The meaning of this most famous text has frequently been obscured by interpreters who, unfortunately, have failed to place it in the broader context of what Scripture as a whole says concerning the divine attribute of love.
Often the interpretation of John 3:16 begins with the term world, for it is believed that here lies the key to a proper appreciation of the dimensions of divine love. "Just think," we are told, "of the multitudes of men and women who have, do now, and yet shall swarm across the face of the earth. God loves them all, each and every one. Indeed, God so loves them that He gave His only begotten Son to die for each and every one of them. O how great the love of God must be to embrace within its arms these uncounted multitudes of people."
Is this what John (or Jesus, as recorded by John) had in mind? It is undeniably his purpose to set before us the immeasurable love of God. But are we able to perceive how immeasurable God's love is by measuring how big the world is? I think not. What is the finite sum of mankind when set opposite the infinitude of God? We could as well measure the strength of the blacksmith by declaring him capable of supporting a feather on an outstretched palm! The primary force of this text is certainly to magnify the infinite quality and majesty of God's love. But such an end can never be reached by computing the extent or number of its objects. Do we to any degree heighten the value of Christ's death by ascertaining the quantity of those for whom He died? Of course not! Had He but died for one sinner, the value of His sacrifice would be not less glorious than had He suffered for ten millions of worlds!
Rather, let us pause to consider the contrast which the apostle intends for us to see. John surely desires that we reflect in our hearts upon the immeasurable character of so great a love, and that we do so by placing in contrast, one over against the other - God and the world. What does this reveal? Of what do we think concerning God when He is seen loving the world? And of what do we think concerning the world when it is seen as the object of God's love? Is the contrast this: that God is one and the world many? Is it that His love is magnified because He, as one, has loved the world, comprised of many? Again, certainly not.
This love is infinitely majestic because God, as holy, has loved the world, as sinful! What strikes us is that God who is righteous loves the world which is unrighteous. This text takes root in our hearts because it declares that He who dwells in unapproachable light has deigned to enter the realm of darkness; that He who is just has given Himself for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18); that He who is altogether glorious and desirable has suffered endless shame for detestable and repugnant creatures, who apart from His grace respond only with hell-deserving hostility! Thus, as John Murray has said,
"it is what God loved in respect of its character that throws into relief the incomparable and incomprehensible love of God. To find anything else as the governing thought would detract from the emphasis. God loved what is the antithesis of himself; this is its marvel and greatness" (I:79).
When we read John's Gospel (and Epistles), we discover that the "world" is viewed fundamentally neither as the elect nor non-elect but as a collective organism: sinful, estranged, alienated from God, abiding under His wrath and curse. The world is detestable because it is the contradiction of all that is holy, good, righteous, and true. The world, then, is the contradiction of God. It is synonymous with all that is evil and noisome. It is that system of fallen humanity viewed not in terms of its size but as a satanically controlled kingdom hostile to the kingdom of Christ. It is what God loved in respect of its quality therefore, not quantity that sheds such glorious light on this divine attribute.
In summary, carefully note the explanation of B. B. Warfleld:
"The marvel . . . which the text brings before us is just that marvel above all other marvels in this marvelous world of ours - the marvel of God's love for sinners. And this is the measure by which we are invited to measure the greatness of the love of God. It is not that it is so great that it is able to extend over the whole of a big world: it is so great that it is able to prevail over the Holy God's hatred and abhorrence of sin. For herein is love, that God could love the world - the world that lies in the evil one: that God who is all-holy and just and good, could so love this world that He gave His only begotten Son for it, - that He might not judge it, but that it might be saved" (515-16).
Note carefully Warfield's definition of the term world:
"It is not here a term of extension so much as a term of intensity. Its primary connotation is ethical, and the point of its employment is not to suggest that the world is so big that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it all, but that the world is so bad that it takes a great kind of love to love it at all, and much more to love it as God has loved it when He gave His son for it. The whole debate as to whether the love here celebrated distributes itself to each and every man that enters into the composition of the world, or terminates on the elect alone chosen out of the world, lies thus outside the immediate scope of the passage and does not supply any key to its interpretation. The passage was not intended to teach, and certainly does not teach, that God loves all men alike and visits each and every one alike with the same manifestations of His love: and as little was it intended to teach or does it teach that His love is confined to a few especially chosen individuals selected out of the world. What it is intended to do is to arouse in our hearts a wondering sense of the marvel and the mystery of the love of God for the sinful world - conceived, here, not quantitatively but qualitatively as, in its very distinguishing characteristic, sinful" (516).