend a Christian egghead even if vicariously through a book. Though shy and perhaps socially awkward, the best of them labor as technicians for the soul.

Sin & sympathy

A few weeks ago I said goodbye to a biblical caricature. Our Sunday morning Bible study had brought us to Jeremiah 37-38, usually noted for Jeremiah’s brief imprisonment in a muddy cistern during the latter years of the last king of Judah. The king was Zedekiah and until recently he was a cookie-cutter character of no more than two dimensions–one more rotten king in a long list of rotten monarchs from Israel’s divided kingdom.

In Jer 37:1-2 we’re told that:

. . . neither [Zedekiah] nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the LORD that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.

And 2 Chron 36:12 corroborates:

[Zedekiah] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD.

If statements like these were all we had to go on it would be easy to assume–as I have–that Zedekiah was just another arrogant, hard-hearted rebel who ignored the word of the Lord. But the picture of Zedekiah we find in Jeremiah 37-38 requires we leave room for the fear factor in his disobedience:

37:17 — King Zedekiah sent for him and received him. The king questioned him secretly in his house and said, “Is there any word from the LORD?”

38:5 — King Zedekiah said, “Behold, [Jeremiah] is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.”

38:16 — Then King Zedekiah swore secretly to Jeremiah, “As the LORD lives, who made our souls, I will not put you to death or deliver you into the hand of these men who seek your life.”

38:19 —  King Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, lest I be handed over to them and they deal cruelly with me.”

38:24 — Then Zedekiah said to Jeremiah, “Let no one know of these words, and you shall not die.

In A History of Israel, John Bright ties these biblical strands together and presents us with a more complex, if not sympathetic, character:

Nor was Zedekiah the man to guide his country’s destinies in so grave an hour. Though he seems to have been well intentioned (cf. Jer. 37:17-21; 38:7-28), he was a weakling unable to stand up to his nobles (ch. 38:5), and fearful of popular opinion (v. 19). Furthermore, his position was ambiguous in that his nephew Jehoiachin was still regarded as the legitimate king by many of his subjects and, apparently, by the Babylonians as well. . . . The ambiguity of Zedekiah’s position undoubtedly undercut whatever authority he may have had. (328)

This view of Zedekiah is what the French call nuanced. [His erudition is astounding. -Shive]

But seriously, reconsidering Zedekiah offered some good reminders:

  1. Our sin isn’t always simple. Selfishness, deceit, doubt, pride–on their own any of these impulses are potent catalysts for sinful behavior. But the spiritual heart is a complex organ and often lies beyond our ability to diagnose (Jer 17:9), especially when our examination consists of little more than a passing glance.
  2. Sin is no less damnable when it solicits our sympathy. While we might consider Zedekiah’s fear of man to be a mitigating factor in his disobedience, the divine pronouncement is unswerving: Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This isn’t to suggest that God judges all men the same (Jer 17:10), but that all sin is equally damning no matter the circumstances.
  3. Sympathy can still be an appropriate response to sin. Although every sin leads to death not every sin requires the same treatment (Gal 6:1; Jude 22-23). The classic example is Prov 26:4-5 which offers two contrasting instructions on how to respond to a fool–don’t answer him (v4), give him an answer (v5)–leaving the reader to draw on wisdom for the appropriate action for the moment at hand. We might also consider that our monotonous mantras concerning another man’s sin betray our ignorance of the weakness of our own hearts. So I’ll just say I have a little more sympathy for Zedekiah these days.


Andy Stanley’s new sola

if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

By now you’ve probably heard about Andy Stanley’s latest theological faux pas in which he deduces from Acts 15 that “Peter, James, and Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from the Jewish Scriptures.” This, he claims, is proof that Christianity is able to “stand alone” without being “propped up” by the Old Testament.

