Five Verbs and an Adverb (John 3:16)

a sermon by Joseph Rector



In 1989, a book by Robert Fulghum began an amazing 43-week run at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.  The book is entitled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.


That got me thinking about a text I learned as a young child: John 3:16.  Could it be possible that all I need to know about salvation is encapsulated in John 3:16? 


As I explored that question, I came to believe that it is true: All I really need to know about salvation I learned from John 3:16. And it comes from 5 verbs and an adverb.


Let’s look at the background of John 3:16.  Turn with me to John 3:1-3. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus at night. And Jesus spoke the profound truth of the most famous text in the Bible to this man in the middle of the night. John  3:1-3:


Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”


Nicodemus was a spiritual teacher of the people.  He was the type of person who tithed his mint, anise, and cumin. 


He undoubtedly counted his steps on Sabbath to make certain that he didn’t do too much work. 


He probably gave expensive and ostentatious gifts at the synagogue–gifts which he would never miss himself. 


He had quite possibly prayed often, thanking God that he was not like other men, but that he was certainly superior. 


He probably reveled in deep theological arguments with the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin, and he could certainly quote all the ancient rabbinical experts by heart to nail down all his points. 


Most of all, Nicodemus trusted in his religion to save him.


But there was still an empty spot in his heart that only Jesus could fill.


Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he knew his Pharisee friends and Sadducee opponents would scorn him if they ever knew.


He was afraid to come to Jesus. Many of us are also afraid of the disapproval from our friends, or we are afraid of the consequences of making a commitment to Christ.


In answer to Nicodemus, Jesus cut right to the point: salvation.  It was exactly what Nicodemus needed deep down in his soul; it was exactly the point of this visit.  Something deep inside had impelled him to seek this young teacher under cover of darkness,  and it was the Spirit speaking to his heart.  Nicodemus needed to know how to be saved, even if he couldn’t quite articulate his deepest desires.


And as Jesus conversed with the nervous Pharisee, he spoke the most beloved text in all scripture.  It was the crux of Christ’s message, and it contained everything Nicodemus and the listening disciples needed to know about salvation.  It contains everything we need to know about salvation.


“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.”


I’m an English teacher, so I can’t resist analyzing this text in a grammatical fashion.  There are 5 verbs in this text, and each verb teaches an essential salvational point.


The first verb is loved: “For God so loved the world....”


God’s love is the entire basis for our salvation.


He looked down through the centuries, and he saw you–he saw me.  And He loved us—He chose us. Our helpless condition is no impediment to God.


God’s love impelled Him to take the first step toward reconciliation between God and man.  He loved us before we could even respond to Him.


And His great love caused Him to give us something that we could never otherwise attain.


The second verb is gave: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son....”


God is One. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all equal persons of the Trinity.


Jesus was subordinate to the Father during His life on earth, but Jesus was also God Almighty.


The key point is that God actually sent Himself to die....


And in His death, He showed us how to live.


“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son....”


Salvation is a free gift.  God “gave his only begotten son....”


What will you do with this priceless gift? So many times, we feel we have to repay gifts. The Joneses invited us to lunch, so we need to reciprocate…. But what does the text tell us to do?


The third verb is believeth: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him....”


The word believe is not the word earn. To believe is to accept in faith. And faithful belief is love and trust for God on an intimate level.


Do you have this passion for God?


But there is a 4th verb phrase.  It is should perish“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish....”


Praise God for that little adverb not!  The little adverb NOT modifies the meaning of the verbs should perish – completely reverses it!


The penalty for sin is death, meaning spiritual death in this life and ultimately in hell. Those who are not in Christ are dead already, even though they are physically alive.


God does not want to miss you eternally.  He loved you, before you were ever born.  He gave you the free gift of salvation.  He asks for a belief of faith that results in loving obedience.


And if you believe, you will not perish, but have eternal life.


But many will perish.


I believe in the assurance of salvation. But the Bible also teaches that many who claim to be followers of Christ are tragically self-deceived. They have never actually believed. They have only gone through the motions.


