If there is one verse that every Christian knows, it is John 3:16. If there is one verse that summarizes the whole gospel into a single, memorable sentence, it is John 3:16. Yet I am going to start this series by challenging you—because I also believe that if there’s one verse most Christians do not fully understand, it is John 3:16.
I’m going to argue that the world (Gk. kosmos) in John 3:16 is the kingdom of man. This verse is actually a focal point for an entire theology of kingdom which begins in Genesis, and spans the Bible through to Revelation. This kingdom theology forms the framework in which the gospel itself is announced and understood—which is why that gospel is almost ubiquitously called the gospel of the kingdom (or of Jesus, its king).
I began to see this—very dimly—after studying John 3:16 so as to preach on it. When I did, I pulled on a thread that turned out, after many years of unraveling, to be more fundamental and more concrete than I had ever suspected. It turns out that kingdom forms the backbone of a rich, wild narrative that starts with Adam reigning in Eden, and ends with Jesus reigning in the New Jerusalem—and has lots of surprising twists, characters, and subplots in between.
Nothing I will say here is especially innovative. My own way of explaining it, of course, is my own. But aside from my exegesis of John 3:16, I have drawn everything together from the work of other evangelicals. Reading it will take time, and occasionally grit, because I cannot help but challenge some very ingrained evangelical traditions. But I speak from both my experience and the testimony of many others when I say that working through this material is unusually enriching and rewarding. For my own part, it has been like discovering a color photo of the Bible after using an old black-and-white snapshot for nearly ten years.
Indeed, I believe a clear view of the Bible’s kingdom theology is of foundational importance to evangelicalism, for reasons which will become clear in parts 8–10.
To get into it, then, I am going to begin at the place that was the beginning for me:
God’s love for the world
On the face of it, there’s a straightforward contradiction with God loving the world in John 3:16. This is especially so when we consider that the biblical view of love is grounded in God himself (1 John 4:8), and is less about an emotion and more about what Paul calls “the bond of perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14). If you’ll permit me to whimsically literal, the paradigm of love is onetogetherness—two or more persons participating in each other so closely that they become, as it were, one mind. Love is a reflection of God’s nature as trinity. [For a fuller explication and defense of this, see D. Bnonn Tennant, What is love? (September 2014). Parts 2 and 3 of this series are especially relevant to John 3:16.]
This is the paradigm for love, and created love reflects this paradigm in the sense that onetogetherness is its goal. Obviously the bond of perfect unity is impossible for us in this life—yet when the Bible commands us to love the Lord our God as a matter of first importance (Matthew 22:37–38), and our neighbor also (v. 39), it is commanding us to direct our efforts towards this onetogetherness; to aim for it, to strive for it, to make it our goal. If the nature of “complete” love is onetogetherness, then the nature of love that is not yet complete is the deliberate fostering and attainment of onetogetherness. [Ibid., part 4.]
Now, obviously the world is not currently loving God in any such sense. And if we plug this definition of love into John 3:16 to be more explicit about what’s going on, the contradiction becomes fairly clear:
For God intended onetogetherness with the world in such a way that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Translations vary as to whether “God so loved,” or “this is how God loved.” John is deliberately ambiguous here, just as he is in John 1:5 (which imo is best translated, “the darkness has not mastered it”); he picks words with rich ranges of meaning. Translators tend to be uncomfortable with ambiguity, so they try to choose just one meaning for the English text. I think this is a bad translation philosophy, so I am rendering the ambiguity as faithfully as possible by saying, “God loved the world in such a way…”
How can God intend onetogetherness with the world when he tells us such uncomplimentary things about it in other places? The world hates Jesus and his followers in John 15:18—it certainly does not want onetogetherness with him—and we ourselves are told not to want onetogetherness with the world either—nor anything in it. If we do, we don’t want onetogetherness with the Father (1 John 2:15).
But aren’t we supposed to imitate the Father? How can this not be a gross contradiction? How can the world be so hateful, so unlovable, not to be loved by us, and not loving us nor God—yet God loves it enough to send his son to die to save it, to bring it into onetogetherness with him?
Well, you already know my answer, but in theology it’s important to show one’s working—so let me answer this question by asking another—the one worth 64 kilodollars:
What is “the world”?
The most natural answer is that it must be all people. I dare say that’s how most evangelicals interpret it—and in English it makes sense.
But this puts unbearable strain on the consistency of John’s theology. We’ve already seen that the world hates Jesus—but certainly not all people hate Jesus. And we’ve already seen that we are not to love the world—but certainly we are to love all people (Luke 10:25–37).
More importantly, John 3:16 is set directly into the context of a speech in which Jesus claims that no one can see his kingdom except by being born of spirit rather than flesh (John 3:3)—they must be transformed in spirit so dramatically that they become, in Paul’s words, a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is not something achievable by human effort, because it is done by the Spirit of God, who we cannot control. Rather, the Spirit, to paraphrase verse 8, picks whomever he wants—and we don’t know who it’s going to be (cf. John 1:12–13).