Considering that the NT has some sixteen hundred quotes from and allusions to the OT (a conservative estimate) some find this claim more than problematic. In fairness, Stanley would have everyone know that he hasn’t changed his views on inspiration and inerrancy but that he has changed the methods behind his messaging. His emphasis on Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the OT was a reaction to the success he believes the new atheists have enjoyed by riding a new wave of biblical criticism. On Stanley’s assessment, many people today stumble unnecessarily over something in or about the Bible–especially when they come to the OT. So while traditional Christians find his detachment from the OT disturbing, Stanley assures us that this disassociation is liberating for those who can’t get past the “dynamic, worldview, and value system depicted in the story of ancient Israel.” In short, Stanley believes that to reach future generations Christians need to trade in a culturally adulterated sola Scriptura for an apostolic sola anastasis.

What shall we say to these things?

1. People will always have reason to stumble over the Christian faith.
I appreciate Stanley’s desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to the faith but a singular focus on Christ’s death and resurrection (“Christianity is able to stand on its own two nail-scarred feet.”) is not the clean, simple solution he supposes. Stanley extols the good ol’ days of the early church when they preached an event rather than the Bible, failing to mention the offense of the cross and the dubious character of the resurrection in the first century (see Acts 17:18, 32; 1Cor 1:18, 23; 15:12). Christ’s resurrection had its own cultural baggage in the apostolic age as it does in today’s technological age.

More broadly, it’s not as if it’s only the OT that suffers from a credibility gap. The NT has similar problems in modernity’s public square. Has Stanley never heard of Bart Ehrman’s work? Will the people who object to the historicity and miraculous elements of the OT be more willing to affirm a virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, feeding five thousand, exorcisms, walking on water, a voice from heaven, bodily resurrection and a physical ascension through the clouds? (And we haven’t even gotten to the NT epistles and Revelation!) If Stanley can overcome the skeptic’s veto for the NT, he can certainly do the same for the OT. I’m all for keeping the focus on Christ but Stanley’s approach sounds more like capitulation than contextualization.

2. Both Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection by the OT. I honestly don’t know how Stanley can declare the Christian faith unhitched from the OT on a straight reading of Acts. Let’s start with the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 which he portrays as Christianity’s official break with the OT. In a shocking disregard for the risks associated with aggressive facepalming, Stanley quietly passes over the point at which James supposedly “unhitches” the church from the OT by appealing to the OT (Acts 15:15-19). He also neglects to mention the conspicuous presence of OT texts in the apostles’ resurrection proclamations  (Acts 2:25-28, 30-31, 34; 3:18, 22; 4:11; 10:43; 13:32-35; 17:2-3, 24-26; 24:14-15; 26:6-8, 22-23; 28:23ff).

And it’s not as if Peter and Paul kept returning to the OT because they just didn’t know any better. Their sermon template was set by Jesus himself in his post-resurrection appearances. As Luke makes abundantly clear, Jesus explained (see #3) his death and resurrection by utilizing every part of the OT–the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets (Lk 24:25-27, 32, 44-47). Even if we were to limit our critique to the biblical evidence that he draws upon, the biblical support for Stanley’s claim is non-existent. His is not even an argument from silence and to call it cherry picking might be too generous.

3. The resurrection needs an explanation. Christ and his apostles built their preaching around the OT because the resurrection was an event that required an interpretation. To claim that something happened is only the first step in declaring what happened. That is, even if everyone agreed that Christ was raised we must still explain what it means that Christ was raised (i.e. why is it significant?). Ironically, Stanley seems to assume the revelatory meaning of the resurrection even as he treats it as self-explanatory. But if we can’t even establish the meaning behind Groundhog Day I seriously doubt Christ’s resurrection will fare much better on Stanley’s ‘just-the-facts’ approach.

Good intentions notwithstanding, there’s just no way to make sense of the resurrection without “hitching it” to the OT story. According to Paul, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” and he was buried and “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1Cor 15:3-4). If Paul & Co. unhitched the Christian faith from the “Jewish Scriptures” as Stanley claims, to what Scriptures did the resurrection adhere? Jesus said that “these [OT Scriptures] testify about me” (Jn 5:39) and Paul makes it clear that the OT moves progressively toward the NT along a line of promise-fulfillment that culminates in Christ (Rom 1:1-2; Gal 3:8; Titus 1:2-3). These claims are in stark contrast to Stanley’s contention that the OT and NT stand as two covenants in conflict with each other. Any report of the OT’s theological expiration is greatly exaggerated (Gal 3:24; 1Tim 1:8ff; 2Tim 3:15).

