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Proverbs
Do not enter the path of the wicked, And do not walk in the way of evil.

Proverbs 4:14

The Word
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:16-18

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The Meaning of World in John 3:16

Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The Meaning of “World” in John 3:16
By Dr. Arthur W. Pink (J.A. Matteson footnote to Pink at the conclusion)

It may appear to some of our readers that the exposition we have given of John 3:16 in the chapter on “Difficulties and Objections” is a forced and unnatural one, inasmuch as our definition of the term “world” seems to be out of harmony with the meaning and scope of this word in other passages, where, to supply the world of believers (God’s elect) as a definition of “world” would make no sense. Many have said to us, “Surely, ‘world’ means world, that is, you, me, and everybody.” In reply we would say: We know from experience how difficult it is to set aside the “traditions of men” and come to a passage which we have heard explained in a certain way scores of times, and study it carefully for ourselves without bias. Nevertheless, this is essential if we would learn the mind of God.

Many people suppose they already know the simple meaning of John 3:16, and therefore they conclude that no diligent study is required of them to discover the precise teaching of this verse. Needless to say, such an attitude shuts out any further light which they otherwise might obtain on the passage. Yet, if anyone will take a Concordance and read carefully the various passages in which the term “world” (as a translation of “kosmos”) occurs, he will quickly perceive that to ascertain the precise meaning of the word “world” in any given passage is not nearly so easy as is popularly supposed. The word “kosmos” and its English equivalent “world” is not used with a uniform significance in the New Testament, far from it. It is used in quite a number of different ways. Below we will refer to a few passages where this term occurs, suggesting a tentative definition in each case:

“Kosmos” is used of the Universe as a whole: Acts 17: 24 – “God that made the world and all things therein seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth.”

“Kosmos” is used of the earth: John 13:1; Eph. 1:4, etc.- “When Jesus knew that his hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world He loved them unto the end.” “Depart out of this world” signifies leaving this earth. “According as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world.” This expression signifies a time before the earth was founded—compare to Job 38:4.

“Kosmos” is used of the world-system: John 12:31 etc. “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the Prince of this world be cast out”— compare to Matt. 4:8 and I John 5:19, R. V.

“Kosmos” is used of the whole human race: Rom. 3: 19, etc.—”Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”

“Kosmos” is used of humanity minus believers: John 15:18; Rom. 3:6, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you.” Believers do not “hate” Christ, so that “the world” here must signify the world of unbelievers in contrast from believers who love Christ. “God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world.” Here is another passage where “the world” cannot mean “you, me, and everybody,” for believers will not be “judged” by God, see John 5:24. So that here, too, it must be the world of unbelievers which is in view.

“Kosmos” is used of Gentiles in contrast from Jews: Rom. 11:12 etc. “Now if the fall of them (Israel) be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them (Israel) the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their (Israel’s) fullness.” Here, again, “the world” cannot signify all humanity for it excludes Israel!

“Kosmos” is used of believers only: John 1:29; 3:16, 17; 6:33; 12;47; I Cor. 4:9; 2 Cor. 5:19. We leave our readers to turn to these passages, asking them to note, carefully, exactly what is said and predicated of “the world” in each place. Thus it will be seen that “kosmos” has at least seven clearly defined different meanings in the New Testament. It may be asked, has then God used a word thus to confuse and confound those who read the Scriptures? We answer, No! Nor has He written His Word for lazy people who are too dilatory, or too busy with the things of this world,or, like Martha, so much occupied with “serving” they have no time and no heart to “search” and “study” Holy Writ. Should it be asked further, but how is a searcher of the Scriptures to know which of the above meanings the term “world” has in any given passage? The answer is: this may be ascertained by a careful study of the context, by diligently noting what is predicated of “the world” in each passage, and by prayer fully consulting other parallel passages to the one being studied (Scripture interprets Scripture).

The principal subject of John 3:16 is Christ as the Gift of God. The first clause tells us what moved God to “give” His only begotten Son, and that was His great “love;” the second clause informs us for whom God “gave” His Son, and that is for, “whosoever (or, better, ‘every one’) believeth;” while the last clause makes known why God “gave” His Son (His purpose), and that is, that everyone that believeth “should not perish but have everlasting life.” That “the world” in John 3:16 refers to the world of believers (God’s elect), in contradiction from “the world of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 2:5), is established, unequivocally established, by a comparison of the other passages which speak of God’s “love.” “God commendeth His love toward US”—the saints, Rom. 5:8. “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth”—every son, Heb. 12:6. “We love Him, because He first loved US”—believers, 1 John 4:19. The wicked God “pities” (see Matt. 18:33). Unto the unthankful and evil God is “kind” (see Luke 6:35). The vessels of wrath He endures “with much long-suffering” (see Rom. 9:22). But “His own” God “loves.”

