Monday, September 07, 2009

John 3:16 - What Does It Mean? - Really

In the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, John 3:16 is often tossed out by Arminians as sure evidence for two things: that the atonement isn’t limited and that free will is libertarian. Both issues revolve around a misunderstanding over the intended meaning of the passage. So here’s the passage in as close to a semi-transliterated Greek as I can find:

houtos gar agapaoen ho theos ton cosmon hoste ton huion autou* ton monogene didomen hina pas ho pisteuon eis auton me apollutai alla eco zoen aionion

Here’s a word-for-word translation without correcting for syntax and usage:

In this way / even / loved / this / God / his / world / that / his / son / himself* / his / only / gave over / in order that / any / that / trust / on / him / not / will die / but / have / life / eternal.

*In Byzantine but not Alexandrian texts. Could have been a copy error or an attempted usage update.

Here is the passage translated literally correcting for syntax and usage.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (ESV)

Regarding free will in this passage, Arminians claim that “whoever believes” (pas ho pisteuon) indicates that anyone can believe. This is based on the flawed notion that Calvinists believe that the elect are saved whether they believe in Christ or not and the equally flawed interpretation that “whoever” means that “everyone has the ability to” believe. Calvinists point out that a better translation of “pas ho pisteuon” is “the one believing”.

While a good point, it really doesn’t address the misconceptions of Arminians. The real debate here is cosmological, or whether God is absolutely the first cause or not. In other words, do the ones believing believe because they have been made alive to believe or not? This passage doesn’t address that issue. So it is sophomoric to read an answer to the cosmological debate in this passage.

Regarding the extent of the atonement, Arminians point to the word “world” (cosmon or cosmos) and say that this refers to absolutely everyone in the world. The fact that Arminians bring it up, even to the extent of naming an Arminian conference after John 3:16, means that they believe that this all-inclusinve meaning is explicit in the passage. Calvinists typically address this by observing that “world” refers to each ethnos, or “people group”, but not every person. Sometimes, Calvinists will correctly point out that the understanding of this meaning in the context of the debate must be understood through the study of other passages.

The problem is that the debate has been allowed to color our thinking on this verse. Another factor is the evangelistic flavor of the verse and its use in recent church history as such, especially in English-speaking Sunday School classrooms. The verse has not been well-treated as such. The meaning as passed on by many can be summed up as such:

“God loved everyone in the whole world so much [hold your hands up about chest-level, open up your hands, turn your palms out, and move your hands in circles to indicate the largeness of this statement] that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever will believe in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

The meaning of the verse is distorted by a lack of understanding of the translation as well as a failure to take into account the context of the passage.

I’ve already addressed the “whosoever will” misconception. The word “will” doesn’t exist, even as part of an English future tense of the verb “to believe”.

I haven’t mentioned the word “so”. I cringe when I hear well-intentioned Sunday School teachers explain how this means that God loves us all a whole lot. The word “houtos” doesn’t indicate quantity. It indicates quality. The meaning is lost in modern English. Today, when showing someone how to do something we say, “Do it like this.” Once upon a time a demonstrative explanation would be accompanied by the phrase, “Do it like so.” The English word “so” originally meant “in this way”. It was an expression of manner or quality. Today when we use the word we often say things like, “That is so cool!” Here it’s an expression of magnitude or quantity. Usage has changed the typical meaning in modern American English and the difference has significant impact on our ability to understand this verse.

But I want to primarily discuss the term “cosmon” or “world”, because I have a possible “aha” insight. Actually it’s my wife’s insight. She’s not well versed in the Calvinist-Arminian debate, but I think God may have revealed something to her recently.

We were distributing Bibles on the streets of a large European city recently to a challenging people group. Part of the work is that team members will take turns praying while the rest are distributing. It was Lois’ turn to pray and as she prayed for the people passing by, she was impressed with John 3:16 and the meaning of word “world” applied to those sinners as such as God loves. The people passing by were these people. The “world” meant the “pattern of fallen creation” (my words).

When she shared this with me, two passages came to mind. One was Paul’s comment in Romans 5:8 “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (ESV)

But the other was in John’s gospel itself. In chapter 15 John writes of Jesus discourse from the “I am the true vine” statement regarding the relationship of love between the Father and those who abide in him. All along he uses the Greek word “agape or “agapao” to indicate this love and defines it somewhat in verse 13 of chapter 15: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (ESV)

But Jesus, as a matter of contrast, brings up the love of the “world”. John uses a different word, “phileo” to indicate the love of the world. A side point is that the disciples are not of the world, but that the world is a general terms for the pattern of God’s fallen creation.

