We’re continuing our Burning Questions series today and today’s question is one that is a wonderful, perennial, perpetual, question that believers have been asking themselves since time immemorial. It is simply stated: “How can Christians live in the world, but not be ‘part of’ the world?”
The phrase is used a few times during Jesus’ last night on earth, especially in Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer – the prayer he prayed for all those who would believe in Him – in John 17. It says,
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world….” (vs 14-16)
Finding the Line
That’s basically where the Christian trope “in the world, but not of the world” comes from, and it’s something that we’ve been talking about forever. Christians know that we’re supposed to be different than the world, but how? What’s the most important difference? What are we allowed to do and not allowed to do?
Churches, pastors and parents have been trying to decide what qualifies as something that is “of the world” for a long time. Are movies “of the world”, or just some movies? Is technology and the internet “of this world”, or just certain technologies and some websites? Does anyone remember a while back when Christians were all freaking out about Dungeons and Dragons because they thought playing it was a direct path to hell?
Can a Christian have the newest smartphone, or play cards, or go to a pub for a beer, or go on a date, or wear fashionable clothes, or be vegan? Where’s the line between “in the world” and “of the world”?
I found an article online – full of flames, skull and crossbones, written in bold-red letters, called “Strange Gods in the Christian Home” that outlined all kinds of things that Christians need to avoid. Now some were fairly obvious – like occult movies, but some were a little weird.
It spoke of a painting that a missionary brought back that had “hidden satanic symbols on it”, and as a result his family got sick and suffered “one disaster after another”. Another story told of a family that received a “cable box” that got HBO as a free trial for three months. They didn’t watch HBO at all, but claimed that by merely having a cable box with access to it, they “became very depressed”, a family member “became very sick”, and their pet died. They got rid of the “accursed” cable box and things got back to normal.
The site gives a checklist of movies to watch out for so your home doesn’t get taken over by demons. Included in this list are The Wizard of Oz, Pokemon, The Lion King, Power Rangers, and Star Wars.
Is any of that possible? Do demons reside in cable boxes and hide in paintings? What about Pokémon cards? What about Yoga class? What about video games? What about Halloween? Can a Christian girl wear a skirt and cut her hair? Can a Christian play secular songs on the guitar? What about magic shows? What about eastern martial arts?
Where’s the line? We’re always looking for the line, clear rules, easy guidelines, and obvious answers. Sadly, Jesus didn’t give us a list of good things and bad things that we would encounter. Though some people think it is, Pokémon’s goodness or badness just isn’t in the Bible.
Sanctified and Consecrated
But here’s the thing. Finding the line isn’t the point anyway. Making the perfect list of right and wrong isn’t the aim of the Christian life. Trying to figure out where “in but not of” boundaries, isn’t the goal. And that’s why we don’t want to stop reading at verse 16. Jesus wasn’t done talking yet. Read the next two verses:
“They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (vs 16-19)
You see, Jesus’ didn’t want God to take us out of the world – but to send us into the world, just like He came into the world to save it. He says clearly in verse 15 what He’s NOT praying for: that we would be taken out of the world. He’s not asking God to help us make our list of dos and don’ts and, cloister ourselves away, hide from the world, and live in Christian bubbles for fear that we will fall into temptation. No, He says that what He wants us in the world, but “kept from the evil one.”
And, conveniently enough, when we look at the words that Jesus uses here, He gives us a pretty good plan for what it looks like. He asks God for something very specific. While we’re in the world, Jesus wants us to be protected. How? By “sanctifying us in the truth” (which He says twice) which is “God’s word”, and “consecrated” by Jesus.
Both of those words, “sanctified” and “consecrated”, are the same word – HAGLAZO, meaning “made holy, sacred, special, dedicated towards, committed to, set apart for”.
Jesus wants us to be sanctified, set apart as people who know the truth and live it out. And here’s the cool thing: John 1 says Jesus is the Word of God. In John 14:6 Jesus says “I am the truth”. Here we read “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” and then Jesus saying “for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth”.