J.A. Matteson footnote to Pink

John’s reference to “whosoever” pertains to those who have believed, do believe, and will believe, and believers biblically speaking are the “elect”—the only ones who believe—those who by means of grace, as manifested in the Holy Spirit’s initiative through regeneration, most certainly come to repentance and faith, “When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:18), and “Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The Lord Jesus Christ stressed the imperative of the divine initiative in salvation while speaking to Nicodemus, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3:3).

The use of the word “unless” by the Lord underscores a necessary condition. In order for a sinner who is spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, in a state of bondage and rebellion, one who is spiritually blind to truth, spiritually deaf to the Word of Life, and in all ways cut off from God, in order for such a person in this hopeless condition to “choose Christ” they must first be given a new nature, one that desires Christ; they must be “born again” and the initiative of their regeneration lies with the Holy Spirit. Through regeneration the sinner is given a new nature (circumcision of the heart—a heart of flesh replaces a heart of stone), one that desires Christ, and it is at that moment sinners outwardly positively respond to the Gospel, longing for Christ and willingly coming to Him of their own accord, the One whom they formerly loathed or at best were indifferent to, “And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20).

According to the Lord Jesus Christ regeneration precedes faith which is a response to the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). The Apostle Peter also underscores the divine initiative, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope….” (1 Peter 1:3).

Any who insist that the unregenerate sinner, by his own initiative will desire Christ and come to Him, thus subsequently being “born again” stands in direct opposition to the plain teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the whole of Scripture, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God….” (Ephesians 2:8). With regard to salvation, grace manifested by divine initiative is the cause, the divine gift of faith is the means, spiritual life is the effect, and obedience unto sanctification and ultimate glory is the result, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3), and, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).

The Apostle Paul elaborates on the focal point of his tireless evangelistic enterprises, “Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). As the Lord Jesus in His high priestly prayer (John 17:9) did not pray for the reprobate “world”, neither did the apostle labor for them, but for the elect. Paul understood that the non-elect, those that remain in an unregenerate state, those faceless people shrouded in the mystery of the secret council of the Lord from eternity, would never come to Christ, for their wills are not free, but rather in bondage to sin and death—and by nature they will by necessity choose in accordance to their desires, and their depraved desire is independence from their Creator, which is in keeping with their fallen Adamic nature, for it does not desire Christ; therefore, left to themselves they will reject Him to their own peril and eternal damnation.

The elect, those foreknown to the Lord before the foundation of the world, represent every people group on the earth, properly representing every demographic as well: the rich and poor, educated and ignorant, mighty and lowly, young and old. In this regard “whosoever” is an acknowledgement that the true sons of Abraham in the likeness of faith are the sheep the Father gave to His Son, those given to the Son by the Father before the foundation of the earth, who in due time are “called” to faith by the ministry of the Word of the Lord through the agency of the Holy Spirit; indeed, those who represent the “whosoever” have been given “ears to hear” and a pliable will—the fruit of a new nature—to positively respond to the grace of God. In describing those who are His own the Lord Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28). Grace is amazing, indeed!
Posted by J.A. Matteson

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9 comments to The Meaning of World in John 3:16

  • imagrammy

    Only in the Heresy of Calvinism does ALL not mean ALL, WORLD doesn’t mean World and WHOSOEVER doesn’t mean whosoever. God loved the whole world enough to send His only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ to shed his blood for the sins of the World…every human being that ever lived or ever will live. ALL does mean all, WORLD does mean the whole world and WHOSOEVER does mean whosoever.

  • John

    I’m not going to argue over words with you whatsoever, especially as the the meanings of the original languages etc., because I’m most definitely no language scholar. But more for the reason that there is no need to.

    Take Calvinism out of the equation completely, and let’s just say that the words you point out, mean exactly what they say on the tin. ALL means ALL, WORLD means WORLD, and WHOSOEVER means WHOSOEVER.

    The only real point of any note is that the WHOSOEVER can ONLY ever apply to those that God has chosen, for none can come to salvation in Christ unless drawn by God. If everyone is dead in their sin by default as the Bible teaches, the WHOSOEVER can only ever apply to those God has chosen and raised from spiritual death to begin with.

    I’m not going to get into an argument with you about limited atonement, because it’s still something I battle with myself. But I’m utterly convinced that, whatever heresy you see in Calvinism, to think that somehow we have the ability to choose to be saved, is just as great a heresy. The work of salvation from start to finish is apart from us, and soley in the hand and will of God.

    God bless,

    John.

  • Iwanthetruth

    Spoken like a true Arminian…..

