“The world” has long been a difficult and ambiguous concept for people and groups seeking to be faithful. We are assured that “God so loved” it (Jn.3:16), but warned that we aren’t supposed to (I Jn.2:15). Jesus wants the Good News of his Kingdom preached “into all the world” (Mk.16:15), but promises to “show himself” (Jn.14:19-22) only to his disciples, and specifically not “to the world.” The dilemma Paul describes in I Cor.5:9-13 is a constant challenge for the people of God, of whom, although they must continue to interact with “the world” in which they live, a much higher standard of behavior is expected. How do we sort this out?
For starters, we need to recognize that the English word, “world”, represents three vastly different Greek words.
Oikoumene, used only 14x, classically referred to any inhabited region. Later, it was narrowed to the Greek world as opposed to “barbarian” (non-Greek) territory, and later still, to the Roman Empire. The reference is primarily political (Lk.2:1, 4:5), cultural (Ac.17:6, 19:27), or geographical (Ac.11:28, 24:5, Rom.10:18, Rev.3:10,6:14), although it is also noted that “the whole world” is deceived by Satan (Rev.12:9), judged by the Lord Jesus (Ac.17:31), and subjected (Heb.2:5) to his sovereignty.
Aion (32x), on the other hand, with its adjectival form aionios (61x), had no classical reference to “the world” at all. L/S lists “a lifetime; an age or generation; a long, but clearly marked-out space of time; an epoch”, and for the adjective, “perpetual”, or “a title held for one’s lifetime.” Even Trench, who usually endorses traditional versions, laments the translation “world” rather than “age” because of the resultant failure to distinguish aion from kosmos, which he characterizes as the difference between measuring time, or space, noting that aion is the only one ever spoken of as “ending”! (“Eternal”???) Thayer notes Plato’s and Aristotle’s use of aion as “life force”, and says that the idea of “perpetuity” only entered with Hebrew rabbinic influence. Herodotus and others considered that numerous “ages” (aion) comprised “eternity”, for which he used the same term.
A similar thought is seen in New Testament references to “this age” (Mt.12:32), “the age to come” (Mk.10:30, Lk.18:30), and “the end of the age” (Mt.13:39, 24:3, 28:20). Traditional versions use “world” for all of these.
“This present age” carries considerable negative connotation, especially when referring to its “children” (Lk.16:8, 20:24) being preoccupied with their own affairs (Mt.13:22, I Tim.4:10), with its being ruled by malevolent powers (I Cor.2:8, II Cor.4:4, Eph.6:12), and itself characterized as “evil” (Gal.1:4). The faithful are cautioned not to be patterned after its ways (Rom.12:2), nor to be overly impressed by its philosophers (I Cor.1:20, 3:18), but to live carefully (Tit.2:12) in order to be found worthy (Lk.20:35) of the age yet to come.
In view of the preponderance of temporary implications of aion, it is puzzling why the adjectival form has almost exclusively been translated “eternal” and popularly understood to mean “endless”. I rather suspect that the adjective probably refers more to the quality than the quantity of whatever noun it modifies, but this whole idea should have serious further study by a faithful brotherhood. It is beyond the scope of this brief summary. At the very least, aion , age, should be carefully divided from the more general term “world”. Please see also #28.
Kosmos, the most frequently used term (187x), also represents the greatest variety of classical usage. L/S lists “order, or good behavior (Aristotle); “the natural order of things” (Herodotus), or “the order of government – especially the constitution of Sparta”; “the order of the universe (Pythagoras) or “the earth as opposed to the heavens or the underworld”; “ornament or honor” (Homer); or, among various philosophers, “any specific region of the universe or its inhabitants.” Not until the New Testament writers did the term acquire the negative connotations of a kingdom of evil, or estrangement from God.
