In John’s Gospel, Jesus provides insight into his surprising approach to the kingdom of God, which befuddled his opponents, his Jewish followers in general, and even his own inner circle of disciples. As he stands before Pilate, Jesus explains that his disciples do not take up arms and fight because his kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). In the previous chapter, Jesus had prayed for his disciples in anticipation of his death. A central theme of that prayer is Jesus’ desire for his first disciples – and all subsequent generations – to follow his lead as one sent into the world but not of the world (see John 17:6, 11, 14, 15, 16, 18).
The ongoing call for Jesus’ disciples to be in the world but not of the world challenges us both in terms of understanding and practice. Part of the problem derives from the various possible meanings of “world.” On the one hand, John’s Gospel famously proclaims that God sent his Son into the world out of his great love for it. This love extends not only to the human inhabitants of the world, but also to the creation as a whole (see Romans 8:18-23).
1 John 2:15-16 helps us understand the sense in which we are not to be “of the world”:
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.
We are not to love “the world” or be of “the world” in the sense of the current fallen state of God’s creation. This calling is difficult because we are part of that fallen creation. At present, our corrupted desires tend to divert us from our calling to glorify God through a benevolent stewardship of his creation. Instead, we vainly seek to satisfy our selfish appetites as consumers of the creation.
The next verse of 1 John 2 provides a slightly different lens through which we might understand being in the world but not of the world: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” A similar idea appears in 1 John 2:8, which speaks of the truth that “is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
We live presently in “the overlapping of the ages,” during which we recognize by faith that the darkness of the present fallen order remains but is passing away, because the light of the in-breaking kingdom of God has already begun to shine. Genuine followers of Jesus reflect this light because those who are in Christ are already part of the new creation: “The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Revelation 21:1-5 mirrors the renewal language of 2 Corinthians 5:17 when describing “a new heaven and a new earth.”
When we combine these passages with Romans 8, as mentioned above, we see that followers of Jesus share in the redemption of the larger creation that Jesus set in motion. The present age/order is passing away, not the world in the broader sense.
The title of this post – Living In the Present But Not Of the Present – reminds us that Scripture speaks into the present fallen world, but it also reveals something about God’s intent for creation before the entrance of sin, as well as his vision for his creation after he completes his redemption. We can only live in the present, but we are called to do so in light of our roots in the original creation and our future in God’s new order.
The challenge for looking back to the pre-fallen world is that we possess such a small amount of revelation with which to work, and we have no personal experience in such a world. The first chapters of Genesis, however, pack into a few words a great deal of foundational insight about the nature of God and his intention for his creation, including humanity’s place in it. These insights stand in stark contrast to the flow of human history from the ancient Near East to today.
As we trace God’s unfolding work of redemption in most of the rest of the Bible, we see his calling of a covenant people to serve as witnesses to the rest of humanity of the future toward which history is moving. Passages like James 1:18 and Revelation 14:4 refer to God’s people as a kind of “firstfruit” of his new creation. In other words, just as Israel offered the first produce of their harvest to God as an offering in anticipation of the larger harvest to come, so Christians serve as the first evidence of God’s ultimate new creation.
When we examine the Bible’s visions of God’s new creation, as in Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:6-9; Revelation 22:1-4, we find a picture of peace, justice, and fruitfulness that transcends the fallen divisions built upon race, gender, nationality, and ideology. To live in the present but not of the present requires us to acknowledge our role as witnesses and firstfruit of a future that returns us to and perhaps extends God’s original creation intent. We must engage the present order, but not on the terms and by the means that only further fuel the present divisions.
Participating in partisan power struggles and flexing our political muscles reflect neither the path nor the destination toward which God is moving. Following Jesus’ example of selfless love and healing, and embodying redemption and reconciliation, on the other hand, position us more appropriately as witnesses and firstfruit of God’s new creation.