The orthodox Christian theology of Hadley Robinson

“World” in the writings of John , especially John 3:16

By Hadley Robinson with additional material by Duane Edward Spencer, Gerhard Kittel, and Steven Lawson

"I can't think of a verse more commonly distorted or misunderstood than John 3:16" – R.C. Sproul

Definitions of "world"

Words means things.  If we do not understand them, error is bound to occur.  Can we trust those who teach us?  Not always.  This is why James instructed believers not to be presumptuous by becoming teachers (Jas. 3:1).

The Greek word "kosmos" is generally translated "world" in English and other Romance languages.  This is unfortunate because "world" only gives a small and partial match for the Greek meaning of the word.  There is no equivalent word in any other language I am aware of, including Hebrew.  In a typical Greek NT dictionary, this word requires over (30) pages to cover its many meanings.  Very generally, the noun means something or someone that is ordered, honored, or adorned, such as a military formation or a woman's face.  A man is a "kosmos" for unusual and distinctive service.  It is a complex and foreign word to English speakers.

The Apostle John uses this word in at least eleven distinct ways.  Its precise meaning, as determined by the context, can be more evident in one instance than in another.

If diligent and careful study is not done, the meaning of "kosmos" is bound to be, as R.C. Sproul notes, misunderstood and distorted.  Some of the suggested meanings of the word "world" that are set out below may be open to discussion.  Greek is not a Romance language so we should expect that understanding it will take effort.  Translators of the Bible have always been vexed by what to do with words like "kosmos".  Do they find a single but imperfect word or do they make an effort to define it with some run-on sentence?  Poor English grammar or inaccuracy?

When a translation gets into the hands of those who pretend to interpret the Bible but do not have the skills, disasters occur.  One of the most glaring examples is the "New World Translation" published by the Jehovah's Witnesses where they misuse the word "logos" in John 1.  One would imagine that if someone really loved the Word of God and wanted to excel in teaching it to others, he would take the modest amount of time necessary to learn the Greek of the New Testament.  Modern evangelicals did not do this.  Was it because it did not suit their purposes?  Who can be sure?  But the results are glaring: distortion, confusion, misunderstandings, and even heresy, at times.

  1. The created universe: "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him." – Jn. 1:10;  “Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” - Jn. 21:25; "Jesus said, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.'" – Jn. 18:36

  2. The earth itself:  “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” – Jn. 17:18; "A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world." – Jn. 16:21

  3. All men everywhere:  “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” – Jn. 1:10;  "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.'" – Jn. 8:12

  4. Mankind under the Creator’s judgment:  “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.” – Jn. 7:7; "Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, 'But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?'" – Jn. 14:22

  5. The public around Christ, in particular, the Jews:  "'I have spoken openly to the world,' Jesus replied. 'I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.'" – Jn. 18:20; "No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." – Jn. 7:4

  6. A large group within the whole Jewish community: “So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!’” – Jn. 12:19

  7. The kingdom of evil forces, as related to the earth: "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." – Jn. 12:31; "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives." – Jn. 14:27; “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.” – Jn. 15:19; “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” – 1Jn. 5:4; Also see Jn. 8:23; 14:30; 16:33

  8. The world of unbelievers, the non-elect: "The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil." – Jn. 7:7; "I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours." – Jn. 17:9

  9. God's elect among the Jews or those who consider themselves to be Jews: "The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" – Jn. 1:29; “They [the Samaritans] said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” – Jn. 4:42.  “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” – Jn. 3:16.  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” – Jn. 6:51; "I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word." – Jn. 17:5

  10. God's elect of every tribe and nation, His chosen people, all true believers: "When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment" – Jn. 16:8.  Jn. 1:29 and 3:16 (#9 above) might, instead, be this category, that is, John the Baptist and the Apostle John might have been thinking of all of God's chosen people, everywhere.

