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What in the world does 'world' mean in John's Gospel?

A quiet and side debate in Christianity has been going on for centuries. Many of us probably don't know much about it and most of us probably don't care. Indeed, in many ways, the debate itself may appear irrelevant, though in reality it is not.

This debate deals with the nature of Christ's work on the cross. The issue is about whether Christ's death on the cross atoned for a limited number of people or if all people of all times were covered by Christ's blood.

Those who believe that Jesus died for all people look to the classic verse of John 3:16. They say that John 3:16 teaches "God so loved the *world*" and they say this use of the word "world" indicates that God's provision of salvation extends to anyone--God's salvation is not fixed, limited or just for specific people. They also go one to say that since this verse says "...whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" therefore, "whoever" must mean that the offer is open to all. Additionally, they also cite other verses such as 2 Peter 2:1 which says that false teachers deny "the Master who bought them..." and 2 Peter 3:9 which says that God does not wish anyone to perish...

I'd like to take a moment to add my two cents to this debate.

Now, at the outset, we need to understand that I'm not saying that we can just sit back as the frozen chosen. Nor am I saying that we don't have a responsibility to go out and reach the world for Christ. Likewise, I am not saying that God does not love the world, or that if someone comes to Him, He will reject Him; indeed, anyone who does come to Him, comes because God is drawing them to Him (John 6:44) and that all who do come to Him will be accepted by Him (John 6:37).

So the debate is not about these matters of practicality, but more about the theoretical extent of Christ's atonement. Often the terms thrown around are "Limited Atonement" versus "Universal Atonement." If it's not clear by now, I land on the side of "Limited Atonement" though I prefer to call it "Particular Atonement" or "Definite Atonement" or even better, "Full Atonement" because only those who are born-again have their sins fully atoned.

We need to begin by understanding what the Bible says about atonement. The very term “atonement” is literally the words “at” and “one” and “ment” all put together. The Hebrew word “atone” is the word “kapar” which is what we get “Yom Kippur” from (e.g. the Day of Atonement). At its root, kapar meant to “cover” –it was used of the pitch that covered Noah’s Ark in Genesis 6:14. Once our sins are covered, God’s wrath is turned away and we are no longer His enemies.

The book of Leviticus establishes the basis for our understanding of atonement. Leviticus explains that our sins need to be covered by an innocent life. When it is, we are “at one” with God—that is, that our sins are removed and we are in fellowship with God. Every Jew that had their sins atoned for were forgiven and in a right relationship with God (Lev 4:26, 5:16). This covering, this Yom Kippur, was only available to believing Jews. In fact, if they did not believe, Leviticus 23:29 says that they should be cut off from their people. The Jews were the first of God’s people to believe in a particular atonement—that it was only available to those who would rightly recognize what God had provided.

 

I believe that the vast majority of Bible-believing Christians believe in a "Limited Atonement" though they may not say it this way. Here's why:

When we use word "atone" we are saying that Christ's blood fully covers our sins. If our sins are fully covered, we have full access to God and heaven after we die. Thus, if every person was fully atoned for by Christ, then every person would be heading to heaven--this is called Universalism. But no Bible believing Christian believes in Universalism because scripture clearly explains this is not the case. For instance, where is Judas now? Jesus said of him in Matthew 26:24 that it would have been better for him not to have been born. This can only mean that Judas is not in Heaven right now, but rather in Hell. Therefore, if Judas is in Hell right now, we can all agree that there is at least one person in Hell (though in reality, scripture indicates there are many more). So my question is this: If Jesus fully atoned for all of Judas' sins, why is he in Hell? Some might say, "Because of his unbelief. That's the only sin that cannot be forgiven." While I may not agree with the merit of this statement, the statement itself confirms my point: Jesus did not fully pay for every sin of every person because there are some people who He did not pay for their sin of unbelief. Therefore, they have at least one sin that has not been atoned for and thus we all agree in a Limited Atonement! Hooray!

Now, so far I've given some logical reasons to help settle the concerns of those who believe in an Unlimited Atonement. But what surprises me about this debate is that we are so unwilling to let scripture speak for itself. Indeed, scripture makes it quite clear that only a limited, specific group of people will be elect--that is, chosen by God for salvation. Passages such as Ephesians 1:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:1-2, Colossians 3:12 all indicate that we are selected and chosen by God to be in Christ.

The reason for the debate is that there are other passages that likewise speak of what seems to be a universal atonement. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:6 says that Jesus “gave Himself as a ransom for all.” 1 John 2:2 says “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Do these verses, and others, indicate that every person in the world is atoned for and thus in a right relationship with God? Well, here’s some further thoughts on this question.

The question, then, is not about what the Bible teaches, but how do we understand what these verses mean?

 

Sadly, the debate has been waged for centuries and I don't claim to have all the answers. Yet in the matter of John's references to the "world" (and by extension, Paul’s use of “all”) I think that his point is fairly clear.

The question, then, is not about what the Bible teaches, but how do we understand what these verses mean?

Well, the debate has been waged for centuries and I don't claim to have all the answers. Yet in the matter of John's references to the "world" I think that his point is fairly clear.

A study of John's gospel reveals that he admits to driving the reader to several conclusions:

1) That Jesus is God (John 1:1, John 5:18, John 10:10, John 20:28).

2) That we need to believe in Him for salvation (John 1:12, John 3:15-16, 36, John 20:29).

3) The offer of salvation is extended to all people (passim).

Now, Point #3 is the crux and requires careful study.

