God’s Love for His People:
Considering John 3:14-17
By Fred Butler
With any discussion of God’s sovereign election
in salvation, those opposed to the teaching of God’s absolute predestination
always appeal to John 3:16. It is argued that election cannot be
the way the historic Reformation has taught, because John 3:16 says, “God
so loved the world.” The implication of those words, it is assumed
by the opponents of the Reformers, is that God’s love and salvation is
omni-benevolent; equally shed abroad toward all men with out exception.
God’s love is given, and Christ’s death was for, all men who ever has lived;
both the godly saint, as well as the blasphemous reprobates, such as Judas
Iscariot, Pharaoh, Hitler, and the mass of humanity who have died and are
being judged in hell. Those men, it is argued, along with all reprobates,
had their sin covered on the cross of Christ. They just rejected
that payment for sin and chose to remain in their rebellion.
An assumption is made that John’s words are
implying man’s ability to come to salvation, even though that is not even
addressed by John directly in this passage, as well as refuted else where
in the NT (John 6:44; Romans 8:6-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1-3).
They also assume, by the word “world” that John means every person who
ever lived, even though John rarely uses the word in that sense with in
his writings. That being said, however, it is obvious that a lot
of theological and emotional baggage is attached to this passage when believers
discuss it. The only way a resolution will be established about what
John is saying in this text is if we make a thorough investigation of the
passage from the original.
Who is saying what?
Before we begin, it needs to be pointed out
that there is a slight dilemma in which to contend. It regards where
Jesus leaves off speaking with Nicodemus, and where John the apostle is
offering up his own comments to the narrative. Modern day, red lettered
editions of the NT generally include John 3:16, up to verse 22, as being
spoken by Jesus. But, the “red letter” editors of these biblical
editions are not inspired, any more than the individuals who gave us chapter
and verse divisions years ago. Conservative commentators, however, dispute
where exactly Christ’s words end, and where John begins to offer his explanatory
reflections. The most logical possibility, it is believed, is that
Jesus’s words end with verse 15 and John picks up at verse 16 with his
personal exposition of what Christ was saying to Nicodemus. There
are some textual reasons to believe this. First, the words, “son
of man,” used in verse 15, are words Jesus almost entirely uses as a self-identification.
However, as a second point, the word monogenes translated as “only begotten”
in verse 16, is a word nowhere else placed on the lips of Jesus.
It is a title used by John to describe Jesus, never by Jesus to describe
himself. Furthermore, the words of 3:16 and following up to 3:22,
speak to events that are in the past. It is as if John is looking
back at Christ’s ministry and work on the Cross. There are other
stylistic markers indicating John’s thoughts, rather than Christ’s, so
we need to ask, “what was John saying here with his meditative words?”
The context of the chapter:
The chapter begins with a narrative of Christ
with Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees. Nicodemus had approached
Christ, asking him about his ministry. Jesus then begins a dialogue
about how the kingdom of God is to be entered, and that is by being born
again. Nicodemus is obviously perplexed by this response and further
asks Jesus to clarify his teaching. As the narrative moves along,
Christ eventually brings Nicodemus to the truth of his personal ministry
of being sent to reveal the father and to his lifting up, like the serpent
in the wilderness, (12-15).
Verses 14 and 15 help to explain John’s thoughts
in verses 16-17, and the other verses following. In verse 14,
Jesus uses the historical event in Israel’s past, in which God had brought
a plague of poisonous snakes upon the Children of Israel, as a result of
their rebellion (Num. 21). In order to stay the plague, God
ordered Moses to make a bronze serpent (the symbol of the instrument of
judgment) and place it upon a pole. When Moses lifted up that image
before the people of Israel, anyone who had been bitten and looked upon
the serpent would be saved from death. Drawing upon that historical
event, Jesus uses it to illustrate how his lifting up will bring salvation.
In the same manner that the serpent on the pole was lifted up before Israel,
so must the Christ, the son of man be lifted up.
