There is a lot of confusion around what the world is. Is it an evil place that we must escape from? Is it a system to commandeer and use for God? The “world” is a theme we can find all over the pages of the Bible so let’s explore it.
What is the World?
The word ‘world’ appears over 180 times in the New Testament. The author John, who possibly wrote the Gospel according to John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation, wrote about “the world” the most, mentioning it over 100 times. John also was the author to most often write about the abundant, eternal, and divine life we are able to receive from Jesus. To John, the more someone became more immersed in the Kingdom of God, the more detached they became from something called “the world.” Inversely, he knew the largest barrier to entering the Kingdom of God and receiving this life was the world.
The Greek word for ‘world’ in the New Testament is ‘kosmos,’ and it has a wide range of definitions. Sometimes kosmos means earth, and sometimes it means the people who inhabit the earth (John 3:16). But most often, the definitions in view written about in Scripture are “orderly arrangement” and “the system of human existence in its many aspects.”1 More than anything, “the world” is a system that animates the actions, motives, and thoughts behind our human societies. Don’t think of “the world” as the physical space we occupy as a human species, so don’t think of “the world” as the planet Earth. Rather, think of the world as what humans and spiritual beings do with that space apart from God.
Biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce, described the world system this way: “On the one hand, the world is God’s world, created by God and loved by God, currently alienated from God, it is true, but destined to be redeemed and reconciled to God. On the other hand, the world is dominated by a spirit totally opposed to God, organized in such a way as to exclude God, drawn towards unworthy goals of material status and self-interest, quite different from the goals toward which the Christian way leads.”2 The entire Bible, from start to finish, tells the story about how God gave stewardship over the earth to humans and other spiritual beings, how we all rebelled by choosing to run the world how we saw fit, and how God, through his son Jesus, has begun the process of taking the earth back.
It Started With a Garden
Seven times in Genesis, we are told that the world that God created is good, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31). God gave humans dominion over all the animals in the world, but he didn’t give us dominion over other humans (Genesis 1:26). When Adam and Eve were deceived in the Garden of Eden, they surrendered the earth and gave it over to the Serpent. By eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, people began to define good and evil for themselves. Humans believed the lie that they could “be like God” and rule over other people. Humankind was now set on a trajectory where they would begin to create systems in the world that reflected the deceptions of the Serpent.
Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, but curiously, they could still stay in God’s presence. They had two sons who were also given the opportunity to stay in God’s presence. But, when Cain chose to kill his brother, the beginning of “the world” had begun (1 John 3:12). See that happened next, “So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch.” (Genesis 4:16-17).
Cain went out of the Lord’s presence, east of Eden, and built a city. A few things are very noteworthy about all this. Throughout the narrative of the Bible, God’s presence is associated with the Garden of Eden and then Jerusalem (namely, the Temple), which is meant to be a representation of the Garden. Also, a prevalent theme in the Bible is that all of Israel’s enemies came from the East, with their chief enemy being Babylon. Thus, throughout Scripture, there is an unbroken narrative of Jerusalem versus Babylon. This symbology is heavily utilized in the book of Revelation. When Israel sinned and was exiled, they were taken eastward into Babylon. The Genesis narrative makes a pointed effort to associate Cain leaving God’s presence with going eastward towards Babylon. Thus, Cain created the first city outside of God’s will, the seed which would ultimately give birth to “the world.”
and Ended With a City
Cain’s city grew as his offspring sired generation after generation. Seven generations removed from Adam (symbolizing the completeness of Cain’s line) comes Lamech.3 He is framed as a quasi-leader of Cain’s city in that his three children symbolize the origin of three different aspects of worldly culture. Lamech introduced unbridled lust into culture in the form of polygamy (Genesis 4:19) and relentless violence in the form of vengeance, saying, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Genesis 4:23-24).
