Why does Thayer say that “world” can mean “believers only?”


I have a question regarding an entry in Thayer's Greek Lexicon that is concerning the meaning of the word "world" in John 3:16 and other passages. I submit the following entry from the Lexicon:

As one of the definitions for the Greek word kosmos for "world," it gives the following:

"8b) of believers only, John 1:29; John 3:16; John 3:17; John 6:33; John 12:47 I Corinthians 4:9; II Corinthians 5:19"

You will also see that the lexicographer lists verses that he says the terminology "of believers only" apply in those contexts from the Greek word kosmos

Here's the question: Those of us in the Lord's church believe that Jesus died for the sins of all mankind. But the lexicographer is saying that in the contexts of John 1:29, John 3:16, and others above, that he only died for the believers. Isn't that basically teaching limited atonement as versus Universal Atonement? I assume that men such as Strong and Thayer and their written works are considered accurate and reputable among those within the churches of Christ. Is Thayer accurate in his translation of the word "kosmos" meaning "of believers only" in the contexts of the verses he cites with the definition?

I realize there are probably many other questions that others submit that you could answer, but this one has me confused and concerned. I would appreciate it if you could answer it for me.


A question for you, do you believe that Jesus died for everyone because a scholar defined it that way or because you found it so stated in the Bible? As William Pinkney once said, "A definition is no proof." A definition ought to be a summary of how a word is used, but the scholars who write dictionaries are men. They make mistakes, and they have personal biases that make them blind to the truth. That is why I don't rely on any one dictionary for definitions.

Interestingly, the definition of "believers only" does not appear in my printed copy of Thayer's, copyright 1977, and based on a 1901 edition. There is a definition 8, but no 8a or 8b. It appears that someone has altered Thayer's work and put their own opinions in. There are a number of online sites with the altered definition. A few even have the altered work and the original work in their databases.

But let's just assume for the moment that the altered definition really came from Thayer, though the evidence is that it did not come from him.

Joseph Henry Thayer was a member of the Congregational Church and was a professor at Havard's School of Divinity. He did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, asserting that there were errors in history and science within its pages [The Change of Attitude Toward the Bible]. He was also a part of the team that brought out the Revised Version of the Bible, notorious for its skepticism in translation. His lexicon was actually a part of that work.

In using a work, you need to know the author's bias. Congregational churches are Calvinists, so one would expect that justification for Calvinistic beliefs would be sought.

Thayer's work also came before a flood of parchments were found in Egypt that heavily altered the world's view of Koine Greek. Thayer's work is by no means worthless, but it is dated. It relies more heavily on classical Greek, not always noting the shift of meaning that sometimes occurred of the centuries that brought about Koine Greek.

Despite the altered Thayer's assertion, Jesus died for all men. "For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again" (II Corinthians 5:14-15). His death was for the whole world. "My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (I John 2:1-2). Notice that "world" is used in I John 2:2 and the context makes it clear that it cannot be limited to just believers, which is probably while the altered Thayer didn't include it in his list.

None of the passages listed show in its context the necessity that only believers are being referred by the use of the word "world." Therefore, a meaning is being asserted without proof. It actually would be odd for the Bible to use "world" as limited to just believers since God so often used the world as a contrast to spiritual concerns. "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:19).

One of the passages is listed as being limited to believers, yet its very context clearly shows it is talking much more broadly: "For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men" (I Corinthians 4:9).

To see an author support his particular brand of belief is not unusual. Hence, I would expect A. T. Robertson, a Baptist, to lean to claiming baptism was not necessary for salvation, as he does in Acts 2:38 in his Word Pictures of the New Testament. It would be noteworthy when such a scholar breaks with his bias to admit it could be wrong. So you should know that W. E. Vines was a member of the Plymouth Brethren; Albert Barnes was a Presbyterian, and James Strong and Adam Clarke were Methodists.


I believe that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the entire world and not just a select few, and I believed this from the Scriptures before I had ever heard of Thayer or even saw his works. I still consider the Bible my only source for all things regarding doctrine and practice as a Christian and in all matters pertaining to life and godliness.

One reason I had sent this message to you was that among several of the works ministers within the church use to refute Calvinism, none to my recollection had ever addressed the aforementioned definition "of believers only" that Thayer gives for "world" in contexts such as John 3:16. I thought it would be a good opportunity to address it with the Bible because Thayer's definition, at least to the astute observer, appears to be attempting to justify Limited Atonement, a tenant of Calvinism.

I appreciate your answers to these questions. I have seen the many answers you have given to other questions submitted on the web site, and I am impressed with your knowledge of the Bible and things of the Bible, as well as your love for God's Word. I am studying to be a minister in the Lord's church and there are many preachers that have given me inspiration in work toward ministry, and I want to say you are another that inspires me. I appreciate the work you do as a servant for God in the kingdom.


I hope you don't think I accused you of believing in Calvinism. I started my note out as a way to put things into perspective. Too often people put too much credence in scholarly works and forget that the Bible is the Truth (John 17:17). God be with you in your studies of His Word.

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