So, there is true belief and surface-level belief. One type of belief results in salvation; the other, damnation.


The sobering truth is that many of the lost will believe they should be saved.


“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matt 7:21-23).


Many of the lost will argue that they have done many good Christian works. And Jesus doesn’t argue about their works. He just says, “I never knew you,” meaning that there was never any faith or intimacy between Christ and the lost.


It is imperative that we all examine ourselves –not judge others, but examine ourselves. Are we truly in Christ? Do we truly have faith? And is there any evidence?


"Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?" (2 Cor 13:5).


Is there any evidence of faith in our lives? The Bible instructs us to grow in grace. Are we doing so? Are we becoming more loving? More Christ-like? More forgiving? More humble? When we are confronted with sin in our lives, do we pray for God’s forgiveness and for His deliverance? Or do we say, “I’m saved no matter what I do?” And we are saved completely by faith. And we cannot earn our salvation. We are saved apart from works. But true faith manifests itself in Christian growth.


The Great Charles Blondin was a tightrope artist who became famous for several crossings of Niagara Falls–the first coming in 1859.


Blondin kept adding levels of difficulty to his act.  His first crossing included a backwards somersault.


He later crossed Niagara on a tightrope blindfolded.


He crossed with a wheelbarrow


He crossed Niagara on a tightrope and stood on a chair with only one chair leg on the tightrope


He crossed on a tightrope on stilts.


He also carried a table and chair on his back, stopping in the middle to cook and eat an omelette.


After one crossing, Blondin cried to the crowd, “Do you believe?  Do you believe in me now?”  And the crowd roared back, “We believe, we believe!”


Blondin silenced the crowd: “Then who would like to cross on my back?”


Finally a man stepped forward.  He was actually Blondin’s manager Harry Colcord.  Step by agonizing step, the master tightrope artist conveyed his friend across the gorge to safety.


But the question is, did the crowd really believe?  Did they believe enough to trust their lives in Blondin’s hands?  They did not.


Now, I wouldn’t have crossed on Blondin’s back, because I don’t place my faith in any human being. But I would cross anything on Jesus’ back.


True belief in Christ will result in action. It will result in Christian growth, witnessing, and living a life of praise to God.


I’m not talking about perfection or righteousness by works. I’m talking about the natural result of being in Christ the Vine. Connected branches will bear fruit. If we are not bearing fruit, we need to ask whether we are really connected. True belief isn’t just a claim; true belief results in action.  That is why faith without works is dead (James 2:17).


“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, KJV).


There is no need for anyone to suffer the wrath of God. Christ has died to take our sins. All we have to do is respond to His grace in simple faith like a child. Yet so many neglect to do so. And they lose the precious promise of the adverb NOT. They will perish. They will suffer God’s wrath. He will sadly say, “I never knew you.” But those who truly love God can rest in the promise of John 3:16. They will not perish.


The 5th verb is have: “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.”


The verb have is present tense.  That means that our eternal life starts now.


The Greek word translated as “everlasting” or “eternal” is aionios.  It appears in John 3:15, where it is translated “eternal,” and it appears in John 3:16 as “everlasting.”


Eternal life is not just everlasting, but it is a quality of life such as only God can bestow.  Eternal life is a state that we can enjoy now.


That’s definitely how the apostle John understood it.  The writer who recorded John 3:16 also wrote I John 5:11-13.


And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.


John uses the word has – it is present tense. “Whoever has the Son has life,” showing that we should experience this quality of life now.


When people are in love, they see each other through “rose-colored glasses.”


God loves you so much that He actually views you through “grace-colored glasses.”


He not only views us through grace-colored glasses, but he covers us with grace.


The now-ness of salvation is demonstrated in Eph 2:4-7:


“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,  made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,  in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”


“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.”




Everything you need to know about salvation is found in this simple but profound text: five verbs and an adverb that resonate from the heart of God.



~ added July 28, 2015