For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16 NIV
When Jesus said in the passage above that God loved the world who, or what, was he referring to? It seems clear that he is referring to people here rather than the planet itself. But who are the people that God loves? The most straightforward understanding is that he is referring to all of the people in the world. And that is how I have always understood this passage.
But the dominant view in the Calvinist or Reformed tradition is that Jesus is referring, not to all people, but only to the elect. Only those whom God has fore-ordained to eternal life are included here. And they choose to understand the word world as meaning some people from every nation, tribe, people, and language (Rev. 7:9).
The intent of this article is to examine John’s use of this word and see if it will add some clarity to this discussion.
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes
Defining the Word “World”
The word translated as world in this verse is kosmos. The NIV Word Study Dictionary defines kosmos as “world: earth, world system, whole universe; adornment. In some contexts, the world is simply the place where people live, in other contexts (especially in John), the world is a system opposed to God“. John uses this word 74 times in his gospel, 23 times in 1 John, once in 2 John, and 3 times in Revelation.
In John’s writings, kosmos is translated in the NIV as world an even 100 times. The only exception is in 1 John 3:17 where it is translated as material; “If anyone has material possessions.” John also uses two other words that are sometimes translated as world, and both are restricted to Revelation. The first is oikoumenē, referring to the inhabited world. This word is found three times; Revelation 3:10; 12:9; 16:14. And the second is gē, meaning earth, world, country, region, land, or ground. This word is found twice; Revelation 13:3; 18:23. Neither of these two words will be further discussed in this article.
Sometimes in John’s writings kosmos is used to refer to the natural created world, the earth. For instance, kosmos is used three times in John 1:10: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” The second time this word is used it would appear to refer to the created world.
Other times where kosmos would seem to refer to the earth itself would be John 11:9 where Jesus talks about the world’s light; John 17:5 where Jesus references the glory he shared with the Father before the world began; John 17:24 and the creation of the world; in John 21:25, John says that the whole world would not have room for the books that could be written about Jesus; and 1 John 3:17 with instruction to those having material possessions.
There are other usages of kosmos in John that may refer to the material world, but these are the ones that seem most obvious to me.
The World as a System
The most common usage of kosmos in John is as “the world”, seeming to refer to it as an entity. In this usage, he seems not to be referring to just a collection of all of the people on earth, although that is certainly implied. Instead, he is referring to something more abstract, although nonetheless real.
We use the terms ‘Hollywood’, or ‘the establishment’, or ‘Generation X’ers’ to refer to more than just people who fall into those classification buckets. And we usually mean more than just an organization. Most generally we are referring to a mindset, a way of thinking and acting that seems to be representative of the people in those buckets. It is a ‘system’, a way of being and acting that the people represented by that system are known by.
And that is what John seems to mean most of the time he uses kosmos. ‘The world’ includes the human inhabits on earth. But it also refers to the way we think and act. ‘The world’ personifies humanity as a single organism, with a single mindset, and a shared way of life. Obviously, there are vast differences in the people in the world. And we have different ways of thinking and acting. But, together, we are the world.
John 15:19 is a good example of how kosmos is used in John’s writing. In this verse, Jesus says “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Notice the way that Jesus refers to the world in this passage. He talks about belonging to the world; being chosen out of the world; and being hated by the world. This passage does not make sense if kosmos is referring to the earth. But it does if kosmos is something that is alive and conscious; something with ownership, and that can express emotion.
In another passage, Jesus’ brothers told him to “show yourself to the world (John 7:4)”. They are not referring to the earth, but to the people of the world. In John 8:26 Jesus said that “what I have heard from [God] I tell the world”. He is not telling the earth anything. Instead, he is telling the people of the world. And, in John 14:17, Jesus said of the soon to come Holy Spirit that “the world cannot accept him“. Accepting the Holy Spirit is only something that can be done by thinking beings, not the earth itself.
The World Is People
When you read John’s use of kosmos (world), it should be clear that most of the time he is referring not to the planet itself, but to the people of this world and their ways of thinking and acting. There are some exceptions to this, but they are few. By and large, John is referring to universal humanity.
The World’s Ruler
Three times in the gospel of John (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) Jesus refers to the prince of this world. The first time he says that this prince will be driven out; then, that he is coming; and finally, that he stands condemned. Who is this prince of the world? He is one who rules over the life of the world, but his end is coming. He is generally thought of as Satan.
In 1 John 5:19 John expressed “that the whole world is under the control of the evil one“. The ‘evil one’, rather than ‘evil ones’, indicates a unique individual. So this would point to Satan as being the prince of the world. And, in Revelation 12:9 John is told that “the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” will be hurled down to the earth. Clearly, in John’s writing, Satan is the prince of this world. It is his domain, under his rule.
