John 3:16 is such a well-known passage, that sometimes we forget to think about it much. God so loved the world, we read. There’s been a great deal of debate on the meaning of the word “world” to Jesus in this passage, which is a feature of the Calvinist / Arminian debate of course. In John, even in this very chapter, the “world” is used to indicate the whole scope of that which is in rebellion against God and alienated from Him. John 3:16 is made that much more remarkable by the fact that it is not the beautiful creation that He made to which He is referring here, but the rebellious, corrupt, disgusting and hateful world order which He says He loves.
In fact, this world is actively under condemnation from God. It is the very world which is condemned to hell for their sin which is loved by God and redeemed from their sin. In John 1:10, we read that the world “did not know Him”. And in John 3:17, we read that Jesus coming into the world has the effect of saving “the world”. Now of course it does not save every individual. Those who believe are saved, and those who do not believe are not saved, and remain in their condemnation. So the flow of the passage shows us that Christ’s presence comes into a world commonly under God’s condemnation, but some are rescued and some not, as we see in the following verse.
So what is included in “the world”? Obviously it includes people, and indeed focuses on people. It wasn’t the physical creation which sinned against God, though the creation suffers the effects of man’s sins. But verse 17 says that Jesus’ death saves “the world”, and in the next verse discusses two classes of people, those who believe (and are saved) and those who do not (and are not saved). Clearly then Jesus includes both classes of people in the larger class “the world”; indeed, that is the way John has used the term throughout the book. And if “the world” only referred to the saved elect, why discuss those who reject Jesus’ message as a subset of “the world”? Verse 19 explicitly includes those who reject the light of Jesus as part of the world- the light came into the world, but men (in the world, part of that subset) loved darkness rather than light, thus demonstrating their condemnation.
As John’s theology develops, we see clearly that there is a specific efficacious love which is directed only at the elect. Jesus dies only for His sheep, and His sheep are infallibly saved by that death (John 10). But from John 3, it is clear that all men are originally in this class of ‘the world’, which is under God’s condemnation for their sin, yet loved by God to such a degree that He sent the most precious thing He had, His own Son, to die on the cross to rescue ‘the world’ from such a state. Individually, that love is fully and efficaciously expressed only to God’s elect. But it is clearly an error to say that God has no love at all for the non-elect, or that the elect are never under God’s condemnation. All men come from that common state, the world, which is under condemnation from God, alienated from Him, yet loved by Him to such a tremendous degree!
And indeed, what tremendous love this then is. It is not some sterile abstract theological principle. It is an active, effective love, a love that is so strong that it overcomes an otherwise insurmountable force, the wrath of God! When we consider that it is God’s own wrath which is conquered by His love, then we can fully appreciate just how great God’s love toward us is. And this is precisely Jesus’ point- that’s what the “so” means. God _so_ loved the world, meaning, to this extreme, infinite degree, God loved the world, to the degree that His own beloved Son suffered the shame and horror of the cross, and for who? For us, His enemies, we who hated Him, we who were under the active condemnation of His great and consuming wrath. God _SO_ loved the world.