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Does the word 'believe' in John 3:15-16 mean to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, or to believe in the message of Jesus:

15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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

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I've added the text: please feel free to choose another version if you prefer. –  Jack Douglas May 13 at 17:30
    
It strikes me that the phrase might be more important; "believe in him" which is translated from "pisteuwn eis auton"cf. scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/NTpdf/joh3.pdf –  mikebabcock May 13 at 19:10
    
@Jack Douglas - Now I'm very interested in the preposition question (see my comment on Paul Vargas's answer below). Should I ask this as a new question, or might it be possible to expand this one to include it if OK with the OP? –  Susan May 20 at 9:32
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Hi @Susan, I think a new question would be best if you are willing to pose it? –  Jack Douglas May 20 at 11:19
    
@Jack Douglas - thanks, done hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/9250/… –  Susan May 21 at 3:25

4 Answers 4

The Greek text of the passage you mention is as follows:

ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ 3:15-16 (SBLGNT)
15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλὰ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

One possible literal translation of the text:

John 3:15-16 (YLT)
15 that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during, 16 for God did so love the world, that His Son -- the only begotten -- He gave, that every one who is believing in him may not perish, but may have life age-during.

The Greek word πιστεύω (pisteuō), translated believe in some versions of the Bible, has its roots in the Greek word πίστις (pistis), which means faith, which is derived from another word, πείθω (peithō), persuade.

About the word πιστεύω, the The Essence of the New Testament: A Survey says:

The Greek word pisteuō means to believe, trust, rely upon, and its related noun is pistis (faith). In his Gospel, John never used the words repent, repentance, or faith to describe the way people are saved. Instead, he used believe since the term included all these ideas. John preferred the verb form to emphasize the act that is necessary for someone to be saved-total dependence on the work of another. John did indicate that believing can be superficial when it is merely intellectual without resulting in true salvation (John 2:23- 24; 6:66; 12:42-43; see Jas 2:19). Jesus used a wordplay when He said that people must do "the work of God" for salvation, for His point was that we must not try to work for it at all. We must simply "believe in the One He has sent" (John 6:29). Because this Gospel was written for the clear and simple purpose of persuading everyone who reads it to "believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31), it is no surprise that the Gospel of John is the most frequently distributed portion of the Bible to those curious about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In another hand, the word πίστις is defined in Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon as:

  1. Conviction of the truth of anything, belief [...]; in the N. T. of a conviction or belief respecting man's relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and conjoined with it. [...]
    • a. When it relates to God, πίστις is "the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ" [...]
    • b. In reference to Christ, it denotes "a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God" [...]

So, you must not only believe in Jesus as the Son of God and His Word, but trust Him completely.

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Any comment on the shift in the preposition from ἐν (+dative) in v. 15 to εἰς (+accusative) in v. 16? It looks like there's a textual variant in v. 15 that eliminates this difference, but the SBL has it as you quoted. –  Susan May 20 at 9:15
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As @JackDouglas has already suggested, a new question is the best choice. –  Paul Vargas May 20 at 13:00

It strikes me that the phrase might be more important; "believe in him" which is translated from "pisteuwn eis auton." The same phrase appears two verses later exactly (to begin verse 18), but the ending of verse 18 is "he that does not believe is condemned" from "pepisteuken eis to onoma" (not believed the name).

From this I surmise the issue is belief in the identity of Jesus; failure to do so leads to condemnation.

Greek taken from interlinear here: http://www.scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/Greek_Index.htm

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This is where much error has divided the Churches. So I want to give a thorough presentation so that confusion can actually end. The Answer outright can sound unbelievable, so a building of concepts is needed to be able to hold the correct interpretation.

First is to understand that Belief and Faith act as synonyms to the same concept.

John 11:40 [πιστεύσῃς], John 3:15 [πιστεύων], John 3:16 [πιστεύων], Ephesians 2:8 [πίστεως]

Next we need to understand why that teaching gives life.
We can understand faith by understanding the reason why it was needed.

For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NKJV)

Since the Cause of Death came from Adam, Understanding How will teach us about Faith.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 NKJV)

Notice he did not say if you do evil you will die. It is If you eat the fruits then you die.

...for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17 NKJV)

Understanding evil is very important to this concept.
I have other sources that take longer to also show evil as error, yet this explains it the simplest, and I don't have a lot of other things to convince people of.

