“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17, NKJV).
God’s love for the world is stated unequivocally in this much loved passage, often termed “The Golden Text of the Bible.” But what exactly does the key phrase mean? How is the word “world” to be understood?
A reader of the Bible will soon discover other passages which disapprove of loving the world, such as: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). How can it be that God can love the world, but humans cannot?
The English word, “world,” is often a translation of the Greek “kosmos.” In each language the words have a variety of meanings, ranging from the whole created universe, to the earth specifically, to that which is opposed to God, to humanity in general. It is clear from the context of John’s gospel that the evangelist is using the word in the last of those senses – God loves mankind.
The “world” of John’s gospel has intellect (John 1:10), freedom of choice (John 1:11-12), perception (John 1:14), and potential (John 1:12). The world can believe or reject belief (John 3:16). The world can be saved (John 3:17). And the world is responsible for its choices (John 3:16). All of these are attributes not only of living beings, but of cognitive (thinking) beings. That is to say, the world in these passages refers to humanity – to each and every person whom God has made, or will make.
Why does God love humanity? Some reasons are obvious, notably that we are his children, make by his “hands” (John 1:10-12). Being made by God is not unique to humanity. All creation shares that distinction. But that mankind was made with the right to become God’s children is unique. God made us purposefully, and has continuously been involved with and concerned for each human being.
We also understand that humanity has a unique relationship with the Creator as having been made “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). This cannot be assumed to mean that the physical body with which man was created is in any way like the substance of God’s person or nature. It is material, corruptible, and temporary (1 Corinthians 15:42-45). He is spiritual, incorruptible, and eternal (John 4:24; 1 John 1:5; 1 Timothy 1:17).
Mankind’s likeness to God lies in the realm of his intellect, his freedom of choice, and his eternal spirit (or soul) imparted first to Adam during creation (Genesis 2:7). Unlike all else in the material universe there is that within man which is immortal. That is where our likeness to God is centered.
God does not love this world of humanity because of its innate beauty or worth. Rather, “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He loves the unlovable. He loves us for what we can become rather than what we are. We became his enemies (Romans 8:7), rebelling against his will. We soiled and blemished the perfect universe which he created (Romans 8:20-22). We have served “the prince of this world” rather than the God of Heaven (Ephesians 2:2). Yet God loves mankind anyway, not because of who we are but because of who he is (1 John 4:8).
God does not love only those who have repented and accepted the sacrifice which he gave for us. He loves “the world” – that is to say, all of humanity. But being loved by God does not guarantee us all of his blessings or his inheritance. Those are reserved for those who do his will (Matthew 7:21), who are confirmed as his adopted (redeemed) children by his Spirit (Romans 8:17).
We praise God and thank him, as did Paul:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).