IN THE WORLD, NOT OF THE WORLD
Written by Doug Ponder on June 25, 2016
In the World, Not of the World—Revisited
As we previously pointed out, the saying “in the world, not of the world” has become something of a Christian cliché. You can find it on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers across the Bible Belt. One clothing company even made it their official logo (now you know what NOTW stands for).
Technically, the exact phrase “in the world, not of the world” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but they are a decent summary of what Jesus said of us in his prayer to the Father:
“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:15-18)
As annoying as Christian clichés can be, we shouldn’t let them overshadow the words of Jesus. He did say that we are “not of the world,” and he also said that he is sending us “into the world.” If we lose either one of these truths, we run off the rails.
If you keep only the ‘not of the world’ part of Jesus’ prayer, you’ll wind up with an eternal combat stance or a total retreat. That is, you will either develop a self-righteous anger and lack of compassion for fellow sinners, or else you will adopt a holier-than-thou separationist mentality.
If you keep only the ‘in the world’ part of Jesus’ prayer, you’ll drift into dangerous consumption or naïve imitation. That is, you will either uncritically consume ideas, values, dreams, and desires that are completely contrary to Christ, or else you will naïvely imitate those very same things ‘in the name of Jesus,’ slapping a Christian label on them (as if that makes things better).
Not the Way You Learned Christ
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul is correcting some of their mistakes along these lines. At the high point of his rebuke Paul says, “That is not the way you learned Christ!” (Eph 4:20).
Jesus was a friend of sinners, but he didn’t join them in their sin. The same Jesus who said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28) also spells out what it looks like to come to him: “Repent and believe” (Mark 1:15).
When Jesus stopped men from stoning a woman caught in adultery, he did indeed say to her, “I do not condemn you.” But he also added, “Go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)
Jesus always spoke the truth in love (Eph 4:15)—even with tears—but never with combative bombast or self-righteous superiority. Don’t ever forget that Jesus was murdered because of what he said. He wasn’t killed because he said things in a cruel way; he was killed because of the content of his message.
Jesus didn’t withdraw from the world’s problems. Rather, he tackled them head on, meeting the needs of people who crossed his path, even going out of his way to find people in need.
Jesus didn’t naïvely copy the ways of the world but subjected all things to Scripture. In short, anything you won’t be able to enjoy with Jesus forever in the New Heavens and the New Earth is something you ought not seek to do now.
In all ways, then, Jesus himself was “in the world, not of the world.” He was fully present with sinners, but he was not a partner in sin or an ally of darkness. He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15).
How Jesus Sends Us
“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)
1. Jesus Sends Us with a New Identity
We belong to Jesus, not to the world—not even to ourselves. “You are not your own,” Paul reminds us, “for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20). This means that, like Jesus, we should be fully present in the world without partaking of the sins Jesus died to save us from.
Some ideas, objects, or values can be accepted exactly as they are. For example, you don’t have to eat Ezekiel 4:9 bread to be holy or healthy. But other ideas, objects, or values must be abandoned completely. (Pornography has no redeeming qualities.) Still other ideas, objects, or values must be adapted before they can be adopted by people who belong to Jesus. For example, retirement is not problematic in itself, but as it is currently practiced in America, so much of retirement is rooted in selfishness. Yet Christians can adapt the idea of retirement, turning their later years into the most fruitful years for God’s kingdom.
2. Jesus Sends Us with a New Goal
Because you have a new identity (you belong to Jesus), your goal is to shoot for faithfulness, not “success.” Very simply, you are called to trust and obey Jesus and leave the results to him. Let the chips fall where they do. God calls you to faithfulness.
Ex: The 2016 American presidential election features two candidates who both support horrifically evil polices. In differing ways, each candidate opposes so much of who Jesus is and what his kingdom is about. Voting for the “lesser of two evils” is still evil—and evil is not an option for Christians called to faithfulness. We have to trust Jesus and obey him, either voting for a minor party or even withholding our vote on principle.
3. Jesus Sends Us with a New Emphasis
When the Syrian refugee crisis first made headlines, the number of people shared their opinions about it on social media was staggering. During one church service I asked a room of more than 200 people, “How many of you personally know any Syrian refugees, or personally have the power to do anything to help them?” Not a single person raised their hands. I couldn’t raise my hand either. Meanwhile, there are many other people—right next door or just across town—who have real needs that we can personally can do something about. But we often don’t That’s why Christians need to shift their emphasis. We need to think local, then global.
We need to think local first, not because local people matter more (of course they don’t), but because we seem like hypocrites when we go across the world to help someone in need while we refuse to go across the street to do the same. Loving your immediate neighbors doesn’t have any of the “glory” that comes with an international trip, and maybe that’s why we neglect these people who are equally made in God’s image. The only cure for what ails us is a new emphasis: think local, then global.
4. Jesus Sends Us with a New Timeline
Finally, the kingdom Jesus inaugurated has been with us for almost two thousand years now. This should tell us something about the timeline of God—not to mention the timeline of those who belong to him. This means God wants us to leave a legacy, not just a short-lived spark. We should aim to shine like stars, lighting the sky for ages (Phil 2:15-16). We ought not be like meteorites (so-called “shooting stars”), which burn bright for a moment and flame out.
Practically speaking, this means Christians need to recover the long view of things. We need the type of long-term vision that matches God’s long-term plan in the world. We need people who think about how their decisions today are affecting the grandchildren they don’t even have yet. We need churches who think about what it looks like to exist many generations after those who began them have gone to be with the Lord. We need to see that maybe the most important things we will do in this life won’t be completed in our lifetimes. That’s why we Jesus gives us a new timeline.
The Power Behind the People
They key word in each of the above points is Jesus. He is the one who gives us a new identity, a new goal, a new emphasis, and a new timeline. Indeed, you can’t read John 17 and not see how clearly Jesus is the power that upholds his people in the world. For though Jesus is sending us, we are not alone as we go; he is with us always, to the end of the age. He is praying for us. He is protecting us. He is guiding us by the Spirit and God’s Word, the Bible. And Jesus is sanctifying us, which means that he is at work in us to make us more like himself so that it really will be true: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.