John 3:16: What Does it Really Mean?
I do not remember a lot of things from my childhood. I have a poor memory. One thing I do remember, however, is being in AWANA. Part of AWANA is to remember Bible verses to get rewards. I didn’t earn many rewards because I didn’t exert much effort but at least one verse that did stay engraved in my mind is John 3:16. Most people know this verse. It is one of the most popular verses in the whole text of Scripture. I remember reading once that John 3:16 is the focal point of the entire Bible (which scares me to no end). It kind of makes me feel unoriginal to post this but I believe that people don’t really understand this passage. Here is a brief discussion of it.
John 3:16 reads like this, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The most common use of this verse looks something like this, “God loved every person in the world so much, that he gave his only son, that every person could believe in him and when they do they wont die but have eternal life.” I can’t tell you how many people come up with something similar to that. The main concern I have for this interpretation, and ones similar, is that they mishandle the meanings of the words “world” and “whoever”.
John uses the Greek word “kosmos” (world) 58 times in his gospel. This word has many different meanings as you can see here http://bit.ly/raArCZ
To give an example of some of the differences let’s look at John 13:1 and 15:18.
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) Here “world” means the physical earth. Jesus is going to leave the earth to go to the Father. But, John 15:18 uses “kosmos” differently it says:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” It is fairly obvious that Jesus is using “world” here to refer to those who are not believers. The actual earth doesn’t hate Jesus and his followers but the unbelievers do. So, we see that “world” doesn’t have one meaning. It all depends on context. Let’s move back to John 3:16 and see how John uses the word “world” here.
I believe that “world” here is highlighting that Jesus did not come simply for the Jew but for the Gentile as well. In the time of Christ the common view was that God had his people, Jews, and then there was everyone else. So, for John to say that Jesus died for the world means that Jesus didn’t die solely for the Jews but for those outside of Israel as well. That notion was radical for the Jews because of their mind set. But, that is not the only aspect of “kosmos” that needs to be considered. There is more particularity found in the word “whoever” that is tied into our understanding of the “kosmos“.
The word “whoever” or, in a lot of translations “whosoever”, is used by a lot of people to signify a universal ability to believe in Christ. As we dive deeper into the meaning of this word we will find otherwise. “Whoever believes” in John 3:16 is transliterated as “pas ho pisteuwn“. “Pas” means: “each, every, any, all, the whole, everyone, all things, everything” as found in the Strong’s Greek Lexicon (SGL). Here is where most people fail to see the particularity in the text. “Ho” means: “this, that, these, etc.” (SGL) and “pisteuwn” means believe. “Pas” is modified by “ho pisteuwn” So, it means that each and every single person that believes in Jesus will not parish. Allow me to give you an example.
If I ask, “can you grab all of those apples?” You understand that I am asking for you to grab all of a particular item (apples). You would not grab the bananas, pears and peaches if I simply wanted all of the apples. That is the same concept here. Jesus is the savior for all the believing ones. When this concept is fleshed out we see the the word “kosmos” with even more clarity. Just as “ho pisteuwn” modifies “pas“, “pas ho pisteuwn” modifies “kosmos“. John 3:16 isn’t saying that everyone can believe nor does it say that Jesus died to save every individual on the planet but rather it means that he came for a specific group and those are the “pas ho pisteuwn” (everyone believing).