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Home: Articles / Bible Studies: Biblical Studies

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).

Exegetical study:

3:14-15

     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 perish.

     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.  

3:16

     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 writer. 

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.  

Whosoever?

     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 it.

     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. 

3:17

     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” (Rev. 5:9).
 
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).”  

Conclusion:

     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 believing ones.

     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, 

God:
     “I sent my son to die for the world, so you only had to believe on him to be saved.”

Indian:
     “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.”

God:
     “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!
 

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