This post is Part 2 of a four-part series through John 3:16–21. The content is a reduction of my personal notes for a sermon I recently preached at a men’s homeless shelter in St. Paul, Minnesota. At a glance, the progression will move as follows: Week 1: 3:16; Week 2: 3:17–18; Week 3: 3:19–20; Week 4: 3:21. Here is the main point of the text: The extraordinary love of God opens the door for salvation to everyone who would love his Son and depend wholly upon him.
In Part 1, we saw that although God does genuinely love the world (i.e., his universal love), there is a special privilege that he grants to those who believe in his only Son—namely, eternal life (i.e., his unique love). That is, within God’s universal love for the world is a type of love that is unique and exclusive for only those who believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.
The Purpose of God Giving His Son (v. 17)
Knowing this, the question arises: for what reason did God send his only Son into the world? The answer is found in verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John—the one who wrote the Gospel of John, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation—first states the answer as a negative: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” And then as a positive: “but in order that the world might be saved through him.” By stating his answer this way, John employs a rhetorical device that emphasizes the positive statement over the negative. In other words, the reason God sent his Son into the world was not that, but this—i.e., the free offer of salvation to the world.
Notice three things: First, the giving of God’s Son in verse 16 has now changed to the sending of God’s Son. From where was he sent? "No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (John 3:13). "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38). "And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed" (John 17:5).
Notice also that these texts all come from the same Gospel, the Gospel of John. Often when you raise a question about a passage (e.g., “from where was Jesus sent in John 3:17?”), the answer can be found either in the surrounding context of your passage or the wider context of the book as a whole. Here, we can see three instances in John’s Gospel (i.e., the wider context of the book as a whole) where he reveals the place from which Jesus descended and the person who sent him—i.e., God the Father sent Jesus from heaven.
Jesus Christ enjoyed eternal fellowship with the Father and then left that joyous and perfect dwelling to save sinners through his death on the cross. Jesus Christ is the one who
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6–8)
Second, note the implication of “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” Why would John says this? What about Jesus’ being sent into the world would make onlookers think that he came into the world to condemn it? Since Jesus’ coming into the world is a result of God’s love (John 3:16), why might this be perceived as condemnation? The answer can be found in the third point.
Third, the world can only be saved through Jesus Christ. Note that verse 17 includes a small, but incredibly important, word: “might.” The plausibility of this “might” clarifies the preceding point—namely, the salvation of the entire world is not definitive through Jesus Christ. Eternal life is reserved only for those who believe in Jesus (v. 16).
In our context, the possibility (expressed in English by “might”) of salvation for the entire world through faith is made readily available through the sending of Jesus Christ into the world. That is why I said in Part 1 that “the extraordinary love of God [merely] opens the door for salvation to everyone who would love his Son and depend wholly upon him.” The coming of the Son of God into the world opens up the opportunity for salvation to come to the entire world. And God offers this only through faith in his Son (John 3:16). Yet, although salvation is a definite reality for “whoever believes in [Jesus]” (John 3:16), this is only a possibility for the entire world, for, as I demonstrated in Part 1, the entire world does not have faith in the only Son of God. And this clarifies the preceding point because the implication is that those who do not believe in the Son will not receive eternal life and thus be condemned (cf. John 3:18; 12:47–48). Thus, since some are condemned because of unbelief (John 3:18), it might look like God’s purpose in sending his Son is condemnation.
So, the world is saved only through Jesus Christ. What, therefore, is the world saved from and what does it even mean to be saved?
First, what is the world saved from? For, if salvation—that’s when God saves people—is the purpose of Christ’s coming into the world, then answering this question correctly is an eternally significant matter. That is, your eternal life or your eternal destruction depends upon how you answer this question. Here is the answer: Christ descended from heaven in order to save men from their sins. “[As John the Baptist cried] Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). "I [Jesus] told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he—i.e., the One who came from heaven—you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).
