John 3:16 should be cherished by all who profess faith in Christ. Sadly, it is also one of the most misquoted verses in all of the Bible. The biggest problem with misquoting the Bible is context. We can look at semantic ranges, theological issues, diagrams, and original languages, but nothing aids the Bible student nearly as much as contextual clues. Let’s put this precious verse into its proper biblical context. Only then will it properly drive our theology, for a theology that is not exegetically founded is destined for egregious error.
Before we get started, let us have a word on presuppositions. (That seems to be our new theme around here.) We all operate by some level of presuppositions, even when we do not wish to admit it. As we approach John 3:16, those with Arminian leanings will tend to interpret the verse as pertaining to the entire exhaustive world. Those with Reformed leanings will see that as a restricted set within the whole. Our first requirement is to lay those presuppositions aside as much as is possible in order to allow the text to clearly speak for itself.
In pure isolation, John 3:16 states: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The first thing that gets our attention is that this passage is actually a discussion of the nature of belief, but this might not be as clear when we single out one verse and develop a theology around it. The setting is the greater Nicodemus narrative. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and on the ruling council. He approached Jesus. Faith and belief are the primary motifs. Remember that the Gospel of John was written so that we might believe. Nestled within the overall story line is this particular arc. We place such an artificial nuance on “the world” that we miss the bigger picture of those who would come to faith in the Son of God.
The context is further refined immediately following the 16th verse. We are told that God did not send His son to condemn the world. The reason should be clear: the world already stands either accused or righteous. The qualifier is “believing ones.” The one who believes is not condemned; rather, the one who does not believe is already condemned. Biblical balance in the passage is restored as this section of Scripture self-limits.
Jesus is explaining something simple to Nicodemus, yet we so often miss it. It is imperative to determine who “the world” is. Was Jesus dispatched so that everyone ever created would believe? Even the most ardent Arminianist would not impose that upon the text; to argue thusly would support universalism. It is a very rare theologian indeed who will claim that all people will come to salvation or belief. Yet, if we do not limit “the world” in some manner, this is exactly where the logic and reasoning will lead us. It is far more natural to say that verses 17-21 limit the scope of verse 16. Belief and subsequent conduct provide the context for this verse.
It is so easy to pull a verse out of context because true contextual reading requires more effort. We can read one verse or we can read an entire passage. We are not implying that Arminian theology is predicated upon a lazy inclination due to our fallen state. However, the easier way to move around this verse would make invalid assumptions based upon some presuppositions. We freely admit that our presuppositions are guarded toward the opposite conclusion, proof of the necessity to do true exegesis rather than stand on the slippery slope of theologically-driven eisegesis.
This is another case where the KJV reading prejudices theology. Surely many of us memorized this verse as “For God so loved the world, that he he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth…” The word “whosoever” is a tricky term that most people read and automatically jump to the conclusion that the word pertains to human effort. If it says “whosoever,” then it must pertain to anyone, right? Wrong. The word “whosoever” does not occur in the Greek text at all. Instead, it should be read as “all who believe.” This further builds our case for a self-limiting text. A full translation of verse 16 could be rendered as: “For in this way, God loved the world: that He gave His one and only son that all the believing ones should not perish, but rather have eternal life.” We might paraphrase as, “God loved the world by sending His Son to all believers. Those believers then will have eternal life.”
We see a case for limited atonement embedded in this passage. We start with all the people who will ever be born. Out of this vast group of people are two groups: those who will believe and those who will not believe. The Son of God was sent to those who would believe. There are only two positions with intellectual integrity: one is that everyone will have eternal life and the other is that only those who believe will have that eternal life. Arminianism tries to maintain the “having their cake and eating it, too” error. It is not valid to state that all will come to salvation; human history would record the opposite. God’s penalty would not be necessary as that would defeat the wages of sin. Therefore, it becomes necessary to state that some will come to salvation and acknowledge that God defines who they are.
It is also possible to argue this from common language. Is it required that we think the world refers to the entire world? We have already seen from context that it does not. When I say “all of America” came out to vote or “everyone” in my town was at the bank, do I mean exclusively “all”? Of course not. We frequently speak in terms of a part of the whole standing for the whole. For example, “The church voted in business meeting.” Does this actually mean the entire church? No, it is a case of a representative number. The ones who believe make up a part of the whole world and that is to whom Jesus was sent.
Looking at the passage with consistent logic makes far more sense. For some that is a hurdle, but if we utilize all the tools at our disposal we will reach the same conclusion. What do we mean when we quote John 3:16? If we mean that out of all the masses of the world, God chose to save some, and it is to those some that Jesus was sent, then we have the correct proposal. We will explore some similar verses in the near future. Look forward with me to exegeting the pure Word of God.
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