the context of john 3:16

John 3:16 is the most famous verse in the Bible. It is simple and beautiful:

16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

The Calvinists have a problem with the reading of this verse. In the Calvinist mindset God chooses some for eternal life and some for eternal damnation independent of their actions. Jesus died only for the “elect”. They will jump through verbal hoops to make John 3:16 fit their theology. In short, the claim is that “whoever” is limited only to “the elect”.

As with any interpretation of a verse, it must make sense in context. If John 3:16 is about Jesus dying for only the elect then the question must be asked: is that interpretation consistent and does it make sense for the overall point that the author is trying to make? The context is important. A religious leader, Nicodemus, approaches Jesus as asks how people can be “born again”. Jesus responds:

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

The parallel here is found in Numbers 21. God had sent serpents to plague Israel. Israel repents. And God instructs Moses to build a brass serpent. Anyone who looked upon the serpent was saved. The idea is that people choose to be saved and perform actions to become part of the saved. In the same way, those who choose to look to Jesus will also be saved.

16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

God loved the “world”. So God sends his Son into the world. Does the next sentence make sense if limited to the elect? For God so loved the world that He gave His son so that chosen people would be saved? The next verse clarifies even further: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it (implying part of the world would be condemned), but to save it. God wanted to save the world, although part of them are condemned. This fits the illustration from Numbers: those who choose to look on the serpent are those who are saved. Everyone is given the opportunity, although some may reject it. The text would not fit the context if it read:

16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that when the elect believes in Him they should not perish but have everlasting life.
17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

What is Jesus saying to Nicodemus? That Jesus only came for a chosen few? Or is this a call for the masses to repent and turn to God? How does that fit with “whoever looked to the serpent was saved”? Why would the author talk about “condemning the world” although coming to save the world? What point is the author communicating to the reader?

The following verses also do not fit this Calvinist interpretation:

18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Who is saved and who is not? Well, it depends on what the person choses to believe, take the serpent illustration. Rejection of the “Son of God” leads to being condemned. This is in context of the statement of “condemning the world”. It is readily apparent that those to whom the Son came include individuals who are condemned, the very concept that Calvinists try to reinterpret out of existence.

The author explains this condemnation further:

19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.
21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

Notice the adherence to personal values. Those who are condemned are those who hate the light. The text attributes their beliefs to their personal value sets, and not some divine preordination. Jesus was not explaining to Nicodemus that only a select few were “saved” based on divine choosing. Jesus was attempting to explain that people who chose to reject him were in turn condemned based on their own actions, while salvation had been made available to them. They are without excuse.

This is the context of John 3. Jesus is saying, just as the verse reads, that God wanted to save the entire world, although He is rejected by the individuals He attempts to save.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Jesus, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to the context of john 3:16

  1. Koragi85 says:

    When I was tiptoeing through the tulips of the reformed camp, the explanation I found they most often used for the “world” was from Revelation 5:9 which states:

    And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (‭Revelation‬ ‭5‬:‭9-10‬ NASB)

    Basically saying the elect are of every tribe, tongue, and nation and not limited to just the Jews. I don’t see how they were able to cross reference that idea though. It’s quite a stretch to make their theology fit.

  2. Pingback: white refuted – opening statement | reality is not optional

  3. Pingback: Apologetics Thrusday – Fisher Refutes White | God is Open

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