The top 10 things to consider when translating John 3:16

The following are ten things a translation team should consider when translating John 3:16. Of course the entire context of not only chapter three but all of what John has written must be kept in mind, as well as what we know about Jesus from other Gospel writers. Decisions about key terms used in other passages should be considered. I’m sure other translators can add to this list, but these are the things the translation team I was part of especially had to think about when translating into their language of Mixtec, an indigenous language of Mexico

This is not an attempt to cover every aspect of the translation of John 3:16, but to raise awareness of some of the issues. It is also simplified so that it can be used to share in Sunday Schools, Bible studies and other teaching situations to show those not involved in translation some of the issues translation teams encounter. This should be especially interesting to most since this is such a well known verse.

  1. We do not know if Jesus said this or if John is telling us about Jesus

Commentators do not agree where Jesus stopped talking and the writer John began his commentary. Different versions of the Bible punctuate this section differently, depending whether they think Jesus said what is written in vs. 16-21, or whether they decide John wrote it about Him. All agree that Jesus said to Nicodemus what is written in vs. 10-15. It makes it harder to determine which view is correct in 16-21 since Jesus does speak in third person during most of His discussion with Nicodemus. Whether Jesus is speaking here affects in many languages how this verse in translated, especially in the Mixtec language.

  1. For

The translation team must decide how verse 16 fits into the context, since vs. 15 is a mini summary of vs. 16. Vs. 15 says: “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The actual first word of the verse is “Thusly”. So the verse starts out: For “thusly” (in the following way) God loved…

  1. God

Many languages do not have a good understanding of God, or a belief that there is only “one” God. Investigation is needed to see if there is an acceptable word for God in the language, and what that word implies to the speakers of the language. Sometimes it may be possible to say, “The Creator of all things.” I was in Thailand several years ago and while looking at a Buddhist temple, a monk spoke some English to me, so I began talking with him. I finally asked him if he knew of Jesus. He had never heard of Jesus. I then asked if he knew of God, and that word also did not ring a bell. I thought for a moment, then said God is the one who made the world, and he seemed to grasp that idea. I once had a discussion with a man in the Mixtec village who told me Andrew (the town saint) was a better saint than Jesus. No matter how much I explained about the uniqueness of Jesus and who He is, the man was steadfast in his belief.  Some people in this village also call the saints gods.

  1. loved

Translating love in the completive (past) aspect could imply in some languages that God does not love us any more (He “used” to love the world). In the Mixtec translation I was a part of, the team decided to express this in present tense (continuative aspect), “God loves us very much.” Greek, of course, has three words for love, “agape”, here, plus “philos” and “eros”, so the translation team will need to consider and test different words for love. This Mixtec variant also has at least three different words/phrases that can be used to express love, compassion, empathy, desire, etc.

  1. the world

The translation team must be careful about translating the word “world” (kosmos) literally, or it may imply that God loves the dirt, trees, etc. In Mixtec it was adjusted to say that God loves the people of the world.

  1. He gave

This is also a more profound idea than it seems at first glance since it can sound strange to say that God gave His son, like He gave Him away. Plus with a transitive verb like give, many languages require a direct object, to clarify to whom He gave Him. In Mixtec, after experimenting with using the idea that God “sent” Him, the team finally decided to keep the word give, plus add an arrival verb, so it comes out as: God gave him and he has arrived to this world.

This required the translation team to make a decision as to who is speaking in this verse because of the implications of the motion and arrival verbs. If Jesus is still speaking to Nicodemus, He would say, “God gave him/me and he(I) has/have arrived to this world (and is/am still here)” since arrival verbs in this context imply the speaker is still present. If it is John narrating, he would say, “He sent/gave Him and He came(and left).” “Come” in the completive (past) aspect implies the person being spoken about came and went. This would imply that John wrote the verse sometime after Jesus ascended to heaven.

It is very possible that the implied information is that He gave His only Son “to die for the sins of people”, or “so that God might forgive the sins of people” or something along those lines. Most of us are so familiar with this verse that we can easily say this verse without thinking about that. For many languages, just saying, “He gave” is an incomplete thought. It needs more context. In the Mixtec example, saying, “He gave His only Son and He arrived in this world” helps fill things in. If a translation team realizes their language needs/requires added information for “give” , what implied information do they feel comfortable “adding”? What type of translation are they aiming for? And how will this information need to be adjusted as they decide if Jesus is talking or if John is talking about Jesus?

  1. His only son

This is another phrase that is hard to translate because of all the implications when stating that God has children. Translators, especially in Muslim areas, have faced this issue, since it sounds very much like God has a wife, had sex, etc., and the people reject the translation.  In Mixtec this is translated as, “His only son.”

Another issue is, if Jesus is talking, can a person talk about himself in third person in the language? Will people think that, if Jesus is talking, then He is talking about some other son, His brother, or even implying that He is not the son of God? Yet another issue is, should it say, “He sent ME, His only son”? If Jesus is still talking, this is a real option. This is an issue throughout the Gospels, and especially in the book of John.

