The world and its ways

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 scriptures might come to mind:

'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)

Those scriptures come from John's Gospel. John's Gospel and his first letter contain the bulk of the references to the word 'world' 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 that are opposed to God.

Worldly people are unspiritual people: people who are engrossed in worldly affairs, particularly in the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. And worldly people act in worldly ways.

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not mere men? (1Co 3:1–4)

Paul told the church at Corinth that they were still worldly because they were behaving like people in the world. Even though Christians live in the world, we are not to follow the ways of the world. God has brought us out from the world, spiritually, so we can live for him.

Called out from the world

The Greek word translated 'church' in the New Testament is ekklesia. It comes from two Greek words and 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 20:22–23).

That principle applies to Christians. Even though we live in the world, we're not to follow the ways of the world. Instead, we're 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 for 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 now 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) whereas 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 translated 'prince' 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 11:17–18). Either God is their spiritual Father or Satan is their spiritual father. There is no middle ground.

Jesus said:

'He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.' (Luk 11:23)

People who are not for Jesus are against Jesus, whether they realize it or not. That is why Christians are expressly forbidden to marry unbelievers (2Co 6:14–18). 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 far 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 1:13–15). There is, in everyone of us, a desire to do evil. Every human being is born with a fallen 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 7:18–19).

Paul, like everyone of us, was a slave to sin (Joh 8:34; Rom 6:16). He was in captivity to sin; it held him fast. So he cried out: 'Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:24–25)!'

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 1:20–21). The Greek word translated 'save' means to save, to rescue, to deliver.

Note that he was given the name Jesus (which means Jehovah 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.

Salvation is not about living a sinful life and being forgiven. If that was the case, then Jesus would be the Forgiver of the world. But he's not. Jesus is the Saviour of the world (Joh 4:42).

God does forgive our sins through Jesus Christ (1Jo 1:9; 2:2), but he wants us to stop sinning (Joh 5:14). Anyone who continues to live a sinful life will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Eph 5:3–7).

Heaven is not going to be full of forgiven sinners; heaven is going to be full of forgiven sinners who've stopped sinning (1Jo 3:9). And Jesus has come to save, rescue and 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 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 do that 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 Pharaoh did let them go. That event showed that only through the death of a firstborn male—ie 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, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized 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 (who was symbolic of Christ) 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), so 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, and with the Spirit; and yet some of them continued to live sinful lives and perished. That is a warning for every Christian 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 our life for him (Rom 6:4). As Peter says, baptism is the pledge of a good conscience towards God—ie a solemn promise to do what is right (1Pe 3:21).

And please note that Pharaoh and his army perished in the waters that Israel were baptized in (Exo 14:26–28). Did that happen by chance? No. There is yet another spiritual picture here.

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 freed 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 into the world (return to their former life of sin) it's called backsliding.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. (1Jo 2:15–16)

James put it more strongly:

You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God? 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 in the world (Mat 5:14–16). Jesus did—he mixed with tax collectors and sinners. But we're not to live as the world does, or to follow its ways; we're to follow God (Mat 16:24).

Michael Graham
December 2004
Revised January 2012

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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