It is worth pointing out the single exception in John’s writings to the kosmos referring to the totality of humanity. It is in John 12:19 where the Pharisees comment that “the whole world has gone after [Jesus]“. This is clearly hyperbolic, since they themselves had not gone after Jesus, nor had many others, even in their known portion of the world. What they are doing is expressing frustration over the numbers that are following Jesus, rather than making a literal claim that everyone is following him.
The context of this passage makes it clear that this is an exception to the general rule that kosmos is referring to the bulk of humanity. But I can find no other place in John’s usage where this is the case. And, in this single case, it is not Jesus, or John himself, who uses the world. It is the Pharisees who do so.
Jesus Came into the World
In John 8:23 and John 17:14-16, Jesus claims to not be of this world. Instead, he was sent into the world by the Father (John 10:36; 16:28). Why did he come into the world? Jesus gives several reasons, although, in the end, they are all expressing the same truth.
To Be the Light of the World
John’s gospel starts with introducing the Word. In John 1:1-4 it says that the Word was with God, and was God; the Word created all things; and that in this Word was life, and that life was the light of mankind. And in John 1:14 he expresses that this Word became flesh and we have seen him, the only Son of God. This Word in John 1:1-18 is Jesus; God incarnate.
In John 1:9 he tells us that “the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world“. Jesus was himself the light. And he was bringing light to everyone. Everyone is the Greek word pas which means “all, every (thing, one), whole; always”. Jesus came to bring light to everyone in the world.
In John 8:12 and John 9:5 Jesus says that he is the light of the world. And in John 12:46 he says that he came into the world as a light. Whoever will walk in the light of Jesus will not walk in darkness, but will walk in the light of life (John 8:12). Jesus came to bring light to the world. Not to some within the world. But light to all that are in the world.
To Give Life to the World
In John 6:33 Jesus said that he had come to bring life to the world and, in John 6:51, that he would give himself for the life of the world. The world is dead and is in darkness. Jesus came to provide life to the world. So that those who were dead might live again.
To Take Away the Sin of the World
John the Baptist identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world“. His sacrifice is for the sin of the world. Not some part of the world, but the whole world.
In 1 John 2:2 John says that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world“. Here John does not just say the world, but the whole world. Whole is the Greek word holos, which means “all, whole, entire; throughout”. John here is saying that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for his readers. But not just for them. He is the atoning sacrifice for the entire world.
Because of Love For the World
Twice John tells us that Jesus came because of God’s love for the world. In John 3:16 we find “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son“. And in 1 John 4:9, we read “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world”. Even though the world is under the dominion of Satan, God loves us and acted to save us. All that God is doing in the world can be described as motivated by his love for us.
Saves the World
God sent Jesus into the world because of his love for us. The goal of Jesus coming was to save, or rescue, us from our separation from God and the fate that separation would produce. After John 3:16 expresses that God sent Jesus because of his love for the world, John 3:17 goes on to say that God sent Jesus “to save the world through him“. Jesus came to be the means of our salvation.
In John 4:42 Jesus is described as “the Savior of the world“. Jesus says in John 12:47 that he came “to save the world“. And in 1 John 4:14 John says that God “sent his Son to be the Savior of the world“. In all of these passages we read that Jesus came to save, not some portion of the world, but all the world. That does not mean that all are actually saved. But Jesus provided the means that would enable all to be saved.
Is Everyone Saved?
If Jesus is the savior of the world, does that mean that everyone in the world is saved? Some will argue that that must be the case. That God’s plans will not be frustrated. If he wants everyone to be saved, then they will be. The Universalist will then argue that everyone will be saved in the end. The Calvinist would argue instead that it must be that God does not really want everyone to be saved. But what does John have to say about it?
It says in John 1:10-13 that Jesus came into the world that he had created, but was not recognized, or known, by that world. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God“. Jesus came to be the savior of the world. But he is only the savior of those who receive and believe in him. His salvation is sufficient for everyone in the world. But it is only effective for those who will believe.
This is emphasized again in the verse that opened this article, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loved the whole world and gave his Son for them. But only those who believe have eternal life; are saved. Those who do not believe will perish.
- Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” – John 6:29
- For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:40
- “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12
- Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:25-26
- Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. – John 12:25
- I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. – John 12:46
- The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. – 1 John 2:17
- Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. – 1 John 5:5
The Necessity of Belief
All of these passages from John support the position that belief in Christ is required in order to be rescued from this world. We have to reach out and take the hand that is offered to us. When we do, he will pull us out of the pit and into life with himself.
Given By the Father To the Son
Three times in Jesus’ prayer in John 17 (verses 2, 9 & 24) he mentions those that the Father has given to him; specifically the 12 disciples. What does it mean that the Father has given people to the Son? And how does this relate to the passages that relate to the necessity of believing in the Son?