    Men do not, at some point, consider their own guilt from what they have done, acknowledge that they should have done what is righteous, and that their evil deeds will be punished – without the work of the Holy Spirit in them.  They are spiritually dead, not mostly dead but completely dead.  Conviction of sin is the first observable work that the Holy Spirit does on a man e.g. "Brothers, what shall we do?" Acts 2:37.  It is not a result of some charismatic speech by gifted orators, as the Semi-Pelagians teach.  The first two chapters of I Corinthians, among others, discuss the evil of worldly wisdom and its appeal to human flesh.
  11. A woman's adornment: "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes." – 1 Pet. 3:3  The word "cosmetics" has its origin from the Greek "kosmos".  (The use of "kosmos" in this way is not found in the writings of John but I give it here to demonstrate its broad spectrum of meaning.)

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.

There can be no other verse in recent times that is more often used out of context than this one.  The object of God's intense, sacrificial love is everybody, whoever lived, everywhere.  With this misinterpretation comes a flood of other errors.

This includes the common notion that if we dress up the Gospel in attractive clothing, men will "come to Christ."  How is this done?  As Bill Bright, Billy Graham, and many others discovered, the offense of the Gospel must be removed or suppressed, in particular we will drive men away if we tell them they are all lost and implacable sinners who must repent.  "Repent and believe in the crucified Christ" is just too negative.  Instead of this simple Gospel which Paul preached, we must have tracts that flatter sinners and woo them into the Kingdom.

This attractive gospel has great appeal to the worldly man because it appeals to the flesh: "What's in it for me?"  Why, it's easy: "Jesus has a wonderful plan for your life!"

That this is the opposite of what is taught in 1 Corinthians 1-2 does not seem to bother most.  The Apostle Paul was adamant concerning the Gospel he preached,

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. -- 1 Cor. 2:1-2

Know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified?  How boring, how negative, how unappealing....  Pastors become apologetic when they must read God's Word where the horrors of sin, its cost for the Son of God, and its punishment are mentioned.  In the end, the Gospel becomes emptied of its power and a false gospel is embraced.

With easy believism, the churches fill with tares – false believers – who see the church and Christian faith as some type of loving self-help group where they can be entertained and comforted by speeches and PowerPoint presentations presenting an insipid no-repentance-required gospel:  "God loves you, I love you, we love you, you are wonderful, Jesus loves you..." and so on.  The salvific love of God is not lavished on the world of unrepentant men (#8 above), but on the world of those who have been converted, the repentant, those who have received grace (#9 and #10 above).  The context demands this in light of the massive testimony in both Testaments that God's salvific grace is not universal.  That is God, does not save everyone who hears the Gospel or not.

God's love for me is not just something He did (the Atonement) but it is His actions done to me for my eternal benefit which continue to this very moment and beyond.  My love for Marilyn, my bride of over 40 years, was not completed when I married her, but continues on to this day, as I actively do things to and for her which demonstrate that love, though imperfectly.

Meanwhile the false believers in the churches are trading spouses, right and left, living immorally and godlessly.

Next comes the movement of unconverted men into the leadership of the churches.  Then we have heresy and apostasy without measure:  Open adultery, immorality, homosexuality, denial of the Resurrection, the bodily return of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the Virgin Birth, and the Judgment.

“World” in Jn. 3:16, therefore, more properly means God's elect who are men from every tribe and nation but not all men from every tribe and nation, as per definition #10 above.  Jesus could also have been referring just to His elect among the Jews.  The following passages help clarify the broader meaning (#10),

In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again from above." – Jn. 3:3

You did not choose me, but I chose you.... – Jn. 15:16

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me compels* him.... – Jn. 6:44

No one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. – Lk. 10:22.

In John 3, Jesus meets with a leader of Israel who mistakenly believes that Jesus is from God because of the miracles that He does.  Jesus corrects Nicodemus by saying that only those who experience the work of the Holy Spirit (who are "born again") can perceive (see) His Kingdom and know that He is from God.

