[This post has been edited for clarity.]
Having spent some time in John 3 several weeks ago I found myself revisiting the most popular verse in the Bible. A couple exegetical observations and a related implication:
“For God so loved the world…” Our use of the word “so” usually refers to depth or degree. Naturally, we import this sense into our reading of God so loving the world which amounts to saying something like “For God so greatly loved the world…” While the word for “so” (houtos) can be used in this way the Greek sentence structure suggests the word is being used in a different way. Looking at the varied occurrences of houtos in NT Greek, its use in Jn 3:16 is best interpreted as in this way.¹ We could render the verse “For in this way God loved the world” or, more naturally, “For God loved the world in this way.” The statement concerns how God loved the world (i.e. by sending His Son) not how much God loved (although He does love much!).
“For God so loved the world…” Here again we interpret reflexively which usually means that world is taken to signify population, and thus, the wideness of God’s love. But most often John speaks of the world as “system of human existence” which is hostile to and in rebellion against God (see Jn 1:10; 7:7; 1Jn 2:15-17). If this sense is applicable here–as seems to be the case in light of the following verses (vv17-20)–then we should conceive of the world not simply in its wideness but in its wickedness. This is no small matter especially in a day & age in which we’re conditioned to believe that there’s a bit of lovable in all of us. In reality no one born into the world elicits God’s love. God owes us no debt of love neither do we draw love out of Him.
Now all of this may see like exegetical nitpicking but the implication this holds is profound:
As far as John 3:16 is concerned, God loves the world freely but he does not love compulsively.
¹so says the authoritative BDAG