Revisiting John 3:16 (pt 2)

We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

See the prologue and Pt 1 to this series.

In the previous post I suggested that we ought to consider Jn 3:16 along the lines of what a Pharisee like Nicodemus would have understood when Jesus said “God so loved the world.” For a guy like Nic that kind of statement would have signified God’s love for all nations since a devout Jew would have had two functional categories–Israel and the nations. Rather than blessing Israel and judging the rest, God was offering life in his kingdom to the world on the basis of a new, spiritual birthright through faith. In short, Nic would understand Jn 3:16within a broadly corporate framework–people groups rather than individual people.

But our vantage point is weak on corporate identity and big on individualism so that we understand Jn 3:16 in the spirit of democratic equality–God loves every single person. Nic interprets the world as a collective term for the nations while we interpret the world as a collective term for individual people. Whose interpretation is correct?

Neither. It’s a trick question. [Oh, you’re smooth. -Shive]

As every husband has learned after receiving messages from his wife, the correct interpretation isn’t what you think the author means but what the author intended the message to mean. So when we read ‘God so loved the world’ what we really need to know is John’s intended meaning for the world.

THE MEANING of WORLD in JOHN

For John, the world almost always refers to a domain rather than a physical place or population. It’s “the place of human rebellion against God in contrast to God’s kingdom” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology) and although people are certainly part of this domain, John’s use of the term is too broad and abstract to limit it to something like a divine census. Even a casual review of the word in John’s gospel makes it clear that world means more than people.  Consider just a few examples:

John 12:25 “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.
John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.
John 15:19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world because of this the world hates you.
John 17:14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

Obviously, the world can’t mean all people in these verses and must be signifying something more than global population. But once we acknowledge this we’re almost forced to reconsider the intended meaning of world in Jn 3:16, too. Let me interject here that our reticence to refine our understanding of ‘God so loved the world‘ is understandable especially when we suspect that ‘refining’ is a nefarious attempt to restrict God’s love. And yet I think that by aligning our interpretation with John’s intended meaning we don’t minimize God’s love, we magnify it. Carson’s explanation is very helpful on this point when he says God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big and includes so many people, but because the world is so bad: that is the customary connotation of kosmos (‘world’).” We want to stress how broad God’s love is while John wants to stress how deep God’s love is.

CUT TO THE CHASE

If you’re still with me at this juncture you’re probably saying the same thing I say to my kids when they tell me they want a cell phone: So what’s your point?

The point is that Jn 3:16 just doesn’t work as a defeater verse for Calvinism, particularly in regard to unconditional election. Using the verse to that end depends on at least two related assumptions: (1) world means every single person (2) since God loves every single person, he must love them in exactly the same way. Both of these assumptions are taken to undermine the Calvinistic understanding of God’s elect. In fairness, those assumptions may be discovered and defended from other passages, just not from Jn 3:16.

Assumption #1 has already been shown to miss the broader meaning of world in John’s gospel which means that assumption #2 is moot. But for the sake of a full hearing it’s worth noting that #2 also fails in light of two other statements concerning the world that we find in John:

John 9:39 And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”
John 17:9 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.

So the Father sent the Son into the world so that the world might be saved (3:17) and Jesus came into the world for judgment (9:39). God loved the world and Jesus did not pray for the world. Unless we are to define the Father’s love for the world differently than Jesus’ love for the world I think it’s safe to say that the Father’s love for the world is far more complex than a one-size-fits-all kind of affection.

Based on John’s meaning and use of world an objective interpreter would be hard-pressed to turn Jn 3:16 into a rebuttal of Calvinism. But since there are zealots on both the right and the left of this issue let me say a quick word to other side, too. While 3:16 isn’t a defeater verse for Calvinism it isn’t a support for it either. If world doesn’t exactly mean ‘every single person’ it certainly doesn’t signify ‘the elect.’ As I see it, the verse is theologically neutral on this matter.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

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