Friday, July 07, 2006

John 3:1-21 (9)

Now let’s get to that most famous of Bible verses, John 3:16. It is so familiar that many people have no idea what it says, means, and implies. Thus it is also one of the most frequently distorted verses in Scripture. Wrong interpretations of John 3:16 are dangerous not only because they assert false ideas, but also because they obscure what the verse intends to convey, neutralizing its original force. Here it is: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Other translations actually render it more literally: “God loved the world in this way: He sent His Son that every believing one will not perish but have eternal life.” So it’s not speaking of intensity, though God’s love is infinitely intense. The verse is actually speaking to discriminate between believers and unbelievers. God does not love the world in such a way that everyone will be saved. Only believers experience God’s gracious, saving love. I’ll elaborate more on this later.

So, proceeding here with caution due to what many people have set up as presuppositions about the love of God, let me say that God’s love is not a feeling, but a benevolence that results in actions performed for the benefit of those who are the objects of this love. This love is not general or casual, but specific and effective. The verse says that God loves “the world,” and this refers to the object and the scope of His love. However, there is a common textual distortion that has been so emphasized and promoted that it has become the majority view. The majority might claim that “the world” here must refer to every human person in the entire history of mankind. If “the world” indeed refers to every individual in history, then the verse would be saying that God loves everyone with the same degree of saving love and therefore sends Jesus Christ to die for each human person. Therefore, from God’s perspective, He has done all that He could do to secure potential salvation for every person. Salvation now depends on the person, on his own freedom of choice, and no longer on God. If this is what the text states and implies, then we ought to submit to it. But I don’t think this is what John wants us to think. Before I offer my thoughts on John’s intentions here, let’s analyze the context a bit more closely.

What does “world” mean? What do words like “anyone,” “everyone,” “many,” and “all” mean? The specific contexts define the meanings and restrict the scopes of these words. For example, if I ask, “Is everyone here today?” You all may reply, “Yes, everyone is here.” But of course, everyone is not here. Everyone of the members of our group might be here, but not everyone. I’m sure you get the idea. The words can convey a universal scope or a restricted scope. They are by no means absolutely universal. The context defines and restricts a seemingly universal term. The words “God so loved the world” are surrounded by other words, and the entire passage appears in the much larger text of the Gospel of John.

Before discussing this context, let me give an example from John 12:18-19. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, “Many people, because they had heard that He [Jesus] had given this miraculous sign, went out to meet Him. So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him!’” The Pharisees lament that “the whole world” has gone after Jesus. If we were to interpret every rendering of “world” as meaning all people of all time everywhere, then we must conclude that all human beings in all of history have followed Jesus, because “the whole world” has gone after Him. Even the Pharisees who uttered this statement must themselves have “gone after” Jesus, since they are certainly among the members of “the whole world.” This is absurd.

The context helps us see that “the whole world” in verse 19 refers to the “many people” in verse 18, and perhaps also “the crowd” in verse 17. There are truly hundreds of additional examples, but let’s look at just one more. Keeping with John 3:32: “He testifies to what He has seen and heard, but no one accepts His testimony” (3:32). “No one,” the verse says, “accepts” Christ’s testimony. Who is “no one”? Has there never been a Christian in all of human history? If “no one” means every human person without restriction and without exception, then it must mean that even John himself as he writes has not accepted Christ’s testimony. Once again, this is silly to even talk like this, for the context is clear. Very few people, especially among His own countrymen, the Jews, accepted Jesus’ testimony that He is the Son of God.

And that brings us back to John 3:16. Here John is counteracting the idea that salvation is exclusively or even mainly reserved for the Jews, or the natural descendents of Abraham. He has labored to build up this point from the very beginning; throughout his Gospel there are comments, discourses, miracles, and other episodes to repeatedly reinforce this teaching. John is stressing the trans-racial, transcultural, and transnational nature of salvation in Christ (1:13, 4:4-42, 8:31-47, 10:16). Along with the other New Testament writers, John is eager to announce that those who would receive eternal life will consist of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language,” which is John’s own language from Revelation 7:9. And John 3:16 neither affirms nor denies that Christ has come to die for every individual. That particular question is simply not addressed in this passage.

Here’s one more example of this non-exclusivity to Judaism. John 12:32 says, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” The word “draw” refers to the powerful and effective action (“draw water from a well” or “drag someone across the floor by their hair”) of God by which He inwardly drives a person to come to Christ. If “all” means all human persons in all of history, then this must mean that all human persons in all of history will become Christians, or at least all those who live after Christ had been “lifted up.” But then this promise or prediction would have failed long ago. And even if we weaken the verb “draw” to something like a gentle nudge (or “wooing”), it is doubtful that all human persons after the crucifixion have been nudged or wooed to come to Christ, as many have died never having heard of Him. Furthermore, Scripture says that God deliberately withholds understanding and repentance from many; therefore, it is impossible to interpret “all” here as referring to all human persons in all of history, or even just in all the years after the crucifixion.

The meaning of the verse is clear if we look at the context. Just a few verses earlier (v. 20-22), John writes that some Greeks had expressed an interest in seeing Jesus. This provides the context for us to understand “all men.” Jesus is again referring to the fact that the gospel will transcend racial, cultural, and national boundaries to reach all kinds of people. This is repeated especially to counteract the stubborn notion that the Jews are automatically entitled to salvation just because they are the natural descendents of Abraham. This is the consistent and emphatic message of John and the other New Testament writers. And in mentioning all of this, let me also add that the word “men” is not even found in the Greek text. It literally reads, “Draw all unto Myself.” So when Jesus says, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself,” He is talking about all kinds, foreshadowing His later command to the disciples to no longer preach only to the people of Israel (Matthew 10:5-6), but to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And the saying goes, “Let Scripture interpret Scripture.” So we should read the parallel passage for John 12:32, which is Luke 24:46-47: “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”

The fulfillment of these passages comes in Acts 1-2. Acts 2:17 reveals Peter’s citation of Joel’s prophecy, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out My Spirit on all people.” “All people” does not refer to all human individuals without exception. Rather, it is consistent with the main thrust of Acts 1-2, that “all people” refers to people of “every nation” (v. 5), both Jews and Gentiles. As Peter says in v39, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Salvation is indeed for “all,” but all of who or what? Peter says it is for all “whom the Lord our God will call.” God is the One who chooses those who would be saved – indeed He will save all those whom He has chosen, and He has not chosen or called every individual in man’s history. But He has chosen and called people of all nations, even those who are as far off as “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Having reviewed some examples, then, it is also likely that John is using the word “world” in John 3:16 to denote a humanity that is hostile to God, so that He loves even those opposed to Him, and He sends Christ to save them. This is consistent with what John teaches elsewhere, as when he writes in 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (also v. 19). “Our” sins include those of believers. Elsewhere, in 1 John 2:2, Christ’s substitutionary, propitiatory, atoning sacrifice is not only for our sins (Jewish believers), but also for the sins of the whole world (Gentile believers). And the same idea appears in Paul, who writes, “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of His great love for us (believers, or the elect), God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:3-5). So with this context study, we'll return to John 3:16 next time.

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