This updated version of “The Top Ten things to consider when translating John 3:16 ” was prepared for the 2019 Bible Translation conference in Dallas Texas (Oct 11-15, 2019). The main intended audience are Bible translators, consultants and others involved in this vitally important task. (But these 10 points can also be used in small groups, Bible studies etc., to both better understand the verse and/or better understand the challenges of translation.) There are so many things that could be said about this amazing verse, which Lange says: “contains the whole gospel in a nutshell, or ‘the Bible in miniature,’ and is worth more than all the wisdom of the world.” (Lange, John Peter – Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Vol 6.) Conference presentations are 25 minutes long and so I have tried to focus the discussion on areas which will hopefully help translators as they work through the translation challenges.
John 3:16 is the most well known verse in the Bible. “No verse in Scripture has been more widely quoted. In briefest compass it tells us of the character of God, his redemptive act in behalf of the human race, and the role of faith that leads to the gift of eternal life. Beasley-Murray, 51, calls this passage “a confessional summary of the Gospel.”” (Mounce, R. H., 2007)
For some teams, this is one of the first verses they translate or are asked to translate to quickly provide the people with an introduction to the Gospel. Or if it is translated later on, it will probably be one of the verses which will be scrutinized and quoted the most. If this verse is translated too early in the program, and partners begin using it in their materials, and the people begin memorizing it, and later on it is discovered that the verse should be significantly revised, then there could be some push-back on changing it, as well as other potential problems.
As a result, and just like all other verses to be translated, it is vitally important to:
- translate the verse in context
- be aware of the exegetical issues involved
- make a detailed study of the keyterms that are part of this verse and its context. The more work that has gone into revising that list will contribute to this verse communicating accurately and naturally and having the maximum impact.
- do extensive research into all the things SIL has historically emphasized, such as linguistic, discourse, translation and cultural studies.
Keyterms: heaven, Son of Man, believes, God, (only) Son, love, eternal life, world, perish, condemn, save, through Him, in the name of:
13No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17For God (so loved the world that He) did not send (give) his (one and only) Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him (whosoever believes in Him). 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
There are also the issues in vs. 14: Who is this Moses, in what form did he lift up a (live?) snake in some desert and for what reason? A lot of implied and background information. Jesus being lifted up is most likely also an illusion to Abraham lifting up Isaac onto the altar. Genesis 22:2: “Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
An interlinear of John 3:16
| 2 thus
|| 1 for
|| unique [one],
|| he gave,
| 2 not
|| 1 may 3 perish
(Several Mexico Branch members not directly involved in translation have used the ten following points as they share with Sunday school classes, Bible studies, etc. It should also be noted that the author is a translation consultant and has been a part of two Mixtec (Mexico) translation projects and examples from those translations of John 3:16 will be referred to.)
1. Does Jesus stop talking at verse 15 or verse 21?
Commentators do not agree where Jesus stopped talking and the writer John began his commentary. (Many commentators included in Logos Bible Software think John said it.) 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 think John wrote it about Him.
Major English versions which stop the quote at verse 15 include the RSV, NIV and NET. But the NRSV and other versions of the NIV (i.e. 84) go to vs. 21.
Use of γὰρ (for)
Some commentators propose that γὰρ (the second Greek word of vs. 16) is a way John uses to introduce the fact that Jesus has stopped speaking, and John is now explaining Jesus’ meaning. However, Hendrickson (NCC) says γὰρ establishes a relationship with vs. 15. “Jesus tells Nicodemus (in vs. 14-15) that the Son of Man must be lifted up for the purpose indicated. This δεῖ is elucidated in vs. 16, hence γὰρ, which so often offers no proof but only further explanation.” (Lenski)
Another clue as to who is talking is “gave” in the aorist. “Gave” could encompass John looking at Jesus’ whole life (birth, crucifixion and resurrection), or Jesus talking about His coming (He gave Me and here I am), though He could also be referring to His upcoming death and resurrection since that is His reason for His coming (gave Me so I could die and rise again).
