“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16 ESV
Language is idiomatic. Every single day, someone will use a phrase that intends to convey a meaning which is separate from the literal meaning of the words used.
Example-I killed two birds with one stone. This phrase refers to efficiently accomplishing two separate things through one act. It does not literally mean that one killed two flying creatures with a rock.
Example-“Are you going to the party? Everyone is going to be there.” The universal term “everyone” does not literally mean every single person in the world. It also doesn’t mean every person in the country, or the state, or even the city, or even the town, or even the street you live on. It refers to a large amount of people within the speaker’s mind, the parameters of which could likely be defined relatively easily if pressed further on the exact definition of “everybody.” In fact, next time someone says “everybody,” ask them who they are talking about, and they will begin to name specific people that they had in mind when they used the term “everyone.”
The term “world” in John 3:16 is one such example of an idiomatic use of the word. How do we know this is true? For several reasons, which I will examine briefly.
1) Jesus was talking to a Pharisee named Nicodemus when He makes this statement regarding God’s love for the world. This statement would have been shocking in its immediate context (to Nicodemus), because the Jews up until that time believed that God only loved them. After all, they were God’s chosen people, to whom was given the promises and the law and the covenants. The Old Testament bears witness to this as it tells us that God favored and treated Israel in a special and unique manner, giving them land, delivering them from enemies, giving them a sacrificial system by which they could assuage the wrath of God for their sins, and so forth. God did not do the things that He did for Israel for all other nations.
In fact, as we read through Acts, Peter was instructed by God through a vision to go to the house of Cornelius and preach the gospel. These are his comments as he enters the house of a Gentile-“And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”Acts 10:28 ESV.
The Jews saw themselves as a special and distinct people from all other peoples. They did not believe, even throughout the course of Christ’s ministry, that Christ came to save Gentile sinners as well. Even the Apostles were not clear on this point. If they had been, or if Christ had specifically taught that to them during His ministry, then the vision God gave to Peter was superfluous, as well as the shock they demonstrated when the Gentiles came to believe the gospel-“If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.””Acts 11:17-18 ESV
It was to the Jews that the Messiah was promised. The Jews believed that the coming Messiah was their political savior, not a universal savior for all men.
Further, this statement would have been shocking in its larger context, because the Apostle John was given a ministry to the Jews. As such, his letters and his gospel were written to Jews, not to Gentiles. When we read John, we must remember to whom he was writing, and what purpose-to make the case that Jesus was the promised Messiah to the Jewish people.
This context matters because it helps to understand exactly what is happening as Jesus talks to Nicodemus.
2) The use of the word “world” changes throughout the gospel of John. In chapter 3, Jesus uses the term world to refer to the fact that the elect are composed of both Jews and Gentiles, not solely Jews. That’s the whole point of the term “world” in John 3:16-that the Messiah came to redeem both Jews and Gentiles, not all men in all places. Again, this would have been shocking to a Jewish audience for the reasons stated above.
In Christ’s high priestly prayer recorded in John 17, we see the word “world” used in a different way than we do in John 3:16. This simple fact should be enough to signal that one must be careful when drawing conclusions regarding what the word “world” means in John 3. Here are some examples-
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the WORLD. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” John 17:6 ESV. Here, the term “world” is not used to reference all men. It is used a term to distinguish between two groups of people-those that the Father gave to Christ, and the “world.”
“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the WORLD but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” John 17:9 ESV. Here again, the term “world” is used to distinguish between two group s of people, on the one hand those who were given to Christ by the Father, and everyone else. Not merely that, look at what Christ is actually saying-He is NOT praying for everyone else. He is only praying for those given to Him by God.
“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”John 17:11 ESV. Here the term “world” is now used in a different sense than it was used before during this prayer. It is referring to the physical location of the “world.”
3) If the word “world” in John 3:16 means all men everywhere, then why would Christ make a distinction between the world and those that were given to Him by the Father later in the same gospel? If John had intended to communicate a universal meaning of the word “world,” why would he record other statements by Christ that deny the universality of the meaning?
If God loves all men everywhere, but Christ only prayed for those the Father gave Him, and explicitly excluded others from His prayer, then is God a schizophrenic? Does Jesus want to limit God’s love? Does God want something His Son will not give to Him? Did Jesus forget that God allegedly loved everybody between John 3:16 and John 17? Was Jesus lying to Nicodemus? Did Jesus exaggerate in John 3:16?
See, we have to read the whole gospel of John to gain a full understanding of the picture John is painting regarding Christ. If we stop at John 3:16 without reading any further, and ignoring the context in which the statement is made, then we have a schizophrenic Jesus who in one setting claims God loves everyone, and who in another setting, while speaking to God, makes a distinction between groups of people and says He is only praying for a certain group.
4) If God loves all men and sincerely desires all to be saved, then how do we explain the Flood? That (possibly) millions of people who never even knew that a man named Noah was building a boat were drowned suddenly one day. Imagine a sticker on the side of the ark that said “God loves you,” while millions of people drown with zero hope of being saved.
God does not love all men. In fact, in Psalm 5:5, David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that God hates all evil doers. Hates them. Hates all of them. Paul, in Romans 3, says that no one is righteous-i.e. All men are evil doers. This means that the love of God is neither universal, nor is it motivated by something within man himself.
Rather, the love of God is in Christ according to Romans 8. The people whom God loves are those who are in Christ. Those people were elected in Christ before creation, not based on anything in themselves, but according to God’s good pleasure. That elect group of people is composed of both Jews and Gentiles, which is why the text of John 3:16 is a beautiful text, specifically to the Gentile elect, because it is there that Christ declares to the Jews that the love of God is not constrained to a mere geopolitical entity named Israel, but rather that His love includes those outside of the nation of Israel-Gentiles.