Like Israel, whom God freed from the grip of slavery in Egypt, Christ came to free men from the bondage of sin. This is called redemption (Lev 25:51–52; Ruth 4:6; Rom 3:24; 8:23; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12). The only difference between the slavery of those who do not believe and Israel’s slavery, is that those who do not believe in Jesus love their slavery. Those who refuse to love Jesus Christ are like prisoners of war who love their imprisonment. But those who love Jesus Christ rejoice for their redemption is secured eternally (Heb 9:12)! The Apostle Paul, who wrote 13 of the letters in the NT, speaks to this very thing in Romans 6:
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness … For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Rom 6:17–18, 19)
And that is my second point. What it means to be saved is that from the heart all of your love and affection and obedience is transferred from your former Master Sin, to a new Master: Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus was sent into the world. So that the world might experience this great deliverance from sin. And only those who believe in his Son experience such deliverance. This is God’s unique expression of love.
The Condemnation that Comes from Seeing His Love (v. 18)
I mentioned that in v. 17 we find the implication that some do not believe and are therefore condemned. Verse 18, being a direct response to vv. 16–17 makes explicit what v. 17 held implicit. It says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (v. 18).
In this verse, John presents us with the same two characters of verse 16: the one who believes and the one who does not believe. This verse also clarifies the meaning of the two characters—namely, the one who believes does not receive condemnation and the one who does not believe does.
Reason: “because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This is outright rejection. This person sees the Son who has descended from heaven, recognized his purpose in being sent—namely, that he might save the world from its slavery to sin, which is the greatest expression of love the world has ever seen—and has rejected him. He does not recognize his need for salvation. He is what the Bible calls “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). He’s sees the Christ’s bloody body hanging on a cross, and like the Pharisees and Roman soldiers (Matt 27:41; Mark 14:65), mocks at him. It’s like a man drowning in the Pacific Ocean scorning, deriding, and mocking the coast-guard who has descended from his safe helicopter to rescue him. If a drowning man mocks his savior, he deserves to drown.
And notice that the verb “condemn” is in the present tense: “but whoever does not believe is condemned already.” In Greek, the tense of this verb suggests that up until this very moment in this person’s life, he has been condemned. That is, he has always been condemned because he has refused to believe in the Son of God all of his life, even up until this point. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36). When you think of God’s wrath, don’t merely think of it in terms of final days; the wrath of God is a present-day reality. Paul confirms this in Romans 1:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18).
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (1:24–25).
“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions …” (1:26).
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to aa debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28).
Therefore, the only person who is condemned is he who sees the Son of God and loves and trusts an alternative more than him. We will see this truth fully blossomed later in v. 21.
Conclusion to Part 2
Verse 17 contains the purpose for which Jesus was sent—namely, God gave his only Son so that salvation would be readily available for the world. Yet, even though this is true, only those who believe in the Son of God will receive such a gift. On the contrary, v. 18 reveals the outcome of those who do not believe in the Son—namely, they receive only condemnation because of their unbelief. And the type of condemnation manifested is a present-day condemnation that bleeds into eternity. Therefore, the wrath of God remains on those who do not trust in God’s love manifested in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 3:36).
In Part 3, we will examine man’s suicidal love of darkness over light in 3:19–20. Then, in the concluding Part 4, we will see God’s decisive work of love (3:21) in the hearts of those who come to Jesus.
 ὥστε; ōste (“that”) here signifies the result of a preceding action (Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and William F. Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000], 1107).
 The mood of this verb in Greek is called subjunctive. This “is the mood of potential or possibility” (Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek, [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014], 462); cf. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: an Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 461–480. In other words, when this mood is employed, the author is portraying the event as having a potential of happening or not.
 However, we do see Israel, on several occasions in their wilderness days, and in unbelief, longing to return to their once-former slavery in Egypt (Exod 16:3; Num 5:11; 21:5; Acts 7:39).