Stanley is to be commended for his intention to “resist anything that makes faith in Jesus unnecessarily resistible. But following his counsel concerning the OT would be disastrous.

Sounds familiar

Jeremiah develops the idea of prophets who are deluded [23:25-32], contrasting the power of the genuine with with the worthlessness of the counterfeit. He finishes with an attack on the cheapening of the Lord’s word, where it is everywhere sought but only to be tamed, and where everyone’s claim to have it makes it impossible to hear a true word when it comes.  –Gordon McConville (New Bible Commentary, 691)

John 3:16 (pt 3)

18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”

Well, well, well. Since the last post it seems an SBC poohbah has demonstrated just how much we need this piddly series. But I digress.  [You can’t digress on your opening sentence, you dolt! —Shive]

In part 1 we said that Jn 3:16 needs to be read as part of the larger new birth discourse recorded in 3:1-21 so that we interpret 3:16 in its context and not in isolation. So this post will consider 3:16 in light of the discourse conclusion in vv 18-21. I’ll make two observations from the passage followed by an explanation of their importance in the debate over 3:16.


First, verses 18-19 establish a connection between what one believes and what one loves. We start with a contrasting parallel between ‘the judged’ and the ‘not judged’ which turns on whether or not they believe. We even get a little repetition thrown in with the parallelism as a way to emphasize believe:

BELIEVE               → not JUDGED
doesn’t BELIEVE → JUDGED already → hasn’t BELIEVED

The repetition of v18 leaves the reader expecting to hear something more about believe in v19 since the verse alternates back to judgment. Maybe something like This is the judgment that the Light has come into the world and men [believed/trusted/entrusted themselves to] darkness rather than light… What we get instead is a statement about what a man loves which is all the more significant because it breaks the established pattern:


What are we to make of this? On the one hand, believing and loving are distinct acts/conditions; on the other hand, the interchange between the two prevents us from considering them in isolation. People believe what they love and love what they believe.

Second, God‘s work is the difference between those who love/come to the Light and those who don’t. In verses 20-21 we have another contrasting parallel built on the relationship between a man’s work and his approach to the Light. Those who hate the Light do so because their deeds are evil and because the Light exposes them as such. The one who practices the truth, however, has nothing to fear from the Light. In fact, he comes to the Light in order that his works may be shown to have been worked in God. It’s precisely at this last phrase that the parallel breaks down for while the Light-hater’s work is attributed to himself the Light-lover’s work is attributed to God. Consequently, the ultimate difference between the two turns on the fact that one works on his own while the other is worked on by God.

It’s Complicated

The point in all of this is that much more is at work in 3:16’s whoever believes than what is generally assumed which brings us back to the problem of leveraging the verse against Calvinism. In my experience, whenever 3:16 is treated like Calvinist kryptonite the verse is divorced from its context and belief is reduced to a  simple, rational choice that turns on an act of the will.

believe-love-deedsBut when we take the verse in context we have to explain how belief and love work in concert with each other. I suppose we could claim that “love is a choice” but a moment’s reflection shows that that just won’t do because: (a) it can’t be supported by Scripture and (b) it fails the test of practical experience (would any rational person choose to love the Patriots?).

No, 3:16-21 would have us understand that (un)belief is bound to what a man loves and what he does. Unfortunately, this three-dimensional symbiosis is rarely observed or considered in 3:16 which perpetuates the treatment of belief as a single gear that needs to turn in a new direction even as the entire passage depicts belief, love, and deeds as interlocking gears that turn on and with each other. You can’t service the faith gear apart from rebuilding the engine and that kind of work involves more than a choice.

Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 2)

We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

See the prologue and Pt 1 to this series.

