John 3:16 is one sentence in the middle of a conversation. It is not a book unto itself, as it would seem when considering how it is usually interpreted. It is one of the most cherry picked verses of all scripture, and its context is usually completely ignored. Because our goal in bible study is to expose what the word of God says, rather than imposing on it what we want it to say, we must revisit the text and examine this verse within its inspired inerrant context. When we do, we see a much different picture than is normally presented today.
John 3:16 expresses a marvellous truth. But in order for us to come to a proper understanding, we must see that as this is part of an entire conversation, about salvation, the salvation promise within this verse is defined and constrained by the salvation statements made through the entire passage in the whole conversation. That means when Jesus says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”, by necessity “God’s love for the world”, as well as “who God gave His Son for”, and “whoever believes” are all defined by the other statements in this same conversation.
So… in verse 3 of John 3 Jesus tells us that a person can’t even see the kingdom UNLESS he is born again, but born again is lacking there as a translation. The Greek is more specific. Not just reborn, but including the source of this birth. Born “from above” just as this same word is translated in verse 31 of this very same chapter. Well that takes it out of man’s hands right there. It requires God to cause a rebirth to even see the kingdom.
So … “whoever believes” is defined for us, because unless there is new birth a man can’t even see spiritual truth needed to believe. 2 Cor. 4:4 and 1 Cor. 2:14 would be helpful to understand. God needs first remove the blinders, which happens as we are regenerated.
If God must cause the new birth (1 Peter 1:3), and we know that God does not cause new birth in everyone, then the new birth also defines for us whom God loves, and for whom God gave His Son. Yes, Jesus is given for the whole world, in a sense, as he is the only saviour the whole world has. He is also available to the whole world certainly. And yet only those who can see the kingdom will ever believe and only those who have been reborn from above will ever see and therefore Jesus is given specifically for these and none but these. Jesus teaches this truth elsewhere as well. In Matthew 16:17 upon hearing Peter’s confession that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus says “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Belief requires God to open a man’s eyes and reveal spiritual truth. God does not open everyone’s eyes! The new birth is a discriminating love of God, based solely upon The Lord’s sovereign grace.
John 3:16 is also further defined by John 3:5-6 which teaches us that a man must be born of water and spirit. Water a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27 and the work of God in washing the sinner clean and filling him with the Spirit. In other words, regeneration must occur before a man can believe. Order of salvation is a very important, yet most neglected in contemporary evangelicalism.
So where does this regeneration come from? Well, this is defined for us in John 3:7-8. The Spirit is like the wind, the wind blows where it wishes, The Spirit works where He wishes! John 1:13 “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Where does this new birth come from? Well, it isn’t man choosing God, it isn’t man’s will, it is “of God”.
God is absolutely sovereign over whom He saves (and no he does not look through the corridors of time, that would be a God that learns, and therefore not a God who is perfect. That is not at all the God of the Bible. Plus, if He did look through time, according to Gen. 6:5, Gen. 8:21, Eph 2:1, Rom. 8:5-8, Rom. 3:10-18, John 8:34 all He would see would God hating sinners who love and choose nothing but sin.)
But that’s not all. John 3:16 is further defined and constrained by John 3:17-21. Jesus came to provide a way of salvation, the one and only way. “Whoever believes has eternal life”, but remember, no one can even see to believe unless regeneration has taken place. No one can enter the kingdom, let me say that another way, no one “can be saved”, since entering the kingdom is equal to being saved, no one can UNLESS he is born from the Spirit of God. (I know I already covered this, but as Jesus stated this twice, it’s probably important enough for me to stress again as well.)
All who don’t believe, that would be equivalent to all who have not been born of the Spirit, according to verse 18, are condemned already. Verses 19-20 tell us who that is. It’s all of us. None will ever come into the light because men hate the light. Romans 8:7 gives addition info which proves helpful. The man of the flesh (the man who has not been born again of the Spirit) cannot please God. Who is this? Well it’s all of us before God brings the new birth.
Verse 21 then tells us how it can happen. If no one will ever come to the light, then how is it that any can be saved (how can any believe without the light needed to believe)? “His works have been carried out in God.” God does it. God carries the man to the work of believing. John 6:29 “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Notice Jesus did not say this is the work God requires, but rather this is God’s work! Exactly! Exactly! Philippians 2:12-13 “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.“
God is completely sovereign in salvation. Does John 3:16 teach that God loves all equally? No. Quite the opposite. It teaches that God specifically loves those whom He causes to be born from above, those whom the Spirit washes clean and indwells. Those whom God brings to faith. Those whom God carries to belief and therefore eternal life.
In a nutshell, that’s John 3:16. God has given His Son Jesus because God is both just and justifier of the one who has faith, and this God does not leave that faith up to chance, He carries every one of His elect, those whom he has loved from eternity past and will love for all eternity, he carries these and causes these to believe. 1 Peter 1:3-5 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” This is not only a faithful interpretation of John 3:16, but also the consistent testimony of the New Testament scriptures.
Who is “the world” in John 3:16? Well Jesus is speaking to a Jew. A Pharisee. These believe that only Jews were loved by God. In the context of John 3 “the world” certainly does not mean every single person on planet earth. John never uses the word “world” (kosmos) to mean that. For example, turn to John 1:29. Jesus is said to be the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. Does this in any way mean that Jesus takes away the sin of every man, woman, and child on the planet? Of course not, and we would never interpret it as such, and yet we do interpret John 3:16 and the word “world” there in just that way. But that is not what John intended to teach his readers.
“For God so loved the world”. Does that mean God’s love for all is the same? Well, the writers of the New Testament would have been shocked to find out that was true. Look what they wrote: Romans 5:8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (hint: all the pronouns in that passage refer to believers, not to every one on the planet). Ephesians 2:4 “ But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” Did God give that love to all? No, only to “us” who are in Christ. 2 Thessalonians 2:16 “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace”. Did God the Father give eternal comfort and good hope to all? No, it seems God’s love is discriminating, just as we have seen from John 3. His love is discriminating not based on anything good in us mind you, but discriminating based upon His good pleasure.
1 John 3:1 “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God”. Are all children of God? No! God has bestowed a special kind of love on the saved. God makes a clear distinction.
1 John 4:9-10 “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Do all live through Christ? No, only those who believe have life. So this same love is not for all. But God loved “us”, the redeemed in Christ with an eternal saving love. Has God made propitiation for everyone’s sins? If so, everyone goes to heaven, so we understand that can’t be. No, God made propitiation in Christ for all His elect. Only for His elect.
No the word “world” in the context of John 3:16 simply means all nations. This salvation is not just for Jews. There will be people of every nation, every tribe, every tongue, whom God causes to be born from above, washed, filled with the Spirit, brought to Faith, who receive eternal life. Now that’s a God worth worshipping! Hallelujah what a Saviour!