Question: I heard the strangest thing at Bible study last week. Someone said something like, “The word ‘world’ doesn’t always refer to every single person on the planet.” How could someone say that? How could anyone deny John 3:16? It clearly says that God loves the whole world.
Answer: First of all, let me agree with you on this point: John 3:16 clearly states that the object of God’s redeeming love is the world, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
No one who loves the Bible and desires to interpret it honestly would deny the truthfulness of this verse. All should be completely agreed on this single point — God loved the world in this manner: That he gave his only-begotten Son. That is simple enough.
What is not as simple, however, is the unavoidable fact that what your friend said at Bible study is also true: The term “world” can mean different things in the Bible depending on its intent, usage, and context.
To be more precise, the Greek word translated as “world” in the Bible is kosmos and it can have at least seven distinct and different meanings in scripture. I will list each of the seven uses along with a verse which demonstrates that particular usage.
1. The Universe as a Whole – Acts 17:24, “God that made the kosmos and all things therein seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth.”
2. The Planet Earth – John 13:1, “When Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this kosmos unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the kosmos, he loved them unto the end.”
3. The Evil World System – John 12:31, “Now is the judgment of this kosmos: now shall the Prince of this kosmos be cast out.”
4. The Entire Human Race – Romans 3:19, “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the kosmos may become guilty before God.”
5. The Unbelievers – John 15:18, “If the kosmos hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.”
6. The Gentiles or Non-Jews – Romans 11:12, “Now if the fall of them [Israel] be the riches of the kosmos, and the diminishing of them [Israel] the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their [Israel’s] fullness?”
7. The Believers in Jesus – 2 Corinthians 5:19, “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the kosmos unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…”
The conservative baptist theologian Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952), in his treatment of these seven uses, anticipated an objection, “Has then God used a word thus to confuse and confound those who read the Scriptures?”
He offers this challenging answer: “We answer, ‘No!’ Nor has he written his Word for lazy people who are too dilatory, or too busy with the things of this world, or, like Martha, so much occupied with ‘serving,’ they have no time and no heart to ‘search’ and ‘study’ Holy Writ!”
Mr. Pink also anticipates one more objection: “But how is a searcher of the Scriptures to know which of the above meanings the term ‘world’ has in any given passage?”
His answer (as well as mine) is this:“This may be ascertained by a careful study of the context, by diligently noting what is predicated of ‘the world’ in each passage, and by prayerfully consulting other parallel passages to the one being studied.”
This is sound advice for all serious students of scripture.