The term ‘world’ in the New Testament has a variety of meanings. It can mean the physical earth. It can mean the whole world of mankind and every individual on it. Similarly, ‘world’ can describe the whole world of nations and peoples known at that time: the Roman world and surrounding areas. Sometimes it refers to the world simply to indicate Jews and Gentiles together. Other times ‘world’ is used to include all classes of people (i.e. rich and poor, men and women, kings and servants, etc.) A lot of ink has spilled trying to determine what is meant by this one term ‘world’ in a given passage. Example: What does it mean that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2)? Topic for another blog.
Beyond interesting theological discussions, there is one common use of the term ‘world’ that is more important for day-to-day Christian living. In this sense, ‘the world’ means the world of sin. It describes the sinful culture that is produced from an earth full of sinners living apart from God. Satan is said to be the ‘ruler’ (John 12:31) and ‘prince’ (Eph 2:2) of this world. This world is thus considered the ‘domain of darkness’ (Col 1:13). This world system is considered its own kingdom that stands against God’s Kingdom eternal (John 18:36; Rev 11:15). We are all born into the kingdom of this world but will be saved out of it if we are born from above (John 3). We become citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) through faith in Christ. However we will still live in the world as exiles (1 Pt 2:9-12), while we are learning to live as citizens of heaven.
Whenever we read warnings about worldliness or the world with a negative connotation in the NT, this is typically the meaning. We were born in sin into a fallen kingdom, the kingdom of this world. We grew up in worldly culture, with its own worldly wisdom and its own values. Now those in Christ belong to the kingdom of God as a citizen. God by his Spirit is training us in how to live as subjects in this kingdom, with its culture, values, wisdom, and priorities in accord with God’s will. And as part of that God calls us to lay aside our former allegiance to this world. It is at times painful, as this is just the ‘world’ we lived in for so long. But it must go. Consider Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:1-10:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. [emphasis added]
So what are some takeaways when we consider the believer’s relationship to ‘the world’ as I have described it here?
1. The love of the world and the love of God cannot co-exist
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. 1 John 2:15
So much of God’s sanctifying work is simply getting the love of the world out of your heart and replacing it with love for God. You cannot serve two masters that are in competition. Neither can you love God and at the same time love the world that stands in rebellion against him. Love for this world crowds out the heart and makes no room for love of God. Consider Demas, a former fellow laborer in the gospel with Paul, who later abandoned it all because he was‘ in love for this present world,” (2 Tim 4:10)
2. The world and its desires are passing away
And the world is passing away along with its desires… 1 John 2:17a
Jesus warns against storing up treasures on earth for two reasons. One, it will anchor your heart to this world instead of heaven, and two, you won’t be able to enjoy the treasures and pleasures of this world for long. Your days are limited on this earth and the world itself will not last much longer. The great art and literature and music and architecture and inventions that are products of this world will perish along with this world. But the treasures and pleasures of heaven will endure forever (Mt 6:19-21). This is reason enough to keep your heart from loving this present world.
3. The world cannot satisfy
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Mark 8:36
Those who belong to the world have no share of heaven, and so they must make this current world their own heaven. It never will be though, not in this age. In the age to come, when Christ returns, heaven will invade earth and make all things new, removing the curse and every taint of sin. Yet those who do not belong to Christ will have no part in it. Christian, you will. You do even now. This world cannot compare. Even if you had every worldly pleasure and every earthly treasure, it would not satisfy. It would not be the heaven you desire it to be. Some of the richest, most famous, most accomplished, and most free to explore and experience their every sinful desire are the most miserable. Do not love the world. It cannot replace heaven. It will not satisfy. Even what does bring happiness is temporary.
4. God has no great love for this world
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29
God gives us wisdom to live well in this world, and he does bless us and provide for our needs in life (Mt 6:25-33). However, God offers no blanket promise to bless his people with an abundance of earthly possessions, riches, fame, accomplishment, prosperity, and health in this age. He may grant these things to his people, but not commonly (1 Cor 1:26ff., quoted above). Many saints are called out of poverty, but they do not suddenly become rich in the world. Christ came to save us out of this present evil age, not make it a comfortable paradise for us (Gal 1:4).
In fact, God demonstrates how little he cares for the glories of this world in that he gives the greater portion of this world to his enemies and withholds it from his chosen saints. He gives wealth and prominence and fame and distinction and influence not to Christians, for the most part, but to those who will have nothing to do with his Christ. To those who prefer the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of his beloved Son, God says, “you can have it.” But to those who, like Abraham, desire something more, God will withhold not the least part of it. He prepares a place for them in heaven, filled with blessings untold, which length of days will never dim their delight, where rust and thief have no power.
Do not love this present world, and do not despair if you have little share of it in this life. Far from being a sign that God hasn’t blessed you, it will only sweeten the glorious inheritance you will have in the age to come. Set your mind, your hope, your delight in the world to come.
“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:16