And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.
Who does the "world" refer to?
1 John 2:2 is a favorite for argument from some theological positions. As A. W. Pink put it, "This is the passage which, apparently, most favors the Arminian view of the Atonement [...]." Bruce Ware represents this position, at least regarding this specific passage,
Notice that ‘world’ occurs 28 times in 1 John, 26 of which are used either in a comprehensive sense (e.g., 1 John 2:17; 3:17; 4:1, 9) or more narrowly as the world of the unsaved (e.g., 1 John 2:15-16; 3:1, 13; 5:19). This makes doubtful that 2:2 and 4:14 refer to a world of the elect.
Regarding this passage taken as referring to the whole world, when isolated, Pink writes, "[...] yet if it be considered attentively it will be seen that it does so only in appearance, and not in reality."
It is a necessary component of interpretation to know how words are used, which includes studying their various uses in different context, which Ware did; however one must also examine the use of the words at hand in their own context, which Ware fails to do.
Key to every interpretative act is, instead of “proof texting” (by isolating verses out of their textual, temporal, ideological, and cultural contexts, or interpreting merely single words throughout Scripture rather than comparing their use in entire contexts between texts), is rather to recognize the context, insofar as it is possible; this includes referring to the other writings an author of any particularly questioned portion of text, (in this case being John, in the context of “Johannine literature”). Furthermore, as conservative Christian theologians have long affirmed, Scripture interprets Scripture, since it is God-breathed, and therefore cannot be self-contradictory.
"In Galatians 2:9 we are told that John, together with James and Cephas, were apostles "unto the circumcision [(the Jews)]" (Pink). Thus Galatians 2:9 provides to us who it is that is John's primary audience; other details of this letter confirm this notion: (Pink)
- (a) In the opening verse he says of Christ, "Which we have seen with our eyes . . . . and our hands have handled." How impossible it would have been for the Apostle Paul to have commenced any of his epistles to Gentile saints with such language!
- (b) "Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning" (1 John 2:7). The "beginning" here referred to is the beginning of the public manifestation of Christ-in proof compare 1 John 1:1, 2:13, etc. Now these believers the apostle tells us, had the "old commandment" from the beginning. This was true of Jewish believers, but it was not true of Gentile believers.
- (c) "I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known Him from the beginning" (1 John 2:13). Here, again, it is evident that it is Jewish believers that are in view.
- (d) "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that Antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us" (1 John 2:18, 19).
These brethren to whom John wrote had "heard" from Christ Himself that Antichrist should come (see Matthew 24). The "many antichrists" whom John declares "went out from us" were all Jews, for during the first century none but a Jew posed as the Messiah. Therefore, when John says "He is the propitiation for our sins" he can only mean for the sins of Jewish believers.*
It is even enlightening to know that the opening of John's gospel begins with using the word “logos” as a theological term which was well-developed from LXX reading Jewry, corresponding to an Hebrew equivalent term in use among Hebrew speaking Jews. (The term had, at this time, a well-developed theological element. [Marlowe]) In Acts it is reported there was a hard time with accepting that Gentiles were also included in the Messiah's salvation, though they gloried God for it. In the Epistles of Paul we see tensions between these Gentile believers and Judaizers-legalistic Jews that Paul contended were not Christians, but self-glorying holders of another gospel. This is reflective, however, of the proud Jewish Nationalism of first century Judaism, against which prominent men like Josephus gave warning, by which a revolt was emboldened, and for which Jerusalem and the nation of Israel were eventually destroyed and scattered into a diaspora by Rome. This same attitude is evident when the overzealous Jews attempt to make Jesus King by force (John 6:15), and in the loaded questions Jesus was asked regarding taxes (Matt 22:17). Contrary to this racial mindset, Paul writes against the thought of division between Jew and gentile, that in Christ the wall of enmity between Jew and Gentile are broken down (Eph 2:11-22, Romans 4:12 & Gal 6:16). Instead both are now included in the family of God as members of the commonwealth of Israel and inheritors of the covenants of promise, as fellow citizens with the Saints, of God's household, (Eph 2:11-22). Similarily, John also writes against this Jewish Racial-Nationalism in his gospel (John 11:51-52), to which the pattern of 1 John 2:2 conforms:
John 11:51-52 1 John 2:2 he prophesied that And Jesus He Himself would die for is the propitiation for the nation our sins and not for the nation only and not for ours only but also but also that he would gather together in one for the children of God scattered abroad the whole world Furthermore, since Christians first interpret Scripture in light of Scripture, it is enlightening to examine other texts on the topic for whom Jesus died, for which a few of many examples follow:
- John 10:26 - Not all are his sheep (see context of John 10:11-10:26, or better yet, read the entire book straight through!)
- John 17:6-10 - Jesus explicitly says that he prays not for the whole world, but for the apostles and those who'd believe Him through their word.
- Ephesians 5:25, 26 - Laid down his life for the Church, not the whole world:
- Revelation 5:9 - Some of all in the world
- The Meaning of 'Logos' in the Prologue of John's Gospel (Marlowe. At Bible-Researcher.com)
- I John 2:2, by A.W. Pink
- "For the sins of the whole world", by Phil Johnson
- Definite atonement (Same as "Limited Atonement")
- Propitiation I John 2:2, by Dr. Gary D. Long
- Jesus Christ Is an Advocate for Sinners - 1 John 2:1-2, by John Piper