Some commentators also refer to various words used in 16-21 that are used by the Gospel writer in other parts of the book but are never attributed to Jesus. (“only” Son, etc.) as an indication that John is writing this, and not Jesus saying it to Nicodemus. Or did John learn some of these words from Jesus?
Depending on how the team/language marks quotations, how they deal with this issue can significantly affect how the text looks, especially if the language requires an ending quote word/phase (said he/Jesus). Mixtec must start and end every quotation: Then Jesus said to Nicodemus…said he. So if the team felt that Jesus stopped talking at the end of vs. 15, then they would have had to put the proper quotation marks, and add, “said he.” By not doing that, the reader/listener assumes that Jesus keeps talking until “said he” appears, which is at the end of vs. 21. When recording this section, especially when using separate speakers for the Narrator and Jesus, the translation team must decide where Jesus stops talking and the Narrator starts up again.
2. For Thusly (Οὕτωςγὰρ)
The actual first word of verse 16 is “Thusly” (Οὕτως). Thusly can refer (1) to the degree to which God loved the world, that is, to such an extent or so much that he gave his own Son (or (2) simply to the manner in which God loved the world, i.e., by sending his own son (as in vs. 14).
“It is likely that John is emphasizing both the degree to which God loved the world as well as the manner in which He chose to express that love.” (2006, The NET Bible First Edition Notes)
So the two options are: “For God so loved the world.” So much incredible love, or in the following way He expressed His love by giving…. Οὕτως could also tie vs. 16 to vs. 14-15, making a beautiful couplet in the Hebrew style of restatement. This could also be true of the section from vs. 13 through vs. 18, which communicates the same thing in slightly different ways.
How vs. 14 helps us understand vs. 16
Look closely at the context of vs. 14-16: 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so (=Οὕτως) the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so(=Οὕτως) loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This pair of Οὕτως (combined with γὰρ) closely ties the lifting up of the serpent by Moses, the lifting up of the Son of Man and the giving of the Only Son. And if “lifting up” is also a reference to Abraham lifting Isaac up His son onto the altar as a sacrifice….
The Son of Man “must” be lifted up (purpose). God loved the world, therefore (in a similar way) gave His only Son (to be lifted up) so that…..
3. God (θεὸς)
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.” How this and other keyterms have been translated in related languages, if there are any, can also be considered.
Some people in the two Mixtec areas also call the saints gods, and in Mixtec words are not marked for singular and plural. Which God and how many of them love the world? In another Mixtec variety, a calendar had “Xuva” for God, which is “John” in some Mixtec variants, and the town saint for that village is Saint John.
4. Loved (ἠγάπησεν)
Translating love in the past tense/completive aspect could imply in some languages that God does not love us any more (He “used” to love the world). In the Mixtec, the team decided to express this in continuative aspect: “God loves people of the world very much.” These particular Mixtec variants have at least three different words/phrases that can be used to express love, compassion, empathy, desire, etc.
Greek has three words for love, “agape”, here, plus “philos” and “eros”, so each translation team needs to consider what are different words for love in the language. John has at least 89 instances of love in His Gospel, God loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, Jesus loving the disciples, the need to love one another. But nowhere else in the NT does it say that God loves the world.
No human mind could have thought it, could have conceived it – God had to reveal it, the Son had to attest it. We may call this the aorist constative; it reaches back into eternity and culminates in Bethlehem. (Lenski)
5. the World (κόσμον)
Translating the word “world” (kosmos) literally may imply that God’s love for the land, trees, etc. and somehow that led Him to send His only Son. In Mixtec it was adjusted to say that “God loves the people of the world.”
Some commentators find this statement (of God loving the world) strange. “World” is used to refer to either creation, or commonly in John, in a negative light, that we should not love the world, should not be of the world (the evil system). The implication is that the Son left His glory in heaven and was given to come to this evil, sinful world (Philippians 2:5-11, Romans 5:8, 8:32, etc.), which is under the power of Satan (Luke 4:6, etc.), to undermine Satan and give new, eternal life to all those who put their trust in Him. (Rom 8:19-21)
In these verses the idea is God’s love for all the people of the world, whosoever. This, of course, would be news to Nicodemus, since Jews saw God as loving the Jewish people and not loving everyone else. No Jewish writer maintains that God loved the world, only Israel.
