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 if there is one verse that nearly no Christian can accurately explain, it is John 3:16—because it contains a key word that nearly no Christian understands the meaning of.
That word is “world”—in the Greek, kosmos.
Even Don Carson’s excellent commentary on John glosses over the meaning of kosmos, rather than carefully examining and explaining it.
This bothers me, so I’m going to work through John 3:16 here. The meaning of kosmos is actually surprisingly straightforward once you follow the exegetical threads.
God’s love for the world
There are three housekeeping matters here:
- I have previously argued that love is fundamentally about onetogetherness—about two or more persons participating in each other so closely that they become, as it were, one mind. This is important, because if we don’t understand what love is, and what God is doing to the world in John 3:16, we are going to have a hard time understanding what the world itself is. So I’m going to plug this definition of love into the passage; that way we can be more explicit about what’s going on.
- God does not love the world by giving his “only begotten” son. As any good modern translation will reflect, the Greek word monogenes actually means “one of a kind” or “unique”. The point is that Jesus is the only son God has of this kind; yet he loves the world enough to give him up. (The NKJV‘s fumbling of this issue is inexcusable.)
- Translations vary as to whether “God so loved,” or “this is how God loved”. The reason is that John is deliberately ambiguous here, just as he is in John 1:5. He picks words with rich ranges of meaning. Most translators are uncomfortable with ambiguity, so they try to eliminate it by choosing just one meaning for the English text. I think this is a bad translation philosophy, so I am going to render the ambiguity as faithfully as possible by saying, “God loved the world in such a way…”
This gives us our passage to work from as follows:
For God desired onetogetherness with the world in such a way that he gave his unique son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Now this leaves us with one more word we need to define:
What is “the world”?
The most natural answer is that it must be all people. That’s how Arminians interpret it, and in English it makes sense.
But this puts unbearable strain on the consistency of John’s theology, for two reasons:
1. God does not save all people
John 3:16 is set directly into the context of a speech in which Jesus claims no one can see his kingdom except by being born of the Spirit (John 3:3)—they must be transformed by the Holy 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 we don’t control the Spirit of God. 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. 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 is rather done to us. John isn’t exactly subtle on this point.
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, and in fact he has first loved “all people”, then why do all people not love him?
2. Kosmos doesn’t mean all people in other places
A second problem is the way that John speaks of the world elsewhere. The world does not recognize Jesus in John 1:10. The world hates Jesus and his followers in John 15:18. We are told not to love the world or anything in it in 1 John 2:15—indeed, if we do love the world, we have no love for the Father!
This should alert us to the fact that John does not use kosmos to refer to all people. Indeed, if he did, we would be under orders not to love all people. That seems strikingly incongruous.
Notice also that the world cannot be the elect. Not only is it something alienated from God, something hateful, something we are not to love; but John 3:16 makes no sense if the world is simply the elect. Why say that God gave his Son so that whoever believes—that is, anyone who believes—will not perish, if in fact everyone whom God gave his son for will believe, and none will perish?
Incidentally, it does no good to cunningly set off down the rabbit hole and say that John’s emphasis is not on the bigness of the world, but its badness. This is true to some extent—the world, in John, is very evil, and so the greatness of God’s love is not so much in how many people he loved, but rather in how bad they were. But even so, the world clearly is not limited to the elect, so the problem remains: if God loves the whole world, why doesn’t he save the whole world?
World as kingdom
The answer is right there in what Jesus says to Nicodemus a few verses earlier. God will save the whole world. The kosmos will in fact be redeemed.
John 3:16-21 is a commentary on the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus. 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. You see, John has not changed topic; he is still dealing with the same issue: how do you get into the kingdom?
Now here’s the critical clue to decode what the world is: throughout his gospel so far, John has been emphasizing dichotomies, contrasts:
- Between God and man
- Between spirit and flesh
- Between light and darkness
- And now here, in chapter 3, between eternal life and perishing
Now, watch closely. I have nothing up my sleeve. 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.
So the final dichotomy here is:
- Between the kingdom of God and the kosmos
This comparison naturally invites the conclusion that the kosmos, the world, is also a kingdom:
The world is the kingdom of man.
Just as the kingdom of God is the kingdom of light, the kingdom of life, the kingdom of spirit, so the world is man’s kingdom of darkness, man’s kingdom of death, man’s kingdom of flesh.
This kingdom comparison is exactly what we should expect, because from the very creation of man, we have been defined by our kingship over the world. Genesis 1:26-28 makes this clear—and let’s abbreviate each instance of dominion with the word “rule” to emphasize the point:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, and let them rule, rule, rule, rule, rule.” So God created man in his image, male and female, blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and fill the earth, and rule, rule, rule, rule.”
Do you think the image of God might have something to do with ruling? The term translated “rule” or “have dominion” means to reign—it refers to kingly authority. God is giving man a kingdom on earth in Genesis. This is actually how man images God; how he reflects God. The likeness of God is kingly. Genesis explicitly couches the image of God in terms of kingship.
Of course, we know that Adam plunged his kingdom into ruin; he rejected the light and the life, and he chose darkness and death. The kingdom of man—the image of God on earth—is decaying and spoiled. But it is still God’s image.
So the way John contrasts the world with the kingdom of God indicates that kosmos is John’s way of talking about the kingdom of man. He is contrasting two kingdoms; one a kingdom of darkness and death, and the other a kingdom of light and life.
So what is God doing when he loves the world?
Well, if the world is John’s way of talking about the kingdom of man, and if the kingdom of man is the very image of God—no matter how fallen—then the first thing we must notice is that there can be no surprise that God loves it.
The second thing we must notice is that God is not setting his love on individual people in John 3:16. 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 desired onetogetherness with the kingdom of man in such a way that he gave his unique 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?
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 and 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. God is saving the entire kingdom that he planted in Genesis 1. 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.
This is why Paul is so outraged at the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6. As we see in 1 Kings 3:16-28, for example, part of the kingly role is wise judging—which the Corinthians were completely failing at:
When any of you has a legal dispute with another, does he dare go to court before the unrighteous rather than before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you not competent to settle trivial suits? Do you not know that we will judge angels? Why not ordinary matters! 1 Corinthians 6:1-3
This is what the kingdom of God is: the kingship of the saints, the image of God restored, with the elect acting as viceregents, as princes of God on earth, under the reign of Jesus Christ.
And this returns us to the question of what God is doing when he loves the world.
What is God’s goal when he loves the kosmos?
Well if love is onetogetherness, if love is desiring perfect unity, then of course God loves the world! He desires onetogetherness with the kingdom of man, because the kingdom of man is going to become one together with the kingdom of God! Or, as the saints in Revelation 11:15 put it, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”