The narrative of Cain’s city includes three elements that illustrate how we as humans create “the world” (Genesis 4:17-22). The first is food, provision, or abundance, represented by livestock (Genesis 4:20). The second is entertainment, enjoyment, or media, represented by musical instruments (Genesis 4:21). The third is industry, security, or weapons, represented by iron and bronze (Genesis 4:22). These elements, apart from God, are the cogs in the system of the world. One Bible commentary puts it this way, “It is not hard to look at this list and see the core essentials of city life: food, entertainment, and industry. It is the beginning of civilization as we know it… The strong connection between metalworkers and warfare is evident in 2 Kings 24:16, where metalworkers are presumed to be capable warriors… this account doesn’t culminate in the glory of civilization, but in murder and escalating vengeance (Genesis 4:23–24).”4 “In Genesis 4, Lamech’s legacy is not framed as progress, but regress… Cain’s descendants merely institutionalized their estrangement from God’s good creation, so God’s salvation must come from somewhere else.”5
The seed of Cain’s city grew into a world filled with violence, and so something had to be done (Genesis 6:11-13). Unfortunately, after the Flood, the same violent and controlling desires that formed the first city would birth the first kingdom. In mention of Babylon, the word ‘kingdom’ is used for the first time in the Bible (Genesis 10:9-10). The city and its larger manifestation, the empire, “represents humanity’s self-alienation from God. Enoch, Babel, Sodom, Ninevah, Egypt, Babylon, etc. all illustrate life without God.”6
The Devil’s World
There are two leaders at the helm of this cosmic rivalry. Jesus with his nation, the Kingdom of God, and Satan with his nations, the kingdoms of the world. Scripture tells us repeatedly that Satan is in control of the world systems (Ephesians 2:1-2). The whole world is controlled by Satan (1 John 5:19). Scripture calls Satan the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus calls him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31 ESV; John 14:30 ESV; John 16:11 ESV). New Testament scholar, Clinton Arnold, wrote, “Paul’s concepts of “world” (kosmos) and “this age” (aión) correspond most closely with what many modern interpreters describe as structural evil… It is with good reason that Paul calls Satan “the god of this age (aión)” who “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel” (2 Corinthians 4:4). We could legitimately say “Satan is the god of many of the structures that order our existence.””7 Because Satan is the god of the world, the world hates Jesus and his followers.
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me [Jesus] before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Followers of Jesus are not part of the devil’s world. The world exalts the ends that come by means of violence, but Jesus and his Kingdom do not participate in those Satanic ways. When Jesus was arrested and brought before the local government, he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.” (John 18:36). Refusing violence and the pride of life was put forward as a marker of following Jesus into his Kingdom. Jesus was creating a better way. As Jacques Ellul said, “When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he says clearly what he intends to say. He does not validate any worldly kingdom (even if the ruler be a Christian).”8
Worldly nations are the ordered system that Paul warns us not to conform to: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2). Watchman Nee defined the world system perfectly when he wrote, “Behind all that is tangible we meet something intangible, we meet a planned system; and in this system there is a harmonious functioning, a perfect order… There is, then, an ordered system, “the world,” which is governed from behind the scenes by a ruler, Satan.”9 These systems work to create many things that are engineered to pull you away from the Kingdom of God.
Things of the World
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
1 John 2:15-17
John echos a slightly modified version of the three aspects of Cain’s city. He lists three main temptations that comprise the world: The desires of the flesh; representing ungodly sexual lust and gluttony. The desires of the eyes; representing materialism and greed. The pride of life; representing worldly power and security.
These three temptations also find an echo in the Garden of Eden narrative when the serpent is tempting Eve: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food [the desire of the flesh] and pleasing to the eye [the desire of the eyes], and also desirable for gaining wisdom [the pride of life], she took some and ate it.” (Genesis 3:6). John Howard Yoder says, “The ‘world’ of politics, the ‘world’ of economics, the ‘world’ of theater, the ‘world’ of sports, the under-‘world,’ and a host of others—each is a demonic blend of order and revolt… It is creaturely order in the state of rebellion.”10 Apart from God’s will, everything and anything that seems good will always fail eventually because they ultimately belong to Satan’s world system. Patriotism, militarism, nationalism; the more you attach yourself to things of the world, the more painful leaving them will be as they are destroyed.
Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.
1 Corinthians 7:31 NLT
Watchman Nee puts it succinctly, “But walk softly, for you are upon territory that is governed by God’s enemy, and unless you are on the watch you are as liable as anyone to fall prey to its devices… Unless you tread softly you will be caught up somewhere in Satan’s snares and will lose the liberty that is yours as a child of God.”11 But there is hope, as Peter says, we can escape the world, not by physically leaving the planet, but by relying on God’s promises and knowledge (2 Peter 1:4, 2:20).
For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world.
1 John 5:4
In the World but Not of the World
The whole world is under the control of Satan, but followers of Jesus are not to be a part of the world. Instead, we have the Spirit of God, who is a rival to the spirit of the world.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.
1 Corinthians 2:12
When Christians live in the heart of the world’s largest empire, Satan’s greatest and most powerful display of the world system, it can be challenging not to be lured in by the devil’s temptations to participate. Satan works hard to deceive Christians into thinking the ways of the world can be compatible with the ways of Jesus. This happens with materialism, entertainment, and militarism. A.W. Tozer issued a sobering reminder of our present reality in the American empire, “Christianity is so entangled with the world that millions never guess how radically they have missed the New Testament pattern. Compromise is everywhere.”12 Jesus tells us the solution, saying, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:15-18). Followers of Jesus are sent into the world, not to be part of it, but to bring the truth of his nation, the Kingdom of God. In this world, we are strangers, foreigners, and exiles; because we are ambassadors for the Kingdom (1 Peter 1:17, 2:11; 2 Corinthians 5:20; Hebrews 11:13).
God’s calling for his people has always been to come out of the world; the cities of Cain and the empires of Babylon. God called Noah out of Cain’s city and saved him from its destruction, “come out!” (Genesis 7:1). God called Abraham out of Ur in the Sumerian empire and gave him a new land, “come out!” (Genesis 12:1, 15:7). God called Lot out of Sodom, “come out!” (Genesis 19:15). God called the Hebrews out of Egypt and through the waters of salvation, “come out!” (Exodus 14:29-30). God called the Jews out of Babylon and out of exile, “come out!” (Isaiah 48:20). Today God calls us out of whatever Babylon we live in and into the Kingdom of God, “come out!” (Revelation 18:2-4). God is always calling his people out of the world.
Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said:
“I will live in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you. And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
2 Corinthians 6:14-18
In one of Jesus’ parables about the Kingdom of God, he says that the Kingdom is like the smallest seed that grows into the largest plant (Mark 4:30-32). Jesus didn’t tell us to water or spread fertilizer on other plants to help them grow. We aren’t called to change the world; rather, we are called to be the world changed by Christ. We are called to be in the world but not of the world. We are to still occupy our space in the world because it is and will be reclaimed by Jesus through us, his body. So we don’t leave the area, country, or the planet; rather, we participate in reclaiming the world back for God. This involves watching the human-run governments of the world fall apart around us as we inherit the earth. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15).
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 562.
- F. F. Bruce, The Message of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 89.
- “As seven symbolizes completeness, here it leads to a completeness of violence in Lamech’s poem in vv. 23–24.” D. A. Carson, ed., NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 32.
- John Nugent, Polis Bible Commentary, Genesis 1–11, vol. 1 (Skyforest, CA: Urban Loft Publishing, forthcoming), Genesis 4:17–24.
- John C. Nugent, The Politics of Yahweh (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books), 34.
- Viola, Frank. Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom (p. 249). Baker Publishing Group.
- Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 203–4.
- Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 21.
- Watchman Nee, Love Not the World (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2004), 12-13.
- John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998), 56.
- Watchman Nee, Love Not the World (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2004), 30-31.
- A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of Man (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1950), 116.