For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

One of my preacher friends told me a story about a man who came by the church office to ask for money – not an uncommon occurrence – by explaining that he was the Lord and needed help to get back to Israel  – a very uncommon occurrence! When my friend suggested to him that since he was the Lord he could just dematerialize here and rematerialize in Israel, the would-be Messiah frowned, shook his finger, and declared, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God – John 3:16!”

Everyone knows “John 3:16” (even of they don’t always know its content!). It is a classic statement of the message of the Bible. But it also concisely explains what “love” means, and this has important implications for how we should understand what it means to love each other, specially in marriage.

John 3:16 tells us three things about love.

First, love is primarily an act of the will, not a feeling of emotion. “God so loved the world, that he gave.” The word “so” here doesn’t mean what we intend when we say to someone, “I love you so much.” Instead, the Greek adverb (houtos) means “in this manner, in this way.” The New Living Translation captures the idea beautifully: “For this is how God loved the world.” How did God love the world? By giving His Son.

The “love” described in this passage is a commitment to give, to sacrifice. This sort of love is not sterile or unfeeling. Paul says that our adoption as sons in love is according to the “kind intention” of God’s will (Ephesians 1:5, NASB). But the love of God is not merely a feeling. It is expressed in the concrete act of giving.

Second, love is an act of will to meet the needs of others. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” The mutual love between the Father and Son is so abundant that it overflows into an outpouring of love for the world (John 17:24). Love is not an incidental feature of God – it is His very essence (1 John 4:8).

This overflowing generosity is even more remarkable because it is directed toward the world. In John’s gospel, the world doesn’t know its Creator (1:10), it loves darkness rather than light (3:19), it hates Jesus (7:7), and is under the sway of the devil (14:30). And God loves it! And the reason He loves it is because – in its hostile rejection of God – the world faces judgment. Its inhabitants will “perish” as John 3:16 says. It is only through the Son that the world can be saved from this judgment (3:17). So God loved the world even though – and especially because – it was undeserving.

Third, love is an act of will to meet the needs of others by giving  all that it can. God did not give an animal for the world, or a holy person for the world, or even an angel for the world. He gave His Son. Since John 1:1 tells us that the Son (called “the Word” there) existed in relation to God but also as God, then when John 3:16 says God gave His Son, we are reading about a profound act of self-sacrifice that exceeds our comprehension.

John 3:16 therefore presents to us a template of what love looks like at the ultimate level. And Scripture calls upon each of us to love one another just like God has loved us in Christ.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).

God-modeling love is an obligation for all Christians, but it would obviously apply in a special way to the deepest of all human relationships, marriage (Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:4). So consider how the message of John 3:16 applies to marriage:

  • In marriage, love is primarily an act of the will, not a feeling of emotion. While we fall in and out of love from a romantic point of view, we can nevertheless choose to do good to our spouse regardless of the mood of the moment. So the issue for a husband or wife is not, “Am I in love with my spouse?” The issue is, “Will I do good for my spouse?”
  • In marriage, love is an act of will to meet the needs of my spouse. But what are those needs? Too often, husbands and wives assume that what pleases them is what would please their spouse, that what they need is what their spouse needs. This results is selfish love rather than selfless love. Rather than assuming what your spouse needs, ask her. I often ask my wife if there is some need I am not meeting. It’s never easy to hear her say that such a need exists. But these conversations are vital if I am to know how to love her like God loves me.
  • In marriage love is an act of will to meet the needs of others by giving  all that it can. Scripture calls upon us to please our spouses (1 Corinthians 7:33-34). But we are not exempted from this command during those times we don’t feel like it, or we don’t feel like our spouse is deserving. Remember, God sacrificed for us precisely when we were our most undeserving. Sacrificial love is particularly the responsibility of husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).

By the way, this principle exposes the evil of spousal abuse for what it is. Abusive husbands are an affront not only to the dignity of their wives as fellow image-bearers of God, they are also an insult to the very name of Christ whose love for the church they are called to emulate.

“John 3:16” cannot be just an empty slogan. As a densely packed expression of the gospel, it must resonate within us, not only in terms of our relationship with God, but also in terms of our love for each other. And in no relationship is its message of selfless, sacrificial love needed more than in marriage.