    Bless you brother, you may think you chose God, but in the end He saved you…”“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God….” (Ephesians 2:8).

    Seems that it was not yourself but that through regeneration first, then you could make that decision.

    My question to you is this, “Does God own everything that He created, including each of us?

    And if He does own us can He not do what He pleases to do to us?

    And since He already knows (that is, foreknew) who will be saved, and since “ALL have sinned (yep you and I) and fall short of the glory of God”, could He not make a way, since we all deserve the wrath of God, for those who will be saved, by sacrificing His Son as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (or those whom He foreknew)?

    It took awhile before I finally “got over myself” and came to realize that God loved me enough to make a way for me to come to salvation when left to my own desires and decision, I would never have followed after Christ.

    That stickin pride always gets in the way when I think that I have enough smarts to think that I could have done this all on my own….

  • Iwanthetruth

    The reader illustrates a common Interpretive/hermeneutical error: isolating a single verse and seeking to establish a theological doctrine from it. John 3:16 in isolation may appear to imply one outcome, yet placed in the context of the entire Gospel, the NT and OT it becomes clear that the “whosoever” in the world must be the elect, those who have believed, do believe, and will believe and to imply the contrary juxtaposes the verse with dozens of explicit scriptures, placing it in contradiction to them. I would encourage the reader to apply a sound systematic theological approach when making doctrinal assertions in order to arrive at biblical conclusions, and if the skills are lacking there are many helpful resources available on the internet (www.monergism.com being one) That the elect represent the population who come to faith is neither Calvanistic nor Arminian, these were mere men; rather it is clearly what biblical revelation, in context, teaches.

  • Hello IWTT, when are you coming back to my blog?

    Ok, If limited atonement is true, then we cannot tell sinners that Christ died for them, we would be lying. It would only be when we preach to the elect that we are not lying.

    If the person you preach to is not one of the elect and you tell him that Christ died for Him and Christ loves Him, then you are lying to him, if limited atonement is true.

    I believe in election but not limited atonement.

  • Ian – thanks for your comment, good to see you here and I hope that you will return!

    Limited atonement is a subject that will continue to be debated probably until Jesus returns. It is not a subject that I have studied in any great depth myself but I have found this article on it which, although I have not read it all, appears to attempt to look at what is revealed by scripture on the subject.

    It surely will not end the debate but I believe it is worth a read even if only to gain a bit more understanding of what the debate is in the first place 😀

  • John

    For those interested I have just set up a new thread on the “Open for Debate” section of the forum to discuss this very topic. Obviously this would be far more beneficial than simply using the comments system here on the blog, and will allow a more full debate of the matter.

    Please be aware that the forum is open to invitation only, but is welcome for all to join regardless of background, providing of course that you are debating from a born again perspective.

    If you would like to enter the conversation, please email me at: john@heartcry.me.uk and I will register you as a forum member. Please be aware however that, although healthy debate is encouraged, we do not tolerate personal insult in any form.

    God bless,

    John.

  • (this is my reply on my blog to the article by JA Matteson)

    For the love of Christ constrains us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all, then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they who live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who died for them, and rose again.
    (2Cor 5:14-15)

    Here’s the starting point of this topic : He died for all – Christ died for sinners – All have sinned.

    This guy is working from an assumption that refutes this truth to begin with, in vain trying to show that ‘all’ doesn’t mean ‘all’.

    I share his concern that a wrong understanding of the atonement can lead to universalism.

    That a universal atonement has been made for the sin of the world, the human race, is a fact.

    That most don’t receive this atonement is also a fact.

    Christ’s universal atonement qualifies Him to judge the entire human race. That’s the basis on which all judgment has been given to Him by the Father.

    The death of Christ IS the judgment of the world and the devil, which is universal in scope, not in part.

    The death of unborn babies, babies and infants, is also covered by Christ’s universal atonement, and is another case for asserting it. We could not conceive of Christ sending a baby to hell, who has not sinned.

    God bless.

    ian

  • IWanthetruth

    Glad to see that folks are discussing the topic.

    The writer’s response illustrates the undercurrent within the fallen nature of man that revolts and chaffs against the mercy of God, where grace establishing God’s choice is quickly embraced as an entitlement, and His justice is rendered unfair. That the entire race is fallen and worthy of death is accepted by sensible God fearing men; but, let us not speak of the mysteries of God in redemption and election, for in as much as it has been pleasing in the sight of God to extend grace to some by saving them while passing over others, leaving them to themselves, thus metering out justice, to these things bitter exception is voiced.

