“Into the World, But Not of the World”

“In the world, but not of the world.” Perhaps you’ve heard this slogan. It’s one way we Christians describe our ambivalent position in this world.

This slogan has biblical roots, which can be unearthed in John 17, in the prayer Jesus prays for his disciples just before he returns to his Father. Here are the relevant lines:

I am no longer in the world, but they are in the worldthe world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:11, 14, emphasis added)

There you have it: “In the world” but “not of the world.”

This slogan has proved useful, for it holds two truths in tension: First–in emphasis, though not order–we belong to a kingdom that is not of this world, the kingdom of Christ. Our true identity is found here, not in any earthly ties we possess. Second–though first in the slogan–we nevertheless still inhabit this world, and should not pretend otherwise by imagining we are already in heaven.

A closer look at Jesus’ prayer, however, might cause us to pause before we use this slogan again. For me, the closer look came this morning as I listened to my brother Steve Smucker expound from John in our sermon time.

I might have looked right past what I am about to show you, had I not been primed by some recent thinking I’ve been doing as I prepare for a presentation about “two-kingdom theology.”  Christians belong to God’s kingdom, yet live within the kingdom of Satan. I had been planning to frame some of my presentation of this reality by using the slogan above: “In the world… not of the world.”

Now I think I’ll need to adapt that frame a little. Here’s why–the lines from Jesus’ prayer that I noticed this morning:

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. (John 17:16-19, emphasis added)

First, Jesus repeats his assertion that his followers are not of the world. Within the context of John’s Gospel, this is an amazing claim, one that deserves a few comments before we get to what excited me this morning.

As John records it, one of Jesus’ central claims regarding his authority was that, unlike the Jewish religious leaders who were too often his opponents, he was not of this world:

“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” (John 8:23)

When Jesus said “I am not of this world,” this was a negative way of saying what he really meant: He was actually of another world. And now in John 17, Jesus says the same thing of his disciples: They, too, belong to another world. They, too, are part of a kingdom that is higher and bears greater authority than anything their opponents can claim. What an amazing honor!

But that is not all. Notice the first half of what Jesus told his opponents: “You are from below; I am from above.” Notice the little word “from.” When Jesus said “I am not of this world,” he was not merely (merely!) saying “I belong to another world.” He was also saying “I come from another world.”

And now, in John 17, Jesus uses the same language about his disciples! What can this mean? Are his disciples–are we Christians today–not only of, but also from another world?

Back to the verses I noticed this morning:

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. (John 17:16-19, emphasis added)

Now notice the second line I have emphasized. Here Jesus makes an amazing pronouncement. Just as the Father sent him into the world, so he has sent his disciples into the world!

So, it is not merely that we find ourselves “in” the world, though that is true. And it is not merely that Jesus didn’t ask that we be taken out of this world, though that, too, is true (John 17:15). Rather, we have been intentionally sent into the world by Jesus.

Now we can return to our unanswered question: Yes, Jesus does indeed indicate that his disciples are from another world. We have been “sent into” this world, which suggests that we did not come from here, but from somewhere else.

No, I am not suggesting that Christians have experienced an eternal “pre-existence” like the Second Person of the Trinity did before he inhabited flesh as the earthly Jesus. Rather, I am saying that Christians are on mission in this world just as Jesus was. Just as Jesus was sent from beyond this world (from God) with a mission from God to fulfill, so we are sent from beyond this world (from God) with a mission from Jesus to fulfill.

So now I plan to rephrase the slogan for my presentation. It will be “Into the world, but not of the world.”

But is this safe? Is it safe for Christians to imagine they have a mission to intentionally go into the world? I can hear the all-to-understandable concern: “Your faith won’t survive if you go into the world. The world will change you more than you will change the world.” And I can see the common solution: An attempt to retreat into Christian enclaves. No, we are not in heaven—we mournfully acknowledge that we are still “in the world,” after all— but we attempt to create our own little self-made heavens until we can be lifted away to the real thing. (Now I’m convicting myself as I write.)

What is Jesus solution for our concern? It is right there, in the words we have already read twice. Here it is again, with fresh emphasis and some footnotes I’ll explain in a minute:

They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them[b] 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,[c] that they also may be sanctified[d] in truth. (John 17:16-19, emphasis added)

Notice how Jesus intersperses his statements about mission with statements about sanctification. How will we be sanctified? By the truth, by God’s word. God’s word—especially his message to us spoken through the work and words of Jesus—will purify us as we are sent out into the world. His word will keep us from defilement as we are on mission in the world.

But to be “sanctified” is more than just to be made holy. Here the ESV footnotes help. They all communicate the same thing: to be sanctified is to be set apart for holy service to God. This is priestly language, and it is mission language. Just as the priests were consecrated for the purpose of holy service to God, so we are cleansed by God for the purpose of being sent out into the world on holy mission.

