Bible Book List
1 John 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » 1 John » Chapter 2 » exegesis

Warnings Against Unfaithfulness

"In the world, but not of it"--this is a phrase commonly used to characterize the Christian's relationship to the world. And yet many and varied are the opinions about what constitutes "worldliness." Many religious groups and denom inations forbid, either explicitly or implicitly, certain behaviors. In some circles smoking is forbidden; some groups look down on drinking al coholic beverages, dancing, rock music or attending movies. And yet in other groups, cultures or countries, other strictures may be in place, while those just listed are not. A Christian from an Eastern European country once told me that in his circles attending public sporting events was frowned upon. Some stricter groups have avoided the use of modern machinery and automobiles.

The common thread in avoiding "worldliness" is the desire to con form one's life to the will of God and not to the dictates of the world. Obviously this is a laudable goal. And although the present passage does not give us rules and regulations, it does make plain the incompatibility of love for the world and love for God. But the conception of worldliness in this epistle goes far deeper than the idea of outlawing some behaviors that non-Christians tolerate. We are called to an active devotion to God that shapes all that we are and do. Barclay captures the essence of the passage when he entitles it "Rivals for the Human Heart" (1976:55). The world is not simply a passive entity, but a rival for the allegiance of every person.Do Not Love the World (2:15)

But what exactly is the world that the Christian disciple is commanded not to love? John 3:16 asserts that God "loved the world." Are God's children to do less? Too often Chris tians live as though they were of the world, but not in it. They have adopted the good things of culture and society, but refuse to involve themselves to create positive change. They take credit for the good, but shift the blame for the bad. John does not mean that Christians are to shun involvement in secular or political affairs, or that they are not to care about and for that which we call "the world." What, then, does the command do not love the world really mean?

We are helped by noting that in Johannine thought world (kosmos) is used in a variety of ways. First, world can refer, positively, to that which God created (Jn 1:9-10) or a realm where one exists (8:23; 9:5; 10:36; 11:27). Second, it also may refer to the people who inhabit the world (Jn 1:10; 3:16-17; 4:42; 6:51; 7:4; 8:12, 26; 9:5; 12:19, 47). God's love is directed toward them, but their response to that love is mixed (3:17-21; 9:39). Third, world is used more negatively and characteristically to des ignate those who reject or ignore God (or Jesus), those who live without recognizing the claims of God upon them. We find this negative usage of world often (Jn 1:10; 3:17; 8:23; 9:39; 12:31; 14:17, 19, 22; 15:18-19). That this world is in the power of the evil one (12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and hence opposed to God is particularly emphasized in 1 John (4:4; 5:19). Nevertheless, God still loves the world and sent the Son to destroy the works of the devil (3:8, 16). The following diagram illustrates the neg ative usage of world in this passage:

(A) The world (B) with its values (C) is passing away.

(a) The one who obeys (b) the will of God (c) remains forever.

Those who are "the world" stand over against those who obey. What makes the world "worldly" is its persistent rejection of the claims of God in favor of its own values and desires. In this passage, world and anything in this world designate a complex web of values, decisions and direc tions in life chosen without consideration for knowing and doing the will of God. When the Elder writes do not love the world he in essence calls people to make a choice for God's way of doing things and not for the world's ways.

But how does this square with the statement of John 3:16 that God loved the world? In that well-known verse God's love is demonstrated by the sending of the Son, an act intended to "save the world." God saves people who are bound by the world and its values by freeing them from their captivity. Quite simply, loving the world does not mean accepting it as it is, but remaking it into what it was created by God to be: people living in the realm of life and light.

