January 22, 2021

John 3:16 and the Importance of the Old Testament

john3_16.gifMy adult Bible study is starting an Old Testament survey for the summer months in preparation for studying I Kings this fall. I did this little exercise with them this morning. I guess it’s kind of original with me. I’ve never seen anyone else do it. Consider it all yours for the glory of God.

Why should we study the Old Testament? You know all the usual reasons. Let me illustrate the importance of the Old Testament with a well known New Testament text that can’t be understood or interpreted correctly without the Old Testament:

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

We can’t understand John 3:16 without the Old Testament. That may strike you as odd, but it’s very true. Think of the crucial concepts at the heart of this verse, and each one of them depends on the Old Testament for meaning.

1) What GOD are we talking about in John 3:16?
Any God that the reader or hearer wants to imagine? The idea of God we all carry around in our head that basically approves us as we are? The distorted ideas of God in the culture or other religions?

The God of John 3:16 is the God of the Old Testament. A particular God, with a particular character and attributes. A God with a particular way of relating to this world. The God revealed in Jesus is the God of the Old Testament.

God is persistent in the Old Testament that he is not any God or like all ideas of God. He is the one, true, only God. No other God’s compete with him in any way. Many Old Testament passages warn those who worship other gods that they are fools playing with the ultimate fire.

2) What is the WORLD that God loves? The Old Testament tells us that it is the world that God created in Genesis 1-2; the world that rebelled against God in Adam and Eve’s fall; the world that rejected God’s mercy in Cain; the world God judged through the flood in Genesis 11. It’s the world from which he calls a people, a world of peoples who will be blessed in Abraham and his descendants.

This world isn’t planet earth, but it is the world that occupies planet earth. Only in the Old Testament do we see this world clearly enough to understand God’s great love and how it unfolds in Jesus.

3) What is God’s LOVE?
In fact, the Old Testament word for God’s love, hesed, introduces us to God’s covenant love for his people, the way he has chosen to relate to and rescue this world.

Love is one of the most mis-defined and misunderstood words in all of human language. In the Old Testament, God’s love for the world he has created is set alongside God’s just and holy character. We see that God’s love goes back to creation, but that this love must deal with the sin that separates God and his world.

Over and over the Old Testament illustrates God’s faith, covenant-making love. We see it in story after story and example after example. The love of God is all over the Old Testament. To say that God’s love is a New Testament reality is a great myth. It’s in the Old Testament that we see God’s merciful, promise-keeping, patient, suffering, sacrificial love introduced and illustrated.

4) What does it mean to BELIEVE? Here is another word that is so mis-defined that we can’t leave it up to the hearer to interpret. “Believing” is the response of Abraham to God’s promise in Abraham 15:6. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Adam and Eve refused to believe, trust and value God as worth believing and obeying. As God saves people in the Old Testament, it is always because they have believed. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. To believe is to trust enough, to consider God worth enough, to depend on him in life and obedience.

In fact, in John 3, Jesus himself uses the Old Testament story of the bronze serpent to illustrate what happens when we believe in the one lifted up to bear the curse for his people.

5) What does PERISH mean? God is a holy God. His character cannot overlook sin forever. Perish is the separation from God that comes to sinners whose sin is not removed. Over and over we see this happening in the Old Testament, as sinners perish because of their sin. The Bible tells us that God was patient with sinners in the Old Testament, and he is merciful with amazing grace in the New Testament. The frightening descriptions of gehenna and the lake of fire in the New Testament are taking the Old Testament stories of judgement in Genesis 11 and 14 and showing them in manifestations that would shake the world in times to come.

The Old Testament law reminds us that those who are not forgiven perish. The severity of God’s justice can’t be compromised, but in Jesus Christ justice, love and mercy meet perfectly.

6) Who is the SON? According the Genesis 22, Abraham obeyed God by taking his son, his “only” son to the mountain of sacrifice. This is an awful scene if it is not preparation for John 3:16. In the light of the Gospel, it is preparation for God’s incarnational gift of himself in his son, Jesus.

But there is more. In Psalm 2, the word “son” is used of the anointed King. The Old Testament tells us that God’s anointed king is his beloved, his “son.” That son will rule in Zion, and will rule all nations. In the story of David and his descendants, the Old Testament tells us the story of Israel and Judah’s many kings, all teaching us that the true anointed King is still on the way. When he comes, he will be the king over every king, the sovereign over all sovereigns.

The word “son” is a royal word, not an incarnational word, in the Old Testament, but in Jesus we meet the son who is King, Lord, God with us.

You see, without the Old Testament, the most familiar verse in the New Testament loses its rich meaning, and becomes whatever we want it to be. Our study of the Old Testament is crucial for understanding the glory of the New Testament gospel.


  1. Dan Smith says

    Michael hits a home run.

