John 3:16 -- What Does It Mean?

The "John 3:16" you may see from time to time in unexpected places refers to the portion of scripture found in the 16th verse of the 3rd chapter of the book of [St.] John.  This chapter and verse form of notation (which was not a part of the original manuscripts) is a handy way for those studying the Bible to make reference to one or more verses in as few words as possible.  John 3:16 is one part of a much longer statement made by Jesus, which reads, in part, as follows, starting at verse 14:

14: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,* even so must the Son of Man† be lifted up.‡  15: That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.  16: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  17: For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved.  — John 3:14-17

* Num 21:4-9
† A reference to the Messiah
‡ On the cross

Taking John 3:16 Apart Word by Word
The popularity of John 3:16 is due to its concise encapsulation of the good news contained in the Bible.  As such, a clear understanding of its exact meaning is essential to understanding it.

The word love in this case is an unconditional love, like that of a good parent for a child.

The word world in this case doesn't mean the planet earth or the "worldly world" ( Titus 2:11-12 ) that the Bible says we are not to be a part of.  It refers to the whole of human population, which includes you, me, and anyone else you can think of.  Can you think of someone particularly nasty?  Yes, God even loves (or loved) that person.  How can that be?  Think about this:

To reject love is to reject the one who loves.  God loves them, He may even pursue them, but if they reject Him, He will not force Himself upon them.

The word gave shows this is a gift, given because He loves us, and not something that was owed to us.  In this case, God has provided the way for us to be saved from the fate we deserve.

His only begotten Son refers to Jesus, who was born to a virgin woman, Mary.  All the rest who can be called the sons or daughters of God are more like adopted sons or daughters.

The word whosoever refers again to all of human population: you, me, and anyone you can think of, including that nasty one you thought of earlier.

The word believeth is the same as believes.  It means to trust something, in this case the trustworthiness of God.

Should not perish means that by accepting God's gift, the believer will avoid being separated from God when they die.

Have everlasting life does not mean that the believer will never physically die.  ( Hebrews 9:27-28 )  It refers to an eternal physical life with God after death.  And how do we know we can have physical life again?  Because God physically raised Jesus from the dead. ( 1 Cor 15:20-21 )

So here's the meaning, a summary in one verse of a central theme of Christianity:

We mortal humans are loved by a just and holy God who has, through the death of the only Son ever born to Him, made the way for any sinful men and women who turn to Him to avoid the everlasting punishment they deserve, and, through His Son's resurrection, made it possible to come to live forever with Him in heaven.

An Interesting Exercise
Since the "world" and "whosoever" both include you, try putting your name in John 3:16, like this:
For God so loved _________, that He gave His only begotten Son, that if _________ believes in Him, _________ will not perish, but have everlasting life.
It's just as true as it was before.  He really loves you.
A few Tough Questions:

So am I saying that if Adolph Hitler had accepted Jesus as his savior, he would have gone to heaven?  Yes — although I seriously doubt he did.  ( Luke 15:7 )

Am I saying that good people that don't happen to be Christians are going to hell?  God is Just and Loving and a whole lot smarter than we are, so I trust Him to have a Just and Loving solution for this perplexing problem.  But I think it's clear that if any person has rejected God, He will not force Himself on them. 

Does the Bible really say that believing and trusting Jesus is the only way to get to Heaven?  Yes.  Jesus Himself put it plainly.  ( John 14:6 )  Admittedly, this is a tough issue to accept, but of course Christianity is not unique in this exclusivity: Can you name any major religion that doesn't say one must believe in order to get their reward?