Before all the buzz around the verse John 3:16 in this generation, there have actually been other generations that realized it's profound implications for humanity.
Here is a wonderful story of DL Moody, directly from his son-in-law. Moody was a renown evangelist in the 19th century.
This is one of the first places in Church history I've noticed such an emphasis on John 3:16: "God so loved the world," and this event may have caused the ripple effect into how popular it has become today:
"Moody also visited Dublin, Ireland, and met Harry Moorehouse, "the boy preacher," who introduced himself, and said he would like to come to Chicago and preach. This incident had an important sequel, which may be told in Mr. Moody's own words, as follows:
I looked at him. He was a beardless boy; didn't look as if he was more than seventeen; and I said to myself: 'He can't preach.' He wanted me to let him know what boat I was going on, as he would like to return with us. I though he could not preach, and did not tell him which boat.
I had not been in Chicago a great many weeks before I got a letter which said he had arrived in this country, and that he would come to Chicago and preach for me if I wanted him. I sat down and wrote him a very cold letter: 'If you come west, call on me.' I thought that would be the last I should hear of him, but soon I got another letter, saying that he was still in the country and would come on if I wanted him. I wrote again, telling him if he happened to come west to drop in on me. In the course of a few days I got a letter stating that next Thursday he would be in Chicago. What to do with him I did not know. I had made up my mind he couldn't preach. I was going to be out of town Thursday and Friday, and I told some of the officers of the church.
"There is a man coming here Thursday and Friday who wants to preach. I don't know whether he can or not. You had better let him try, and I will be back Saturday.' When I got back Saturday morning, I was anxious to know how he got on. The first thing I said to my wife when I got in the house was: "How is that young Irishman coming along? How do people like him?' 'They like him very much.' 'Did you hear him?' 'Yes.' 'Did you like him?'
'Yes, very much. He has preached two sermons from John 3:16, '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;" and I think you will like him, although he preaches a little different from what you do.' 'How is that?' 'Well, he tells sinners God loves them.' 'Well,' said I, 'he is wrong.' She said: 'I think you will agree with him when you hear him, because he backs up everything he says with the Word of God. You think if a man doesn't preach as you do, he is wrong.'
I went down that night to church, and I noticed every one brought his Bible. 'My friends,' began Moorhouse, 'if you will turn to the third chapter of John and the sixteenth verse, you will find my text.' He preached a most extraordinary sermon form that verse. He did not divide the text into secondly and thirdly and fourthly - he just took it as a whole, and then went through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, to prove that in all ages God loved the world; that He sent prophets and patriarchs and holy men to warn them, and last of all sent His Son. After they murdered Him, He sent the Holy Ghost.
I never knew up to that time that God loved us so much. This heart of mine began to thaw out, and I could not keep back the tears. It was like news from a far country. I just drank it in.
The next night there was a great crowd, for the people like to hear that God loves them, and he said: 'My friends, if you will turn in your Bible to the third chapter of John and the sixteenth verse, you will find my text.' He preached another extraordinary sermon from that wonderful verse, and he went on proving God's love again, from Genesis to Revelation. He could turn to almost any part of the Bible, and prove it. I thought that sermon was better than the other one, he struck a higher chord than ever, and it was sweet to my soul to hear it.
The next night - it is pretty hard to get out a crowd in Chicago on a Monday night, but they came. Women left their washing, or if they washed, they came, and brought their Bibles; and he said again: 'My friends, if you will turn in your Bible to the third chapter of John and the sixteenth verse, you will find my text': and again he followed it out to prove that God loves us. He just beat it down into our hearts, and I have never doubted it since.
I used to preach that God was behind the sinner with a double-edged sword, ready to hew him down. I have got done with that. I preach now that God is behind the sinner with love, and he is running away from the God of love.
Tuesday night came, and we thought surely he had exhausted the text, and that he would take another, but he preached the sixth sermon from that wonderful text. 'God so loved that world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have' - not going to have when you die, but have it right here, now - 'everlasting life.' Although many years have rolled away, his hearers never have forgotten it.
The seventh night came, and he went into the pulpit. Every eye was upon him. All were anxious to know what he was going to preach about. He said: 'My friends, I have been hunting all day for a new test, but I cannot find one as good as the old one; so we will go back to the third chapter of John and the sixteenth verse,' and he preached the seventh sermon from that wonderful text. I remember the closing up of that sermon. Said he: 'My friends for a whole week I have been trying tot tell you how much God loves you, but I cannot do it with this poor stammering tongue. If I could borrow Jacob's ladder, and climb up into heaven, and ask Gabriel, who stands in the presence of the Almighty, if he could tell me how much love the Father has for the world, all he could say would be: "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (Excerpt from The D.L. Moody Collection, pp. 47-50).