    I just left a week of the study of Jeremiah at the Pepperdine University Lectures. Heard much great application of Jeremiah’s words of warning to Judah to the modern (or post-modern, as the case may be) church.

    This short commentary on J 3:16 is a wonderful summation.

    Have a great week,


  2. I started reading your website a few weeks ago after the religion section of The Dallas Morning News named your site the Site of the Week. It’s now in my favorites. 🙂

    I wanted to comment on this one because it hits near to my heart. I read a Barna study a while back that said kids are taught the same 25-30 bible stories throughout their youth, so when they become adults, they know relatively little of the bible. I realized that was me. I’m Southern Baptist, and a dear friend who is a charismatic Christian frequently references semi-obscure Old Testament bible stories. I often have no idea what he’s talking about, which makes me realize I have so much catch-up studying to do!

    One way my husband and I are combatting this problem is that we are determined that our own Sunday school students will know the bible, not just the New Testament, which is what is mostly emphasized in Baptist churches. We are taking our middle schoolers through the Old Testament. I’m learning right along with them, and I find myself wishing that I’d learned the OT when I was a child (I mean stories beyond Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph…). There’s so much in there, and you’re right; we really can’t fully understand the New Testament without the Old.

    I recently completed a study of Daniel in my women’s group, and I’m overwhelmed by how much I’ve learned! It really makes certain aspects of the NT come alive in new ways when we truly study the OT. I hope to see more of this happening in our churches because I believe it to be something sorely lacking.

  3. Rob (an heir to the Kingdom) says

    That is a good Blog. Thanks.

    I tell my Jr. High SS class that in New Testament times, the only thing they had was the Old Testament to determine the truth about Jesus the Messiah. The New Testament hadn’t been written until some years after Jesus lived.

    The Book of Acts was lived out BEFORE the New Testament was written. Paul was taught the Old Testament and when he was blind for 3 days (after his Road to Damascus experience), he had many hours to reflect on what just happened to him from what he knew about the Old Testament only. He ultimately had to answer the question, “Was Jesus the Messiah taught in the Old Testament?”

  4. jmanning says

    Good idea.

    SBC Dispensationalism neuters the Old Testament of any effective meaning. I grew up hearing “obedience” was the OT way to God’s favor, “faith” is the NT way.

    When you read Romans, especially 10-11 it becomes obvious it is a lot more connected than we think. Faith is a common thread throughout the Bible.

  5. I have a question (I feel like I’m always saying that to you). How do we Christians deal with unbeliever’s questions and concerns regarding some of the more difficult passages of the Old Testament?
    Example: Stoning people to death.
    The OT states a couple of times that people were stoned to death for various sins. This seems to be an issue for non believers.
    What would be a good thing to respond with? Was it the law of the land to stone people to death? Was it just God’s law? What’s the historical concept behind such a brutal puishment?

  6. I’ll give my view, but I don’t speak for anyone else.

    God accommodates himself to all levels of human culture in the establishment of his revelation among human beings. This includes accommodation to what we would call primitive societies with many repugnant aspects that would later change through various kinds of social development.

    This accommodation of God can seem to put God in the position of endorsing terrible things, but in each case there is a moral revelatory focus that is pointing towards Christ and the Gospel.

    Once Christ becomes the focus, many of these instances are radically transformed in our understanding.

    In other words, God’s revelation has been progressive and once Christ is clearly in view, then all moral/spiritual truth comes under his judgement.

  7. So with “accommodates” can one also use the word, “regulates”? Like say, pologamy? Obviously God desires men to be of one wife but since the people already were practicing in that lifestyle, he regulated pologamy–he didn’t encourage or condone it. Would this be the same thing as stoning?

  8. Michael,
    Thanks for the encouragement to b-in the OT. We so need to hear this today. Couldn’t agree more that OT sets the trajectory for NT generally, and for John 3:16 in particular. I have also been helped into the OT through a look into the surrounding ANE texts. This opens horizons and illuminates cultural perspectives towards understanding something of what God was doing.

  9. Love the OT and consider it fundamental in understanding both Grace and the character of God (not that I understand either of those things, being a very small and limited human).

    However, curious about this:

    “…This includes accommodation to what we would call primitive societies…This accommodation of God can seem to put God in the position of endorsing terrible things, but in each case there is a moral revelatory focus that is pointing towards Christ and the Gospel…”

    Certainly I can see the application of this idea to, say, slavery, as on the one hand slaves are told to obey their masters Ephesians 6:5, yet on the other hand slave-dealers are placed very clearly in the naughty category 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

    Would you apply that same thought to the position of women in the church? I mean, really, how far away are we from ‘primitive society’? It seems there is much in scripture and relationship with Christ that is revolutionary.

  10. I am an egalitarian, if that’s what you are asking.

  11. I suppose I’m asking if that is part of the reason you are an egalitarian — our underlying philosophies shape our theology (hopefully vice versa, too).

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