So I thought about this and wondered if “world” in John 3:16 might truly mean this. One problem I thought of is that if the disciples were not of the world and the same meaning is to be applied to John 3:16, then we are left wondering if God loves the world or the disciples. However, it actually makes sense. John 3 doesn’t negate the fact that God loves the disciples in john 15 since they came out of the world. The kind of love that the world is capable of is limited to a selfish affection, but God only loves with a perfect love. John 15 doesn’t negate John 3 if the meaning of “world” is the same.

But I have to consider that “world” as “the pattern of fallen creation” is a general term and has nothing at all to do with the scope of particular applications of love. I needed to investigate the context of John 3:16 to see if I was on the right track, or if my thinking was in vain on this point.

In John 3:1-21, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who came to Jesus to discuss his teaching. Here’s the passage from the ESV:

1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”


The logic of the passage goes like this: Nicodemus visited Jesus at night so he could talk privately. He either didn’t want to be seen, or he didn’t want any distractions, or both. Nicodemus started with a statement that the Pharisees recognized that Jesus came from God because of the signs that he worked and that his teachings were likewise from God. This statement of Nicodemus’ characterizes the whole of Jesus’ response.

Jesus draws a dichotomy between the Kingdom of God (spirit) and the earth or world (flesh). He did this because Nicodemus recognized that Jesus came from God to the earth. Jesus was reinforcing his authority. The issue with the Pharisees was not that they didn’t believe Jesus was from God. They were full of sin and couldn’t understand the message. Jesus explained that he used earthly messages to elucidate spiritual truth, but Nicodemus and the Pharisees couldn’t even get past the earthly message to understand the spiritual truth. Only those who have been born of the spirit can understand and the Pharisees had not been born of the spirit.

Jesus then explains, in this vein, that they can at least recognize him because inasmuch as he bears the light of truth, the light reveals those who live in darkness. They can recognize that Jesus is of God because he reveals their sin, and it is to their condemnation. (So it was that Nicodemus came to visit Christ.)

In verse 16, the word “for” (gar) links this verse to the logic of the passage as an intermediate thought. It is at least partially based on previous statements and supports subsequent passages. “For God so loved the world” is a statement intended to continue the discourse on the dichotomy. “…sent his only Son” brings Jesus into it and is his explicit claim as the Messiah since the discourse is about Jesus coming to from God in Nicodemus’ statement. “…whoever believes in him” is contingent on being spiritually born again and while from and in the world, now belonging in the Kingdom of God.

Christ includes these believers as his disciples in the works that they do in the name of God that they will light to the darkness. He said in verse 11 “we speak” and later in verse 21, “whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

So this is the logic of which John 3:16 is a part. It is meant to explain to Nicodemus why he could understand that Jesus came from God, but couldn’t accept or understand his message - and also why others could understand enough to bear the message themselves. The word “world” is pretty clearly indicative of the dichotomy that Jesus uses and not particularly indicative of the scope of the atomement.

  • Is there something of a spiritual nature that you desire to understand and cannot?
  • Do you consider yourself "born again" "of the spirit" "of the light" but are not shining in the darkness?
  • Perhaps you think you have the light but are just annoying rather than recognized as having the light of God.
  • Are you submitting to and trusting God in all matters and coming to the light yourself?

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2 Comments:

Blogger ASL Smorgasbord said...

"This is based on the flawed notion that Calvinists believe that the elect are saved whether they believe in Christ or not..."

It is a misrepresentation of Calvinism.

John Piper said:

"Faith is a condition of justification, but it is not a condition of election. Election is unconditional. But justification is conditional. Before we can be justified we must believe on Jesus Christ. But before we can believe on Jesus Christ we must be chosen and called. God does not choose us because we will believe. He chooses us so that we will believe."

So to correct you (James 5:19 :-)), "the elect are saved when they believe in Christ."

Wed Mar 24, 10:37:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger ASL Smorgasbord said...

"The word “world” is pretty clearly indicative of the dichotomy that Jesus uses and not particularly indicative of the scope of the atonement."

Could you expand on this? Did any of the early Christian writers comment on this idea? This idea seems to be new: i.e. Paul Marshall's Heaven is Not My Home; Michael Wittmer's Heaven is a Place on Earth.

Thanks for the post. Amen to the word "so" in John 3:16.

Wed Mar 24, 11:26:00 AM GMT-5  

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