“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jn 3.16)
I once read a cartoon Scripture memorization pamphlet to my youngest daughter. It was a story written to help her memorize John 3.16. The pamphlet was nicely done and broke the verse down into helpful, digestible parts.
As we worked on the first part of the verse (“For God so loved the world”) the pamphlet suggested inserting her name for “world.” I absolutely want each of our children to know and relish God’s love for them. But I’m not so sure replacing “world” with their name in John 3.16 helps to that end.
We should absolutely emphasize God’s love for saving persons like you and me, but inserting our name for “world” distracts us from the glory of John 3:16. If Jesus (or more likely John) wanted to individualize the verse he certainly could have. He could very well have said “God so loved you” and does so elsewhere (cf. 1 Jn 4.10, 16) but he didn’t in John 3.16. John used “world” for a specific reason and not as a synonym for you or me. The direct of object of God’s love in John 3.16 is not any individual person but the “world” in which all individual believers must first consider themselves a part.
For John “world” (cosmos) is not the earth in general or even all earthlings in general. John considers “world” as the realm of hostility toward God, especially as that hostility is expressed toward Jesus. The “world” stands for darkness-loving (3.19) Christ-haters (7.7; 15.18f.). It’s the world Jesus is not from (8.23) and what Satan rules (12.31; 14.30; 16.11). John’s “world” cannot receive the Holy Spirit (14.17) or provide peace (14.27). It’s the realm where Christ’s followers are left as life-losing ambassadors (17.5-25) (cf. Jn 1.9f., 29; 3.17; 8.12, 26; 9.5, 39; 10.36; 12.19, 46f.; 13.1; 14.17).
The emphasis of John 3:16 is not on how many or what exact people God loved. Rather, John stressed the kind of people God loved and the unexpected, remarkable way by which he loved them. God loved his worst enemies by giving them his highest treasure.
We reserve our finest gifts for our beloved friends, not our worst enemies. God, however, loved the world (i.e. God-haters) by giving his only son to be hated by the very world he loves (Rom 5.8, 10). And after that world hated Jesus to death God saved out of that world those for whom Jesus died (i.e. “whosoever” believes and obey the Son, Jn 3.36). The scandal of the gospel according to John 3.16 is not primarily that God loved any given one of us (though he does), but that he gave his eternal treasure to those who’d always hated him as if they’d always loved him. And if God treats his enemies that way then how he will treat his friends (Rom 5.10)!
I know my daughter because I know me. Inserting her name will tempt her to think God loves her because she is so lovable. But that’s hardly John’s point. He is not stressing the inherent lovability of individual worldlings but the God who would love a realm so hostile toward him enough to give it his most precious Gift. Inserting her name shifts the attention from the magnitude of God’s great love for great sinners to her perceived, personal “lovability.” It individualizes what John meant to be categorical. God loved the “world” (his sinful enemies) and she must first recognize and confess herself a part of that world. Jesus didn’t come to save the righteous, but sinners (Lk 5.32). Not the self-professed found, but the lost (Lk 19.10). To know God’s love for her she must first confess to be part of the “world” that hated and rejected him.
The point is not that God loved [your name] because it’s [your name]. There is no inherent virtue in loving persons who are easy to love (Mt 5.44-48). Only God is self-sufficient enough to love his enemies. He loved the “world” and I must first see myself a part of that rebellious world. Only then does God’s love reach its zenith and I am compelled to believe Jesus for eternal life. The “whosoever” that believes must first confess to be part of the God-hating world he loved.
Inserting your child’s name in John 3.16 is by no means heretical or eternally dangerous. I wonder though if it might distract from and weaken its force. There are certainly other texts where it would be most appropriate. But as for John 3.16 my daughter and I understand God’s love for us better if we insert our names in the world it rather than for it.