The world and its ways

'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.' (Joh 3:16)

'For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.' (Joh 3:17)

'You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.' (Joh 8:23)

If someone asked you what you understood by the word 'world' as it's used in the New Testament, what would you say? Perhaps some of the above scriptures might come to mind. They are all found in John's Gospel. John's Gospel and his first letter contain the bulk of the references to the word in the New Testament. But what does it mean?

The Greek word used, in the majority of cases, is kosmos. Its literal meaning is orderly arrangement, but by the time the New Testament was written it had come to mean the physical world, its inhabitants, and society—particularly society organised independently of God, with morals and practices opposed to God.

Paul told the church at Corinth that they were worldly because they were behaving like people in the world (1Co 3:1–4). Even though Christians live in the world, we are not to follow the ways of the world. God has called us out from the world so we can live for him.

Called out from the world

The Greek word translated 'church' in the New Testament is ekklesia. It means to call or to summon out from. God has called and summoned Christians out from the world so we can be his people. That is illustrated in the Old Testament.

God brought Israel out of Egypt (which symbolized the world) so they could belong to him and worship him (Exo 8:1). Then, when he brought them into the promised land, he told them not to live as the people he was driving out before them lived. Instead, they were to obey his laws and hold fast to his decrees (Lev 20:22–3).

That principle applies to Christians today. Even though we live in the world, we are not to follow the ways of the world. Instead, we are to live as God wants us to live, and as he instructs us to live.

Not of this world

Jesus told the Jews that they were from below; he was from above. They were of this world; he was not of this world (John 8:23). That is true of everyone who is in Christ. Even though we live in the world we no longer belong to the world (Col 2:20). Our citizenship is in heaven (Phi 3:20); we are aliens and strangers in the world (1Pe 2:11).

Jesus told the Jews that their father was the devil (Joh 8:44) and his Father was God (Joh 8:54). He also referred to the devil as 'the prince of this world' (Joh 12:31). The Greek word means ruler.

The devil rules over the people of this world, influencing their behaviour (Eph 2:1–2). People are either in God's kingdom or in Satan's kingdom (Luk 11:17–8). Either God is their Father or Satan is their father; there is no middle ground. Jesus said:

'Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.' (Luk 11:23)

People who are not for Jesus are against him, whether they realize it or not. That is why Christians are forbidden to marry unbelievers (2Co 6:14–8). However nice a person may seem, if they are not born again they are an enemy of God (Rom 5:10).

God looks at things from a spiritual viewpoint more than we do, and he doesn't want us to become 'one flesh' (Gen 2:24) with his enemies.

Slaves to sin

But Satan is not the only influence on our behaviour. James says that we sin because we follow our own evil desires (Jam 1:13–5). There is, in every one of us, a desire to do evil. Every human being is born with a sinful nature (Psa 51:5) which we inherit from Adam. That nature is in rebellion against God (Rom 8:7–8).

Paul said, referring to his life prior to conversion, that the good he wanted to do, he couldn't do. Whereas the evil he didn't want to do, he kept doing. Why? Because he was controlled by his sinful nature (Rom 7:18–9).

Paul, like every one of us, was a slave to sin (Joh 8:34; Rom 6:16). He was in captivity to it; it held him fast. So he cried out: 'Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:24–5)!' It's Jesus who sets us free from the control of our sinful nature so we can obey God.

Saved from our sins

Many Christians think of salvation only in terms of their sins being forgiven, but there is more to salvation than that. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that his wife would have a child and they should call him Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins (Mat 1:20–1).

Note that he was given the name Jesus (which means Yahweh saves), not because he would forgive his people for their sins (which he did – Mat 9:1–2), but because he would save them from their sins. The Greek word translated 'save' means save, rescue, deliver.

Salvation is not about living a sinful life and being forgiven. If that was the case, Jesus would be the Forgiver of the world. But he isn't, he's the Saviour of the world (Joh 4:42). God does forgive us if we sin (1Jo 1:9), but he wants us to stop sinning (Joh 5:14). If we continue in our sins we will not inherit the kingdom of God (Eph 5:3–7; Gal 5:19–21).

Heaven is not going to be full of forgiven sinners; heaven is going to be full of forgiven sinners who have stopped sinning (1Jo 3:9). Jesus has come to save, rescue, deliver us from the control of our sinful natures so we can do that.

God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to let his people go so that they could worship him (Exo 8:1). Israel was God's chosen people and he wanted them to worship and serve him, but they couldn't because they were slaves to Pharaoh, who symbolized their sinful nature.

So God sent plagues against Egypt, but Pharaoh still wouldn't let them go. Finally, he killed every firstborn male; and then he did let them go. That happened to show that only through the death of a firstborn male—God's firstborn, Jesus Christ (Heb 1:6)—would man be released from his slavery to sin.


For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. (1Co 10:1–2)

Moses was a type of Christ in the sense that God used him to deliver his people from the control of Pharaoh, as he uses Jesus to deliver us from the control of our sinful nature. Jesus has come to set the captives free (Isa 61:1).

When Israel came out of Egypt—out of the land of slavery—they passed through the Red Sea, which symbolized baptism. The people of Israel were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

Baptism in the sea symbolized baptism by water, but what did baptism in the cloud symbolize? God, who is spirit (Joh 4:24), was in the cloud (Exo 13:21): baptism in the cloud symbolized baptism in the Spirit (Mar 1:7–8).

Symbolically, all of Israel, having been set free from the control of their sinful natures, were then baptized with water (symbolizing repentance – Mat 3:11), and with the Spirit (Act 2:38); and yet some of them continued to live sinful lives and perished. That is a warning to Christians today (1Co 10:6–11).

Baptism took place as the people of Israel left Egypt behind to follow God. Similarly, baptism by immersion takes place when Christians leave the world behind to follow God. It's a powerful event in a believer's life.

Being buried in water symbolizes the death and burial of our old way of life. We then rise up, a new creation in God, to live for him (Rom 6:4). As Peter says, baptism is the pledge of a good conscience towards God—a solemn promise to do what is right (1Pe 3:21).

Please note that Pharaoh and his army perished in the waters Israel were baptized in (Exo 14:26–8). Pharaoh's death doesn't mean our sinful nature is now dead—on the contrary, it's still very much alive; rather it shows the extent to which we've been set free from its control. We don't have to obey it anymore; we now have the freedom to do what is right (Gal 5:1,13).

Do not go back

God told his people not to go back to Egypt (Deu 17:16). Why was that? Because of what it symbolized. When Christians go back to Egypt, they go back to the world and start to obey their sinful natures again: it's called backsliding. They go back to where they were before they were saved.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. (1Jo 2:15–6)

James put it more strongly:

You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (Jam 4:4)

I don't want to be an enemy of God, do you? So we must put all worldly ways behind us. Christians live in the world and should mix with those who are in the world (Mat 5:14–6)—Jesus did. But we're not to live as the world does, or to follow its ways; we must follow God.

Michael Graham
December 2004
Revised April 2019

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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