In the previous post I suggested that we ought to consider Jn 3:16 along the lines of what a Pharisee like Nicodemus would have understood when Jesus said “God so loved the world.” For a guy like Nic that kind of statement would have signified God’s love for all nations since a devout Jew would have had two functional categories–Israel and the nations. Rather than blessing Israel and judging the rest, God was offering life in his kingdom to the world on the basis of a new, spiritual birthright through faith. In short, Nic would understand Jn 3:16within a broadly corporate framework–people groups rather than individual people.

But our vantage point is weak on corporate identity and big on individualism so that we understand Jn 3:16 in the spirit of democratic equality–God loves every single person. Nic interprets the world as a collective term for the nations while we interpret the world as a collective term for individual people. Whose interpretation is correct?

Neither. It’s a trick question. [Oh, you’re smooth. -Shive]

As every husband has learned after receiving messages from his wife, the correct interpretation isn’t what you think the author means but what the author intended the message to mean. So when we read ‘God so loved the world’ what we really need to know is John’s intended meaning for the world.


For John, the world almost always refers to a domain rather than a physical place or population. It’s “the place of human rebellion against God in contrast to God’s kingdom” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology) and although people are certainly part of this domain, John’s use of the term is too broad and abstract to limit it to something like a divine census. Even a casual review of the word in John’s gospel makes it clear that world means more than people.  Consider just a few examples:

John 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.
John 15:19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world because of this the world hates you.
John 17:14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

Obviously, the world can’t mean all people in these verses and must be signifying something more than global population. But once we acknowledge this we’re almost forced to reconsider the intended meaning of world in Jn 3:16, too. Let me interject here that our reticence to refine our understanding of ‘God so loved the world‘ is understandable especially when we suspect that ‘refining’ is a nefarious attempt to restrict God’s love. And yet I think that by aligning our interpretation with John’s intended meaning we don’t minimize God’s love, we magnify it. Carson’s explanation is very helpful on this point when he says God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad: that is the customary connotation of kosmos (‘world’).” We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.


If you’re still with me at this juncture you’re probably saying the same thing I say to my kids when they tell me they want a cell phone: So what’s your point?

The point is that Jn 3:16 just doesn’t work as a defeater verse for Calvinism, particularly in regard to unconditional election. Using the verse to that end depends on at least two related assumptions: (1) world means every single person (2) since God loves every single person, he must love them in exactly the same way. Both of these assumptions are taken to undermine the Calvinistic understanding of God’s elect. In fairness, those assumptions may be discovered and defended from other passages, just not from Jn 3:16.

Assumption #1 has already been shown to miss the broader meaning of world in John’s gospel which means that assumption #2 is moot. But for the sake of a full hearing it’s worth noting that #2 also fails in light of two other statements concerning the world that we find in John:

John 9:39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
John 17:9 I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given me; for they are Yours.

So the Father sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved (3:17) and Jesus came into the world for judgment (9:39). God loved the world and Jesus did not pray for the world. Unless we are to define the Father’s love for the world differently than Jesus’ love for the world I think it’s safe to say that the Father’s love for the world is far more complex than a one-size-fits-all kind of affection.

Based on John’s meaning and use of world an objective interpreter would be hard-pressed to turn Jn 3:16 into a rebuttal of Calvinism. But since there are zealots on both the right and the left of this issue let me say a quick word to other side, too. While 3:16 isn’t a defeater verse for Calvinism it isn’t a support for it either. If world doesn’t exactly mean ‘every single person’ it certainly doesn’t signify ‘the elect.’ As I see it, the verse is theologically neutral on this matter.

Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 1)

The reasons for this piddly mini-series can be found in the prologue here.

There are unplumbed depths in the limpid clarity of this writing. What at first appears obvious is presently seen to pose problems.
–Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John

So long as we discuss soteriology we will discuss the meaning and implications of Jn 3:16 and for good reason. Few verses so succinctly capture such massive themes in redemption–God’s unmerited love for rebels, the giving of the incarnate Son as a sacrifice for sin, and the promise of eternal life for all who place their trust in him. But all that’s succinct is not always simple.