So God puts together what we so often see as in conflict: Our need to be holy and our interaction with the world. We say, “How dare I go into the world if I am to remain holy?” Meanwhile, God just might be saying this: “What use is it that my children are seeking to be holy if they are so slow to go into the world on the mission for which I consecrated them?”

So yes, we are certainly “not of the world.” Let us never forget this! We belong to another kingdom, and this must be clearly evident. Our slogan is definitely not “Into the world, and of the world,” and we must never act as if it is.

But we have also been sent from another kingdom, sent on mission, and this, too, must be clearly evident. So I think I’ll hang up the old slogan “In the world, but not of the world.” My new slogan is this: “Into the world, but not of the world.”


Do you have some out-of-this-world insights to share? Send them our way in the comments section below. And thanks for reading!


Save page
Save in your favorite format (above). Share, email, or print (below).
  • 35
  • 1
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
    36
    Shares

Should the Church Bear Witness to the State?

There is a certain strand of Anabaptist two-kingdom theology that says church and state should be so entirely separate that the church has nothing to say to the state. The church, according to this view, has no call to “bear witness” to the state. While I don’t think a church that nags the state is helpful, neither do I think Christ’s call is for his followers to have nothing at all to say to those in government.

One confusing factor, it seems to me, is that when we hear “the government,” we tend to forget that this mysterious “other” is made up of persons. And the gospel of Christ has something to say to every person under heaven, if they will only listen–and if we will only speak.

This way of seeing “the government” as a faceless institution is oddly akin, it seems to me, to Luther’s version of two-kingdom theology, whereby a Christian who serves in government suddenly is no longer subject to Christ’s commands to his individual followers, but may do things that Christian “persons” must never do. Neither Luther nor “the quiet in the land” have quite the right version of two-kingdom theology, I suggest.

At any rate, New Testament believers have clear precedent for speaking truth to power, even if we may rightly be uncomfortable with some connotations of that phrase. When Jesus called Paul as his messenger, he said, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings…” (Acts 9:15). How did Paul respond? “I was not disobedient… I stand here testifying both to small and great…” (Acts 27:22). There may be only a few who are “great” in the world’s eyes, and perhaps only a few Christians are called as Paul was to speak to them.  But speak the church must, for the gospel speaks to all.

So, the church must speak to the state–or, to say the same thing another way, to state officials. But what must we say? Our witness must be, as Paul’s was, a declaration of the gospel of Christ. And make no mistake: the gospel is a message which affects all of life. It calls state officials to personal faith, and it also calls them to account for the public policies they have promoted.

Again, we have Paul for an example. Perhaps his witness before the Roman governor Felix is most revealing. We read that Felix “sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24). More specifically, we are told that what convicted Felix was when Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v. 25).

How might these topics have impacted governor Felix’s life, both public and private? In reverse order: “The coming judgment” would have been a reminder to a governor that he, one used to dishing out judgment, would someday face his own judgment–an after-death judgment that “was probably not a significant part of his belief system,”1. “Self-control” may have reminded Felix of the immorality of his personal life, including how “he had lusted after [his wife Drusilla] while she was still the teenage bride of Azizus the king of Emesa.”2 Talk of “righteousness,” which could equally rightly be translated “justice,” would have stung Felix, who was seeking a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26) and about to unjustly leave him in prison as a favor to the Jews (v. 27).

Notice how Paul’s witness did not shy away from how the gospel impacted Felix’s public life as a state official. Indeed, “‘justice’ and ‘self-control’ may be mentioned to indicate qualities particularly required of Felix and other rulers when they are measured in judgment.”3

More from commentator David G. Peterson:

Genuine faith in Christ involves a change of allegiance and therefore a change in behavior and priorities. Paul presented this challenge in terms that were particularly applicable to Felix and Drusilla… The gospel presentation to Felix and Drusilla involved… a rather vigorous appeal to their consciences to recognize their guilt before God, and their consequent need to respond with faith in Christ Jesus. With a few brief phrases, Luke has illustrated how the gospel was presented and applied to the specific situation of a Gentile ruler…4

Do I hear echoes of a pastor today in, say, the Oval Office? Reminding a president that he, too, will face judgment, that his adultery is a stain before God, and that he will be held accountable for the injustices he has promoted through his public office?

No, let us not nag the government officials whom God has “placed in order” (Rom. 13) over us. (That sentence deserves its own blog post, I am sure.) But neither let us imagine that the church has nothing to say to the state. For the church has the gospel and–if we will only live the gospel first to make it credible–it must witness of this gospel to every person under heaven.