Verse 15 explains the reason for this lifting
up. In the original Greek, verse 15 starts off with what is called
a hina clause. The hina clause essentially expresses purposeful results,
the aim of the action in the main verb. It explains why the subject,
X, did, or performed, Y. The hina clause could be translated, “in
order that,” or “for the purpose of.” An example in our vernacular
would be, “Please pass me the pepper, (hina) in order that I may pepper
my potato.” So, verse 15 expresses the purposeful result of why the
son of man must be lifted up; in order that, every believing one will not
The traditional KJV rendering of verse 15 is:
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Two things need to be noted with this verse. First, the word, “whosoever”
is not in the original text. (The same is for “whosoever” in verse
16 as well). “Whosoever” is translated from a pronoun, pas, and it
can be difficult to render into English. Pas is placed before the
participle, pisteuon, which is literally translated, “the believing ones.”
Combined with the pronoun pas, the two words would be literally translated,
“all the believing,” or “every believing one.”
Secondly, the phrase, “should not perish,”
wrongly expresses doubt. The word “should” gives the impression that
the believing ones may or may not be kept from perishing. The Greek
phrase, mei apolehtai, is best understood as being emphatically, “shall
not perish” or “will not perish.” Christ’s words could be concluded
as meaning, “Just like when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness
before the Children of Israel, the Son of man will be lifted up.
The purpose of that lifting up is so that none of the believing ones will
perish, but they will have eternal life.” Thus, Jesus is telling
Nicodemus that by being lifted up, just like the serpent was by Moses in
the wilderness, those believing upon him will not perish.
When we come to verse 16, the apostle John
steps aside from his narrative of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus,
and offers up his personal commentary on Christ’s words. It is quite
possible that John, as he pens this gospel narrative, is reflecting back
on what he fully knows at the time of his writing about Christ’s ultimate
purpose. Christ not only came to be lifted up before the Children
of Israel, but he was to be lifted up before the whole world. In
other words, what Christ did at the cross was not only for the Jews, but
also for all the believing ones in the entire world.
Before I continue further, it is needful to
make some preliminary comments of my own. One of the results of pastors
and teachers wrongly interpreting a verse or passage, over and over again,
is that the uninformed, younger believers hear it and form a wrong belief
about that verse. They in turn, unless they are corrected, continue
to wrongly interpret the verse and pass along that mistake to another generation
of younger believers. Eventually, the wrong interpretation becomes
entrenched in the minds of the Christians, so that anyone challenging the
traditional (wrong) belief, with the proper understanding of the verse,
is called into question as opposing the very doctrines of salvation. This
negative reaction is to be expected when it is pointed out that many believers
have wrongly interpreted their darling verse of John 3:16.
It is important, with any exegetical analysis,
to identify the subject and the main verb of the sentence. Such an
analysis helps the student to determine the true intent of the biblical
John 3:16 reads in the KJV translation:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his
only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but
have everlasting life.
In this verse, the main subject is “God” and
the main verb is, “he gave.” In the middle of the verse is another
hina clause, translated as “that.” The hina clause expresses the
purpose of why God gave: in order that the believing ones will not perish,
but have everlasting life. The remainder of the other phrases helps
to define the limits of God’s love and what God used to show that love.
With that being established, this is where
we encounter the wrong interpretations. There are two areas where
this verse has been wrongly interpreted.
God’s Love for the World
The first one is with the opening phrase, “For
God so loved the world.” Most readers of scripture place emphasis
upon this opening phrase so that it is divorced from the remainder of John’s
thought in the second part of verse 16 continuing into verse 17.
It is erroneously assumed that this is the main portion of the verse.
It is not, however. John uses the word “For,” to express how God’s
love is demonstrated. It could be re-translated as, “Thus, did God
love….” John is basically saying, “This is how God loved.” The “world”
explains the realm where God’s love is demonstrated.
This word “world” is loaded with a lot of theological
presumptions. It is commonly believed that John means God has an
equal, omni-benevolent love toward every person without exception.
God’s love for the world forces him to offer salvation to everyone equally,
thus eliminating the belief in God’s sovereign election of a special people.
