Introduction: James White has written concerning this verse that:
Sometimes the passages we know best we know least. That is, when we hear a passage repeated in a particular context over and over and over again, we tend to lose sight of its real meaning in its original setting. This is surely the case with John 3:16, for it is one of the most commonly cited passages in evangelical preaching. And yet, how often is it actually subjected to exegesis? Hardly ever. Its meaning is assumed rather than confirmed. (Online article entitled, Blinded By Tradition: An Open Letter to Dave Hunt)
I agree with James White’s assessment, which is why I want to devote the entirety of today’s and next week’s teaching to this single verse. We all know that it is one of the most quoted verses of the Bible, but I hope we will see after our study of the verse that it is perhaps also one of the most commonly misunderstood verses of the whole Bible. We will examine the verse under three headings. This week we will consider the meaning of the first part of the verse under the heading, “The Greatness of God’s Love,” and next week we will consider the second half of the verse under the headings, “The Grace of God’s Gove” and “The Goal of God’s love.”
The Greatness of God’s Love
We see the greatness of God’s love in the first part of the verse, which tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten – or, better, one and only – Son.
NKJ John 3:16 For [γάρ, gár] God so [οὕτως, hoútōs, thus, so, in this manner] loved the world [κόσμος, kósmos] that He gave His only begotten [μονογενής, monogenḗs, one and only] Son, that whoever believes [πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων, pãs ho pisteúōn] in Him should not perish [Aor. Dep. Subj. > ἀπόλλυμι, apóllumi] but have [Pres. Act. Subj. > ἔχω, échō] everlasting life.
In other words, God’s love for the world was so great that it led him to give even His one and only Son to become flesh and dwell among us (1:14) and to be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins (vss.14-15). This is the primary way in which the greatness of God’s love is seen. It is seen in the greatness of the gift He has given for sinners such as you and me.
But the greatness of God’s love is not only seen in the greatness of the gift it led Him to give; it is also seen in His loving such a big, bad world of sinners. But here we come to a potential problem in our interpretation of this verse, because many believers automatically assume that, when John speaks of the world, he must mean every human being without exception. Indeed, there have even been renowned Reformed theologians who have understood the term this way. For example, in his commentary on this passage, John Calvin wrote concerning this verse that:
It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.
Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. (Commentary on John, e-Sword)
Thus Calvin clearly saw the Greek term kósmos – translated world in this verse – as having a universal connotation, although he is quick to point out that this does not mean that anyone and everyone without exception will be saved, since God gives faith only to the elect.
A modern Reformed theologian, D.A. Carson, agrees with this broader understanding of the term world in this verse. He has written a fascinating and very helpful book – one which I heartily recommend to all of you – entitled The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, and in it he writes:
I know that some try to take κόσμος (“world”) here to refer to the elect. But that really will not do. All the evidence of the usage of the word in John’s Gospel is against the suggestion. True, world in John does not so much refer to bigness as to badness. In John’s vocabulary, world is primarily the moral order in willful and culpable rebellion against God. In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people. Nevertheless John elsewhere can speak of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2), thus bringing bigness and badness together. More importantly, in Johannine theology the disciples themselves once belonged to the world but were drawn out of it (e.g., John 15:19). On this axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.
The same lesson is learned from many passages and themes in Scripture. However much God stands in judgment over the world, he also presents himself as the God who invites and commands all human beings to repent. He orders his people to carry the Gospel to the farthest corner of the world, proclaiming it to men and women everywhere. To rebels the sovereign Lord calls out, “As surely as I live … I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). (pp. 17-18)
Thus we have two Reformed theologians who think that John’s reference to God’s love for the world here means that He loves all men, whether elect or not, even if it is only the elect who will believe and be saved. But I am not so sure either of these men are correct in their understanding of this term in this context, especially since even in this Gospel there are instances in which the Greek word kósmos does not indicate a reference to all men without exception. For example:
NKJ John 12:19 The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, “You see that you are accomplishing nothing. Look, the world [κόσμος, kósmos] has gone after Him [Jesus]’”
Clearly these Pharisees do not mean to say that all men without exception have gone after Jesus. Rather they are using the word kósmos figuratively, as hyperbole, in order to stress how great a number there are who have gone after Jesus. Now, I do not think that John is using the term as hyperbole here in 3:16; I simply point out this instance to you in order to demonstrate that we must be careful not to automatically assume that the term must have a universal reference.
But I think there is an even better example for a more restricted meaning of the word that comes from Jesus Himself. It is found in His high priestly prayer in chapter 17:
NKJ John 17:6-9 I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world [κόσμος, kósmos]. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. 7 Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. 8 For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. 9 I pray for them. I do not pray for the world [κόσμος, kósmos] but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.
In this passage Jesus uses the Greek word kósmos in order to speak of the world of the non-elect versus the elect who have been given to Him by the Father out of the world. So we see again that we have to be careful not to assume that this word always refers to all men without exception. It may indeed have a more restricted meaning, and I think that this is likely the case in John 3:16. But in John 3:16 I think the term refers to the world of the elect versus the non-elect, since it speaks of God’s love for the world leading to His giving of His one and only Son so that those who believe may be saved.