So if God gives you the ear of some state official, high or low, pluck up your courage like Paul, and speak!

This post is only a glance at a big topic. Other biblical examples besides Paul before Felix deserve consideration, and many practical questions face us from our own experience. Do you have thoughts that can help the church bear a more gospel-shaped witness to those in power? Share them below.

  1. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 715
  2. Ibid.
  3. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar Commentary), 641.
  4. Ibid.

Save page
Save in your favorite format (above). Share, email, or print (below).
  •  
  • 4
  • 1
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
    5
    Shares

Easter Graces in Atlanta

Today was a busy, grace-filled day. Tonight, as darkness settles onto our neighborhood, I feel tired but satisfied. This was truly the Lord’s Day.

This past week was not all easy. We had some difficult conversations with our dear church teammates. Yes, it is possible to hurt people you deeply love. I have done so; have you? I am thankful that, as recipients of God’s grace, we can each give the grace that we each so desperately need. Then yesterday was a difficult day for me. Emotionally drained, I found my mind did not want to focus on the writing assignments before me. Let’s just say it was not my most productive day (though I did enjoy some good times at the piano).

But today.

Today was a day that was better than I deserve. (Aren’t all?) Tomorrow will be another battle. I will need fresh grace. But today was a day where the grace was heaped onto our plates, impossible to miss, sweet to the taste. Let me recount a few of the sweetest morsels.

Today was our turn to host church. The spring Georgia weather has been amazing lately, so we swept the freshly-fallen tree blossoms off the concrete pad just over the stream, and gathered for church in our backyard.

I would love to share a picture of the group that gathered with us today. But it is important to me to honor people’s privacy. So you’ll have to look at me and trust me that this was not just a solo piano session.

The gathering spot was delightful, with birds and stream blending with our voices and sunlight dappling the sanctuary. The blend of friends who gathered was also delightful—if a little raucous at times. Our family of five was there. So was the Smucker family of five. Then about another dozen joined us. Our international student friend was here. So were several adults from a house just down our street—some for the worship time and some for the meal. And so were a whole passel of children from two different houses on our street. (That was the raucous part. The fact that our “sanctuary” was just next to the “gymnasium”—a trampoline—didn’t help. The day’s bouncing started about an hour before our stated “start time,” which didn’t ease setup. But I reminded my wife that Rich Mullins would have been delighted.) At one point during our morning worship Zonya looked around and counted 10 white, 11 black, and one Asian present. Not exactly representative of ratios in our neighborhood, but so much better than if we had each gone our separate ways today.

We sang with piano, we prayed “popcorn praises” (great for children), we read from the Gospels the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we sang a cappella (revealing a lovely singing voice brought by a first-time visiting neighbor), Steve shocked the children by making the “body” of one of his sons “disappear” from a card-table “tomb,” we sang some more, and we marveled over the 1 Corinthians 15 promise of our own resurrection. One person present expressed how glad he was to be celebrating his first Easter. Others learned to answer “Jesus rose from the dead” rather than “we look for Easter eggs” when asked “What is Easter all about?” Some had their hearts strengthened as they identified all too well with Peter while singing “He’s Alive!” (with guitar this time) and then sharing in the Lord’s Table.

Okay, here’s one more, since the only face you can see is Steve’s. Why can’t you see anyone else’s face? Because they are looking for Jesus’ body. They can’t see that, either. That’s because “Jesus” slipped out from under the table and is hiding inside the fireplace. (Note the gymnasium in the upper left corner.)

Lunch was delicious (lovely ham, Dearest!), if a bit of a zoo, what with refilling several hundred cups of tea and lemonade and water—“No, I want tea and lemonade together, with ice”—for about a thousand demanding children who were fighting for turns on the trampoline (or ignoring turns completely) and riding bikes up and down the drive and along the street. But how lovely to include several neighbors whose children have often enjoyed our backyard, but who had not yet been inside our house!

Shortly after lunch several unfamiliar young men appeared out on the street (we were still in the backyard), calling something out to us and apparently looking for, or expecting, trouble. First they ran away, but the second time this happened several of us men wandered out front in their direction. We managed to calm some mutual fears, shake hands, exchange names, and send the hungry visitors off peacefully with plates of leftover lunch. More on this later.

As outdoor cleanup ended and various guests left, my international student friend and I stole off to the piano studio for a little, where we practiced our duet (Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8) that we are preparing for my upcoming piano recital. He also shared pictures and videos of a “piano club” concert that happened in his home country yesterday—a special event that he helped plan months ago, but then ended up missing thanks to now being in school on the other side of the globe. I find it fascinating and delightful how an English literature major and a math major born poles apart can find such common ground in their shared enjoyment of music. I am already starting to dread the day when our friend will leave Atlanta for the next destination in his educational journey.