Furthermore, He explains that this work of the Holy Spirit which converts men touches one but not another (it is like the wind).  It is a sovereign work of grace that is not available to all but only to those whom God loves (vs. 16) -- the world of His own to whom He proved that love by going to the Cross (John 13:1) for them.  As all men are clearly not saved in the end, God limited His love -- and His grace.  This love is effective and accomplishes its purpose: to convert and so save some men.  It is an irresistible force that literally draws (even drags) men into the Kingdom just as men are dragged into a court of law (John 6:44; James 2:6).  In the former a man's will is changed, freed from the bondage of sin so he, with great joy, is brought in.  Men are dragged into court, usually reluctantly, as their inward man does not want to go.

This concept for being drawn (willingly from a changed heart) is echoed in the parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:23.  Those invited wanted nothing to do with it.  What was the Master to do?

Then the master told his servant, "Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full."

Jesus mentions this thread elsewhere,

For many are invited, but few are chosen. -- Mt 22:14

In the very next verse, the Pharisees -- the Semi-Pelagians of that time -- understood He was speaking of them.  Their response illustrates that of the world to the sovereignty of God's grace.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.

If the correct context of John 3 is not carefully determined, this Scripture can become a source of much theological error that is in direct conflict with broad swaths of the Bible.  There is no hint that Jesus' concern is beyond His own people (the Jews), the ones to which He came.  He does discuss His "other sheep" (the Gentiles) but much later (John 10:16).  "World" in vs. 16 is the world of His elect among His own people, in particular.

He came to that which was his own.... - John 1:11

Verse 17 helps clarify and establish the context of verse 16.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

If Jesus was sent into the world to save every man who ever lived and will ever live, then God is a failure because most men reject the Gospel, some with vehemence.  But if the proper meaning of "world" is of #9 or #10 above, then both verses 16 and 17 make sense.  But coherent, systematic understanding of Scripture is not characteristic of the times in which we live.

The power of the blood of Jesus to effectively save when applied to a particular man achieves its goal, always saving the man.  This was the case with men like Abraham, Lot, Samson, and Jacob who were all distracted at various times by serious sin.  Despite this, God's love for them would prevail and His purposes succeed.  God is not a failure nor does He need men's help.  Suffice it to say, this is so because no one can then boast as a result of his being saved from God's judgment (1 Cor. 1-2).  God alone gets all the glory for the work done on the Cross, as He should -- but not if one is an Humanist or some variety of a Pelagian.

The error is in the understanding of the sufficiency of the blood of Christ versus its efficiency.  If God loved everybody, would not He choose everybody?  Does He love those who belong to Him more than those who perish?  Did He love Abraham more than the others among whom he lived?  Though we do not know why, the answer must be “yes”.  If someone asks: “..Then why does God still blame us?  For who resists His will?” please see Ro 9:19ff.

It is sad that major evangelists, like Bill Bright and Billy Graham, are careless with the Sacred Text.  However, getting a following and building an empire appear to be too difficult to resist.  Changing the Gospel to make it attractive to the flesh must be done and so we have this ubiquitous misuse of this text in John.

 Few of the American evangelists ask themselves, "What is the offense of the Cross?"

*Nearly all English translations, including the KJV, translate the Greek as "draw" here.  But this is not the accurate English equivalent of the Greek verb which, without exception in usage, means an actor who applies an irresistible force to someone or something.  It does not mean to "woo".  Unfortunately in English, "draw" can both mean to apply an irresistible force (e.g. draw water from a well) but also to "woo" or "entice".  The Semi-Pelagians and other Humanists are allowed to misuse the Scriptures in this regard as they use it in the latter way.  Suffice it to say, the rich do not woo or entice the godly into court -- they drag them (James 2:6).  James uses the same Greek word translated "draw" in John.  Why "drag" here but not in John 6:44?  It is yet another example of theological bias in the translations and another reason why all pastors should be well acquainted with New Testament Greek.  How else can they discover the theological bias and errors of the translation committees, among other things?  It is unfortunate that much of the theology of the Reformation was captured by the Humanists.