We are to be in the world, but we are not to be of the world. How many times have you been reminded of this by your church leaders or Christian friends?
It’s so common that it almost sounds cliche. Perhaps it has become clichéd. Nevertheless, what does it mean to be “in the world but not of the world,” and is it Biblical? How do we do it? This post will attempt to answer these questions.
Let’s get started.
We’ll begin by looking at the origin of the saying. According to the NIV, John chapter 17, verses 9 through 26 read:
9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[a] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by[b] that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
13 “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by[c] the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you[d] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Jesus said that both he and those whom he was given were not of the world. Before we discuss what it means to not be of the world,we should probably answer the question: what does it mean to be of the world?
Let’s put it this way. Among the commandments of God is not to covet nor steal. Do you feel entitled to a five-finger discount whenever you waltz into a store? Is it your nature to freely take things that don’t belong to you or to constantly try to get over on people to obtain material possessions? Are you unsatisfied with the good and perfect gifts God has given you? Instead, are you always jealous of what your neighbor has? If so, you might be of the world.
Furthermore, God says not to commit murder or bear false witness against your neighbor. Do you hate another human being without a reason? Do you practice, promote, or agree with abortion of innocent unborn children? Is it your habit to speak falsely about others? If so, then you might be of the world.
I’ll assume you get the picture at this point.
Now, let’s look at some basic definitions to assist with our understanding.
In these verses, the Greek word ek (ἐκ) means “from”, or “from out of.” It conveys the sense of motion coming “out of” or “forth from.”
We will now examine the word kosmos (κόσμος), which is translated as “world” in the above passage. There is more to the word kosmos than meets the eye. Sure, It can refer to earth or world, but it can also mean order, government, or a regular way of doing things. The word can also refer to mankind as a whole, as well as embellishment or decoration.
What might these things mean?
Well, remember when Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not from this world? (Jn. 18:36) In other words, his kingdom doesn’t follow the natural order of this world or the usual way of doing things. As is expected in any earthly kingdom, Jesus’ servants would fight for him if that were the case.
Nevertheless, in the realm of God, things aren’t done that way.
Now, recall that kosmos can also refer to decoration, embellishment, and adornment. Generally, an embellishment is a feature added to something to make it more attractive or interesting.
In Scripture, God instructed the children of Israel to make an altar out of earth to sacrifice to him. Nothing fancy. Just a plain old pile of dirt. If they were, however, to make an altar of stone, they were not to use hewn stones, i.e., stones that had been cut or dressed. By doing so, the temple would be defiled (Exodus 25).
So, here’s where we’re at: Like the altar of earth, God created the world with a natural order to how things work. As hewn stones, humans have altered God’s way through their rebellious behavior. In an effort to make what God has put together more interesting, pleasurable, and attractive to us, we have defiled it by adding our own ideas and imaginations.
We, in a sense, instead of submitting to Jehovah as God and attempting to conform to his teachings and rulings, attempt to embellish, decorate, dress up, or make more attractive God’s plan and simple ways with our own perversions. This is called sin.
Let me just add, that this has nothing to do with enjoying a movie or television program, listening to secular music, or wearing a certain type of clothing or accessory, which are all things that many in the church world have termed “worldly.”
There are a couple of reasons why I say this. First of all, things considered “worldly” are based on one’s opinion, not on truth or Scripture. The concept of something being “worldly” can’t be proven as such, since it’s based on each individual’s viewpoint, and not God’s Word.
Therefore, even if you believe something to be worldly or inappropriate for a believer, someone else has the right to disagree with you. For one person, going to a movie is the devil’s work, but for another, it’s a fun family activity.
Truth is, there’s no way to absolutely determine if something is or isn’t “worldly,” and aside from that, “worldly” is just another made-up term. And if you want to be technical about it, everything except the things of God are worldly, since we live…you know… in the world.
Per one website called saintlyliving.com: “Worldly things are anything or earthly things that distract us from God and His Word. TheHe would have made us all the same if he wanted us to be alike.y include all forms of entertainment, such as television, movies, magazines, music, sports, and the Internet.”
Since the above includes just about every activity under the sun, what exactly should we do? I’m sorry, but I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement. We aren’t meant to be hidden if we are to shine like lights in the darkness (Matt. 5:15-16).
God didn’t intend for us to be locked away and separate from other people, but to live lives that are unique in the midst of other people. This means we’ll have to participate in some things.
Consequently, if it’s our desire to do so, we should engage with our culture and partake in entertaining activities as others do, as long as it’s not sinful.
Bottom line is, there’s nothing wrong with engaging with the things of this world as long as they don’t go against God’s Word. However, even though something may be okay to do, it may not necessarily be beneficial (1 Cor. 10:23) when considering our individual witness, ministry, or personal walk with God.
For example, I don’t practice many of the things listed above not because I believe it’s a sin, but because my focus and my calling is studying and ministering God’s Word. I don’t have time for much else. But, since God’s word is my passion and I greatly enjoy it, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.
However, that doesn’t mean the next person should do the same. As unique as our identities are, so are our relationships with God. If he wanted us all to be alike he would have made us the same.
To conclude, I believe our concept of worldliness is more like a fence we put up to keep ourselves from engaging in sin, which is noble. However, it’s not biblical. Furthermore, we shouldn’t isolate ourselves from the world—because the world needs us.
Instead, when deciding whether to engage in any activity that is not explicitly prescribed in the Bible, we should pray and use discernment. Furthermore, what the Holy Spirit instructs us concerning our individual walk with God should not be imposed upon others.
‘Worldliness’, as we call it, seems more rooted in rules made by man, whereas serving God with a heart that honors him is all about following his commands. Ultimately, our focus should always be on keeping God’s commandments, that is, observing and living out his “Words.” This is how we “come out from among them and be yet separated.”
Though we aren’t perfect, we are no longer of this world since we were born again by the Spirit of God and follow His teachings. Therefore, we strive to love one another and to live up to the Lord’s expectations as any child would. In this way, our lives testify on our behalf that we are no longer of this world.
For believers, the old man has been put off and the new man has been put on (Eph. 4:22-24) and it’s no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Indeed we are in the world, but we are not of it. Despite living on planet earth, the redeemed of the Lord are no longer participating in the ungodly practices of this world.
We are citizens of a spiritual kingdom. Having been born anew by the Spirit of God, we now follow the ways of God until he calls us into the new creation, where everything will be made new—restored to its proper order.
If you haven’t submitted your life to the one and only Almighty Creator, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and if you still practice and delight in ungodly ways and propagate them to others, then destruction awaits you.
Will a loving God send people to hell? Yes, he would. But, it’s not his desire to do so.
Therefore, repent, meaning turn to God and submit yourself to him now, while you still can. For this world and everything in it will soon pass away. Only what comes from God will last forever.