Then the house was quiet. Just our family. I settled onto the sofa to relax, and my two youngest girls settled with me—one on top and the other beside, reading us “a scary story—but not too scary” about Horton hearing a Who. (Because “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” including the little ones we help parent in our backyard while trying to share in the Lord’s Table, right?)

But we had not even finished the story when our oldest bounded in with news of an Easter egg hunt that the neighbor children were about to head off to. Well… Easter isn’t really about egg hunts, but we had already shared the real meaning of Easter with these children, so… And they had come to our house, and now if they seemed to be inviting us to join them in their fun…? So I took the girls to go see what was happening. Turns out our van was needed to help carry all the children (10 total) who wanted to go to a nearby park for the hunt. Time there brought more friendship-building conversation with adult neighbors while our children, like a bunch of Energizer Easter bunnies, expended yet more energy.

I’ll skip over the bit about helping my wife accomplish her project of building a birthday gift for one of our daughters to say that part way through that activity yet another neighbor called across the yards to invite our daughters to join her son with his bubble machine. Our oldest drove her bike through the bubbles a few times then headed in the opposite direction to spend more time with the older church-and-Easter-egg-hunt friends from earlier in the day. Our two youngest enjoyed the comparative quiet of chasing bubbles with only one young friend.

Meanwhile, Zonya and I headed a couple houses further down our street to visit yet another house. There was a big family party there, and one of the children from this morning’s church gathering had invited us to drop in there, since it was his house.

That was a strange moment for Zonya and me. It was only one year ago that Zonya and the girls first joined me in our new house. We had not even officially moved in yet, and we knew almost no neighbors. Now, one year later, we were leaving two of our daughters at one neighbor’s house, the other daughter was hanging out with other neighbor friends at another house, and we were walking childless to follow up on an invitation to a third house, all on our block.

Two parts of that little visit stand out. Two, our hostess neighbor insisted on loading our hands with delicious food from their party—chicken and ribs done on her backyard grill, baked beans, macaroni salad, and cake. Mmm. And one, several men mentioned that they had seen our interaction with the young “trouble-makers” on the street earlier that afternoon. It turns out the same young men had been called out to their party, too, prior to meeting us. I was roundly praised (“Are you a pastor?”) for not doing what one of them said he would have done if he hadn’t been wearing a cast, and for defusing the situation by sending them off with food. More on this later.

We returned to the bubble-bursting daughters and invited this neighbor and her son to accomplish the oft-mentioned goal of letting her son jump on our trampoline. This brought more neighbor conversation opportunities for my wife and a chance for me to do a little more trampoline-side Jesus-shaped child training and encouraging. Chances like this aren’t hard to find these days, for some reason.

As Zonya walked this neighbor home, they bumped into a neighbor who lives between us. (She grew up there and is truly a gracious person to have next door.) Turns out this neighbor, too, had witnessed the food giveaway that happened on the street in front of her house. Wow. And to think that it never once crossed my mind that anyone might be watching. What might have happened if I had blown it? God, help us to be faithful in the little opportunities to live like Jesus! (More on this later?)

By this time day was dying in the west, so we retreated into the house that God bought and enjoyed the supper provided by the grandma of one of our regular backyard bikers and jumpers.

If I’m counting correctly, we visited in the yards and/or houses of four households on our block today. People from two of those households showed up at our own place as we hosted church. Plus, we exchanged friendly greetings as we passed a couple more houses on our block. And gave food to several passers-by. Oh, and I forgot the lady biking past this morning who stopped in just as church was about to begin to see if I could fill her bike tire. Yet another opportunity to share names and invite a new friend to join us for church sometime.

If you’ve read this far, you may feel as tired as I do.

I thank God for all the dear people with whom we shared this day. We feel both welcome and useful among our neighbors. I thank God for placing us here in Atlanta, here in West Lake, and right here on this block. I thank God for a day full of opportunities to offer our voices and hands for Jesus. And I thank him for a day when his grace is as sweet as the strawberry shortcake my wife served us last week.

Please pray for us. Tomorrow will be another battle. I have battled discouragement from time to time and expect to face this giant again. My wife needs God’s grace in her heart and on her lips. Our whole church team needs your prayers. But Christ dealt Satan his deathblow on that first Easter weekend, right? Satan is a wounded lion, roaring in anger as he goes down. Christ has the upper hand. May his hand be strong in West Lake! And may every day be the Lord’s Day this week, in your heart and mine.

May your kingdom come. May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Thank you for listening. If you are a neighbor, or if you are a friend far away, feel free to leave a message in the comments below. We thank God for you.


Save page
Save in your favorite format (above). Share, email, or print (below).
  • 5
  • 5
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
    10
    Shares