“And if any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (Joh 12:47 AV)
Much is made of the words "save the world" in this verse, for many take it to mean every single human that has ever lived. If it were so, then everyone will be saved and we would have Universal salvation, but even the most ardent Arminian rejects that, for then, repentance and faith in Christ would not be necessary for "all the world" will be saved.
That "the world" is a general and indefinite expression, rather than a synonym for the whole human race, is clear from its meaning in other passages in John's Gospel. For example, in John 7:4, "Show myself to the world." Did they mean, "Show thyself to the whole human race?" Surely not. Again, "Behold the world is gone after him." (John 12:19) Did they mean the whole human race had gone after Him? Of course not. "I come not to judge the world but to save the world." (John 12:47) Did Christ mean that He had come to save the whole human race? How could He, when multitudes were even then in hell!
The Greek word for "world" in John 1:29 is "kosmos," and in its application to humankind in the New Testament, we find there are two "worlds"—a world of believers and a world of unbelievers. In 2 Peter 2:5 this expression is used, "Bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly." Contrariwise wise, there is a world of the godly. This is the meaning of John 1:29: it was the sin (penalty) of the world of believers—Jewish believers and Gentile believers—that the Lamb of God took away. This is no novel interpretation of ours, but one so given by the Reformers and Puritans.
THE TERM "WORLD" IS USED IN VARIOUS SENSES
When it is said that Christ died "not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world,"1 John 2:2, or that He came to "save the world," John 12:47, the meaning is that not merely Jews but Gentiles also are included in His saving work; the world as a world or the race as a race is to be redeemed. When John the Baptist said, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!" he was not giving a theological discourse to saints, but preaching to sinners; and the unnatural thing then would have been for him to have discussed Limited Atonement or any other doctrine which could have been understood only by saints. We are told that John the Baptist "came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him," John 1:7. But to say that John’s ministry afforded an opportunity for every human being to have faith in Christ would be unreasonable.
John never preached to the Gentiles. His mission was to make Christ "manifest to Israel," John 1:31; and in the nature of the case only a limited number of the Jews could be brought to hear him.
Sometimes the term "world" is used when only a large part of the world is meant, as when it is said that the Devil is "the deceiver of the whole world," or that "the whole earth" wonders after the beast, Rev 13:3. If in 1 John 5:19, "We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the evil one," the author meant every individual of mankind, then he and those to whom he wrote were also in the evil one, and he contradicted himself in saying that they were of God. Sometimes this term means only a relatively small part of the world, as when Paul wrote to the new Christian Church at Rome that their faith was "proclaimed throughout the whole world," Rom 1:8. None but believers would praise those Romans for their faith in Christ, and in fact the world at large did not even know that such a Church existed at Rome.
Hence Paul meant only the believing world or the Christian Church, which was a comparatively insignificant part of the real world. Shortly before Jesus was born, "There went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled," "and all went to enroll themselves," Luke 2:1,3; yet we know that the writer had in mind only that comparatively small part of the world which was controlled by Rome. When it was said that on the day of Pentecost, "there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven," Acts 2:5, only those nations which were immediately known to the Jews were intended, for verses 9-11 list those which were represented. Paul says that the Gospel was "preached in all creation under heaven." Col 1:23. The goddess Diana of the Ephesians was said to have been worshipped by "all Asia and the world," Acts 19:27. We are told that the famine which came over Egypt in Joseph’s time extended to "all the earth," and that "all countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy grain," Gen 41:57.
In ordinary conversation we often speak of the business world, the educational world, the political world, etc., but we do not mean that every person in the world is a businessman, or educated, or a politician. When we say that a certain automobile manufacturer sells automobiles to everybody, we do not mean that he actually sells to every individual, but that he sells to every one who is willing to pay his price. We may say of one lone teacher of literature in a city that he teaches everybody, — not that everybody studies under him, but that all of those who study at all study under him. The Bible is written in the plain language of the people and must be understood in that way.
Verses like John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life," give abundant proof that the redemption which the Jews thought to monopolize is universal as to space. God so loved the world, not a little portion of it, but the world as a whole, that He gave His only begotten Son for its redemption. And not only the extensity, but the intensity of God’s love is made plain by the little adverb "so," — God so loved the world, in spite of its wickedness, that He gave His only begotten Son to die for it. But where is the oft-boasted proof of its universality as to individuals?
This verse is sometimes pressed to such an extreme that God is represented as too loving to punish anybody, and so full of mercy that He will not deal with men according to any rigid standard of justice regardless of their deserts. The attentive reader, by comparing this verse with other Scripture, will see that some restriction is to be placed on the word "world."
One writer has asked, "Did God love Pharaoh? (Rom 9:17). Did He love the Amalekites? (Exo 17:14). Did He love the Canaanites, whom He commanded to be exterminated without mercy? (Deu 20:16). Did He love the Ammonites and Moabites whom He commanded not to be received into the congregation forever? (Deu 23:3). Does He love the workers of iniquity? (Psa 5:5). Does He love the vessels of wrath fitted for destruction. . (Rom 9:22). Did He love Esau? (Rom 9:13).”
We conclude then, that the word "world" here is intended as the "world" of the Believers, both Jews and Gentiles and not as the whole human race.