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.
John 3:16

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Who is meant by "World" in John 3:16?

Regarding the interpretation and meaning of John 3:16 there is probably no other text of greater agreement among mainstream churches in Christianity today, yet there is probably no other text of greater disagreement between Primitive Baptists and these churches than John 3:16.  Outside of the Primitive Baptists and a few churches of Calvinist persuasion, "world" in John 3:16 is taken to mean every single man, woman and child who has ever lived or will live on the earth.  And while world sometimes does mean every person who has ever lived, it does not always mean every single person and our contention is John 3:16 is one such place.

First we must understand the context of this scripture.  Beginning in verse 1, Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to speak with Jesus and acknowledge that He (Christ) must have been sent from God.  Otherwise He could not have performed great miracles.  Jesus begins to challenge Nicodemus's understanding of doctrine by explaining the New Birth to him.  John 3:3-8

The reason Jesus describes this spiritual awakening as a birth is to illustrate that just as no-one controls the time, place or circumstances of their natural birth, neither do we control the time, place or circumstances of our spiritual birth.  Furthermore, natural birth happens to us without our awareness until after the event, likewise spiritual birth happens to us without our awareness till after the event.

Then, Jesus uses an illustration in verse 8 to further demonstrate that the New Birth comes by a sovereign work of God. 

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Just as no-one controls the time of their natural birth, neither does anyone control the wind.  No-one can tell the wind when, where, how or why to blow, neither can anyone tell the Holy Spirit when, where, how or why to cause someone to be Born Again.  These are sovereign actions of God.  By sovereign we mean that God needs no permission to choose where, when or why to act.  He simply does it according to His own will apart from the will or desire of any of His creation.

The reason for the need of the New Birth is no-one can see the Kingdom of God without it and no one can enter the Kingdom of God without it.  John 3:3, 5   In other words, until a person is Born Again, they can not have saving faith in Jesus Christ neither can they enter in to heaven when they die.

Having explained the New Birth to Nicodemus, Nicodemus responds in verse 9 by saying:

How can these things be?

To which Christ responds:

Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?  John 3:9-10

This is an important point in the discussion between Christ and Nicodemus.  Christ wasn't necessarily saying that Nicodemus was not Born Again but rather He is challenging Nicodemus' Jewish understanding of doctrine.  And in verse 16, Christ is going to reveal more doctrine that directly contradicted the Jewish understanding of God's love for mankind.  According to Jewish doctrine, God only loved Jews and no-one but Jews.  As far as the Jews were concerned God hated everyone else, everyone else being all the rest of the world called the gentiles.

It is certainly easy to see why they would believe this.  In the Old Testament God never proclaimed His love for anyone accept the patriarchs, their families and their descendants the nation of Israel.  All the other nations of the world were suffered to walk in their sins ultimately receiving their just condemnation which is ample evidence that God did not love the other nations of the earth.

Consider these Old Testament scriptures.

Pr 6:16 These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:
17 A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,
19 A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.

We see that God not only hates the wicked actions of men but He hates those who shed innocent blood, those who devise wicked imaginations, those who run to mischief, those that speak lies and those who sow discord among the brethren.

Furthermore in Malachi 1:2, God says, "I loved you" the Israelite nation and He loved Jacob but in verse 3 says:

And I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness.

God Hated both Esau (Jacob's brother) and his descendants (the Edomites).  It's little wonder that Nicodemus and the rest of the Jews thought God only loved Jews, for up to the time of Christ there had been very little from God indicating otherwise.

Continuing Jesus and Nicodemus' conversation, Jesus prophesies His death by crucifixion in verse 14:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:

Next Christ presents, to a Jewish mind, one of his more astonishing doctrines by saying:

That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Here Christ begins to reveal that simple belief in Him was the way to eternal life.  This was a great contradiction to the Jewish understanding of eternal life for they thought one must become a Jew and keep the law to have eternal life.  But Christ is connecting belief in His crucifixion and ultimately His resurrection with eternal life not Judaism.  Notice also the scripture does not say, "whosoever believeth in him should not perish but get eternal life."  That  would make eternal life a condition to be met.  Christ says whosoever believes has eternal life.  In other words it is a statement of fact that those who believe, already have life.  This explains the need for Christ's teaching about the New Birth in the proceeding verses.  You must be Born Again before you can believe.  You do not believe to get Born Again, as taught by nearly all modern churches.

