When the authors of the New Testament spoke of Jesus redeeming “the world,” they weren’t teaching that everyone would be saved. They weren’t even claiming that Jesus redeemed every individual in the world! What the biblical writers meant by “the world” was a gathering that included people from every nation. To celebrate Jesus as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:24) was to declare that no ethnicity stands beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Why Did First-Century Christians Need to Be Reminded that God’s Grace Is For Every People-Group?
This was a difficult truth for many first-century followers of Jesus to embrace! For more than a millennium, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel had enjoyed an inside track when it came to God’s revelation of himself. Now, the loyal love that God once lavished on the nation of Israel flowed through one single Israelite—the risen Lord Jesus—into the lives of women and men from every nation. That’s how law-abiding Jews found themselves being baptized in Jesus’ name alongside uncircumcised ex-idolaters with pork on their breath—and that’s why both Jews and Gentiles needed reminders that the good news of God’s victory in Christ is for everyone (Ephesians 2:12-14). Among the earliest Christians, to proclaim that Jesus ransomed “all people” was to declare that no ethnicity can claim a monopoly when it comes to God’s planned grace (1 Timothy 2:6-7). John 3:16 isn’t merely a sweet sentiment to plaster on billboards or a reference to hold up on signs at baseball games. “For God so loved the world” is a cosmic declaration of war against every form of segregation based on status or race (John 3:16).
God Loves the World! But Who Is “the World”?
Even today, people employ words like “world” and “all” to describe gatherings that bring together a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. Every couple of years, chosen athletes from around the globe converge in a select city to compete in the Olympic Games. Throughout the weeks of competition, sportscasters mention how “all the world” has gathered for this event; they may even talk about the “worldwide reaction” to a particular performance. Yet no viewer takes “the world” to mean that every individual on the entire earth has gathered for the games in London or Sochi or Rio de Janeiro! Neither does any broadcaster presume that a “worldwide reaction” requires every household on the planet to possess a television that’s tuned to the Olympic Games. The sports media use the words “world” and “all” in a manner that’s similar to how that the biblical authors meant the terms. “World” is not an exhaustive description that includes every individual in the universe; it’s the declaration of a gathering that draws together a spectrum of people from around the globe. A global gospel doesn’t mean that everyone in the world will be saved or that Jesus died for every individual on the planet. What it does mean is that no one stands beyond the reach of God’s grace. God’s glorious victory over the powers of darkness is good news that has broken the barriers between “every tribe and language and people” (Revelation 5:8). Jesus alone is the way of salvation, and his grace extends to every nation.