John 3:16 and Thayer's Greek New Testament


Thayer seems to disagree with himself on the term "world" and its use in John 3:16. Can you clarify this?


The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament is an accurate lexicon. It is one I enjoy. However, it should be noted that Thayer was a Unitarian, who denied Biblical Inerrancy, Total Depravity, the Divinity of Christ, and consequently the Trinity (George Shafer. Can You Trust Your Lexicon? (Church Growth; 24 August 2012). So, it like any other work should be read with discernment. It comes in two essential versions: (1) the original unabridged and (2) the abridged (a condensed and simplified work).

Confusion on the term "kosmos" (world):

Some researchers quote Thayer's as giving "a" definition of the term "world" as being potentially for "believers only" while yet others, also quoting Thayer, say his definition does NOT say for "believers only." How can this be?

Initial Point:

The answer of course is implied in the brief introduction above. Some are quoting the abridged version and others the unabridged version of Thayer's Lexicon.

However, do they say the same thing or something entirely different?

Some Details: A Comparison of Definition 8:

Thayer's original 1889, unabridged, Greek-English Lexicon, Greek Definition 2889, Section 8, defines the Greek word "kosmos" as referring to:

8. any aggregate or general collection of particulars of any sort

[cf. Eng. "a world of curses" (Shakspere), etc.]: ..., the sum of all iniquities, Jas. iii. 6; ... (a statement due to the Alex. translator), Prov. xvii. 6. Among the N.T. Writers no one uses ... oftener than John; it occurs in Mark three times, in Luke's writings four times, and in the Apocalypse three times. Cf. Kreiss, Sur le sens du mot ... dans le N.T. (Strasb. 1837); Dsterdieck on 1 Jn. ii 15, pp. 247-259; Zezschwitz, Profangrcitt, u. bibl. Sprachgeist, p. 21 sqq.; Diestel in Herzog xvii. p. 676 sqq.; [Trench, Syn. lix.]; on John's use of the word cf. Reuss, Histoire de la thologie chrtienne au sicle apostolique, ii. p.463 sqq. [i.e. livre vii. ch. viii.]; cf. his Johanneische Theologie, in the Beitrge zu den theol. Wissenschaften, Fasc. i. p.29 sqq.; [Westcott on Jn. i. 10, "Additional Note"]."

The abridgement of Thayer's 1889 Greek-English Lexicon, namely Thayer's Greek Definitions, Greek Definition 2889, Section 8, defines the Greek word "kosmos" as referring to:

8) any aggregate or general collection of particulars of any sort

8a) the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (Rom_11:12 etc).

8b) of believers only, Joh_1:29; Joh_3:16; Joh_3:17; Joh_6:33; Joh_12:47 1Co_4:9; 2Co_5:19.

As the reader will notice both the abridged and unbridged versions of Thayer defined the Greek word "kosmos" as referring to "any aggregate or general collection of particulars of any sort." In other words, the English word "world," and it's Greek equivalent "kosmos" can, and often do, refer to "any aggregate or general collection of particulars of any sort," which includes not only Definition 8a: "the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews" but also Definition 8b: "of believers only." Therefore, there is no contradiction in the two. They are essentially pointing the same direction; to the same meaning. However, the two do differ in their exact phraseology. The one definition most commented upon is "of believers only."

Thayer's Original Reference Works:

The Definitions 8a and 8b of Greek Reference 2889, in the abridged Thayer's Greek Definitions (TGD), were derived from Reference Works, which Thayer himself sighted in Definition 8 of Greek Reference 2889, in his original 1889, unabridged, Greek-English Lexicon, namely:

"Dsterdieck on 1 Jn. ii 15, pp. 247-259." This refers to the German Theologian, Prof. Dr. Friedrich Dsterdieck (1822-1906), on First John Chapter 2 Verse 15, page 247 to 259, of his book, "Kritisch exegetisches Handbuch ber die Offenbarung Johannis" [a "Critical exegetical handbook on the Revelation of St. John"] (1859).

"Zezschwitz, Profangrcitt, u. bibl. Sprachgeist, p. 21 sqq." This refers to the German Theologian, Prof. Dr. Gerhard von Zezschwitz (1825-1886), page 21, of his book, "Profangrcitt und biblischer Sprachgeist" (1859).