The command do not love the world demands that we reject those ways of life which do not lead us to God or to the practice of truth, justice, righteousness and love. While this sounds easy enough in theory, it is not easy in practice. For it entails the recognition and condemnation of sin and unrighteousness. Here we can too easily fall prey to arrogant judgmentalism on the one hand or, on the other hand, to the subtle tug to let sinful behaviors pass unnoticed or unnamed in our efforts to love and accept people as they are. And yet acceptance and love of others never means that we must--or may--approve of a way of life that is inimical to God's way of light. Certainly Jesus knew his ministry to be one that exposed sin (Jn 16:8-10). Yet a ministry of exposing the unright eousness of the world's ways does not stand in contradiction to a min istry of love. For precisely by exposing sin, lies and hatred, we can become channels of God's truth, light and love, so that we enable others to live in that truth as well. But let us remember the epistle's admonitions to confess our own sins, and so let judgment begin at home.The Essence of Worldliness (2:16-17)

"Worldliness" cannot then be neatly packaged into certain behaviors that the devout believer avoids. And yet John continues with two verses that sound rather like a dire warning about the nature of worldliness. Indeed, the NIV's vivid transla tion--that the sinner exhibits cravings, lust and pride--leaves little doubt that these impulses are to be resisted. But what are these impulses that characterize the "world" but should not characterize those who are "in but not of" the world?

First comes the phrase the cravings of sinful man. The word cravings (epithymia) is the same word translated as lust in the next phrase. Craving may be neutral in its connotations, meaning simply longing or desire, and often in the New Testament it has this sense. The NIV translates the Greek "flesh" (sarkos) as sinful man. But flesh can be positive in the Johannine literature. Both the Gospel (1:14; 6:51-55; compare 17:2) and epistle (1 Jn 4:2) unashamedly state that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. "Flesh" means the human realm, which, in itself, is not evil or negative. But insofar as it stands apart from God, it must be reborn through the power of the spirit (Jn 6:63), or it remains lifeless and dead (Jn 3:6). Just as a body without breath cannot live, so flesh without Spirit cannot live eternally.

Hence the cravings of sinful man are "desires that come from the flesh," or "human striving." This means desire that is shaped by the world unaware of and untouched by God, all those desires and plans that are shaped entirely by our impulses and not by the Spirit of God. The criticism of the "desire of the flesh" rests not on the fact that such desires come from sin--for "flesh" need not have that meaning--but on the fact that they do not come from the Spirit. Had John given some examples relevant to today, he surely would have included this culture's pervasive materialism, workaholic ethic, sexual laxity and driving desires for suc cess and prosperity. Any attitude or action that makes the individual-- and not God--the center and measure of the universe smacks of world liness. "Worldliness" is serving many gods, be they personal whims, ambitions or strivings.

Just as flesh is the source of the craving in the previous phrase, so here human eyes are the source of the lust in the next phrase. We might translate lust of his eyes as "desire that comes from what the eyes see." These desires do not come from the insight that God gives, but are shaped by the world in its ignorance of or opposition to God. They may include greed, materialism and envy, for later the Elder warns those who do not aid their brothers and sisters in need (3:16). Those held by the grip of the world lust for what they see, and not for what the Spirit gives them eyes to see as good.

The third phrase in this trio is boasting of what he has and does. The pride spoken of is self-reliance, self-sufficiency. Either people trust in themselves, or they derive their values, assurance and life from God. It is exactly this attitude of self-sufficiency, seeing things in our own light and not by the light of God, that the Elder terms "worldliness."

Those who live this way experience a futile existence, dedicated to things that are short-lived and offer little lasting satisfaction, for the world and its desires pass away. John means that God's light, already shining (2:8), has overcome the power that animates the world of darkness (2:12-14). Those who put their trust in earthly possessions commit their energies and selves to a sphere whose end has already been assured. They strive to live by a power that has been drained of its source of energy and is now running on empty.

This passage, then, is a manifestation of the Johannine dualism. One loves either God or the world. This theme echoes throughout Scripture. The first commandment is "You shall have no other gods before me." Joshua commanded the children of Israel to "choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. . . . As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (24:15). Jesus warned, "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Mt 6:24). And now the author of 1 John, like his master Jesus, reminds people that there can be only one allegiance, one loyalty, which shapes all that we are and do. There is no way to play both ends against the middle. The commands of this passage are to be heard both as an invitation to serve God and, for those who have heard and responded to such an invitation, as an exhortation to continue to make that response daily.

Previous commentary:
Encouragement to the Faithful

Next commentary:
Warnings Against Antichrists

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.