In order to answer this, it is important to look at Jesus’ discussion in John 6:25-70 where he identified himself as the bread from heaven. In verses 37, 39, and 65 Jesus uses the same word as in John 17; that the Father ‘gives’ some to Jesus (note that in John 6:65 the NIV translates it as ‘has enabled’). I believe that verses 39 and 40 will help to resolve this issue.
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”John 6:39-40
Which Comes First: Belief, or Giving
In this passage, Jesus says it is the Father’s will that he lose none of those given to him, but raise them up at the end. And then he says that the Father’s will is that everyone who believes in the Son would have eternal life and be raised up at the end. Notice the similarity between these two verses. In both, it is the Father’s will being accomplished. And in both, some are being raised on the last day. The difference is in what is in the middle of the sentences; those given to the Son by the Father; and those who believe in the Son for eternal life.
It would seem like these two groups, the given and the believers, are the same. So do they believe because they are given? Or are they given because they believe? It would be helpful if the Scripture was more clear on the subject. Unfortunately, it is not, and has led to many who hold to each position.
I personally believe that God gives the Son all who believe; that belief logically comes first. And I hold to that position primarily because the bulk of Scripture stresses the importance of believing in Christ. And, to me at least, that argues against the position that belief is the result of being chosen by God. If that is the case, why would we be challenged to believe? If belief is given to me, then I would just believe, without all the encouragement.
Not of This World
In John 8:23 Jesus tells the Jews that they are part of the world, while he is not. Jesus had come into the world to be a light to us, but was not a part of this world’s way of doing business. And when that business was finished he would leave the world behind and return to the Father (John 13:1; 16:28).
Jesus also makes clear that his disciples are also not a part of this world. In John 15:19 and John 17:16 he specifically says that his followers are not of this world, but have been chosen out of the world. They once were a part of it, but no longer are. Throughout Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, and the following prayer, in John 13-17 he continually makes reference to their separation from the world.
As followers of Jesus, we are to die to the world and its ways of doing things. And we become new creatures, living in obedience to the Father and his way. If we belong to Jesus, we are not of this world.
What Must I Do?
Jesus has come into the world to save the world. But not everyone in the world is saved. What is it that separates the saved from the unsaved?
Let’s look back to John 3:16 once again. Here it says that whoever believes in Christ will not perish but have eternal life. Belief is expressed over and over throughout the Scriptures as the expected response on my part. John 12:46 and 1 John 5:5 also express this truth that it is those who believe who are saved, who come into the light and overcome the world.
In John 8:12 we find a little different terminology. Here the instruction is to follow Jesus. But is this different than believing in him? Believe, as used in John 3:16, is pisteuō and means “to believe, put one’s faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow”. So to follow Jesus is a natural outcome of believing in Jesus. While they are not exactly the same thing, following only really comes after believing and is proof of believing.
1 John 2:17 is another passage that tells us something other than believing in Jesus. Here it is “whoever does the will of God” who has eternal life or is saved. What is the will of God? John does not specifically tell us that. But it would seem clear that to believe in the one he sent would be at the top of the list. God’s will is that none perish, but that all come to the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). And since we come to the truth via belief, it stands to reason that belief in Christ is God’s will for us.
Why Hold to Limited Atonement?
John’s writing is clear about who, and what, the world is and God’s love for the world. That Jesus came into the world to save the world. And that he is the atoning sacrifice for the world. Just as clearly, not everyone in the world will actually experience that salvation. But that is not because God does not want them to be saved. Rather it is because they refuse to believe (John 3:18).
So why do so many deny that God truly loves the whole world? And that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice was for the whole world? In spite of what Scripture so clearly teaches? I believe it is because of presuppositions that they bring to the text. That is admittedly something that we all do. Yet it is also something we need to work hard to overcome.
But what presuppositions would lead to a belief in limited atonement? The belief that a sovereign God must necessarily control everything that happens; that if he did not then he would not be sovereign. And that carries over into this discussion of atonement. If God must determine everything, it means that he also determines who will be saved, and who will not be saved. And if he has made that determination, then to say that Christ died for the sins of the whole world does not make sense. In their view, he only died for the sins of those that God had chosen.
John uses the word kosmos (world) 101 times in his writings. And it almost always refers, not to the planet, but to the people of the world along with their mindset and way of doing things. For John “the world” is used in the same way we use the word “Hollywood”; the people, the place, and what it produces.
And John makes it clear that God loves the world. Not just some people who are in the world. But he has a love for everyone. And Jesus came to be the savior of everyone. And all who will believe in him will experience that salvation he offers. Those who refuse to believe will remain in this world and be condemned.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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