"Diestel in Herzog xvii. p. 676 sqq." This refers to the German Theologian, Prof. Dr. Ludwig Diestel (1825-1879), on page 676 [or 429, depending on the edition] and those following [sqq], of Johann Herzog (1805-1882)'s Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1868), which says:

The Johanine writings must be treated separately. Here the word kosmos, BESIDES being used in a similar way to that of the Pauline epistles, is employed in a thoroughly Jewish manner, e.g., in John vii 4, xii. 19, where it denotes the people. Even more clearly than for Paul, the kosmos is for John not only the whole of creation, but more especially mankind as the object of salvation (i. 29, iii. 16, 17; I John ii. 2), of enlightenment (John viii. 12), and judgment (iii. 17). "This world" is conceived in a thoroughly Jewish and Pauline spirit; it is ruled by the devil (xii. 31) and passes away with all it's pleasures (I John ii. 17), for the world is essentially opposition to God (I John ii. 15); it "lieth in wickedness" (I John v. 19) and can neither know nor believe in God and his Son, and must therefore hate those who are "not of the world" (John xvii. 14). Christians must overcome the world (I John v. 4) as Jesus has overcome it (John xvi. 33). The most important characteristic of the conception "the world" in the New Testament is that, as a whole, it is subordinate to the recognition of the salvation of Christ and His foundation of the kingdom of God among mankind. Hence arises a religious conception of THE WORLD which is folly for the partizans of Hellenic philosophy but God-given wisdom for Christian believers. (I Cor. i. 21-24). For Paul, God the Father is the creator of the world and the goal of the Christian community; Christ is, in salvation, the mediator for the world and the community. The statement is to be explained by Christ's words when He bases His rulership of the world on the fact that God alone knows Him. He who is known and revealed by God alone stands for this reason nearer to God than to the world; hence, in spite of His existence in the world, He is raised above it and has power over it. To God the Father, the Son of God, and the world He rules Paul adds a fourth quantity: the community which has been created in Christ from eternity... The religious explanation of the world assumes that all things redound to the benefit of those who are chosen and loved by god... The theological conception is that the whole world, the entire circle of the interaction of the forces of nature and man's free will, are under the control of God, who directs all this for the salvation and bliss of his children among mankind, so that all experiences of ill also serve God's purpose.

Notice, that according to Diestel, John did "not only" use the English word "world," or it's Greek equivalent "kosmos," as referring to "the whole of creation," but often also as referring only to "mankind as the object of salvation (i. 29, iii. 16, 17; I John ii. 2) [and] enlightenment (John viii. 12)," namely "His children among mankind," "the community which has been created in Christ from eternity," or "those who are chosen and loved by God," i.e. "believers only."

It would seem, that it was Diestel's work which formed the basis of Definition 8b, "of believers only," with reference to John 3:16.

While more sources may be citied (French Theologian, Prof. Dr. Eduard Reuss (1804-1891) in his work "History of Christian Theology in the Apostolic Church"], most are out of print or only available in French or German. Since they are difficult to locate this would explain why the editor of the abridged "Thayer's Greek Definitions," chose to incorporate, rather than simply defer to, some of Thayer's examples, namely:

a) "the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews" in Romans 11:12.

b) "believers only" in John 1:29, John 3:16, John 3:17, John 6:33, John 12:47, 1 Cor. 4:9, and 2 Cor. 5:19

In other words, Thayer's original, unabridged, Greek-English Lexicon noted A, while deferring to B, C, D and E; while the abridged version noted A, while incorporating some examples from B, C, D and E.

This accounts for the difference, if they even may be called that.

There was no manipulation of the definitions for the sake of a theological bias. And Thayer himself is not attempting to do theology, as that is not the purpose of a dictionary or lexicon. Thayer in his own preface states, "On the comparative few points respecting which doctrinal opinions still differ, references have been added to representative discussions on both sides." And thus, his Definition 5 of Greek Reference 2889 defines "kosmos" as potentially referring to "the inhabitants of the earth", "men", and "the human race" in "Jn. iii. 16."

In actuality, context, not the definition, gives the reader the "rest of the story" - the meaning - according the faith once delivered unto the saints (cf. Jude 1:3). Clearly, the meaning is meant in the limited sense of the term, as some under Moses died when he raised the brazen serpent (John 3:14; Num. 21:1-9) and some are "condemned already" (John 3:18; unbelievers, cf. John 3:19-21). These are the contexts surrounding John 3:16. Both contexts (John 3:14, 18) surrounding John 3:16 limit those who recieve God's salvific love.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).