God offers his son, it is claimed, to every person equally to either choose
him or reject him. The proponents of this interpretation of “world,”
have in fact limited the efficacy of Christ’s death. Because they
have made the application of Christ’s atonement, on behalf of sinners,
dependent upon the choice of mankind, they have essentially taken away
the power of salvation from the Holy Trinity, and placed it in the hands
of fickle men. Christ’s death, then, is hypothetical. In other words,
Christ has died, not to save men absolutely and to the uttermost (Hebrews
7:25); but Christ died to make men savable. The whole of the NT,
however, testifies that Christ’s death not only accomplished what God intended
it to do, (satisfy the wrath of God against the sinner), but it is applied
by God himself to his people.
In the same manner, there are believers who
hold to an exact opposite interpretation. Rather than understanding
John’s use of “world” as meaning, “every person who has lived without exception,”
they reinterpret “world” to equate the elect of God. Put in another
way, they believe John 3:16 could be translated, “God so loved the elect…”
The primary reason for this interpretation is to defend the biblical teachings
of the atonement and guard against the error of universal redemption.
This interpretation, however, is not supportable with the exegesis of the
text. The particularity of Christ’s death for his people, as well
as the fallacy of universal redemption, is demonstrated from other passages
in scripture, especially the epistles. Establishing the extent of Christ
death is not the main point of John’s commentary. He is proclaiming
the extent of God’s love in salvation.
What, then, does John mean when he uses the
word “world?” The word is translated from kosmos, and it has a variety
of meanings in the Bible depending on the context. The definition
of “all mankind with out exception,” the assumed understanding of the word
by most believers, is actually rare. In fact, it is safe to say it
is a definition not even in the mind of the NT writers.
According to the NT Greek text, kosmos occurs
about 185 times. Its most prevalent usage is in John’s writings.
The apostle uses the word a total of 108 times in his gospel, his first
two epistles (1 and 2 John), and the Revelation. The next writer
who uses it the most is Paul. In his epistles, Paul uses kosmos to
speak of all of mankind universally, but it is always in a context of sin
and judgment, and never in a context of salvation.
In John’s writings, there are some commentators
that have identified at least 14 different uses of kosmos by the apostle.
Some examples include: the evil system opposed to God, (1 John 2:14); the
realm where Satan rules, (John 12:31); and the general, natural creation,
(John 1:10). So, to limit the definition to mean, “all man kind with
out exception,” is just hermeneutically unsound. Individual contexts
will determine how John, or any NT writer, is using the word. That
would include the immediate context where the word is found, taking in
all syntactical factors; as well as the larger context of the entire passage.
This leads us to the second wrongly interpreted
problem area. Just as in verse 15, the word, “whosoever,” is not
in the original text. The same phrase that was in verse 15, pas o
pisteuon, is also here in verse 16. As was pointed out above with
verse 15, this phrase is difficult to render smoothly into English.
It is literally translated, “every believing one,” or “all the believing
ones.” The word, “whosoever,” found in most modern, English translations,
was supplied by the translators for easier reading. Thus, Christians have
drawn a false conclusion as a result of the word “whosoever” being added
by the English. It is mistakenly assumed that John is saying that
Christ’s atonement is meant for every person in the world and its salvafic
application is dependent upon the “whosoever” choosing it or rejecting
Neither the extent of Christ’s atonement, nor
the ability of men to believe, is being directly addressed by John.
The apostle is making a simple point with 3:16. God’s love was demonstrated
by being manifisted in a specific realm (the world), to a specific people
(the believing ones). God’s love is expressed by the giving
of his son, in order that the believing ones will not perish, but have
eternal life. The world, as a whole, is not the recipient of God
giving the son. The believing ones in that world are the ones who
gain the saving benefits from God giving his son. The world is only
the stage where God shows his love; the believing ones receive his love.
Now consider this understanding of John 3:16
in the context of the whole of chapter three. John began this chapter
by re-telling an encounter Jesus had with a Jewish Pharisee named Nicodemus.