Too many times we invoke Jn 3:16 without appreciating the role of the surrounding context in determining its meaning. Before we get to some of the particulars in 3:16 itself we need to say a few things about the broader context.

First, 3:16 is part of the “new birth discourse” found in 3:1-21 which means that the verse can’t be interpreted on its own. Too often 3:16 is tossed around without any consideration of its place in the overall discourse.

Second, since we’re told that this new birth discourse is delivered to a Pharisees/Jewish ruler, we should ask what Jesus said and what Nicodemus would have heard. For example, what would a Jewish religious leader have understood Jesus to mean when he said “God so loved the world“? Expanding the scope of our question, how would 3:16 have been understood in conjunction with Jesus’ prior claim that “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3)?

In Nic’s mind natural birth was all that was necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom since your physical birth determined who was in (Israel) and who was out (anyone not Israel). But even if Nic were to have grasped what it meant to be “born again” he still would have assumed that that sort of thing was reserved for those who were “in” Israel. It’s not until 3:16 that Jesus clarifies that the offer of life to “whoever believes” (3:15) is an offer that extends to the world. The takeaway is that God’s love is not limited to Israel as the kingdom is inherited by spiritual birthright available to people of every nation (i.e. the world). So whereas we interpret 3:16 as God so loved [every single person], Nic would interpret it as God so loved [all people]. Both statements are true, but the latter is a truer fit for the context. Think of the different interpretations as an approach to a pointillist panting–you can focus on the individual spots but you’d be missing the artist’s larger point (no pun intended).

Third, when we recognize the implicit relationship between new birth and God’s love for the world, we’re not surprised to find that this connection is established as early as Jn 1:12-13 where the right to become children of God is granted to those who believe in His name, who were born . . . of God. Interestingly, belief (1:12) is not said to be the condition for the new birth (1:13)–those who received Him (v 12a) are those who believe in His name (v 12c) are those who are born of God (v 13).

This lack of distinction between new birth and belief in 1:12-13 has interesting implications for 3:16 which stresses the necessity of belief for eternal life. If belief and (new) birth are both attributed to God’s work in 1:12-13 and if born again is attributed to the mysterious work of the Spirit in 3:6-8, should we then attribute believe in 3:16 to the will of man? Doubtful. We’d do better to follow the pattern laid out in 1:12-13 and to understand both born again and believe as a mysterious work of God by his Spirit.

But even if we were to discount the role of 1:12-13 in interpreting 3:16, I don’t think the verse stands up as a proof text for free will. To say that that whoever believes will not die simply means that . . . whoever believes will not die. The promise makes no claim concerning the ability or likelihood of enjoying the promise. Those issues can only be brought into 3:16 by inference or from other verses.

Jn 3:16–succinct but not necessarily simple.

Stay tuned for pt 2.


Revisiting John 3:16 (prologue)

Some discussions emanate from perennial issues that are sure to be revisited in the not-too-distant future and when those discussions happen on the Google machine it seems prudent to save your work. Such is the reason for this piddly mini-series on the interpretation of John 3:16.

The genesis of the subsequent posts was a friendly back and forth over the work of salvation as it’s popularly understood by Calvinists. [When will the mavericks be given a platform for their hybrid theologies?!? –Shive]. At some point–and such was the case here–the non-Calvinist invokes John 3:16 to make three related points: (1) God doesn’t love the elect in a special way because “God so loved the world” (2) everyone is a potential believer because the verse says “whoever believes” and (3) only by hermeneutical jujitsu can a Calvinist ever hope to neutralize this defeater verse (e.g. God so loved the world [of the elect]).

But I hope to show that Jn 3:16 is far more substantive than the straw men we construct when we ignore the larger context. On its own the verse is neither an anti-Calvinist trump card nor is it stealth support for unconditional election.

I say all this as a simple attempt to provide some context for the posts to come. Names will be withheld to protect the innocent and the content lightly edited so as to keep the profanity-laced tirades and ad hominem attacks to a minimum.

Stay tuned.