This is a repeated theme in John’s gospel, stated most explicitly in John 6:44, where the structure of the verbs demands that if all are drawn, then all can come and all are raised up (which is obviously false). [ Brian Bosse, A Logical Analysis—John 6:44.] John makes this point repeatedly because he was reaching out to a Jewish audience who believed that being a good descendant of Abraham was sufficient for inclusion in God’s kingdom. He wants to emphasize that it is not physical descent that matters, but rather spiritual descent—not fleshly birth, but spiritual rebirth. However, just as becoming a physical creation and being born of the flesh is not something we choose, but rather is done to us, so becoming a new spiritual creation and being born of the Spirit is not something we choose, but rather is done to us.
This being the case, if kosmos means “all people,” then why doesn’t God make all people born again? Why is anyone excluded from the kingdom if God is the one who unilaterally brings them in? If we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), and in fact he has first loved “all people,” then why do all people not love him?
Put simply, if Jesus is the savior of the whole world, then we should expect the whole world to be saved.
On the opposite pole, the world cannot be the elect given how I’ve noted John uses kosmos elsewhere—and given that under this view, everyone for whom God gave his son will believe, and none will perish, making Jesus’ statement virtually incoherent.
World as kingdom
The correct understanding of kosmos becomes transparent when we consider what Jesus says to Nicodemus a few verses earlier. God will save the whole world through Jesus. The kosmos will in fact be redeemed.
John 3:16–21 is a commentary on the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1–15. So to understand this commentary, we need to go back to the exchange. And the key idea there—the idea that Jesus instantly takes up with Nicodemus as soon as he opens his mouth—is how to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3).
The whole exchange takes place against the backdrop of God’s kingdom.
Now, we know that the kingdom of God will be an eternal kingdom. Those who live in the kingdom will have eternal life. So having eternal life in verse 16 is just another way of talking about getting into the kingdom of God from verse 3. John has not changed topic—he is still dealing with the same issue: how do you get into the kingdom…as opposed to not? Eternal life is contrasted in John 3:16 with perishing—but watch closely; I have nothing up my sleeve: this contrast, this dichotomy, is present throughout the first half of the chapter. Believing in the Son to get eternal life is the same basic idea as being reborn to see the kingdom of God. They achieve the same goal; they answer the same question.
So if John is contrasting the world with eternal life, and eternal life means entering the kingdom of God, then it follows that John is contrasting the world with the kingdom of God. And this comparison naturally invites the conclusion that the kosmos, the world, is also a kingdom:
The world is the kingdom of man.
This is why, later in John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11, he speaks of the “ruler of this world.” If the world has a ruler, then certainly it is a kingdom or dominion of some kind. And indeed, throughout his gospel we actually see two warring kingdoms: the world, which is the kingdom of man—at war with the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. This dichotomy begins in the prologue, but is drawn out most markedly here in John 3. By contrasting the world with the kingdom of God, he alerts us that the kosmos is his way of referring to the kingdom of man.
In describing things this way, he also sheds valuable light on what it all means—as we see if we then ask a simple question.
What is God doing when he loves the world?
Well, what he is not doing is setting his love on individual people. He is setting his love on a kingdom. Let me reiterate the passage, including verse 17, and now swap in kingdom language to make the definition of kosmos explicit:
For God intended onetogetherness with the kingdom of man in such a way that he gave his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but enter the kingdom of God. For God did not send his son into the kingdom of man to condemn it, but in order that the kingdom of man might be saved through him.
Now when you talk about saving a kingdom, do you mean that every single inhabitant will be saved? When the United States saved England from Germany in the Second World War—to simplify a little!—was no one in England lost?
Of course not. That isn’t the point of such language. The point is that the country as a whole was saved from destruction. And that is precisely what John is saying here. The kingdom of man will not be destroyed, but will go on forever. It will be an eternal kingdom.
That might surprise you. After all, isn’t the eternal kingdom the kingdom of God?
Yes it is.
And this begins to solve the puzzle about how God can love the kosmos yet instruct us to hate it. We are to hate what it currently is, yet God loves what it is meant to be and one day will become. God intends onetogetherness with the kingdom of man, because the kingdom of man is going to become one-together with the kingdom of God. John himself describes the end-game this way:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Anointed, and he shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 11:15
So to boil this down to a simple but provocative statement, here is the bottom line:
If John 3:16 is about the gospel, then the gospel is about God saving the kingdom of man.
John 3:16 tells us that God sent his son to redeem the kingdom of man. To make it an eternal kingdom. God is not just on a rescue mission to save individual people. Of course, he is going to save individual people, and John emphasizes that too—the redeemed kingdom of man is made up entirely of individuals who were chosen by the Father, atoned for by the Son, and regenerated by the Spirit. But God isn’t saving them just for their sake. His plan is much grander. He is saving an entire kingdom. In fact, he is on a mission not just to rescue people from sin, but to save and restore his own image, in the holy and eternal kingship of the elect, ruled by Jesus. He is going to transform the human kingdom into the heavenly kingdom.
But now we are getting ahead of ourselves. To understand this more fully, we need to turn to Genesis, where man’s kingdom got started in the first place.