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. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17).
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
If you read last week’s post, you’ll have noticed I used 1 John 2:15-17 as one of the leading verses. And if you know the single most-memorized verse of the Bible, you’ll notice that there, on the surface, seems to be a conflict here. And you may have thought: What’s going on?
“What’s going on?” is always a great question when reading the Bible. I strongly encourage you, ask yourself that every time you read God’s Word. It will help you understand it so much better!
At this point, some of you may have already lost interest. And that’s actually why I’m writing this.
Bart Ehrman likes to ask Christians who’ve never read the Bible, “You think God wrote a book, and you haven’t read it?” Along those lines, I want to ask those of you who wonder why I’m bothering with this:
You think God wrote a book, and you won’t bother to understand it?
Anyway, in his letter to a church, John told the church not to love the world. But in his Gospel, he records Jesus as saying that God loves the world. So if God is good, why does he love the world, but tell us not to do it?
There is a first argument that can be made, but it’s largely irrelevant here. Nevertheless, I will name it, just because it probably should: God is in no way obligated to abide by the commands he gives humans. He is not only a human. In the Son, he is human, but even the Son is also fully God, and the Father and the Spirit aren’t human at all, so he is not bound by the laws that bind humans.
But that’s irrelevant here, anyway, and it’s also somewhat debatable. So let’s move on.
A Bible nerd might know that Greek has several different words for love, and they have different meanings. But there are two problems with that in these passages: first and foremost, the word love is the same in Greek in both of these passages (it’s agape, which is generally selfless love), and second is that John wasn’t particularly adept at Greek and in his writings he often uses phileo (familial love) and agape (selfless love) interchangeably.
So that’s not it, either.
But we know that even in our own language, love has different meanings. You say “I love you,” to your boyfriend or your spouse and it means something very different from when you say “I love you” to your Dad or your sister or your friend. It’s the same three words, but it doesn’t mean the same thing.
Most words have a range of meanings, not just one.
Nerd point: the range of meanings for a word is called semantic domain.
In this case, both “love” and “world” have different meanings between the two passages. Let’s examine.
First, let’s start with “the world,” because it’s easiest and it will give us an understanding of how to interpret “love” in this case.
To God, what is “the world?” Is it not that which He has created? So let’s use that as it’s meaning in John 3:16, because it’s talking from the perspective of God: “God so loved everything He created that he gave His only begotten Son.”
But what perspective is John writing with in 1 John 2? He’s writing to people about people. And to a person living in the world, what is “the world?” Is it not just the way things are? So let’s try that: “Do not love the way things are or the things that result from the way things are.”
Things are starting to make some sense. Because we live in a fallen, corrupted world, that which God has created has become twisted. And thus the way things are is not the same as the way that God created.
John is telling people not to value the fallen system and its values more than the world God’s values. God values creation because He is redeeming it, but that means that the way it is is not quite right.
It is, actually, in conflict with God. It hates God. And so, if you belong to God, then it hates you, too.
So this makes it easier to understand the difference between love in John 3:16 and love in 1 John 2. It already makes sense with them having the same meaning, but it will make more sense when you realize that:
In John 3:16, “God selflessly loved everything He created.” But in 1 John 2:15, John tells us “Do not highly value or desire the way things are or the things that result from the way things are.” You certainly don’t want to “selflessly love” a broken system and its values, but that’s not really what he’s talking about.
So, why have I written this for you? I’ve taught you about how two passages that seem in conflict aren’t really in conflict. So what?
This is a tool to help you understand the Bible as you read it. As I said, “what’s going on?” is a great question to ask, particularly when you’re reading the Bible. It helps you to understand what exactly God is saying to you!
Use this tool! Don’t passively read the Bible! Don’t just let it be words on some extremely thin paper! Engage with the living Word of God! Converse with them! Get to know and understand them better, because that will help you get to know and understand God better as well!
Reading God’s Word is a form of prayer, of conversation with God. I hope to teach you how to get more out of this prayer, because I wasn’t taught by my own pastors—I had to go to seminary to get that knowledge. And what I’ve learned, I hope to pass to you!