In other words, anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their saviour from sin, as the one who died for them on the cross, is already sanctified, set apart, and consecrated. What Jesus wants from God is that He would use His power, His Spirit and His Son to help us live out that which we already possess – to live in the truth and power of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Following Jesus Makes Us Different
A couple of hours before Jesus prayed this High Priestly Prayer He was telling his disciples this:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me 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.” (John 15:18-19)
There it is again – “of the world”. This is the pattern that scripture describes. Jesus chooses some people to be His own. He chooses us “out of the world”, so that we would no longer be “of the world”, but instead be of His kingdom.
In other words all Christians are “sanctified”, “set apart”, “made different” from the rest of the world. We think differently, act differently, react differently to problems and blessings, and see things differently than the world see them.
We will be so different that the world will hate us. We will be as 1st Peter 2 calls us, “aliens and sojourners” or “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), a displaced people that doesn’t feel at home in the place where we live. We will no longer be “their kind of people”, so they won’t understand or like us.
This is probably the biggest emphasis of our question: “How can Christians live in the world but not be of the world?” because as soon as we become Christians, this world no longer feels like home. Our language changes, our priorities change, where we get our authority changes, our whole outlook on life is different.
That’s the toughest part for a lot of young people (and some older ones) to understand about Christianity: that being a Christian means that we can’t be like the world! We are sanctified, as Jesus is sanctified, set apart from the world. Christians, by their very nature, are going to be radically different from the people around them.
St. Augustine, in his book “The City of God”, talks about two cities formed by two loves. He says:
“Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, “I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength.” (Augustine of Hippo: The City of God)
These two cities are woefully incompatible. When we choose to identify ourselves with Christ, we don’t have the choice to identify ourselves as other things too. There are no dual citizens in the Kingdom of God. That’s the first commandment.
The generation of modern Christians have a really hard time with this. They may claim to love Jesus, but they also love the good and pleasurable things in this world like music, wine, games, sex, friends, entertainment just as much. The love acceptance, tolerance and freedom more than the Word of God.
They feel a constant pull, because they’re trying to be citizens of both cities – the world and of God’s. They want to be captivated by the Word of God, followers of the Son of God, motivated by the Spirit of God – but the trade is too much for them, so they try to live as dual citizens. But they can’t for long.
Mortification of Sin
Many believers today don’t relate well to verses like:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6)
Theologians called this the Mortification of Sin, and it is the outworking of what Jesus was praying about when He asked the Father for us to be sanctified by the truth. We get chosen by Jesus, repent from sin, saved by grace, sanctified by God, and then we look at ourselves and start to see more and more sin. Our love for Jesus and desire for Him starts to cause all other loves to tarnish – especially our love of sin.
So, we seek to Mortify, or kill, that sin inside us. Mortification of sin is “the act of self-denial or the ‘putting to death’ of sinful instincts in order to have freedom from sin and to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Manser, M. H; Dictionary of Bible Themes) One of the results of our conversion to Christianity, after God shows us our sin and offers us new life in Jesus, is that we no longer love our sin, but want to kill it inside us. We deny ourselves the things that our old, sinful, worldly self, used to like and instead practice discipleship and Christlikeness. We deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Jesus. (Luke 9:23-24)
Ephesians 4:22-24 uses the imagery of taking off our old clothes and putting one new ones. He says we are
“…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
The old self is deceitful, so we are to take it off – not try to wear both our old life and our new life in Christ.
Think of the story of Paul who, before he trusted Christ, was full of pride, power, and self-exalting titles. He says it this way in Philippians 3:4-11:
“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
He had it all: power, reputation, resources, education, and a blameless reputation among all the most important people in Jerusalem. But then He met Jesus. He met Jesus and Jesus showed Paul what all those things were really worth in the light of eternity. Paul realized those things were a path to hell, and in an instant – and then many times after that – he saw that all that he had worked for, all the things that he thought were so important, all the things that made him better than everyone else – was actually pointless. He looks at all those worldly things and calls them garbage compared to knowing Jesus.
