Christianity 201

December 26, 2013

God Desires All to be Saved

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave…

Most readers here at C201 are so familiar with the above verse, that I need not post it here in full, and probably many C201 readers know from memory the verse which follows it:

17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

The purposes of God are not about condemnation, though the world-at-large often sees it that way. However, we’re probably less familiar with the verses which follow:

18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

The IVP New Testament Commentary Series states:

God’s purpose is clearly stated: not condemnation but salvation for the whole world (vv. 16-17). Jesus has come not just for the Jews or the elect, but for the world. He has come not to save some and to condemn others, but solely for salvation. Nevertheless, condemnation does take place—not through God’s rejection of some, but by their rejection of him (v. 18). Judgment is a matter of what people do with the light, as Jesus emphasizes at the end of the first half of the Gospel (12:46-48). One’s response to Jesus is one’s judgment because Jesus is the revelation of God himself (12:49-50).

Why is it that some come to the light and some do not? John does not unravel this mystery entirely, but verses 19-21 shed some light. At first glance this passage seems to say that one’s response to the light is determined by one’s moral behavior prior to encountering the light. This cannot be correct, however, since John describes people living immoral lifestyles, such as the Samaritan woman, who come to the light. The key is in the terms be exposed (elencho, v. 20) and be seen plainly (phaneroo, v. 21). It is sometimes assumed that the image in verse 20 is of someone working under cover of darkness so no one will know what is taking place. That person does not come into the light lest his or her activity, which is obviously wrong, be seen. But a preferable image is of a person involved in some activity that is morally neutral or even virtuous. This person does not come to the light because it would expose that what was considered virtuous is actually evil. This latter interpretation best fits this context, and we know it was held very early because some manuscripts…

I want to go back to verse 16 now and offer some commentary from the NIV Application Commentary:

The statement that God loves the world is surprising on two counts (3:16). (1) Judaism rarely (or never) spoke of God’s loving the world outside of Israel. God desires to reach this world through Israel, his child. It is a uniquely Christian idea to say that God’s love extends beyond the limits of race and nation. (2) John tells his readers elsewhere that they are not to love the world (1 John 2:15–17) because it is a place of disbelief and hostility (cf. John 15:18–19; 16:8). Carson comments effectively, “There is no contradiction between this prohibition and the fact that God does love it [the world]. Christians are not to love the world with the selfish love of participation; God loves the world with the selfless, costly love of redemption.”

This helpful insight gives a clue to what John means by “the world.” In John’s writings “world” (Gk. kosmos) is not a reference to the natural world of trees, animals, and plants—a world defended by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. For John kosmos (used seventy-eight times in this Gospel, twenty-four times in his letters) is the realm of humanity arrayed in opposition to God (1:9; 7:7). Thus Jesus enters this world in his incarnation, knowing that hostility will result and that sacrifice will be needed in order to redeem the world (1:29; 3:17; 6:51). This dimension of the Son’s work must be underscored: The Son did not come to the world to save a select few (those chosen, those privileged); rather, he came to save the world, namely, the all-encompassing circle of men and women who inhabit this planet, people who embrace darkness habitually (3:19–21).

Despite the familiarity of John 3:16 and the partial familiarity of successive verses, the concepts are not as easily processed as might first seem. Great doctrinal distinctions and differences exist from denomination to denomination over God’s over-arching love for us versus God’s justice and judgment. Ultimately, you can’t get close to this truth from the text or commentaries; you have to pause, think these things through and work them out in your own heart and mind. That’s why we’re told to meditate on scripture; I personally like the idea that we need to chew on it.

Getting to know and understand the ways of God can take a lifetime. But there is also a simplicity in John 3:16 that you can use with your friends, neighbors, co-workers, fellow-students and extended family; as long as you yourself are continuing to work at understanding the broader implications.

>>>You can find the commentaries referred to today by going to and clicking on “show resources” toward the upper right corner.

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