The apostle John and the Bible more generally use the word ‘world’ in more than one way. So we must be careful, and clear about what ‘world’ actually means in this striking statement, and what it doesn’t mean. Even more strikingly, we’ll find that the world referred to here can in a sense be ‘in us’, or God can be in us, the two being mutually exclusive, at war. However, if God is in us, so His light and love will be too, flowing from us into the world, cresting up to eternity.
Most simply ‘world’ can mean God’s beautiful creation, ‘made through him’(John 1:10), which we should appreciate and cherish, and so in a sense love, thankful for His artistry and precious gift. Yet we must be wary of another ‘world’ that can twist it for us, so that we over love, perhaps even drift into worshiping the creation, ‘rather than the Creator’(Romans 1:25).
The twister is the evil behind this other ‘world’, often described as the world, the flesh and the devil, ‘“the prince of this world”’(John 12:31). The Bible describes his world as ‘principalities… powers… rulers of the darkness’(Ephesians 6:12). Through such influences our hearts can be ‘darkened’(Romans 1:21), like black blood coursing through our spiritual cardiovascular system, resulting in what John describes earlier as walking in ‘darkness’(1 John 1:6&2:11) and here as ‘all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life’(1 John 2:16). The apostle Paul describes the same problem as those ‘whose glory is in their shame, who think about earthly things’(Philippians 3:19) – i.e. the world in this darker and twisted sense. We’re all born with this worldly infection, and are easily overcome by its beguiling and deadly charm, since ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’(1 John 5:19).
Yet there’s hope, since God can drive out the darkness, which ‘is passing away, and the true light already shines’(1 John 2:8), i.e. Jesus, ‘“the light of the world”’(John 8:12). If we ‘believe in… Jesus Christ… he remains in us, by the Spirit’(1 John 3:23-24), an ‘anointing’(1 John 2:27), ‘“the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit”’(John 14:26). The Spirit’s presence reassures us that ‘we remain in him and he in us’(1 John 4:13), who is greater ‘than he who is in the world’(1 John 4:4). By wielding the ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’(Ephesians 6:17) we can drive back the darkness, just like Jesus in the ‘wilderness’(Matthew 4:1), and overcome the ‘wiles of the devil’(Ephesians 6:11), since anyone ‘born of God overcomes the world’(1 John 5:4).
So there’s a spiritual battle raging here, in our very hearts, which James describes vividly as a ‘war in your members… friendship with the world is enmity with God’(James 4:1-4). This thinking underpins Jesus’ statements: ‘“where your treasure is, there your heart will be also… if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness… No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon”’(Matthew 6:21-24). Paul’s makes similar remarks to Timothy: ‘godliness with contentment is great gain… those who are determined to be rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts… the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’(1 Timothy 6:6-10). He elaborates further in his letter to the Romans, writing ‘those who are in Christ Jesus… don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit… those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit’(Romans 8:1-5), and so he encourages the Galatians, ‘walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh… these are contrary to one another’(Galatians 5:16-17).
Some of these contrasts include ‘hatred, strife, jealousies… love, joy, peace’(Galatians 5:20-22). That’s why the ‘“greatest”’(Mark 12:28) commandments are first loving God, then flowing out from that loving others. So there’s an important further sense in which we are to love the world, like God, who ‘“so loved the world, that be gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life”’(John 3:16), since this ‘world is passing away with its lusts, but he who does God’s will remains forever’(1 John 2:17).
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