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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Essence of Worldliness (2:16-17)
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.

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