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“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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10 Surprises about 2014’s Most Popular Bible Verses

In 2014, more people read the Bible on electronic devices than ever before. This gives us a clearer picture than ever into Bible reading habits and preferences. But are people also gaining a clearer understanding of the Bible verses that they are reading? That is harder to measure. In this post I want to share some things you may not know about the world’s most popular Bible verses.

2014’s Most Popular Bible Verses

Last month both YouVersion and Bible Gateway released data on their readers’ most popular verses for the previous year.

YouVersion has been downloaded nearly 165 million times and its readers have logged nearly 122 billion minutes reading. This almost certainly makes it the world’s most popular Bible app. Among YouVersion readers, these were the five most popular verses in 2014:

  1. Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
  2. Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
  3. Philippians 4:6 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
  4. Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
  5. Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

(For lots more data on YouVersion readers in 2014, see here.)

Bible Gateway logged over 1.5 billion pageviews and over 150 million unique visitors from December 2013 through November 2014. These were the  five most popular verses for Bible Gateway readers during this time period:

  1. John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
  2. Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
  3. Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
  4. Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
  5. Psalm 23:4 – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
         I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
         your rod and your staff,
         they comfort me.

(For lots more data on Bible Gateway readers in 2014, see here.)

One more thing: I should perhaps quote these verses in either the KJV or NIV translations, since these remain the most popular translations at least among American English readers. But I’ve stuck with the ESV here based on my own preference.

10 Surprises about These Bible Verses

Here are some surprises, big and small, about the verses listed above–one introductory surprise and 9 more based on the verses themselves.

  1. Bible reading is growing fastest in unlikely places. This first surprise isn’t specifically about the 10 verses listed above. But it is a happy surprise that will introduce these verses to many more readers. Quoting from The Huffington Post:

    Interest in using the [YouVersion] Bible App surged over the past year in several surprising places. The highest amount of growth in activity — in terms of reading, sharing, bookmarking, etc. — was found in Israel, according to YouVersion founder Bobby Gruenewald. After that came South Sudan, then the Republic of Suriname in South America, Iraq and Macedonia.

    “What’s interesting to me is that several of those countries are definitely not majority Christian,” Gruenewald told HuffPost. “And in some cases, the Bible isn’t that accessible or isn’t considered to be acceptable culturally.”

  2. “World” in Romans 12:2 might better be translated “age” and refers more directly to a Christ-less mindset or way of viewing reality than to a fashionable or immoral way of appearing or acting. When Paul wrote τῷ αἰῶνι (“this world” in ESV), he  wasn’t thinking of planet Earth, or even just of the unsaved people who surround us on this planet. The word αἰῶνι is often translated elsewhere as “age.” According to NT writers, the history of the world could be described as a series of ages. Paul speaks of a time “before the ages began” (2 Tim. 1:9), “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), “the end of the ages” (1 Cor. 10:11), and “the coming ages” (Eph. 2:7). The difference between “the present evil age” and “the coming ages” is the difference triggered by Christ’s first coming–his death, resurrection, and ascension to reign at God’s right hand. In Romans 12 Paul is urging us to stop living as if Christ had never come! Being “conformed to this age” can have many different expressions, from sensual living (Rom. 13:13-14) to haughty self-sufficiency (Rom. 12:3) to even legalistic righteousness as with the Jewish leaders who were among the “rulers of this age… [who] crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:6-8). Since we live between Christ’s first and second comings, we live in “the end of the ages”–a time when the old age (pre-Christ) and the coming age (after Christ’s final coming) overlap. We must continually renew our mind with the reality of Christ’s comings and then live accordingly, for this present age is about to die!
  3. “Finally” in Philippians 4:8 doesn’t necessarily indicate Paul plans to quit soon. Okay, this one is no surprise to anyone who’s ever heard a sermon. But here’s biblical data support your experience: Paul used the same word “finally” back at the start of chapter 3! (He did the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 4:1, also two chapters before the end.) In Galatians 6:17 this same word λοιπόν is translated “from now on,” and the BAGD (Bauer-Arndt-Danker-Gingrich Greek Lexicon of the New Testament) lists multiple definitions, including these which it suggests are mostly likely for its usage in Philippians: “as far as the rest is concerned, beyond that, in addition, finally” (480). So maybe Paul was just showing that he was transitioning to a new topic. Or maybe Paul really did initially plan to quit writing after Philippians 3:1, but then changed his mind. Commentators are divided on this question; we simply don’t know for sure. But we do know that we’re glad he didn’t stop the first time he wrote (or dictated) λοιπόν!

Finally… Surprise! I think I’ll end this post now and save the last seven surprises for another post! 🙂

Do you find anything else surprising about the verses that were most popular in 2014? Tell us in the comments below!


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