In Nicodemus’s mind, God’s love is only manifested to the nation of Israel,
God’s covenant people. John, however, describes the full intention
of God’s love. It was not only to the believing ones among the people
of Israel, but also to those believing ones in the world. That would
include both ethnic Jews, as well as ethnic gentiles. John 3:17 further
explain John’s words.
In verse 17, John reiterates Christ’s original
purpose for being sent into the world. God sent Christ into the world
not to condemn it, but to save it. If we take the position that “world”
means every one with out exception, then what John is saying here is that
none in the world will be condemned, but that all will be saved.
John’s words in verse 17 would be taken as a statement of universal salvation.
We know that is not true, because John writes later in his gospel that
Christ does judge the world, (see John 12:31 for example).
I think it is important to keep in mind the over arching concept we saw
with verse 16 that John is highlighting in his commentary regarding Christ
ministry. That is, the scope of Jesus’s offer of salvation was not
only to the Jews alone as a people, but was to the entire world, gentiles,
as well as Jews. The Jewish mindset of the messiah was (and still
is to some extent) that he would come and vanguish all the enemies of Israel.
The Kingdom of God would then be established upon all the earth, with all
the gentile nations being crushed beneath the feet of Israel’s messiah.
Though it is true that Jesus will return to destroy the enemies of God
and his people, Christ’s ulimate purpose was to make a way for the Father
to justify sinners, so that he could bring his people into a saving relationship
with himself. That included not only the Jewish people, but also
the hated gentiles. Because of God’s great love for the whole of
humanity in an ethnical sense, a mighty multitude can be anticipated around
the throne of God, “Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation”
Gentile, as well as Jew
The apostle weaves this thread of gentile inclusion
with the Jews through several places in his gospel. For instance,
a most significant example is found immediately after John describes God’s
love for the world. John closes his thoughts in chapter 3, and shifts
the narrative of chapter 4 to Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at a
well. There is perhaps a reason for this: John wants to illustrate
what he just wrote about God sending his son for the whole, ethnic world,
and not solely for Israel. What better way to do this than by recounting
Christ’s ministry among the Samaritans, the one people group the Jews vehemently
hated. In spite of Jewish animosity, Christ went through Samaria,
stopping by a well, so that he could have a conversation with a woman of
ill repute, regarding the nature of true spiritual worship. She was
so moved by Christ’s words to her, that she quickly left and told all her
friends about finding the Messiah, (4:28-30). A spiritual revival
ensues in that Samaritan village, with many people believing upon Christ.
At the end of the narrative, John records some interesting words spoken
by the Samaritans. They told the woman, “…and we know that this is
indeed the Christ, the savior of the world.” In their minds, the
Samaritans were part of the “world” out side of Israel, yet they realized
that Christ came to them, as equally as he did for the Jews.
In John 10, Christ, in his “good shepherd”
discourse, says that he has other sheep he must bring into the fold.
In the ears of his listeners, Jesus is refering to non-Jewish gentiles.
Later in chapter 12, some gentiles desire to speak with Jesus, and Jesus
proclaims that with his death, he will “draw all people to myself,” (12:32).
In fact, those words echo back to John’s words of 3:14-17. It is
not all the people in the world with out exception, but those in the world
who are “believing ones.” And lastly, John’s comments upon Caiaphas’s
words recorded in 11:49-52 help to solidify John’s usage of “world” being
defined as, “God’s people among all the gentiles, and not only the Jews.”
Caiaphas, in an extraodinary prophetic voice, declared the extent of Christ’s
death being not only for the nation of Israel, but also for, “all the children
of God who were scattered abroad (in the world).”
After carefully analysizing the text of John
3:14-17, I believe it can be concluded that what John had in mind with
his words, particularly 3:16, is that God has an elect people from among
the Jewish nation of Israel, as well as from the gentiles in the rest of
the entire world. This is the conclusion that best fits with the
grammatical data of John 3:14-17, as well as is confirmed with the totality
of the biblical evidence that teaches God’s special, saving election.
