Tag Archives: separation

“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!


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Clarifications about Removing Church Traditions

My recent posts prompted a couple questions that I want to answer briefly here. Both are good questions, deserving much fuller responses than I will be able to provide. But here’s a start.


Q. 1: Should we be drawing parallels between Anabaptist traditions and Jewish traditions?

As I understand it, the concern here is that comparing the two may cause us to downplay the value of Anabaptist traditions, thus rejecting them too quickly. Here is the question as it was presented to me:

Is it appropriate to compare the fading Mosaic law at a time when the light of Christ had just come into the world, to the “practice” part of Christian faith and practice that has been established by hundreds of years of born again, Spirit-led Anabaptist believers? One set of rules was outshone by the light of Christ. The other seems to be teetering and threatening to be blotted out by a world that is quickly sliding into darkness as the church is “falling away.”

This is a complicated question! I want to begin by acknowledging the differences. The Mosaic Law clearly belongs to the time before Christ, while Anabaptist traditions have been formed since the time of Christ, by Christ-followers. So, yes, it is very clear that we are no longer under the Mosaic Law (in the sense of being legally bound to observe its rules), but our relationship to church traditions and laws is not always so clear.

That said, I still think we can learn a lot about the potential dangers of regulated church traditions by looking at the Mosaic Law and Jewish traditions.

First, Jewish traditions did not become a problem only after the institution of the new covenant in Christ. Already prior to this, Jewish traditions were obscuring God’s true intent with the Law of Moses—see Matthew 15. The word of God for the nation of Israel was being buried under the tradition of the elders. The elders (early Pharisees, etc.) were God-fearing, Law-loving men. They intended this tradition to be a “fence around the law” to ensure no one broke the law. But as the traditions became more extensive and rigid, they actually distracted people from the spirit of the law and hindered people from obeying it. If this all happened within the time of the old covenant, then surely the same can happen today within the time of the new covenant, with its ethical commands. In both cases, good men with good intentions can become badly imbalanced. So I think it is fair and wise to draw lessons from the former for the latter.

Second, I do not find any NT example of a similar “fence around the law of Christ.” I do not see any example of an established, prepackaged Christian set of traditions that would parallel the Jewish tradition of the elders. We see no uniform, church-wide sub-culture being promoted, with detailed church standards for things like regulation clothing. On the one hand, this has a natural sociological explanation, for “the Way” was too new to have developed into such an established movement. Indeed, within a couple centuries there were many such church systems, rules, and cultural practices in place.

On the other hand, I think it is significant that the apostles never seem to have envisioned the formation of such a uniform Christian culture. They proclaimed a gospel, not a culture. And the gospel is not a culture. The gospel is a message about a King who calls people everywhere to submit their cultures to his reign. Thus in Revelation we see people of many cultures all serving the Lion-Lamb—we see cultural diversity, not homogeneity.

This suggests that when we aim to regulate the production of a Christian subculture, we may be borrowing an approach more suitable to the old covenant. The Jewish traditions of the elders were based on a Mosaic Law which was designed by God to physically separate Israel from the surrounding nations, forming a people of God identifiable by its own language, geography, national government, foods, and clothing. If a Jew obeyed the food laws of the Mosaic Law, he was physically unable to eat with Gentiles. This was not just an incidental consequence of these food laws; it was the very purpose of the laws—to keep Israel segregated from the influence of their godless neighbors. But this physical segregation was abolished by the introduction of the new covenant (read Acts 10). Spiritual separation from unbelievers is still important (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1), but it is now no longer accomplished by means of physical segregation. (Paul reserves physical segregation for those under church discipline—those who claim to be Christians but don’t live like it; see 1 Cor. 5:9-13.) Rather, spiritual separation is accomplished by being personally cleansed from the sins that unbelievers share in (2 Cor. 6:14-15; 7:1) and by opening our hearts to the apostles and to the gospel message they proclaimed (2 Cor. 6:11-13; 7:2).

I want to make some important distinctions within Anabaptist traditions here. Paul’s approach to personal holiness seems consistent with warnings against specific sinful behaviors (including specific clothing items, etc.). It also seems consistent with “holy habits” that a godly community will inevitably form as it follows Christ. But I am not convinced that it is very consistent with an approach that emphasizes prescribed uniform standards—especially when this standard includes rules that have no obvious direct moral significance, rules designed primarily to promote “separation.”

In summary, I think (a) the fact that Jewish traditions were a problem even during the time of the Mosaic Law suggests that church traditions can become a similar problem during the time of the law of Christ. And (b) the fact that the apostles preached a gospel with that promoted holiness by very different means than either the Jewish traditions or the Mosaic Law suggests that we should ask whether regulated church traditions reflect a deep understanding of the gospel.


Q. 2: Is it true that “removing even harmful church rules will not, by itself, draw a single person closer to Christ”?

I made that claim in my most recent post. One person cited it as my most valuable observation. Another challenged it. Is it true? Here is the question as I received it:

I guess i don’t get it when someone says that removing harmful church rules has nothing to do with our souls or being a better Christian…. That’s false my friend!!!!…or am I missing something here?????

The key phrase in my statement is the words “by itself.” With that included, I stand by my statement. Without those words, the sentence becomes untrue.

An analogy may help. Merely removing weights from runners will never bring any of them closer to the finish line. However…! If someone has a mind to run, then removing weights may make all the difference as to whether they ever reach the finish line.

If you think I’m being confusing here, listen to Paul. In the letter to the Galatians he writes, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 6:15). Yet earlier in the same letter he says this:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2-4, emphasis added)

So which is true, Paul? Is circumcision neither here nor there, or is it deadly?

Well, it depends. If you are a new creation in Christ (Gal. 6:15), and you are clear that circumcision has zero ability to save you or anyone else, then is neither here nor there. But if you’re thinking you need to be circumcised in order to be saved, or you’re thinking others need to be circumcised in order to be saved, then it’s deadly!

Paul had Timothy circumcised for strategic mission purposes, probably to enable Timothy to enter synagogues with him as they proclaimed Christ on their mission trips (Acts 16:3). But imagine the gross hindrance to the gospel if he had insisted that all converts be circumcised! Similarly, I might wear a regulation plain suit today for strategic purposes, in order to open doors for gospel proclamation and to open the ears of those who might otherwise never listen. Or I might wear it as one of many possible ways to dress in a NT-consistent manner. (Or I might wear it simply because it’s the only suit in my closet, and I’m too cheap to buy another!) But if I insist that I must wear a regulation plain suit, or that others must wear one if they are truly sincere about following Christ, then two problems arise: First, I am confusing myself and others about the true nature of the gospel. Second, I am creating cultural hurdles for others who may want to respond to the true gospel.

So, to answer the question: It is true, merely removing church rules, even harmful ones, won’t by itself draw anyone closer to Christ. But it is equally true that, if I or others are already eager to place faith in Christ or serve him fruitfully in mission, removing unhelpful rules may make a crucial difference for all eternity. Thanks for pushing me to speak clearly here!


Again, both these questions deserve better answers than I’ve given them here, but perhaps my responses can help someone continue thinking in gospel-shaped ways about the questions of tradition and change.

If you have more insights, please add them in the comments below. Thank you!


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“The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind”

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

An excerpt from The Epistle to Diognetus, written about the end of the second century:

“The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life… They… conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits. Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising. For instance, though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behavior there is more like that of transients; they take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to anything and everything as if they were aliens… Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose their infants. Any Christian is free to share his neighbour’s table, but never his marriage-bed… Their days are passed on the earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens. They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws. They show love to all men–and all men persecute them.


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