John 3:16—“For God so loved the world . . .”
Most evangelicals understand “world” in John 3:16 as “every person” in the world. But there are ample reasons why this is a wrong understanding.
First, in John 3:16 (see also Eph 1:4), “world” means God’s “whole order of things”—his whole creation—which he so loved that he was willing to send his only begotten Son to a humiliating, cruel death so it will not suffer his wrath. What many Christians forget is that God’s redemptive plan is not just for mankind, but for His whole creation (Rom. 8:21, 23; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:13–20). John 3:19–21 even alludes to “light” and “darkness” of Genesis 1:2–4 to emphasize God’s redemptive plan for his creation.
The context shows that the meaning of “world” is God’s creation. Immediately following John 3:16, verse 17 says that “God did not send his Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos . . .” Which meaning of kosmos here would make more sense: every person in the whole world, or the created world in general? Verse 17 continues, “ . . . but in order that the kosmos might be saved through him.” Is it possible that God sent Christ into the kosmos so that every single person in the whole world “might be saved”?
Second, grammatically and theologically, kosmos in John 3 as every person is untenable. Did God send his Son into the world to make salvation possible for everyone or to save everyone who believes in him? The language of John 3:16–18, 36 has the answer. In the original Greek, John uses pas ho pisteuon, which translated literally says “everyone who believes,” and does not mean “whoever believes.” This is how several English Bibles translate it—Holman, NRSV, NLT, ISV, GOD’S WORD, Young’s Literal (1862), and Wyclif’s Bible (1395).
The Greek for “whoever” is hostis not pas, and is translated as such, for example, in Luke 14:27 (“whoever does not bear his own cross”), and James 2:10 (“whoever keeps the whole law”). If John wanted to say, “Whoever believes,” he would have used hostis instead of pas. “Whoever” (hostis) has an indefinite, uncertain and contingent notion, while “everyone” (pas) has a very definite, sure sense.
So Christ was sent into “the world” in order to save “everyone who believes,” not to merely make salvation possible to everyone. Do you see the difference? The former affirms that Jesus actually accomplished the salvation of “everyone who believes”—his chosen people. The latter says that Jesus did not accomplish anything in his death other than to make salvation possible for everyone.
In John 3:16–19, kosmos appears five times. But clearly, kosmos in verse 17 (“God did not send his Son into the kosmos”) and in verse 19 (“the light has come into the kosmos”) cannot in any sense mean “every person in the world.” It can only make sense if it refers to the created world or earth.
Third, kosmos in the New Testament has many senses, including: all the nations (Matt. 26:13), the fallen world (John 1:10), and the ungodly world (John 7:7 and 1 John 2:15–17). To be sure, sometimes kosmos in the New Testament refers to all people in the world (Rom. 3:19). But more frequently, kosmos in Scripture means only some people in the world, not all of mankind, as in Luke 2:1 (“world” is the Roman Empire), John 7:3–4 (Jesus could not show himself to every individual in the whole world), and John 12:19 (not every individual in the whole world was following Jesus).
Does God love everyone? Yes, in a providential and common grace way. He governs, upholds, and nourishes his whole creation (Matt. 5:45, 6:26–30), so if God withheld his providential care from the world, it would be destroyed in no time. But did God intend to save everyone in order to show his love to all mankind? No, he savingly loves only those whom he intended to save.
So it is bad exegesis—and practice—to think “every single individual who ever lived” when “world” is mentioned in the Bible, and then tell every stranger you meet, “God loves you . . .”
Rev. Malabuyo is an associate pastor of Trinity URC in Walnut Creek, CA, and serves as a missionary to the Philippines.