In John’s gospel, the term world does not always have the same meaning, but its definition shifts depending on its context and use. Today’s passage makes this particularly clear. Building off of John 1:9, where “world” refers to the created world, the earth and its inhabitants, verse 10 features two instances of the term that have the same meaning: “He [the Word] was in the world, and the world was made through him.” Plainly, John means the created order. In His incarnation, the Word—the Son of God—entered His own creation.
But the second half of verse 10 features a shift in meaning when John says, “The world did not know him.” In other words, the world did not recognize Jesus for who He was. This cannot mean the created order in general or even all people, for in John’s gospel many people do recognize Jesus as the Christ and as the Savior (for example, 4:39–41; 9:35–39). Instead, it must be a subset of the created order that did not receive Jesus as the Christ. Augustine of Hippo identifies this subset in his sermon on today’s passage. “Who did not know? Those who, for their love of the world, are called the world.”
It was bad enough that some people rejected Jesus because of their love of this world, but even worse is that many of those who loved the world and rejected Jesus were found among His own people. The Word “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” John here refers to the Jewish nation as a whole and its rejection of our Lord. Although many Jews believed in Jesus, the majority did not, and this is especially tragic given that salvation must come through one born to the Jewish race (4:22). The New Testament tells us forthrightly that as an entity, the Jews have rejected Christ, but it does hold out hope that this rejection will not last forever (Rom. 9–11). One day, the Jews will turn to Jesus, not in the sense that every Jew will believe but in the sense that so many will be converted that we can say that the Jews no longer reject their Messiah.
Although at the first advent of Jesus, many Jews rejected Him, some did receive Him as Lord and Messiah. These people, John tells us, were born not of the flesh but of the spirit and they received “the right to become children of God” (John 1:13–14). Not every person has the right to be a child of God—the right to be an heir of His promises—simply by being born. Only those who are born anew spiritually and trust in Christ have that right. To become children of God in the truest and fullest sense, we must be born again (3:1–14).