He continues in verse 7:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish [garbage, dung, excrement], in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
That’s the thing that modern, western Christians don’t get. We have give it all up for Jesus – our education, our plans, our patterns of behaviour, our hobbies, our family, our self-identity, and we trade it all for something better – knowing Jesus. We make the great trade of all we have and all we are, for all Jesus is and all He wants us to be. Why? Paul says so that we might know the power of the resurrection when we die (for as Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)). And so we might become more like Jesus – even though that means suffering
The picture we are given throughout scripture of this transformation from non-Christian to Christ, non-believer to believer, Citizen of the World to Citizen of the Kingdom of God, is as radical as it gets – death and resurrection. Dying to self and rising in Christ is a major theme, a consistent description of what it’s like to become a Christian. The change is so radical, so dramatic, so extreme, so comprehensive, that Jesus called it being “born again”.
Jesus also said it this way:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25)
Rebirth is a huge transition. From seed to tree is a huge transition, radically altering everything about the seed. But the seed must die for there to be fruit.
Colossians 3:1-4 says:
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”
In the World
So we still haven’t’ solved the problem of how to be “in but not of”, but we’re getting closer. The Bible says we are to see ourselves as dead to sin and alive in Christ. Our whole task is to then live in our true nature. We are Citizens of God’s City, but we are still living in this world. We are strangers and aliens. So what are we to do?
One reaction is to hide in fear. See the world as a powerful enemy that is to be feared. Run away from everything that is in the world. No art, no music, no movies, no games, no dancing, no non-believing friends, no nothing… run in fear because the world is too big!
That’s what I read on that article I shared. Fear of everything, a demon behind every bush. Everything is out to get you – Hollywood, board games, even the paintings on your wall and your cable box – and God is powerless against it. The implication is that God is so weak that all it takes is a tiny chink in our armour for Satan to destroy us.
That’s not the God I know.
- Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
- Demons were terrified of Jesus! (Matthew 8:28-34)
- Jesus worked through Paul so powerfully that even the handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul used were used to cure sickness and drive away demons. (Acts 19:11-12)
- In James 4:7 we are told that if we “Submit to God” then we can “resist the devil and he will flee from you”.
- Colossians 2:15 says that when it comes to demonic powers, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them.”
- In 1st Thessalonians 1:5 it says, “…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit…”
We don’t need to be afraid of things in this world. They are ours to enjoy and no demon can overpower a citizen of God’s kingdom! That’s why Jesus says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) and Paul says “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Jesus’ desire is that His people are sent into the world that He created, full of people He loves, to worship Him and enjoy Him forever, spreading the good news of salvation through Him. Will that cause trouble? Sure! Jesus promises us that. Will it all be a bed of roses here on earth? No way. But does a Christian need to live in constant fear that everything in this world is out to get them? No. We are to be in the world, and enjoy the world, and know that we are victorious already over evil because of the complete, saving work of Jesus Christ.
We Need Discernment
Now we’re a little closer to the answer to our question, but our human nature still wants a list, a guideline, a rule, or something so we can know what is “in” and what is “of”, right? We still don’t know what to do with Pokemon, Star Wars and Yoga.
Well, let’s back it up to what Jesus says. How are we to be delivered from “the evil one”? Through our sanctification by the truth, the Word of God, who is Jesus Christ. The closer we are to the light of Jesus, the more clearly we will see the dark schemes of our demonic enemies. Christians call this Discernment, which is a fancy word for knowing right from wrong or knowing how to live wisely.
So the better question is: how do we increase our discernment? Same answer. Get closer to Jesus in prayer and reading His Word. Want to know if Pokemon, Star Wars or Yoga is evil? Talk to Jesus, listen to your conscience, and read the Bible and you’ll be able to make a good call! Do you want kids who know right from wrong? Certainly set boundaries, but don’t trust that they will stay with them forever – or even when you’re not around. It’s better to teach them to read the Bible and pray so they grow in discernment – because they’re listening to and being guided by Jesus.
God does speak today, if we would only listen. There are a lot of guidelines in scripture for how to live a wise and joyful life, love people, flee temptation and avoid sin – if we’d open the book and our ears to what God has already said.