    Foolish are men to condescend the wisdom and mercies of God to human rationale. The Apostle responded to these charges and rebuked the spirit that called into question the wisdom and mercy of God, for does the Potter not have the right to make what He chooses out of His clay, perhaps a vessel for honor and another for dishonor? There is no injustice with God, is there? God forbid! Can the clay complain to the Potter, “Why have you made me this way!?” But what does he say, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” (Rom. 9:22ff).

    Grace is not obligatory and the instant we entertain in our minds that the wisdom of God is unfair and that He ought to dispose of His creatures in like manor we are no longer speaking of the biblical concept of grace, but entitlement. That God has chosen to save some and allow others to perish is not unjust, although certainly it is unequal. If we agree with the Lord that we are sinners and worthy of death, for God to carry out that sentence with some while pardoning others is not spurious. One group receives grace and the other justice, no one receives injustice. That the atonement is “limited” is a biblical construct that all Christians affirm, for to deny a limited atonement is to embrace universalism which is not Christianity.

    All Christians would agree that the atoning work of Calvary is efficacious for the elect, those who confess Him as Lord and Savior, while it is useless to those who deny Him and die in unbelief. In this regard the application of the atonement is in fact limited to those who believe. Who are those who believe? They are the sheep for whom Jesus the Good Shepherd died, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:10), those the Father have to the Son before the foundation of the world, “I ask on their behalf (the sheep); I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours” (Jn. 17:9). And those not given to the Son by the Father Christ responded, “But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (Jn 10:26), and that apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart no man will come to Christ, not because God’s prevents him, but because unregenerate sinners do not desire Christ, for them to come to Christ–to desire Him–they must first be born again.

    Christ said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:44) and “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:65). Speaking to Nicodemus Christ stated that regeneration precedes faith, which is a gift from God, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). The evangelistic call of the Gospel is to all people and all people are morally responsible to respond positively to it and will be judged accordingly, “And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!'” (Acts 2:40) and “AND IT SHALL BE THAT EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED’ (Acts 2:21).

    Christians are commanded to preach the Gospel to all people and bid them to come to the Savior and be saved for, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Tim . 1:15). Note that the invitation to come to the Savior is never specific (“You” as in Bob, Nancy, etc.) and always generic (“Let those who have ears hear”). In other words we do not see a NT preacher in a conversation with a sinner and exclaiming, “Jesus died for YOU, Bill.” Rather what we do read is “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and that “whosoever” calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved and “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

    The general call of the Gospel goes out to everyone and those who reject it have no one to blame other than themselves as God prevents none from coming to Christ. Those who reject Christ will not be able to stand before Him on judgment day and say, “I did not choose you because I was not elect.” All are morally responsible before God to confess Christ. The fallen state of mankind is tragic and apart from the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit no man will come to Christ.

    The divine initiative of regeneration leads to conversion. Many well meaning but misguided Christians understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of sinners the opposite from Jesus taught. Many think that a man in his own ability comes to Christ, is born again, and then able to see the kingdom of God. Jesus–and the Apostles–taught that a man must first be born again in order to see the kingdom of God, desire it, and come to the Savior. The biblical teaching gives all the glory to God while the alternate teaching gives the final glory to sinners for “choosing” right, having much to boast about.

    The apostle Paul understood that all of his labors where for the elect who had come to Christ and those who would come to Christ in the future as a result of his preaching and teaching, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). Like the Lord Jesus Christ the apostle understood that only the elect sheep would come to faith as both faith and repentance are gifts from God, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18) and “When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48), and “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

    In summary the biblical teaching of the atonement is that it is limited in its application (effectiveness) to those who believe. All are summoned to come to the Savior and escape the wrath to come. All are responsible before God in how they respond to the Gospel. What we see in the NT is a general plea to all sinners to believe and repent, what we do not see is the common day usage of “Bob, Christ died for YOU.” That is not biblical for Christ died for sinners who believe in His name (the sheep), and all that the Father gave to the Son come to Him willingly. The death of Christ was an actual atonement for the sins of the elect. This biblical doctrine stands in contrast to a present teaching that maintains the death of Christ ushered in a potential atonement that is universal in scope. While the atonement is capable of covering the sins of every human being who will ever live it is only efficacious to those who believe, and those who believe are the face less and nameless elect of God foreknown before the foundation of the world, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined [determine beforehand] to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called [effectual application to the heart of the Gospel preached]; and these whom He called, He also justified [justification is by faith which is the result of prior regeneration]; and these whom He justified, He also glorified [He who began the good work will complete it] (Rom. 8). Oh marvelous are the mercies of God towards His elect! Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all mercies and wisdom and grace are revealed. To Him who has established you in the Beloved and will keep you until that day, be all glory, power, dominion, and truth, now and forever more. Amen.

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