For 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.
What does it mean to “perish”? Generally, the term describes destruction instead of preservation. For example, in 1Cor. 1.18-19 “perishing” is the opposite of “being saved.”In the context of John, the term also implies to be forever excluded from any relationship with God. The Jews believed their relationship with God was assured because they were Jewish, but in the verses leading up to John 3.16, Jesus tells Nicodemus no can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again and no can enter the kingdom of of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. As mentioned previously, as an important member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was familiar with the terms or concepts used by Jesus in John 3. For example, the Talmud, a central text for Rabbinic Judaism, describes a convert to Judaism as a “newborn infant (b. Yeb 22a, 62a, 48b; y. Bk 3:3 vii)”. The Talmud was produced later than the gospel of John, but depends on oral teaching and tradition reaching back to ancient Judaism with which Nicodemus was probably very familiar.
The importance and role of water would also be familiar to a Pharisee like Nicodemus. Earlier in John 1, the Pharisees had asked John the Baptist about his practice of baptism. The baptism of someone entering Judaism from non-Jewish society was commonplace, but the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus’ words implied that Nicodemus and the Pharisees needed real repentance and baptism for themselves. Jesus’ words make it clear that outward conformity to Jewish rituals and beliefs had no weight on the eternal scales. Eternal life could never depend on conformity to any of these things. Instead, it depended on one’s recognition of Jesus as the Son of God.
It is always good for me to be reminded that my status with God is not dependent on my outward conformity. Like Augustus Toplady says in his great hymn, “Rock of Ages”, Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your cross I cling! If we are going to hold on to the cross, we must first let go of any claim we have. Only when our hands and our hearts are emptied of our own merit, only then are we able to fully grasp the salvation found in the God’s One and Only. Even though elements of John 3 might indicate that Nicodemus did not really understand, perhaps he was beginning to get it. The unpredictable and powerful Holy Spirit may have begun blowing new life into him. Later on, in the aftermath of Jesus’ death, he emerges again from the shadows to assist in helping with the Lord’s burial (John 19.39).
What does it mean to perish? It does not mean merely to die. Nor does it mean annihilation or to cease to exist. It means to experience futility and the complete loss of all that makes existence worthwhile. It is the state of existence in which humanity presently exists. We are alive in a state of existence described in the Bible as dead in our sins (Ephesians 2.1).
The Parable of the Prodigal Son give us an insight into the meaning of “perish.” Notice how the father describes his son in Luke 15.24- …this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. The term used for “lost” in the Luke passage is the same term we translate as “perish” in John 3.16. Here it is rendered “perish” because apart from believing in God’s only son, we are truly “lost” – even a son of Israel, like Nicodemus, regardless of what he thought, was lost. Like Nicodemus, apart from the grace shown to us in Christ we are lost and perishing people, a world of prodigal sons and daughters ready to satisfy the deepest hunger of our souls with the pig slop of a world far away from our Father and the feast awaiting our return.