John is not intending to suggest that Christ was sent by the father to
only provide a way for all men without exception to be saved. He
is not making the efficacy of the son’s death on behalf of the sinner dependent
upon the will of man receiving or rejecting the son. On the contrary,
what John does affirm is the absolute certainity of the eternal position
of the believing ones. Because the father gives the son on behalf
of the believing ones, they will most certainly be kept from perishing,
and will be given eternal life.
Now, with that being said, however, those opposed
to my conclusion will argue by asking, “How exactly did those believing
ones become believers?” The question is asked with the assumption
that the belief is dependent upon the individuals, and so by their believing,
or rejecting, they secure or forfeit their salvation. In other words,
it is left to the individual people to determine their eternal destinies.
In response, I point the opposition back to the whole of scripture.
Like I stated above, the totality of the biblical evidence teaches God’s
special electing grace for a specific people, defined in my understanding
as people from the whole world. The unique attribute of those special,
elect people is that they will come and believe when the father calls them
to Christ, (John 6:37-44). When God calls them, they will become
One final note. If we are to believe
John is teaching that Christ’s death was made on behalf of all men without
exception, so that now all that men have to do is believe in Christ to
secure their salvation; then a mark of capriciousness can be checked against
God’s character. How? Dr. Gary Long, in his excellent little
book entitled “Definite Atonement,” makes the following observation:
“It is apparent that God has not made Jesus
Christ known to all mankind without exception to provide them an opportunity
to believe on him. Innumerable amounts of men, including whole nations,
have perished, never so much as hearing of a Messiah. Is it not impossible
for a man to believe in something or someone in which or whom he is totally
ignorant? Who can know the father except “the son, and he to whomever
the son will reveal him,” Matthew 11:27? Therefore, is it honoring
to God’s wisdom to say that the father sent the son to die for all men
that they might be saved, but never caused each and every one of them to
hear of Christ, although he purposed and declared that unless they do hear
of Christ and believe in him they shall never be saved?” (pg.50).
This is the theological dilemma of those who
want to believe John 3:16, and other “world” passages in scripture, pertains
to all mankind with out exception. How can God be justified in declaring
salvation only through his son; yet allow scores of men to perish without
so much as sending them a missionary? Furthermore, how can those
people who never heard of Christ be held accountable for rejecting him?
I could imagine a conversation in heaven between
God and a Peruvian Indian,
“I sent my son to die for the world, so you
only had to believe on him to be saved.”
“I never heard about your son. I surely
would have believed on him if I did hear about him, but I was in Peru,
on the other side of the world.”
“It does not matter, my son is the only way
to heaven. Even though I would like to save you, you are obligated
to believe on himwith your free will. You didn’t believe upon him, so you
will have to perish.”
Such a conversation is absurd, but how else
is this thinking that Christ died so as to give everyone in the world a
chance at salvation. The problem is that many have died, never hearing
if there was a chance. God has offered salvation, but it is ineffective.
Obviously, with holding such a view of salvation there will be many people
for whom Christ redeemed on the cross, however, because there was no preacher
to bring them the good news of salvation (Romans 10:14-17) the effectiveness
of Christ’s atonement fails. To look at it another way, God essentially
wasted Christ death on these people. How else are we to look at such
a position? Did not God the father wastes Christ’s death, when knowing
full well those souls would never believe, because at that point in history
the message of the gospel was still thousands of miles away, hindered by
geography? Here we have many folks for whom Christ made a penal substitution
on their behalf, yet they still perish, because they did not do their part
in exercising their free will. Thus, we are left to conclude a scripturally
unsupportable notion that God forgave them because of their ignorance and
brought them to heaven. Or, those individuals still perish in hell,
making a “double” payment for their sin that Christ already atoned for
them on the cross, but failed to activate with their belief, simply because
they never heard.
On the other hand, I believe God is the securer
of salvation. He has marked out a people for his name who are with
in the world of sinful humanity. He sent his son into that world
to die a penal substitution in behalf of those people marked out by God.
Christ did die, justifying those marked out sinners, so that the father
can bring them to salvation, granting them eternal life. The God
of the scriptures is a planning God, a securing God, and a God who has
accomplished the purpose of sending his son: So that the believing ones
will not perish, but have eternal life. None will ever be lost!