“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them” (1 John 2:15).
The first clue we have that there is no contradiction between these seemingly opposing verses is that they were both written by the same person – the apostle John. This alone indicates that it would be unlikely that the two statements were at variance.
The word “world” (Greek kosmos) found in both these verses is one John uses frequently – an amazing 79 times in his Gospel and a further 25 times in his epistles – more often than any other biblical writer. But the word does not always have exactly the same meaning in each case. Just as we can use the word “world” in English to mean the planet Earth, the world around us, everything in the world, or just the people of the world, so the Greek word could be used with many of these same meanings. We can see this range of meaning in some of the verses where John uses kosmos in his first epistle:
The planet Earth: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world” (1 John 4 : 9).
The people of the world: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you” (1 John 3 : 13).
The world around us: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
The way of the world: “For whatsoever is born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5 : 4).
When John tells us in his Gospel that God loved the world, he is clearly referring to the people of the world (as God did not give his Son for the sins of the planet or the things in the world). John uses “world” in exactly the same way in his epistle when he writes “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
On the other hand, when John tells us in his epistle that we must not love the world, it is equally clear, when we read the verse in context, that he is talking about the system or way of the world. We need only look at the following verse to see this: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:16).
So, we must carefully distinguish between the various meanings of kosmos when John uses the word “world,” though this is not usually difficult. His context usually makes it clear which meaning he has in mind. In the seemingly contradictory examples we looked at, John is talking about two very different things – humanity and the way of life of humanity.
For John, the “world” in the latter sense is synonymous with darkness and evil (John 3:19), just as he tells us God is synonymous with goodness and light. John’s point is that we must choose to love either darkness or light, the way of the world or the way of God.