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I have never heard of any verse more quoted and memorized than this one. Many people know it without knowing a single other thing about Christianity.* If there was one verse we don't need to quote in a post this would be it, but here it is for reference anyway:

John 3:16 (ESV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In fact you almost certainly didn't recognize those words since that's a new-ish translation. The one you memorized as a kid was probably NIV or KJV:

John 3:16 (KJV) For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

So what does it mean? Are there different interpretations or is the breadth of Christian tradition pretty much united on this one? Is the meaning so clear that people with no other context are able to understand it? Is it a secret code that you need a legend to understand? Most specifically what is the scope of the concepts of love, belief, and the world in this verse?

* True story. I asked a guy one time if he'd read the Bible. His answer was quote: "Oh ya you mean like the John 3:16 thing? Ya I've heard of it." When pressed if he knew what what the three and the sixteen had to do with it, he was shocked to learn that it was just a fragment of a larger text.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by curiousdannii, El'endia Starman Jun 14 '15 at 13:48

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This feels a bit broad or a bit opiniony for what we like to have these days. – curiousdannii Jun 14 '15 at 8:17
@curiousdannii: Such is usually the case with August 29, 2011 questions, the very oldest one. I considered putting a historical lock on this one, but I think the answer is good enough that I've simply closed it instead. – El'endia Starman Jun 14 '15 at 13:48

OK, you wanna go deep? Here we go.

From the Apostolic Bible:

John 3:16 from the apostolic bible


The word being translated as "loved" here is ἀγαπάω (agapao).

Definition from Strong's Concordance (25):

to love; in the NT usually the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other, and even enemies

to love, value, esteem, feel or manifest generous concern for, be faithful towards; to delight in, to set store upon,


The word being translated as "world" here is κόσμος (kosmos).

From Strong's Concordance (2889)

world: earth, world system, whole universe; adornment. In some contexts, the world is simply the place where people live, in other contexts (especially in John), the world is a system opposed to God

Interesting points: kosmos can be translated as the "whole universe". Also, note that in John it's considered a "system opposed to God" in some contexts.


The Apostolic Bible translates this as "trusting", as you can see. The actual word is πιστεύω (pisteuo).

From Strongs (4100)

to believe, put one's faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow; (pass.) entrust

(emphasis added)

This is the key that I think you might be looking for. This isn't just as simple as saying "Yeah, I believe that Jesus died for me." This is to "put one's faith in". This is a more active belief.

Nonetheless, I believe that if someone truly has faith in Jesus that their life will be impacted by it. That's what separates out shallow "belief" from deep "belief". It's that deeper belief/faith/trust that is what God wants from us.

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About the "Belief": note the difference between believing in God and believing God. It's not believing that God/Jesus exists, but believing what he tells us. – Jürgen A. Erhard Aug 29 '11 at 22:05
Nice! I tried to say something like that but it didn't come out as clearly as you put it just there. – Richard Aug 29 '11 at 22:13
+1 very good answer – Bob Black Sep 7 '11 at 1:50

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