6. He Gave (ἔδωκεν) (in Greek appears after the Son, the only one)
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, i.e. He gave Him away. With a transitive verb like give, many languages require an indirect object, to clarify to whom He gave Him. It is an incomplete idea in many languages to simply say “gave”. In one of the Mixtec variants, after experimenting with using the idea that God “sent” Him (as in vs. 17), the team 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.”
ἔδωκεν (gave) means “to assign a person to a task as a particular benefit to others.” (Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A., 1996)
Vs. 17 uses the word “send” instead of “gave” to express a similar idea: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world….” Isaiah seems to use “being given” and “being born” as a couplet: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.” (Is. 9:6)
Mixtec language requirements
As mentioned, one of the Mixtec teams, to conserve the verb “give” translated this part as: “God gave him and he has arrived to this world.” But using “arrived” with “gave” also 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 and He has arrived to this world (and is still here)” Or, “God gave Me and I have arrived to this world (and I am still here)”. Arrival verbs in this context imply the speaker is still present. (The other Mixtec variant says “He sent Me, His only son, to this world)
If it is John narrating, he would say, “He sent/gave Him and He came (and left).” “Come” in the completive 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. Deibler, E. W., Jr., (1999) says the implied information could be: “sent him to earth to die as an offering for sin.”
“The gift was actually made, the aorist marks the past fact. God’s own son sat before Nicodemus at that very moment.” (Lenski)
7. His Only Son (τὸνυἱὸντὸν μονογενῆ)
Translating “Son” in some cultures creates certain problems 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 people may reject the translation. This is not an issue in most Latin American areas. In Mixtec this is translated as, “His only son.”
The use of the third person
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 Himself 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 an option. Jesus talking about Himself in the third person occurs throughout the Gospels, especially in the book of John
Almost all commentators believe Jesus is speaking in third person in verses 13, 14 and 15: No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. In vs. 13-15 He refers to Himself as: Son of Man. In vs. 16-18 He is referred to (or refers to Himself) as: Son, Only Son. And in vs. 19-21 He is referred to (or refers to Himself) as: Light has come into the world
Verses when Jesus is talking in the third person and people know He is referring to Himself
Matt. 16:13: Jesus asks the disciples who do men think that the Son of Man is, and they answer Him.
Matt. 17:22-23: Jesus says the Son of Man will be killed, and the disciples were filled with grief.
Matt. 26:64-65: Jesus says the Son of Man will be seated at God’s right hand, and the chief priest ripped his robe.
Mark 8:31-32: Jesus says the Son of Man will suffer and die, and Peter rebukes Him.
Luke 22:22-23: Jesus says the Son of Man will be betrayed by one at the table, and the disciples ask who could it be.
Acts 7:56: Stephen calls Jesus the Son of Man.
Verses when people say they do not know who He is talking about:
John 9:35-37: “Who is this Son of Man? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” “He is speaking to you.” (from the time Jesus healed a man’s son)
John 12:34: “Who is this Son of Man?” (when the crowd does not understand when Jesus teaches that the Son of Man will be lifted up)
8. Whoever Believes in Him (ἵναπᾶςὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν)
Translation teams need to carefully consider what word to use for believe. 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. In Mixtec it says “so that whoever trusts in him.”
“The Greek expression pisteuō eis (“to believe into”) carries the sense of placing one’s trust into or completely on someone. Paul’s teaching of believers as being “in Christ” is a theological reflection on the same expression.” (Mounce, R. H., 2007)
Lenski points the correlation and parallelism between verses 14-15 and 16: “14,15Lifted up so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. 16gave so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.
9. Shall Not Perish (μὴἀπόληται)
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: ”they will never die.”