And finally Christ presents, in this dialog, His most astonishing doctrine of all  (at least to a Jewish mind) by saying God not only loves Jews but He also loves Gentiles. 

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.  John 3:16

Christ was not teaching Nicodemus that God loves all of mankind without exception.  Rather he was teaching that God loves both Jews and Gentiles.  In other words God's love is without distinction, it is not based on race or any other factor such as age, gender, ancestry, skin color or income etc.  At this point in history, Christ has just made a stunning revelation and one that will have a world wide impact as the love of God reaches all over the world.  But it needs to be pointed out, again, that Christ did not say, "whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but get everlasting life."  Instead it is, "have everlasting life", which is a statement of fact not a condition to be met.

But what about "world"?  Doesn't world mean every single man, woman and child who ever has lived or over will live?  As we have already seen from the Old Testament scriptures, this is not the case.  The Greek word translated "world" in John 3:16 is Kosmos.  Strong's Concordance of the Greek New Testament has this definition:

Kosmos - orderly arrangement, i.e. decoration; by implication, the world (in a wide or narrow sense, including its inhabitants [Editor's Emphasis], literally or figuratively [morally]): adorning, world.

It can be seen from Strong's defintion that "world" can be interpreted in it's wide sense (every single person) or narrow sense (limited number of persons).  Therefore John 3:16 does not automatically mean every single person.  Here are some definitive New Testament passages that show how world (kosmos) is often used in a narrow sense.

John 12:19 The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world (kosmos) is gone after him.

Did the entire "world" go after Christ?  Would to God that they had but unfortunately we know this wasn't the case then or now.  World clearly does not mean every single person but rather the Pharisees were lamenting that large numbers of people had followed Christ then just as they do now.  Indeed it is the "world" of believers who followed Christ and they are the ones God loved in John 3:16.  God did not love them because they were believers but their belief is the evidence of God's love for them.

John 14:17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world (kosmos) cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

If "world" always means every single person then Christ would have just said no-one can receive the Spirit of truth.  And Christ would have also included the Apostles among those who could not receive the Spirit of truth.  But it is evident that every single person is not meant for Christ goes on to say that the Apostles did know the Spirit of truth who dwelled in them.  It is also evident that all believers receive the Spirit of truth therefore "world" does not mean every single person. 

Ro 1:8  First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world (kosmos).

When Paul wrote this epistle, did the natives of North and South America know of the faith of the church at Rome?  What about many other people in the furthest places on earth?  Did they know about the Roman Church's faith in Christ at that time?  Paul is using "world" as a figure of speech to indicate that the faith of the Roman Church was known in a great many places by a great many people but not that every single person of earth knew about their faith.

Ro 11:15 For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world (kosmos), what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?  Romans 11:1-32

The "casting away of them" is referring to the the nation of Israel.  The "reconciling of the world" is referring to the Gentiles.  But if "world" always means every single person then Paul's statement makes no sense for he would have just said that God had cast away people that He reconciled.  Thus, "world" here, as in other places, doesn't mean every single person. 

This is not to say that there are no scriptures where "world" means everyone, because there are.  The point is "world" doesn't always mean everyone and it is clear from the context of John 3:16 and other scriptures of the Old and New Testament such as Romans 9:13 , where Paul quotes Malachi 1:3, that God's love does not extend to every single person. 

Of course some will say it is not fair for God not to extend His love to everyone, which argument Paul goes on to rebut in Romans 9:14-24.  In fact if any person ever truly sees how awful and offensive and disgusting his sins are before a Holy God, he will be led to ask, "Why does God love anybody?"  But thanks be to God that he did love some and those of us who believe in Christ can praise Him because He "hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began."  2 Timothy 1:9.  Hallelujah!

Elder James Taylor





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