Misread Text: John 3:16

Often times, people tend to look at a Scriptural text without having any interest in the context of the passage. Instead, the passage is used to reflect one’s own view or to teach something that is not the intended meaning for the text. I call these specific texts that are associated with improper exegesis “misread texts”, for most of the time they are indeed misread. This will be a recurring series on the blog as there are far too many verses to deal with in one post.

To the readers of The Reformed Alliance and to those who followed this series of blog posts in which I examined famous texts that were taken out of context, this will be my 10th and last Misread Text post. I enjoyed writing for this series, and from the responses I have been getting, I can tell that others have found this series to be edifying. From Jeremiah 29:11 to Romans 8:28, God has truly been gracious in allowing someone like me to dig into the texts to speak about their true meanings and to shine light into the lives of other believers.

From the beginning, I did not want to have too many Misread Text posts, lest anyone think that I am a person bent on judging people constantly. Nevertheless, since I started this series there were three verses that I wanted to examine above all others: 1) Jeremiah 29:11, 2) Philippians 4:13, and 3) John 3:16. Some may be confused as to how this text has been misread, but hopefully I will be able to make the case, by the grace of God, as to why it is.

John 3:16 (ESV) reads, “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Dr. RC Sproul has stated that this verse is “the most distorted verse in the entire Bible,” and I agree. Most people read this verse and assume that it affirms universal salvation, others will see this verse as proof for conditional election, and few will see the verse being a portrayal of the nature of God’s love. Even fewer are the people who try to define what it means for God to love the world. So, what does the text really mean?

Let’s look at what the text can’t mean. Now, we know that God doesn’t love everyone in the sense that He loves everyone enough to save them. We know this because John 3:16 clearly says that the one who believes in Christ will be the one to receive salvation. We also know this because there are more people who don’t believe in Jesus than those who do, so the verse can’t possibly be saying that God is going to save those who will not believe in Him. Therefore, we can throw universal salvation out the window.

We can also know that this passage is not proof for conditional election. Some have argued that this passage is a way of showing that man can freely choose God. However, this can’t be the case since John 3:5-8 (ESV) records what Jesus says, “‘…Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spiritDo not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes…you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus clearly states that it is not by man’s will that anyone can be saved, but through the work of God. Therefore, it is clear that John 3:16 can’t possibly mean that God loves the world so much that He gives everyone free will, when the doctrines of grace were clearly expressed only a few verses before.

Since the text presupposes that Christ is the only way to salvation, that God doesn’t love everyone in the sense that He is offering salvation to everyone, and that one can only be saved by grace, through faith (which God gives)… then we need to see what other possible interpretations we have other than the most popular ones.

We must first understand what it means for God to love the world. It is interesting that people quickly rush to say that the phrase means that God loves every individual, when it very clearly says in Psalm 11:5 (ESV), “The Lord tests the righteous, but His soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” (That Scripture is not misread by the way.) The truth is that world in John 3:16 is the Greek word “kosmon/kosmos”, which is where we get the term “universe” from. How is this significant?

In the original Greek, the second part of John 3:16 would read, “…that the ones who believe in Him would not perish.” This means that there are specific ones who are to be saved. Notice also that Jesus stated before that God is the one who causes someone to believe, since the Spirit has to regenerate someone before a decision could be made to believe in Christ. The passage reflects that God has His hand on a particular people and is going to save them out of love. You may now wonder why John didn’t use the word elect instead of world, but we must understand John’s audience.

The Jewish people, like Nicodemus, were familiar with election. In Amos 3:2 (ESV), God says to the people of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” In Isaiah 42:6 (ESV), it also says, “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you.” So, the Jews were familiar with the idea then of election, but they were not familiar with the concept of God electing the Gentiles. When John was writing the gospel, he used the word “kosmon” to show that God not only loved the elect of the Jews, but also the Gentiles. That means that the Gospel was now open to all kinds of groups, rather than just Israel.

Consider how big a deal this actually is. There was a time when the Gospel was not revealed to all people, but only to the elect out of Israel (not Israel as a whole, otherwise God would save people purely by ethnic status and that would be contrary to his nature).  This meant that God chooses His elect not by any status quo, ethnicity, or some kind of qualification. God saves people by grace alone.

John 3:16 reflects that God’s love was not only for the elect in Israel, but for the Gentiles as well, not only at that present age, but also from the past and the future. This meant that God’s love would not be confined to a specific time or place, but to different times and places throughout the globe. Romans 9:23-24 (ESV) says, “…In order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for gloryeven us whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

Look at John 3:16 (ESV) again, now with the true meaning in perspective: “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God loved the world, the Jews and Gentiles, in such a way… that He would send Christ to atone for the sins of His elect. Christ came to offer a means for salvation to those who had been called by God, from all times and nations. This truly opens our eyes to see the glory of God and to be able to understand the depths of His love.

I was truly blessed to have been able to write the posts for the Misread Text series, and it is unfortunate that I won’t be able to write them again. I pray that these posts have opened people’s eyes to the proper context of the texts I have examined. I also hope that they gave all glory to the God who has saved a wretch like me and used me as a servant of His Kingdom.

May we study our Bibles, examine the proper context of passages, and use the Scriptures to declare of the glory of the most high God. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end. He is the truth, the way, and the life we need. Most of all, it is only through Him that any of us can come to understand the things we can’t perceive with our eyes. May He forever be praised and glorified.

Soli Deo Gloria.

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