  1. whoever believes in him 

The teams need to consider carefully what word to use for believe, since James says that the devils believe, and tremble. In Mixtec it says that whoever trusts in him, which is a good Mixtec way of talking about faith. In many languages, you can believe in facts, but you cannot “believe” in people. You can trust them or have confidence in them, which works well here.

  1. shall not perish

Perish in what sense? Will it communicate, like some groups teach, that those who don’t go to heaven simply cease to exist? What are the people’s beliefs about the afterlife, What happens when a person dies? The Mixtec says that they will not die.

  1. but have eternal life

Does this term mean they will never experience death on this earth? Does the language have a word for eternal? If so, what does it imply? In Mixtec it says that they will be able to live forever.

A word for word translation with these adjustments in Mixtec is: For since God loves very much the people of this world, therefore he gave (ME) his only son to arrive in this world, and whoever trusts in him(ME), they will not die. Instead they will be able to live forever.


Acts 15 and Sex: How then should we Gentiles live?

Acts 15

The challenge of translating sexual terms was partly brought to my attention because of the succession of events found in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas had a heated discussion with some men who came to Antioch from Jerusalem and said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This led to a big conference in Jerusalem, where Paul, Barnabas, Peter and others spoke, and ended with the decision to send out a letter to deal with the controversy. In vs. 23 of chapter 15 we see that it is a letter from the Jewish leaders to the Gentiles: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.” Then verse 29 communicates their decision: “that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

Notice the most interesting list in vs. 29:

  1. that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols,

2. and from blood,

3. and from what has been strangled,

4. and from sexual immorality.

Eating together can cause good communion or division

The letter is not a four spiritual laws type of list. It contains three requests to abstain from certain types of food, and the other admonition is to abstain from sexual immorality. F.F. Bruce (p. 311) says in regards to the food recommendations: “In most of the churches, Gentile believers had to live alongside Jewish believers, who had been brought up to observe various food laws.” “James asked them to respect their Jewish brethren’s scruples by avoiding ‘these things’.” It is hard for people in modern times imagine how repugnant meat with blood was to the Jewish people. They had grown up from early childhood with these laws and regulations. Now, as a result of them giving their hearts to Jesus, and Gentiles doing the same, for the first time in their lives, and we might even say, in history, these “people of the law” are having close communion with Gentiles, people who were accustomed to eating meat with blood, or meat that had been sacrificed to idols.

In that era, almost all communion included food, so this was something they had to deal with practically every time they came together. At that time the idea of the First Christian Church of the Gentiles and a separate First Christian Church of the Jews was not an option. The Bible emphasizes the importance of koinonia, and many of the problems within the church had to do with divisions, strife, bickering, judgment of others, etc. So the letter asked the Gentiles to be willing to adapt in this way for their “weaker brothers.” Paul deals a lot with this issue in his letters as well, for example: Rom 14:20: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” 1 Cor. 8, another chapter dedicated to this issue says in verse:13: “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

A big difference in sexual mores

Besides the significant differences between Jews and Gentiles in regards to food (and idols), there was also a gulf of difference between them in regards to sexual mores. As a result, FF Bruce (p. 311) says this letter asks the Gentiles to “conform to the high Jewish code of relations between the sexes instead of remaining content with the lower pagan standards to which they had been accustomed. This would smooth the path of social and table fellowship between Christians of Jewish and Gentile birth.” It is hard to overstate how much the difference in sexual mores between the Jews and Gentiles affected their fellowship. The believing Jews had grown up with a strict sexual code to live by while most Gentiles grew up with the opposite. We get a glimpse of their former lifestyle through what Peter, one of the Acts 15 conference attendees and speakers said in his letter (1 Peter 4:3-4a): “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do–living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation.”

Not only was the different views of sex an issue, but the pagan attachment of feasts and sex showed itself in a number of cases. As already mentioned, most meetings among the believers at that time included food. Witherington (p. 13) says that “one should not underestimate the place of sexual expression in some pagan festivals. There is evidence that there were in Roman Corinth numerous hataerae who often served as companions of the well-to-do at meals. 1 Cor. 10:7 is a meaningful warning only if Paul had good reason to assume that sexual play was a regular part of some meals among the pagans.” 1 Cor. 10:7 says: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’” Quinitilan warns that a teacher of rhetoric should teach his charges about the danger of such feasts, especially because of the possibility of more mature youths or men taking advantage of younger boys in such settings.” (Witherington, p. 13. footnote 31) It is clear that at least something similar was a problem in some churches, reflected in Jude’s warning about the false teachers, with the implication that some of them practiced such things, as vs.12 says: “These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm–shepherds who feed only themselves.”

Paul’s letters emphasize sexual purity

It is into this cultural context that Paul writes his letters. Paul’s letters include at least twelve lists of three or more sins, and in every one of his lists, except for one, at least one sexual sin is listed, and in most lists there are three. The one list in Ephesians 4 which does not include a sexual sin is preceded by verses promoting purity, and followed by a list which entreats the Ephesians to flee sexual immortality. Paul contextualizes his instructions not to sin, and one of the biggest sins which he had to confront the people about was illicit sexual relations. (Note also how many times division and strife are mentioned as well.)

