Posted on January 10th, by Doug Ponder in Culture, Life, Mission. 1 Comment


Written by on January 10, 2013

In the World, Not of the World?

Jesus prayed the following to God the Father on our behalf: “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)

His prayer has inspired the popular slogan, “in the world, not of the world,” which can now be found on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and coffee mugs. The slogan is everywhere, but so is confusion about what it means. How are Christians supposed to approach the world? How should we live?

In their search for answers, some Christians have gone to the Bible to see what it has to say about “the world.” Unfortunately, many of them end up more confused than when they started! Here’s a sample of what such a search would find:

“Do not love the world or anything of the world…” (1 John 2:15)
“Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4)

And yet, “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16)

Wait a minute. Is God asking us not to love something that he loves? Isn’t that be awfully hypocritical? (You can see how people easily get confused about this.)

The Ways of the World

What’s happening in those verses is that the word world is being used in different ways. Think about it like this. When we say “the world is a beautiful place”, we mean that planet Earth is beautiful. But if we say, “The whole world loves ice cream,” we are talking about the people of the world, not the physical planet itself.

Thus, “God so loved the people of the world that he sent his only Son…” In this case God loved “the world” because he loved the people of the world (1 John 4:9; 1 John 2:2). But when we read that we are not supposed to love “the world,” clearly this doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to love people. After all, the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).

It’s obvious that the word “world” in Jesus’ prayer does not mean, “be in the people but not of the people.” So what does it mean?

One Christian scholar has put it like this, “When world is used in a negative sense in Scripture, what is meant is the total system of corporate flesh operating on earth under satanic control, with all its incentives of reward and restraints of loss, its characteristic patterns of behavior, and its anti-christian structures, methods, goals, and ideologies” (Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 93). In other words, when the Scriptures speak of  “the world” in a negative way the word means anything and everything that is opposed to who God is and what he is doing through Jesus.

God’s Work, Our Calling

The shortest way to express all that God is doing through Jesus is to say that God is setting straight everything that we made crooked; he is putting right what we put wrong; he is making all things new (Rev. 21:5). “Through Jesus,” the apostle Paul says, God is going to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20). In other words, Jesus’ victory over sin and death are the sign and the means by which God works in the world to reconcile all things to himself. He even calls us “ministers of reconciliation” who implore others to be reconciled to God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-21). To “not love the world,” therefore, means that we must not love, value, cherish, or treasure anything that is opposed to God’s character or his great work of redemption.

Now let’s return to Jesus’ prayer to see if we can make sense of it. He prayed, “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)

Since “the world” refers to the collective system of anything and everything opposed to God’s character and work of redemption, Jesus’ prayer only makes sense if he’s talking about presence and allegiance. That is, he prays that his followers won’t be removed from the presence of evil, but that their allegiance will remain with him (which is what a follower of Jesus is by definition).

Getting It Wrong

If we misunderstand what Jesus was praying, or if we overlook specific aspects of his prayer for us, we’ll end up following one of these misguided and unfruitful ways of living in the world:

1. Engaging as enemies (living like attack dogs) – Christians who approach life in this way confront others loudly, arrogantly, and self-righteously. They understand that we are “not of the world” and that we have been “sent into the world,” but they ignore that Jesus sent us into the world in the same manner as the Father sent him (17:18). Jesus did not show up barking and biting people. He came serving, healing, and willing to lay his life down for others. Thus, even though Jesus was hated by his enemies, he loved them in return (Rom. 5:8) and calls us to do the same (Matt. 5:43-44).

2. Engaging as copycats (living like parrots) – Christians who approach life in this way simply mirror everything else around them. They understand that we have been sent into the world, but they forget that we are not of the world. Like parrots, they copy the ideas and practices of the world without critically applying the truth of the gospel to any of them. Thus they never take a stand for anything that would be considered “counter-cultural,” because their affirmation comes from the world’s acceptance of them.

3. Disengaging as quitters (living like turtles) – Christians who approach life in this way retreat into their churches like a frightened turtle retreats into its shell. They understand that we are “not of the world,” but they ignore Jesus’ words that we have been “sent into the world” just as he was. Thus they set up “Christian” alternatives for everything—Christian basketball camps, Christian coffee shops, Christian T-shirts, Christian fitness programs, Christian music, etc. All the while, they fail to interact with the rest of the world because they have withdrawn themselves from the world completely.

Getting It Right

There is another way: engaging the world as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom.

Contrary to engaging as enemies, we understand that the real battle is not “us versus them,” but “us versus sin,” which is found inside and outside of God’s people. Thus instead of self-righteousness and arrogance, the church should be marked by humility and compassion.

Contrary to living as copycats, we remember that our allegiance is not to a flag, a country, a tradition, a trend, or a fad, but to King Jesus and his kingdom. Thus instead of cowardice and cultural captivity, the church should be marked by courage and commitment to truth, goodness, and beauty.

Contrary to disengaging as quitters, we long to see the world changed—just as we are being changed—by the power and the presence of the gospel. So instead of pessimism and fear, the church should be marked by gospel-centered optimism and unshakable hope.

This approach to the world not only avoids the errors of many Christian movements (past and present), it also goes a long way toward producing disciples who interact with the world just as Jesus did.

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 the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.


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