“being lost (perishing) is more than just physical death. It is, as the next verse will show, eternal condemnation and separation from God.” (Michaels, J. R., 2010) “Divine condemnation, complete and everlasting, banished from the presence of God.” (NCC, Hendrickson)
The concept of “shall not perish” and vs. 17, 18, “condemned” is the same idea/theme. The rich man was condemned/perished, Lazarus was saved/had eternal life. Vs. 3:15 and 16 focus on life, 3:17 and 18 on not condemned but saved. 17For God did not send his (one and only) Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (whosoever believes in Him)
10. But Have Eternal Life (ἀλλ’ ἔχῃζωὴναἰώνιον)
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? Will what is translated imply life without end only in heaven, or a new type of life that starts in this world? In Mixtec it says: “they will be able to live forever.” John talks a lot about life, that Jesus is the source of life, the giver of life, and life is “in” Him.
What a revelation for this old Pharisee Nicodemus, who all his life-long had relied on his own works. (Lenski)
How it came out in Mixtec
A word for word translation with these adjustments in the Mixtec of Tezoatlán: “For since God loves very much the people of this world, therefore he gave his only son to arrive in this world, and whoever trusts in him, they will never die. Instead they will be able to live forever.”
In the Mixtec of Ayutla: “Because since God loves so much the people of this world, therefore he sent me, his only son to this world. So whoever trusts in me, they will never die before God, instead they will receive life that never ends.”
Note about who is speaking
If the Mixec translation team thought that Jesus had finished speaking at the end of verse 15, then the language would have required them to end vs. 15 with “–kaá na̱”, “he said”, since all discourse must end with this phrase, it is like quotation marks in Mixtec. Since the team did not put “he said” at the end of 15, the assumption is that the discourse continues on, and stops at the end of vs. 21, where “he said” appears.
Another thing the Mixtec team had to consider in relation to this issue was the audio recording, since over 90% of those who will be exposed to this verse will hear it via the Mixtec audio recording on the Scripture app or a Megavoice audio player. When the team recorded this section, using the multi-voice approach, with a separate voice for the narrator and Jesus, Jesus continued talking until the end of vs. 21. So each translation team who does a multi-voice audio recording will have to decide whether to change the voice at vs. 15 or verse 21.
Back translations from other languages:
Like this God loves all people in the world, with the result that he gave his Only Child, so that whoever believes in that his Child, they will not receive punishment /condemnation, but they will receive good life forever. (Uma, Indonesia)
Since God’s love for people in this world is great, he sent his only Child so that whoever believes in him, he would not be separated from God to be punished, but rather there would be in him life that has no end. (Kankanaey, Philippines)
God very much loves the people who live here on earth. Therefore he sent his only son to be killed in order that every one who believes in him will not be lost, rather he will have the new life forever. (Otomi, México)
Dios amó tanto a la gente de este mundo, que me entregó a mí, que soy su único Hijo, para que todo el que crea en mí no muera, sino que tenga vida eterna. (TLA)
[God very much loved the people of this world, that he sent me, who is his only son, so that all who believe in me will not die, but have eternal life.] (Actual language Translation)
For God really values very much all people here under the heavens. Therefore he gave his one-and-only Son, so that as for whoever will believe-in/obey and trust-in/rely-on him, he won’t get to go there to suffering/hardship, but on the contrary he will be given life without ending. (Tagbanwa, Philippines)
All mankind is very big in the breath of God and because of this, even his only son he did not hold back, but rather he sent him here so that all who believe in him, their souls will not be punished, but rather they will be given life without end. (Western Bukidnon Manobo, Philippines)
Because God greatly loves people of the world, because of it, God sent his only son to earth so that all men who believe in God’s son, those men will not be lost to the evil thing. On the contrary, they will have life forever. (Zapotec of Miahuatlan, Mexico)
Deibler, E. W., Jr. (1999). An Index of Implicit Information in the New Testament.
Hendrickson, William, (1962). New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
Lenski. R.C.H. (1942). The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel. Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern.
Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 482). New York: United Bible Societies.
Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 399). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
(2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Jn 3:15). Biblical Studies Press.
Michaels, J. R. (2010). The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.