John uses the word "world" numerous times in his Gospel. It's the Greek word kosmos and has many facets to its meaning. the word itself is about as portable and elastic as our word "world" in English. Kosmos can mean earth/planet (e.g. the world we live on), the way of society (e.g. the way of the world), a sphere of being (e.g. the wide world of sports) etc. Now with all these semantic ranges of meaning, what is John's nuance in his gospel?

The answer lies in John chapter 4. Here we have John's account of how Jesus blew apart the dividing walls of Palestinian society of the day. In John 4, Jesus was talking with the infamous woman at the well. She had been rather loose in her morals and shunned even by her own people. Adding insult to injury, she was also a Samaritan, a rogue group of people who had an aberrant view of God and His Word. Clearly this woman had many strikes against her and if there was ever someone unfit for heaven, it was this gal. And yet, Jesus' lovingly offered her the words of eternal life.

Now to see how John chapter 4 decodes the word "world", we need to see that Jesus stuck to some important truths. In verse 22 He maintains that salvation is from the Jews. This quick statement is critical in this passage and cannot be overlooked. Saying that salvation is from the Jews is Jesus' way of affirming all that had been previously taught in the Old Testament, namely that God's solution to sin and God's renewal of the person to make them fit for heaven was only sourced in the Jewish religion. If anyone in that age wanted a relationship with God, they HAD to become Jewish. This gets to the heart of salvation and election--God has ALWAYS been particular in choosing His people. Just as a groom is particular when he chooses a bride to the exclusion of all other women, God has likewise been particular in choosing His bride.

So, the Samaritans were a hybrid Jewish spinoff; were they accepted too? The answer is No, by Jesus' words here, the Samaritan religion itself was invalid. Just because they worshiped the same "God" in name as the Jews, their religion had so many problems that it was incapable of producing salvation. In order to be saved, they needed to repent of their man-made, false religion, and they needed to come to God on His terms as Jewish believers.

So back to the story: Jesus meets this woman and something amazing happens to her. While we could go into great detail, it's suffice to say that the woman acknowledges her sin, repents, and goes to bring others to Christ as well. In this startling  turn of events a Samaritan woman is offered salvation, her people are offered salvation, and they gladly embrace Christ--not that they might become Jewish, but that they would become born-again and members/citizens of God's family through Christ.

Okay, now getting back to the word "world" in John's Gospel-- the most important key in all of this is found down in verse 42, where the people make an important and startling conclusion--a conclusion that decodes John's use of the word "world" throughout his gospel. In John 4:42 the people say, "...we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the *WORLD*." In essence, they realize and see that Jesus is from the Jews, He is God's prophet, He is God's Savior, He is God's appointment means of salvation. And yet, though Jewish Himself, Jesus' offer of salvation is extended to anyone in the whole *world* even though they are NOT Jewish!!! They have been getting the short end of the stick for a while--all along, they've been hearing from the Jews that they are not really God's people because they are not really Jewish. Up till now, the Jews were right to say this. But now that the Samaritans have heard the Gospel from Jesus the Jewish Messiah, they now understand that He is God's gift, not just to Jews; but to them (the Samaritans) too! And not just to them; but to anyone in the WORLD who comes to Him like they did!Their use of the word "world" here proves that they are not thinking of every single person, but rather every people-group can come to God on the basis of Christ's death.

God's salvation is extended to ALL people of all nationalities. We see this in John 11:51b-52 which says, "...Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad." It doesn't matter if they formerly were radically sinful, from a the "wrong" ethnic group, or following a corrupt religion--if they come to Christ with humble repentance and faith, salvation is for THEM TOO! Salvation is no longer about national or cultural identity, it is about a reconciliation with God through faith and trust in Christ Jesus alone.

Lastly, even though the offer of salvation is meant for all nations, and is not limited to just the Jews, we need to remember that only those who are chosen (John 6:65) and called (John 6:44) can believe. Indeed, John 14:17 tells us clearly that the "world" cannot receive the Holy Spirit (John 14:17) because He has blinded the hearts/eyes/minds of some (John 12:40). Thus, in His high priestly prayer, Jesus specifically says, "I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours (John 17:9)."

Did you get all that? This is a brief summary of what John's Gospel has to say about God's offer of salvation to the world. On the one hand, you can't get much more election-heavy that John, on the other hand, indeed the offer of salvation is given to all nations. This doesn't mean that Jesus atoned for each and every person, but it does mean that His grace is available to anyone regardless of their national or cultural identity. 

This understanding of the word *world* unites with the overall purpose of John's Gospel. You may remember that according to John 20:31, his gospel is specifically an evangelistic book to be read and pondered by all people, not just for Jews 2000 years ago, and that the readers would call upon Christ as Lord and Savior. Just as John's Gospel is intended to be read by any people group in the world, likewise the Gospel itself IS God's message for the whole world. It's God's offer of redemption and salvation to all people. This doesn't mean that all people are universally atoned for, but rather the offer is open and extended to everyone.  These uses of the word "world" throughout John's Gospel indicates clearly that God's grace and mercy extends to all people for all times. Indeed, we worship and serve a great and mighty and good God.

Thanks for reading, I'd love to hear your thoughts too...

Last modified on Monday, 07 October 2013 12:37
Russ Brewer

Russ Brewer

Rescued from the domain of darkness, transferred to the kingdom of the Son. Undershepherd of Grace. Husband of Corinne. Father of three. Chew-toy to Zeke...

Website: www.thegracetabernacle.org