“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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12 thoughts on ““Into the World, But Not of the World””

  1. Dwight, thanks so much for addressing this subject. This past year my kids participated in AWANA at a local Baptist church. I appreciate AWANA in the respect that it enforces the importance of Bible memorization for my kids. What I don’t appreciate is how it presents salvation as a “get out of Hell free card”. We are saved because we want to go to Heaven when we die. I heard this again from a visiting family singing ministry to our church. This family has a prison ministry which was helped launch by another well-known Mennonite prison ministry. I heard this question a few times that evening: “Have you made YOUR reservation [to get into Heaven]?” To me, this question is so nearsighted and so badly misses a huge aspect of salvation. And that is that we are saved in order to be His ambassadors to carry out the ministry of reconciliation here on this earth. “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through”, really misses the point of why Christ came to earth and what our response should be to His work in our lives. Anyway, I could go on. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    1. Thank you, Conrad. I agree with what you wrote. There are some individual Scripture passages (such as Hebrews 11) which indeed sound very much like “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passin’ through.” So I don’t want to miss that element of eschatological truth. But I much agree that when it becomes a way to overlook or escape our mission here, we are off balance. Paul the prisoner told the Philippian church “It is better for you that I remain here”; he had a clear sense of earthly mission even while being clear that his citizenship was in heaven.

  2. Very, very good, brother. I like the thoughts here, and you are only extrapolating what Jesus has already said, so you are on good footing. May God help us. Within the plain Anabaptist community, I think it is safe to say that fewer than 1 in 100 couples/families is willing to move into an urban center for a church planting endeavor. The reasons? Mostly about protecting the children, some about wanting nature and woods and hunting and fishing, some about being near baby-sitters and grandparents, but some also about space and parking and comfort. Into the world we go, fully recognizing we are not of the world.

  3. My friend Wayne Horst wanted to share this thought here: “My comment was that I prefer ‘into’ because it suggests us being in transit rather than in stasis.”

    I agree, and find this somewhat ironic, because too often the old slogan “In the world, but not of the world,” ends up also supporting a very transitory view of our place here in this world, so that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.”

    But these two senses of our transitory place in the world are very different. The “in the world” transitory view tends to see us as “putting in time” till Jesus “calls us home.” But the “into the world” transitory view sees us as actively traveling through this world, being on mission or on quest until either Jesus calls us to himself (temporary heaven) or Jesus “brings home to us” (eternal reward) when the new heaven joins the new earth.

  4. I am excited to see the shift in the present generation regarding evangelism! The points in this article have been heavy on my heart for a long time. Thanks for writing it!

    Now a quick question……you refer to Jesus as the second person in the trinity. I have been challenged on this term by the Oneness Doctrine by a friend. I’m studying deeper and have not drawn conclusions yet but it is raising questions I had never considered before. If God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one, why do we say ‘Second Person in the Trinity’? Have you heard the claims that this began to be taught by the Catholic Church in the third century? I have more questions than answers!

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Anon.

      Regarding your question: The term “Trinity” is not in the Bible, but the concept is there. Scriptures makes it clear that God is indeed one, but he is also three. The Oneness Doctrine is not faithful to biblical truth. Here are a couple links for more reading. The first is short and easy, the second is long and weighty. Blessings!

  5. I am no Greek scholar, so forgive me if this is inaccurate, but I have read before that “born again” in John 3 can also be translated “born from above”. So, in this sense , we too are called to be “from above”.

    Thanks Dwight for the good reminder that we are called to be a light in this world. I think the passion to “go into” the world for ministry is building in conservative Anabaptist circles – and I do not think that “go into” the world need only refer to moving into the city, but more generally means interacting and “discipling” those outside our comfortable Christian communities. In my country, many rural communities are affected by high rates of suicide in young men, domestic violence, alcoholism and other such issues so are full of ministry opportunities too.

    1. David, agreed on all fronts. The born again/from above passage connects well with what I was pondering in the blog. And I’ve heard that rural America is becoming the new “inner city” as far as economic and social needs go. May those of us who live there live as sent ones, too.

  6. Dearest Dwight, as always your comments made me think. My concern is with the “evangelical” or “born again” members of our faith. Some of them seem to think they are saved and that’s the end of it. They aren’t called to the service of others in matters large or small. Many of them even voted for Donald Trump although nothing he stands for resembles Christianity in any way I can see. I think we are called to serve in ways great and small, and speak truth to power. To perform small acts of great love and protect those who can’t protect themselves. Thank you for keeping me grounded in my faith at a time when it’s being sorely tested. Wishing all of you God’s great blessings, Madelyn

    1. Madelyn, thanks for your comment. Always good to hear from a former piano student/friend. 🙂

      Indeed, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” and “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” This is a tall order and a wonderfully gracious calling, and quite at odds with most of what happens in the world of politics. God bless you as you seek to walk in Jesus’ steps!

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