In other words, just as the context of Jesus’ prayer in chapter 17 indicates that he intends to restrict the meaning of the word to the world of the non-elect, so here in chapter three the context indicates that John means to restrict the meaning of the word to the world of the elect. I also think he uses the term because he wants to stress that it is not just the Jews that God desires to save, but rather all the elect from the whole world, a concept that many Jews would have rejected. In fact, later in this Gospel, John felt the need to stress this point when he reported the unwitting prophecy of Caiaphas:
NKJ John 11:47-52 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. 48 If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” 49 And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad.
I hope you can see, then, why so many Reformed theologians over the years have seen a more restricted meaning of the term world here in John 3:16. James White, whom I cited earlier, provides a good example of this view when he writes:
The great controversy that rages around the term “world” is wholly unnecessary. The wide range of uses of kosmos (world) in the Johannine corpus is well known. John 3:16 does not define the extent of kosmos. However, a few things are certain: it is not the “world” that Jesus says He does not pray for in John 17:9, a “world” that is differentiated from those the Father has given Him: “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours.” It is not the “world” that is arrayed as an enemy against God’s will and truth, either, as seen in 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Obviously, the “world” we are not to love in 1 John 2:15 is not the world God showed His love toward by sending His unique Son. The most that can be said by means of exegesis (rather than by insertion via tradition) is that the world is shown love through the giving of the Son so that a specific, particular people receive eternal life through faith in Him. Since we know that not all are saved by faith in Christ, it is utterly unwarranted to read into kosmos some universal view of humanity: how is God’s love shown for one who experiences eternal punishment by the provision of salvation for someone else? (Blinded By Tradition: An Open Letter to Dave Hunt)
I must frankly admit that the more I study the issue, the more I agree with this latter point of view, but I want you to see that there is room to agree to disagree on the precise meaning of the term world in this passage, so long as we avoid the mistakes that both John Calvin and D.A. Carson have avoided, namely making the assumption that this word somehow provides ammunition to deny God’s sovereign and unconditional election of believers unto salvation or to deny His special love for the elect.
But, someone may ask, “If the word world in this verse is to be taken in a restricted sense, as referring only to the elect, then must we conclude that God does not love everyone in the world? Must we say that God loves only believers?” My answer to this question is, “No, we should not conclude that God does not love everyone in the world.” In fact, I think there are other passages that teach us that God does love even unbelievers. Consider, for example, Jesus’ teaching in the sermon on the Mount:
NKJ Matthew 5:43-45 You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
In other words, if we want to be like our heavenly Father, we will love our enemies as He loves his enemies and thus causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. There is, then, a real sense in which God loves even the non-elect who never believe in Him. But He does not love them as He loves believers. There is a special sense in which God loves the elect who believe in Christ. And it is when this special, electing love is in view that the Bible speaks of God’s hatred for sinners, such as when God said, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Rom. 9:13, citing Mal. 1:2b-3a).
Now, all you have to do to see that God showed His love to Esau is to look back at the accounts in the Old Testament to see how greatly God blessed him (e.g. Gen. 33:9; 36:6-8ff; Deut. 2:5; Josh. 24:4). However, none of these blessings included Esau’s having been chosen for salvation. In fact, the author of Hebrews uses Esau as an example of an irremediable apostate and warns professing Christians not to fall into the same trap into which he fell:
NKJ Hebrews 12:14-17 Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: 15 looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; 16 lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. 17 For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.
So, we may say that there was a sense in which God loved Esau, but that there was also a sense in which He hated him. He loved Him by causing His sun to rise even upon him and by sending His rain even upon Esau’s crops, and He loved Him by giving him the land of Seir as an inheritance (Deut. 2:5; Josh: 24:4). But God did not love Esau as He loved Jacob, for He did not choose Esau for salvation as He chose Jacob.
The Apostle Paul speaks of this very issue when he writes to the Romans concerning God’s sovereign grace and election:
NKJ Romans 9:10-16 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac 11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), 12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [Gen. 25:23] 13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [Mal. 1:2b-3a] 14 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” [Exod. 33:19] 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
So, I think we must conclude that there is a sense in which God loves all sinners, but there is a special sense in which God loves the elect. And we must conclude that this special love for the elect is not extended to the non-elect, who are rejected by God as Esau was rejected by Him.
Perhaps I can make the point with a rather meager, human illustration, since even we humans can manage to love people in different ways. For example, I can honestly say that I love all the women who belong to Immanuel Baptist Church, all of whom are my sisters in the Lord. But I don’t love any of them like I love my wife. I have a special love for my wife that I have for no other woman. In a similar way, God has a special love for those whom He has chosen for salvation, and He does not share this love with unbelievers, even if He still bestows many blessings of love and common grace upon them.
Conclusion: I will conclude this teaching by reminding you all that we may perhaps agree to disagree on the meaning of the word world here in John 3:16, but I think we all must agree that there are different senses in which God loves the elect and the non-elect and that it is only the elect who experience the fullness of God’s saving love.
I also want you to see that the interpretation of this verse is not nearly as obvious as so many make it out to be. One thing is certain though: This verse quite clearly tells us of the greatness of God’s love, which led Him to give even His one and only Son for the salvation of sinners, and that this love was not restricted to any particular race. God has purposed to save sinners from every tribe and tongue and nation, and He will accomplish that purpose. Remember, for example, what the Spirit revealed to the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation:
NKJ Revelation 5:8-10 Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, 10 and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.”
I believe that it is this global family that John has in mind in John 3:16, and I praise the Lord that we who have trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior may count ourselves among them.
See part two here.