“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 was recently reading a cartooned Scripture memorization pamphlet to my 5-year-old daughter. It was a story written to help her memorize John 3.16. The pamphlet was nicely done and broke the verse down in 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.” While we should absolutely emphasize God’s love for saving persons, I’m not convinced [insert your name] helps anyone understand the glory of John 3:16. One, if Jesus (or more likely John) wanted to individualize the verse he certainly could have. Two, the object of God’s love is not necessarily on an individual person but on the kind of object it is. John used “world” for a reason.
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” is 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 people God loves, but on the kind of people God loves and the remarkable way he showed that love. He loved the world (God haters) by giving his only son to be hated by the world he loves (Rom 5.8, 10). And after the “world” hated Jesus to death (literally!), God saved (rescued, redeemed) out of the world those for whom Jesus died (i.e. “whosoever” believes and obey the Son, Jn 3.36). The astounding scandal of the gospel is not necessarily that God loved any given one of us, but that he gave his eternal treasure to those who hated him as those who’d always loved him!
I know my daughter because I know me. And inserting her name will only tempt her to think God loves her because she is so cute and lovable (which she is, by the way). But that’s not the point. Inserting her name shifts the attention from the magnitude of God’s great love for great sinners to her perceived, personal “loveability.” It individualizes what Jesus and John meant to be categorical. God loved the “world” (sinful enemies of God) and she must recognize and confess she is 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).
The point is not that God loved [me] because it’s [me]. There is no inherent virtue in loving persons who are easy to love (Mt 5.44-48). But only God is self-sufficient enough to love his enemies. He loved the “world” and I must see myself a part of that rebellious world. Only then does God’s love reach its zenith and I believe Jesus for eternal life. The “whosoever” who believes must first confess he/she is part of the world God loved.
I wouldn’t consider inserting your child’s name in John 3.16 to be heresy or eternally dangerous. I wonder if it might distract from and, in fact, weaken the glory of John 3.16. My daughter will benefit far more by understanding God loved the world and seeing her name inserted in that world rather than for it.
(If you’re bored and want a little more on John 3.16 see my (Re)Examining John 3.16)