We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:6 NKJV)

It is Important to understand what the Knowledge of Good and Evil is. I have other sources that show the knowledge of Good and Evil means Function and Dysfunction, yet since I do not want to have to convince people of that source. I will attempt to do it the bible way.

Good is a Function?

Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17 NKJV)

Error is Dysfunction, Sin is eating the fruit of it.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7 NKJV)

The Fruit of Function and Dysfunction is not an actual fruit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 NKJV)

For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. (Romans 7:5 NKJV)

So we can see two points here

  • The fruit is found "in our members"
  • The Fruits of Function and Dysfunction are eaten regularly.

Comparing the two sets of fruits

You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. (Matthew 7:16-17 NKJV)

Defining The Fruits of Function and Dysfunction

Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 NKJV)

Defining the Fruits of Faith

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22 NKJV)

Seeing the choice through an example Dysfunction can be defined as when something is supposed to work stops working. Let us place a situation where an air conditioner breaks down in a time of need. When that person "Knows" about the dysfunction. There is "Two Reaction Paths".

Path One - The Path of Unbelief (The Natural Path)
When seeing that the air Conditioner is broken the man exclaims, "I can't believe that the Air Conditioner is Broken!" Then follows through with an Outbursts of Wrath which is defined as the Fruits of the Flesh, or as the Fruits of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Path Two - The Path of Faith (The Path of Jesus)
When seeing that the air Conditioner is broken the man trusts in the word and prays "Can we get a new Air Conditioner?" and much Love, Peace, and Joy are created.

To the Questioner's Answer! Does the word 'believe' in John 3:15-16 mean to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, or to believe in the message of Jesus
The Answer goes like this, Once you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then you can learn about his message, and then you can apply what he taught. So the word 'believe' in John 3:15-16 is used in the application of what the Son of God Taught.

But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say? (Luke 6:46 NKJV)

Yet to "Have the Faith" you must know "When to Apply It"

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1 NKJV)

So when the Dysfunction is Known: We hope in God, and that is Belief.

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Galatians 6:7-8 NKJV)

So either "the Body" fulfills the Law, or the "Spirit" Fulfills the Law.

And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. (Galatians 5:3 NKJV)

By this you can see that the Laws of the Flesh are also of the Laws of the Circumcision. For to truly circumcise the flesh we trust in the "Word" instead of our own Bodies. Therefore by no longer trusting in our bodies to fulfill the law, we are proved righteous through "Graceful Response" upon "Knowledge of the Dysfunctional Situation".

An Example of an Ungraceful Wife
Upon knowledge that the car bill is soon due, she freaks out and screams at her husband about how careless he is for not paying the bill ahead of time. She continues to berate and smack him until he finally leaves to go make the payment.

An Example of a Graceful Wife
Upon knowledge that the car bill is soon due, she prays "Can you go pay the car bill now?", then with patient persistence she continues to ask until he pays it.

Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, 2 saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. 3 Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ 4 And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” (Luke 18:1-5 NKJV)

I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs. (Luke 11:8 NKJV)

For prayer works because some do not want to be bothered.

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To believe in Jesus is to accept what God the Father says about Jesus, and what Jesus says about The Kingdom of Heaven as true, and then act up on what God has has said of Jesus, and to act upon what Jesus has said about The Kingdom of Heaven. To simply hear and not to act upon is not belief! Jesus said to the Pharisees "Before Abraham was, I AM." (John 8:58) If we look to the story of the burning bush, when Moses said "Who shall I say sent me?" God replied "I AM, Who I AM." (Exodus 3:14) Therefore, we are to both believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and also in the message He preached which is The Kingdom of God. Especially when you consider Matthew 3:16-17, where God declares Jesus to be His Son.

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Hello, Jason, and welcome. The folks here at this site welcome your feedback and participation, and many even share your views; however, we want to stick as close to the text as possible. So when you connect the dots, help us to see how you do it. Just because you learned how to understand the Bible does not mean that we can see the same dots. Also please hyperlink your verses, and please feel free to consult other authorities to back up your views. For example, in this posting can you connect believing in Jesus with believing in the "Word" of God as one and the same? Can you connect the dots? –  Joseph May 18 at 21:53
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I second @Joseph 's helpful comment. Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites that study the Bible. –  Daи May 18 at 22:33

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