Two Responses on Loving The World: Word Studies on World and Love in John 3:16 and James 4:4

Written by Paul J. Bucknell on November, 15, 2022

Two Responses on Loving The World: Word Studies on World and Love in John 3:16 and James 4:4

The Question

The scriptures instruct Christians not to “love the world.” James 4:4 calls them explicitly “enemies of God.” John 3:16, however, seems to indicate the opposite -  God loved the world and gave His Son for a ransom. 

What Greek words are translated as ‘world’ and ‘love’ in these verses that seem to contradict each other?

A Look at the Two Verses

These two verses appear to conflict with each other. Why does God love the world if Christians are not allowed to?

For God so loved the world (Gr. κόσμου, lit. cosmos), that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world (Gr. κόσμου, lit. cosmos) is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world (lit. cosmos) makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

Sometimes original language word studies provide key insights into the interpretation, but in this case, the word for ‘world’ (cosmos), used in the two verses above, does not. In this case, it’s more critical to rightly choose among the varied meanings of cosmos in Greek (in Koine Greek).

The World (lit. cosmos)

The word ‘world’ is used many times (187 times) in the New Testament. Its direct transliteration (cosmos) points us to the universe (like cosmology - the study of the universe). But the word is used in alternative ways in these verses. 

NetBible lists more than eight definitions for the same Greek word cosmos :

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. 1Pe 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 7a) 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 8a) the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (Ro 11:12, etc). [Word study of ‘world’: https://netbible.org/bible/John+3]

Which translation(s) for ‘world’ best suits these verses?

John 3:16 and the World

Both verses address a system of rule that counters God’s purpose. John 3:16’s ‘world’ could depict #5 (the people on earth) or, my preferred, #6 (the whole mass of men alienated from God). I like the surprising contrast—a holy God loves evil people. 

John shows the similarity between the lost, bitten people of God in John 3:14-15—those bitten by poisonous snakes, with the lost people in the world (John 3:16). The situation is also redemptively analogous to rescuing them from death. In John 3:14-15, the incident refers to Moses’ time when the people bit by the serpents needed to look at the reddish (brass) serpent for healing (Num 21:9), while we, the lost world, must look to Christ to find salvation (John 3:16). 

The “so” in verse 16 means “likewise” and confirms the accuracy of this analogy. Unfortunately, the popular English translations (NASB, NIV, ESV) start a new paragraph with verse 16 and so detach the interpretation of verse 16 from verses 14-15. We applaud the NKJV for placing the verses in the same paragraph.

The unlikeliness of God to love people who rebel against Him highlights His mercy and grace. The term ‘world’ refers to the lost, sinful, and wayward race of mankind—they need but don’t deserve salvation.

James 4:4 and the World

Let’s now look at what ‘world’ means in James 4:4.

“You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)

The same Greek word ‘cosmos’ is used twice in James 4:4. The usage here does not refer to the universe or the people in the world. Either definition #6 (ungodly man) or #7 (world affairs) can work, but there is a greater emphasis on things of the world (7a) that lead people away from God’s will.

“7a) 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.”

Their love for the things in the world reveals their spiritually adulterous hearts, quite contrary to the expected display of their honor to God who made all these things.

A Comment on the Word Love

The different words for love in John 3:16 (agape) and James 4:4 (phileo, friendship) are used appropriately in their context. Agape love announces God’s extraordinary self-sacrificing step of sending His only Son to save the wretched world. The “friendship with the world” (NASB, phileo) refers to the way a person befriends, cozies up to, and trusts in earthly things. A person who loves things in the world is necessarily hostile to God. 

Any Contradiction on "Loving the world"?

The original question seeks to know how a holy and righteous God can love the world when man stands condemned when loving the world and called “hostile to God”? Part of the answer is in the varying usages of the word world (Gr: cosmos). This differentiation does not provide a complete explanation. The world is the unworthy, sinful man in both situations.

It’s more helpful to observe the various responses to this world. God’s love (Gr. agape) greatly contrasts with man’s love (Gr. phileo).

God’s love is a dedicated, self-sacrificing love where His compassion reaches out to help. In other words, God displayed His love by countering the evil forces dominating the world. They had no hope. One might think of a simplistic example of a father stretching his arm in a fire to rescue his little child who fell into the fire pit. Though severely burned, he saved the boy. Jesus, however, died to save mankind. God purposed to send His only Son, Jesus, to complete this rescue mission.

People’s love or friendship with the world is different. There is no sacrifice and saving mission in mind. These people only want to get more worldly by indulging themselves. The friendship indicates a sinful partnership, where one gets a little more each time he further compromises himself.

Who does God love? Does he love those lost in the world? He came to save the lost. What did it cost Him? God sacrificed His only Son on the cross to take the sins of the guilty away, providing a way of escape from death and entry into eternal life to those who believe.

Who do those in James 4 love? They love themselves, greedily trying to indulge themselves further.

“Do not love (agape) the world (cosmos) nor the things in the world (cosmos). If anyone loves (agape) the world (cosmos), the love (agape) of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

The question does not introduce a contradiction but identifies two different responses to the world. If we join God in His love and devotion for the lost, we join Him on His mission seeking to share the Gospel with the lost and caring for those in need. If, however, our drive is to gain things from the world, then there is no way that we can love God; the love of the Father does not live in us.

Placement of John 3:14-15 and John 3:16

Study Questions on World and Love

  1. Write down the question that the person asks at the top.
  2. What is the Greek word for ‘world’?
  3. List at least four definitions for this one Greek word for ‘world’.
  4. Read John 3:16 and see which definition best suits this verse. Why?
  5. Read James 4:4. What is the best definition of the word ‘world’ here? Why?
  6. Are the word for love in John 3:16 and James 4:4 (love for the world) the same? Explain.
  7. How is God’s response to the world so different from those referred to in James 4:4?
  8. Do you find God loving the world and people loving the world to be contradictory? Explain.

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