Eyes That See

“I Once Was Blind”

John 3:16 Turned Downside-Up

There was recently a “John 3:16 Conference” that was supposedly in response to this year’s “Together 4 the Gospel Conference” (T4G).  Those opposed to the reformed beliefs of the speakers at T4G dubbed it “Together 4 Calvinism” and had their own conference.  This “counter-conference” was based on a poor translation and a poor understanding of John 3:16.  Because of the problem in the translation, which is the translation used in all English translations except for the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and because of a tradition of poor teaching, most Americans share in a poor understanding of John 3:16.

So, just how well do you know the most well-known verse in the Bible?

I have three problems with the way that John 3:16 is commonly understood:  1)  “World” is understood to mean “people,” 2) the verse is read as if it tells of a universal love for all people, when the love of God expressed in the verse is clearly contingent upon belief in Jesus, and 3) the word translated “so” in “For God so loved the world” can mean “thus,” “so,” or “in this manner.”  Therefore, although God indubitably loves emphatically and although sending His only Son was indubitably an emphatic expression of God’s love, John 3:16 speaks about the manner of God’s love rather than the extent.

First of all, “world” versus “people.” Arminians, and especially those who put together and/or spoke at the “John 3:16 Conference,” would have us believe that God could not choose to love a particular people because, as John 3:16 reads, “God so loved the world.”  The reformed response to this Arminian defense has sometimes been to say that “world” doesn’t mean “world.”  By that they mean that just because John says “world” does not mean that he is saying God loves every individual in the world.  Some have added that this could mean that God chooses to love people from all the different nations in the world, rather than every individual in the world.  There is truth in these statements, but they are responding to erroneous presuppositions.  The fact is that the Arminians, rather than the Calvinists, are the ones who are guilty of making “world” mean something other than “world.”  Arminians read this verse as if “world” means “people.”  If we let “world” mean “world,” we will see that this error has led us to read this verse wrongly.

Secondly, God’s John 3:16 love is contingent. God’s love for the world (and let us not read “people” where John says “world”) is not for all people in John 3:16.  Even with the popular translation of the verse, all people do not receive the benefits of God’s love for the world.  Only those who believe in Jesus do: “whosoever believes in Him will not perish.”  If God’s John 3:16 love were not contingent, then the verse would read, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that the world should not perish, but have eternal life.”  However, God’s love for the world in John 3:16 is contingent upon belief in Jesus.

Thirdly, better Greek. The Greek word translated “so” in “For God so loved the world” can mean “thus,” “so,” or “in this manner.”  Therefore, even if we go with “so” in our translation of the Greek, the connotation should resemble “thus” or “in this manner.”  However, practically everybody that I have ever known, and definitely every preacher that I have ever heard reference this verse, has understood John 3:16 to be speaking of God’s emphatic love for the world (These five “loose” translations actually make an effort to emphasize the modern American understanding of John 3:16, while making no effort to account for the Greek).  Because “so” has been abused often and to quite an extent, I think that “in this manner” is a better way to translate the Greek word in this verse (leave it to a first semester Greek student to speak as though he were an expert.  In my defense, both my teacher and the family Greek scholar agree with me).

So, this is how I think John 3:16 should read:  “In this manner God loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (NASB translation, except for “in this manner” instead of “so”).

In what manner?  In that those who believe in Jesus shall not perish, but have eternal life, and experience the limited, special love of God for His people (cf. Isaiah 43).

The “downside-up” in the title was intentional.  For one, I thought it would be a bit intriguing to reverse the oft-used “upside-down.”  Additionally, I think that the common, American understanding of John 3:16 is, at least in part, an effort to prevent the seeming downside of God’s love being limited.  However, I think that viewing God’s love in the manner in which He has revealed it to us, has no downside and instead has great upside.

The word “limit” generally has a negative connotation, but it must not necessarily be so read.  Think of the many ways that limited love is enormously enhanced.  A husband best loves his wife by limiting the way that he loves her to her alone, and by not loving anybody else in that manner.  The same goes for a father and his love for his children.  Also, people are faced with the decision between having many shallow friendships or having a few deep friendships.  These limitations are brought on by the nature of spouse-to-spouse, parent-to-child, and friend-to-friend relationships.  While God is by no means forced into relating in this manner, the Bible does display this as the manner in which God chooses to relate to His world.

The manner in which He loves the world includes choosing to love some and choosing to hate some; choosing on whom to show mercy and on whom to show compassion; and creating, forming, and loving some in a way that He does not create, form, and love others, etc.

May we seek to understand the love of Love Himself as He has revealed it to us, rather than imposing our own notions of love upon Him!


November 30, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. […] Read David Hamilton’s Post Here […]

    Pingback by John 3:16 Turned Downside-Up by David Hamilton « Above Every Name | December 15, 2008 | Reply

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