In fact, in his writings Paul lists over 65 different sins which his readers were to avoid. Yes, Paul’s main message is that only through Jesus do we find grace, are forgiven and have eternal life. But then the question comes, as Francis Shaffer stated, “How then shall we live?” Since Paul did not expect the Gentiles to become Jews and follow all the laws and customs of the Jewish people found in the Old Testament, he takes the moral laws of God and applies them to the Gentile context in each place he visited.

We can think of the Acts 15 controversy this way: Judaizers sought to change the Gentiles’ religion. (Acts 15:5b: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”). Paul, on the other hand, gives them a message which could change their heart, and gives instructions on how to live a holy life, pleasing to God. His lists are contextualized to deal with their specific sins and temptations, although they included most of the ideas from the 10 commandments.


Bruce, F. F. 1970. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co.

Witherington III, Ben. 1995. Conflict & Community in Corinth. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The following is a list of the Greek sexual terms used in the New Testament. Note how many verses in the New Testament contains a sexual term. This issue is not just some obscure topic. It literally concerns well over one hundred verses.

Greek word Romans letters verses Translations
πορνεία porneīa


Mat. 5:32, 15:19, 19:9; Mark 7:21; John 8:41; Acts 15:20, 29, 21:25; Rom. 1:29, 1 Cor. 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Co. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:3; Rev. 2:21, 9:21, 14:8, 17:2, 4, 18:3, 19:2. Fornication, sexual immorality
πορνεύω porneúw 1 Cor. 6:18, 10:8; Rev. 2:14, 20, 17:2, 18:3, 19:2 sins sexually, sexually immoral person
πόρνη pornh Mat. 21:31-2; Luke 15:30; 1 Cor. 6:15-16; Heb. 11:31; Jas. 2:25; Rev 17:1,5, 15-16, 19:2 Prostitute, harlot, whore
πόρνος pórnos 1 Cor. 5:9-11; Eph. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 12:16, 13:4; Rev. 21:8, 22:15 Fornicators, whoremongers, sexually immoral, adulterers (NIV)
ἐκπορνεύω ekporneúw Jude 7 Giving themselves over to fornication/sexual immorality




Mat. 12:39, 16:4; Mark 8:38; Rom. 7:3 (2); Jas. 4:4; 2 Pet. 2:14 Adulterous, adulteress, adultery
μοιχεύω moicheúw Mat. 5:27, 28, 32 19.18; Mark 10.19; Luke 16:18; 18.20; John 8:4; Rom. 2:22; 13.9; Jas. 2:11: Rev. 2:22 adultery
μοιχεία moicheía Mat. 15:19; Mark 7.21; John 8:3 Gal. 5.19 Adultery, adulteries
μοιχάω moicháw Mat. 5:32; 19.9; Mark 10.11-12


commits adultery
μοιχός moíchos Luke 18:11; 1 Cor. 6:9; Heb, 13:4; Jas. 4:4 Adulterers,


asélgeia Mark 7:22; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19, Eph. 4:19, 1 Pet. 4:3; 2 Pet. 2:7, 18; Jude 4 Sensual conduct, sensual passions, lasciviousness,

debauchery, wantonness, lustful desires

Greek word Roman letters verses Translations


páthos Rom. 1:26; Col. 3:5; 1 Th. 4:5 Vile affections, inordinate affection, lust
πάθος ἀτιμία


páthos atimía


Rom. 1:26 dishonorable passions, shameful lusts,
ἐπιθυμία epithumía Rom. 1:24, 6:2, 7:7-8, 13:14; Gal. 5:16, 24; Eph. 2:3, 4:22; Col 3:5; 1Th 4:5; 1 Tim 6:9; 2Tim. 2:22, 3:6, 4:3; Tit. 2:12, 3:3; Jas. 1:14-15; 1Pet. 1:14, 2:11, 4:2-3; 2Pet. 1:4, 2:10, 18, 3:3; 1Joh. 2:16-17; Jude 16, 18. Lusts, sinful desires
ὄρεχις órexis Rom. 1:27 lust
ἐκκαίω ekkaío Rom. 1:27 inflamed, consumed with passion


kómos Rom 13:13; Gal. 5:21; 1 Pet. 4:3 Orgies, rioting, revellings, carousing


koith (Luke 11:7, Rom. 9:10) 13:13; Heb. 13:4 Bed, chambering, sexual immorality
μαλακός malakós (Mat. 11:8(2); Luke 7:25) 1 Cor. 6:9 Soft, effeminate, male prostitute
ἀρσενοκοίτης arsenokoítes 1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Ti. 1:10 Abusers of themselves with mankind, defile themselves with mankind
ἀκαθαρσία akatharsía Mat. 23:27; Rom. 1:24; 6.19; 2Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5.19; Eph. 4:19; 5.3; Col 3:5; 1Th 2:3, 4:7 Uncleanness, impurity