“In the world, but not of the world” is a phrase that I’ve heard Bible preachers proclaim for decades.
In some circles, the familiarity of this phrase comes with the expectation of a quick “amen” and is quickly glossed over without much explanation.
A common catchphrase misattributed to Joe Friday from the 1950’s Dragnet TV show says, “Just the facts, ma’am.” The facts of God’s Word should serve as our foundation. At this point, though, it would serve you best to pause and read John 17:9-19. Now go back and count the number of times “the world” is recorded. I think I counted 13 times. Within the text of the New Testament, this phrase is found approximately 185 times and 88 of those occurrences are recorded in the writings of the Apostle John. Traditional scholarship assigns 5 books or letters in our divinely inspired Bible to John’s authorship. He is also known as one of the original sons of thunder (as identified by Jesus), the disciple whom Jesus loved (self-identified), the elder (of Second John), and as the Revelator (because of his end time manifesto). As a member of the innermost circle of Jesus’ friends, he was entrusted with much wisdom. He is most qualified to help us understand God’s Word and will regarding the world.
At first glance, the Bible can seem contradictory. Consider John’s inspired statements. In John 3:16 we read: “For God so loved the world …” But in First John 2:15 you are told: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” He records Jesus’ words in John 12:47, “…for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” But then Jesus’ admonition in John 15:18-19 says, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 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.”
The infamous words were spoken by Astronaut Jim Swigert in April 1970 from Apollo 13’s out of this world space flight come to mind. “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” With a surface reading of Scripture, it’s difficult to understand what’s going on with this phrase, “the world” and how you should really feel about it. God is okay with this confession. That’s also why He encourages you to study to show yourself divinely approved and able to rightly divide the Word (2 Timothy 2:15).
The Bible has been described as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” The best way to enjoy Earth before we leave is to heed its counsel. Scripture makes a distinction between the people of Earth and the fallen (or sinful) thoughts and ideas that work in rebellion against God. In that sense, we are to love the sinner and hate the sin. Part of what this means is living in the world (being present and active among the people where God has sent us) but not being of the world (we are not to be influenced by and accepting of fallen systems and sinful attitudes opposed to God). Hence the admonition of Romans 12:1-2.
Some Christians are so fearful of being worldly that they isolate themselves from anything and anyone that they deem as non-Christian and out of line with their personal convictions of holiness. Under the guise of holiness (or separation), they’re like soldiers who have gone AWOL. This is not how we should live in God’s Kingdom because it denies the missional nature of the church. Such extreme separation is not biblical holiness.
A deeper study soon makes it apparent that John and other New Testament writers are dealing with two separate matters. First, there is the world as a place of residence and the people of all ages that God loves. And then there is worldliness as a fallen heart condition manifested by attitudes which oppose God’s Word and will. Read this linked page to The Holman Bible Dictionary at StudyLight.org for a more detailed explanation of the various nuances, the original words translated, and their contextual meanings.
For clarity and charity’s sake, let’s paraphrase our original phrase, which tells us to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Be among the people of earth (in the world), but not of the attitudes that reject God’s love, law, and leading (the world). This simple contrast should begin to clear up the muddy theology. Now think of John 3:16 to understand, For God so loved the people of Earth … and First John 2:15, Do not love the attitudes that reject God’s love, law, and leading, or the things that reject God’s love, law, and leading. If anyone loves the attitude that rejects God’s love, law, and leading, the love of the Father is not in him.
I’ll hit the pause button for now with these questions. What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the world?” Does it evoke positive or negative thoughts and feelings? And what in God’s Word is up with the world?
Carry on and enjoy your world, but first, answer the above questions in the comment area below.