Almost any American can recite John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." We see it flashed at all sorts of public events, even sports games. Just the citation, not the full text.
But who stops to consider what it means? What is included in the "world"? What God? What Son? What does it mean to "believe"? "Perish" how? What is "eternal life"? I don't mean to consider all of those questions. Rather, I mean to point out how it has been turned into a slogan, with no awareness of its content.
As can be seen by my headline, I want to examine what "world" it is that God loves.
First of all, what is it not? The fact that it goes on to talk about those who believe, we can see that it isn't talk about a world, such as Mars or Vulcan. Rather, it is talking about the world of men. It is like we might say, "The whole world watched the moon landing on TV." Anyone would understand that we are not talking about a world in the sense of a ball of rock twirling through space.
The Bible refers often to this same world and God's plans for it.
In Isaiah 65:17, God gives us this promise: "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind." God has a plan for this world of men, this world with cancer, war, famine, and angst. It is to be replaced. He tells us more of His plan in Isaiah 66:22: "For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before Me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before Me, declares the Lord." This new world that He is creating shall be distinguished from the old one by its relationship with Him, from one person to the next, generation after generation.
The Apostle Paul explained this idea. In Romans 8:19-23, he explained, "The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that
the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and
obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And
not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of
the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons." This world around us was never meant to contain the suffering and futility that we see everyday. Rather, they result from the curse brought about by the sin of Adam (see Genesis 3:17-19). However, as God brings His people into our proper relationship with Him, to that same extent the curse is rolled back, and all of creation is released and restored to its proper state in service to man under God. How is that relationship brought about? John refers to "everyone who believes," and Paul expands this (II Corinthians 5:19): "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." That is, "believing in Him" means being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. That is, not believing in the sense that we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, but rather being restored to our relationship with our Creator, who has reconciled us to Himself through His only Son.
The Apostle Peter adds his own testimony to this restoration. In II Peter 3:13, he tells us, "According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." This is how the new earth, the world of John 3:16, will look: "in which righteousness dwells"!
How will this be attained? The same Apostle John tells us (I John 2:2): "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." Adam sinned, bringing God's curse on our world. However, He loved the world He made, and chose to remedy the destruction which man had wrought. He sent His Son to die on the cross to satisfy His justice for all who believe in Him. Through that and the changes that occur as a result, He is restoring the world He created.
In Revelation 21:1, 4, John continues describing us what this new world will be like: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. [And there] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no
more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for
the former things have passed away." Where Adam had created a world of futility and hardship, God re-creates a new world where we will cease to know hardship or sorrow. That is the world that God loves, and which He is, even now, creating through Jesus's work of reconciliation in and through His people, the church.
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