Q&R: What is “the World” in John’s Gospel & Letters – Brad Jersak


In John’s Gospel, we read that God loves the world (3:16) but in his first epistle, John says we should not love the world (1 John 2:15).

Is he using the same Greek word (cosmos) in both passages?


Yes, indeed, it’s the same word! Go figure!
The thing to know about translation is that any given word has what we call a ‘semantic range,’ which is about how one word can be used differently in different contexts. In my article, “Reading from the End,” I played with the different ways that an English word such as “plant” can be used. I noted that we define the word by how it is used in various contexts.
One example of how difficult translating would be without the context is that we have one Greek verb that can be translated as loose or release, or forgive,.. or divorce! But in context, it becomes clear that sometimes we loose or release someone from prison, or we loose someone from a debt or offence (forgive), and sometimes a spouse partner is loosed from a marriage (divorce).

How ‘the World’ is used in the NT

The word cosmos or world is common (186 occurrences), varied and especially tricky. Why? Because the New Testament (and especially John) uses it in very different ways, yet we always translate it as ‘world,’ whether positively or negatively… except once, where it is translated ‘adornment’ (1 Peter 3:3 NASB).
For example, one NT Lexicon includes eight different ways cosmos/world is used:
  1. an apt and harmonious arrangement or constitution, order, government
  2. ornament, decoration, adornment, i.e. the arrangement of the stars, ‘the heavenly hosts’, as the ornament of the heavens. 1 Pet. 3:3
  3. the world, the universe
  4. the circle of the earth, the earth
  5. the inhabitants of the earth, men, the human family
  6. the ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God, and therefore hostile to the cause of Christ
  7. world affairs, the aggregate of things earthly: the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments riches, advantages, pleasures, etc, which although hollow and frail and fleeting, stir desire, seduce from God and are obstacles to the cause of Christ
  8. any aggregate or general collection of particulars of any sort: (a) the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (Rom. 11:12 etc); (b) of believers only, John 1:29; 3:16; 3:17; 6:33; 12:47 1 Cor. 4:9; 2 Cor. 5:19
But let me distill this for the sake of your question:

The ‘World’ God loves

In John 3, the cosmos is the world that God loves, perhaps referring to the world of people [all humanity], or it could also include the entire cosmos [all of creation]. Verse 16 can be translated,
“For God loved the world in this way: God [the Father] offered his only Son [Jesus] so that anyone who trusts him will not end up dying, but will receive eternal life.”
God’s love for the whole world motivates the Incarnation of Jesus Christ (“Savior of the world” – John 4:42), the One who will redeem the world, rescue humanity, and restore the universe.

The ‘World’ God does not love

On the other hand, in 1 John 2, the world he describes (using the same word) is something else:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. 17 And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
In this passage, John is referring to the ‘world system’ that stands opposed to the love of God. It’s like humanity’s collective egoism… lust, greed, pride, and all of the fruit of the flesh from Galatians 5, wrapped up into a ‘worldly’ spirit of self-will and self-defeating delusions of grandeur.
Along with that, ‘the things of this world’ we’re to hate are not the good things God created (the earth, plants, animals, etc.). It has more to do with what happens when we forget God. We develop attachments and pet idols that ultimately enslave us. Yes, enjoy God’s good world and care for yourself. No, don’t fashion it into a beloved idol or worship yourself as a pseudo-god.
In the end, the two uses of the same word are virtual opposites, but in context, it’s fairly easy to see the difference in John’s mind.
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