John 3:16 is not as simplistic as we might have thought…


John 3:16 says, …whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (i.e. the life of the age to come).

It sounds as if you only have to believe in Jesus to attain eternal life. This assertion suggests that not even an understanding of the death and resurrection is essential to salvation.

The problem comes with the Greek verb pisteuo, which gets translated almost every time as “believe.” The verb actually carried with it the combined commitment involving trust, loyalty, and obedience. These three ingredients are absolutely crucial to both understanding the meaning of pisteuo and recognizing the standards which Jesus expect of his followers. The same can be said of the noun pistis.

Consider the parallel from Josephus, who describes an incident where he encountered a rival political revolutionary and attempted to persuade him to give up his fight:  “I was not a stranger to that treacherous design he had against me, nor was I ignorant by whom he was sent for; that, however, I would forgive him what he had done already, if he would repent of it, and be faithful to me hereafter (εἰ μέλλοι μετανοήσειν καὶ πιστὸς ἐμοὶ γενήσεσθαι)” (Life 1:110). The act of becoming faithful to Josephus clearly involved a turning away from one’s former manner of life, submitting to Josephus as the new leader, following him, and obeying his commands.

The understanding that “belief” encompasses trust, loyalty, and obedience can be observed in John 3:36, where one can either “believe in Jesus” or disobey him.

Obedience to Jesus means adhering to his commands. The first command of Jesus, according to Mark 1:14-15, is to repent and believe in the gospel of the kingdom. Therefore, one cannot believe in Jesus without believing in his gospel, which is defined as the message about the coming kingdom of God, a kingdom to be consummated upon the earth at his return.    


11 thoughts on “John 3:16 is not as simplistic as we might have thought…

  1. Interesting article.

    Can I ask you a question:

    What do you make of Jesus’ answer to the rich man who asked him, “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

    “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

    “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

    Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10)

    So we appear to be saved by obeying the Torah and in this person’s case, giving to the poor…

    1. I think it would be unwise to observe how Jesus addresses the specific needs of one individual (in this case, a ‘rich Jewish male’) and to then apply that to each any every person in the present. Jesus was certainly not anti-Torah, and so he would understandably reinforce the need for Jews to observe the deeds which he felt were important. However, this rich person lacked the important requirement which Jesus and the impending kingdom of God required: a turning away from a lifestyle defined by riches in favor of believing allegiance to Jesus. On this point, the rich man was unable to obey the terms of the one whom he described as the Good Teacher.

      Jesus told the rich man what he needed to hear. Jesus also told Zaccheus the chief tax collector what he needed to hear. Peter, Judas, and Paul are other great examples of how Jesus spoke to the specific needs of individuals; recognizing what they needed to reorient in their life in order to faithfully live in accordance to God’s standards.

      Just my 2 cents.


      1. ‘However, this rich person lacked the important requirement which Jesus and the impending kingdom of God required: a turning away from a lifestyle defined by riches in favor of believing allegiance to Jesus.’

        Actually Jesus said the man lacked ONE thing (“One thing you lack” – not 2 as you claim) to ‘have treasure in heaven’:

        “sell everything you have and give to the poor.”

        Why do you think Jesus’ teaching on salvation is just for this one man alone?

        And in the earliest gospels was not Jesus’ teaching theocentric rather than Christocentric?

  2. If Jesus meant that all of his disciples needed to give up their earthly possessions, then the owners of the large homes which housed the early ekklesia were in clear disobedience.

    I don’t think that Jesus’ teaching for salvation was for one man alone. I think what that particular man needed to hear is not the same as what others need in their individual situation. Certainly the gospel of the kingdom is for everyone. The specific things which individuals need to repent from vary. A habitual liar has different struggles than one who sells idols for a living.

    I don’t desire to make theocentric and christocentric emphases mutually exclusive. Jesus called his audience to radical discipleship with his teachings as he prepared them for the coming kingdom of God. Both go hand in hand. Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer (Matt/Luke), the Shema (Mark 12), and a variety of parables concerning a father and his sons or a land owner and the workers. Point being, the teachings of Jesus found in our earliest sources were bound together with his dependence upon the Father.


  3. I think the summary statement in Mark 1:14-15 describes what Jesus described as the ‘gospel,’

    Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God,and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

      1. Unfortunately, you are mistaken here. That passage indeed does identify the gospel message and what it sounded like when Jesus preached it. He demanded repentance because the kingdom of God was drawing near.

        The same summary statements can be observed in Matt. 4:23 and 9:25. Jesus labels the gospel as “the gospel of the kingdom” in Matt. 24:14. He calls it the word of the kingdom in Matt. 13:19. He even states that his purpose statement is bound in preaching the gospel of the kingdom in Luke 4:43. Cf. also Matt. 19:28; 25:31-34; Luke 1:32-33; 22:28-30.

      2. but this gospel seems to have little meaningful content. Could you perhaps itemise some of its key themes – as defined by Jesus in the synoptics? As I outline below, John the Baptiser had already been ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ – so sins were being forgiven by repentance before Jesus. so what exactly was the content of this new gospel?

  4. If the gospel (whatever it was) consisted in the free forgiveness of our sins, then John the Baptist was already proclaiming this in his own ministry before Jesus was on the scene:

    ‘And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.’ (Mark 1)

    So if Jesus ministry was not teaching anything new about forgiveness of sins – what was it about?

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