Volume 9, Issue 5: Doctrine 101
Who in the World?
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). This is a glorious verse. It is a verse of great hope and assurance. It's probably the best known verse in the entire Bible. It is referenced in various forms at professional sporting events, on T-shirts, and on license plates. It is the key verse in numerous tracts used in witnessing. In plain and concise language, John 3:16 holds out God's promise of salvation to a lost and perishing world.
When I was yet an unbeliever attending college, this was the first verse that I was shown by a fellow student and Christian who was witnessing to me. He had me read the verse from my own Bible and then asked me to explain what I thought the world meant in that verse.
My first response indicated my theological ignorance. "It means the earth; the rocks, trees, sky, land, and water." My fellow student asked me if people were a part of the world to which I replied, "Why, yes!" Then he asked me if I thought the world also included me since I was also a person. It suddenly dawned on me that by my understanding and use of the word, the world did include me. He affirmed my answer and went on to explain that this little five-letter word also included every man, woman, and child ever born or yet to be born on the face of the earth. This last bit of information convinced me. I knew I was somewhere in that definition.
As time progressed, I began to wonder if my initial understanding of the world was biblical. Twenty-plus years later, I was talking with an old friend of mine who had been in Christian ministry for nearly a decade and a half. I asked him what the world meant in John 3:16. His response was of the genre, "Don't ask questions. You'll just confuse yourself." He said, "World means world." He would go no further to offer any elaboration. Instead, he gently chided me for trying to look too deep.
But are we to be content with such a fundamentalist response? Scripture repeatedly admonishes God's people to seek knowledge, understanding, and wisdom (Prov 2:1-6). Should we not pursue understanding in even the basic tenets of our faith? Most assuredly! (Jas 1:22).
So then, what does the world mean in John 3:16? It may be helpful first to see some alternate renderings. In John 12:19, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Pharisees commented, "Look, the world has gone after Him!" Now if we are careful to observe, we soon see that the Pharisees were not among those that went after Jesus. It is important to note that the Greek word kosmos is the same word that is translated as world in both verses. In John 17:9, Jesus, in His prayer for His disciples said, "I pray for them [His disciples]. I do not pray for the world, but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours" (emphasis added). Jesus didn't make the world (kosmos) the focus of His prayer, but rather, those whom the Father had given Him out of the world.
So what's the point? Although Jesus Christ did indeed die for the world, this does not necessarily include every man, woman, and child ever born or yet to be born. This is a specious idea that has slowly crept into Christianity and been repeated so often that it is taken as truth without ever being questioned.
Well then, just who in the world did Christ die for? It is the kosmos about which the apostle wrote in John 3:16. It is a very large number of people indeed! It covers the whole history of mankind from Abel to a thousand generations (Heb 11:4, Ex 20:5-6). Those saved by Christ will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens or as the sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17). Christ's atoning work on the cross will be so efficacious that at the end of the world there will be so many Christians that the gospel will be like yeast that has leavened the entire lump of dough (Matt 13:33). In fact, over the course of man's existence on earth, the number will be so vast, it will so far exceed the number of those perishing, that by all rights, we can justly say that Christ saved the world in the same way that the Pharisees in Jesus' day said, "Look, the world has gone after Him!" (John 12:19).
"But, but, but," someone will sputter, "What about the narrow gate? The Bible says only few will enter!" (Mat 7:13-14). If we read the parallel passage in Luke, we soon discover that Jesus specifically refers to those who were alive during His day, "then you will begin to say, `We ate and drank in Your presence and You taught in our streets.'" (Lk 13:26-27). These people from which there will be only a few saved were of that generation which proclaimed, "Away with Him, ...Crucify Him! We have no king but Caesar!" (John 19:15). This was the generation of Jews that rejected the long-prophesied Lord of Glory; the generation that should have recognized their Messiah (Lk 19:41-42). These are also the same people to whom and about whom Jesus told the parable of the vineyard, and in closing said, "Therefore I say unto you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matt 21:33-45).
Jesus died to save the world. Although not everyone ever born or yet to be born will be saved, the world still appropriately applies. But we should honestly recognize that it is by God's abundant grace in Christ that we are among the voluminous number of those being saved, and not minimize the gospel of grace by falsely proclaiming that Christ came to save every last person in the world. He didn't!