The context usually reveals whether the use of kosmos intends simply the physical creation and/or its human inhabitants (Mt.13:15,38; 26:13; Lk.12:20, Jn.1:9, 6:14, 16:28, 21:25; Ac.17:24, Rom.1:8, I Cor.14:10, Eph.1:4, Heb.4:3), people ignorant of God’s ways (Mt.5:14, 26:13; Jn.1:9, 3:19,14:31, 16:8, I Cor.1:20-28, 3:19; Gal.4:3, Eph.2:2,12; I Jn.3:1); overt antagonism toward Jesus, his people, or his Kingdom (Mt.18:7, Jn.1:10, 3:19, 7:4-7, 12:31, 14:30,15:18-19, 16:11,20,33; Rom.3:19, I Cor.4:9-13, Col.2:8, Heb.11:7, 38; Jas.4:4, and all of II Peter), or the contrast between the faithful and their surroundings (Mt.5:14, 16:26,Lk.12:30,Jn.12:25, 14:22,27; all of Jn.17, 18:36-37; I Cor.2:12,5:10, 6:2; I Cor.7:31-34,11:32; Gal.6:14, Phil.2:15; Heb.11:38; all of James, I Jn.3, 5:19).
Please note that these lists are not exhaustive. Feel free to add to them.
There are many instances describing Jesus’ own relation to the kosmos. He is its Creator (Jn.1:10), its Light (Jn.1:9, 8:12, 9:5, 12:46), he takes away its failures [“sins”] (Jn.1:29) – and see W.S.#7, he is its Savior (Jn.4:42, 3:17, 12:46, I Tim.1:15 – W.S.#5. He came to give it life (Jn.6:33), and to give his life in its behalf (Jn.6:51) – note that these are different grammatical constructions. He was sent by the Father into the world (Jn.10:36, Heb.10:5), in order to speak to the world from the Father (Jn.8:26), for judgment – W.S.#9 & 10 – (Jn.9:39); to reconcile – W.S.#69 – it to himself (II Cor.5:19). His kingdom is neither derived from nor controlled by the world (Jn.18:36-37), but he has overcome the world (Jn.16:33). It is all subject to him (I Cor.3:22)!
This lends a very sobering weight to John’s summary statement to the faithful in I Jn.4:17: “We are just like he is, in the world!” And if we look at descriptions of faithful disciples in relation to the world, the similarity is striking. Mt.5:14: “You all are the light of the world!” Mk.16:15: “As you all are going into the world, preach the good news!” Jn.17:14: “The world hated them, because they are not from [do not belong to] the world, just as I am not from [do not belong to] the world”. I Cor.2:12: “We did not receive the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God!” You can find many more.
At the same time, we must remember that “the world” is also God’s good creation, which, like all of his creation, can be used rightly or wrongly (see previous post, and chapter 3 of Citizens of the Kingdom). It’s “wisdom”, (I Cor. 1-3) apart from his, is “foolishness”, but its “goods” (I Jn.3:17) are to be used for the welfare of the brotherhood. Although our time of identification with the world and its ways is represented as negative, and in the past tense (II Cor.1:12 and elsewhere), it is that very “world” that Jesus came to “reconcile to himself” (II Cor.5:19), and which will eventually be fully subject to his reign (Rev.11:15)! Another place where it is the focus that matters?
Perhaps this constitutes at least a partial resolution to the dilemma regarding John’s statements with which we began, of God’s love for the world (Jn.3:16) and his warning against love for the world (I Jn.2:15). The same word – agapao – is used in both places (we will deal with that in a later post), but the form in the first is aorist (past, “snapshot”) tense, and the latter a present (continuous) tense. I think this is probably significant, but am not sure of the implication. Does anyone have a suggestion? John’s own elaboration in I Jn.4:9,14,17 may offer some assistance. James (4:4) treats a similar idea in terms of “friendship”.
It may, however, be “on purpose” that the concept of “the world” is so difficult to nail down.
John’s “we are just like he is in the world” may be intended as a perennial challenge to us as his people – his functioning Body – to discern together, in every situation, the specifics of that responsibility.
Faithfully representing its (and our) Creator, Owner, and Sovereign, may we walk kindly and confidently through his world.