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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