This is an excerpt from the first chapter of Passing Through: Pilgrim Life in the Wilderness by Jeremy Walker.
Who are you? What are you? The answers to these questions will effectively establish the way you live, because your sense of identity substantially governs your modes of activity. Your whole demeanor and every part of your conduct will shift in accordance with your sense of yourself.
So it is with Christians in relationship to God in Christ and to the world around them. Our sense of who and what we are will substantially determine our attitudes, affections, appetites, and actions as we make our way in the world. In brief, if you do not know who and what you are, you will not know how to behave in your various relationships to the world around you.
Sadly, too many believers barely consider their identity, if at all. Some think about it carelessly or misguidedly, out of a position of ignorance or negligence. Some do so under the influence of false or foolish teachers, and go badly awry. The result is wrong and often, ultimately, very damaging conclusions.
I was once asked to preach on the question of the Christian’s relationship to the world. The question was posed this way: Should we relate to the twenty first century world? You will appreciate immediately the issue that the question intends to raise, and yet—as I pointed out at the time—the question itself can be badly misinterpreted. It at least implies that Christians have a choice as to whether or not they relate to the world. Of course, we have no choice in the matter. All of us, by very definition, are relating to the world around us. All our attitudes, affections, appetites, and actions are manifestations of that relationship. If we immerse ourselves in the world, we are relating to the world. If we attempt to cut ourselves off from the world, the very desire to have no relationship is a way of relating. The key question is not so much whether we should, must, or need to relate to the world. The concern is, how are we relating to the world? As professing disciples of Jesus Christ and followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2), are we relating to the world around us foolishly and sinfully, or wisely and righteously? If we have not grasped our identity and our calling, we will not be able to answer that key question accurately and righteously.
We need, therefore, to consider our identity and our activity in the light of Scripture. This is especially necessary because the issue of worldliness—the implied dangers of a too-close walk with the world in its opposition to God—is a topic much neglected and often reinterpreted, even twisted, in the church today. By and large, the church and her members, especially in the modern West, seem to be losing sight of who and what they are. Confusion, carelessness, and even outright carnality—sometimes in the very name of Christ—are great enemies of the gospel and the souls of men, a screeching brake on the progress of true religion.
So how does a believer relate to the world? Our Lord Jesus Him- self puts us on the right track when He made intercession for His disciples, as recorded in John’s gospel. Considering His people, He prayed in this way to His Father and to ours:
“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.” (John 17:14–19)
Here in John 17 the Lord speaks of Christians as those who, having been given His world, now sustain a relationship to the world that is conditioned by their likeness to and connection with Him: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” But notice further that the Lord does not pray that the world would be taken away or that we would be taken out of the world. Instead, He pleads that we would be protected and preserved from the evil one as we make our way in the world. Our relationship to the world is conditioned by and patterned after His own. So the Savior prays that we would be holy in the world—living distinctively and increasingly as those who belong to and are set apart by and for God—under the influence of the truth of God.
If this is so, then we come back to the question, Who and what am I as a follower of this Christ in my relationship to the world? In addressing this matter of identity and activity, we must define our terms and recognize that Scripture has at least three broad categories, linguistically or conceptually, for defining or describing the world.
What Is “the World”?
First, sometimes the Word of God speaks of the world in a creative sense. So we find Elihu asking of the Lord, “Who gave Him charge over the earth? Or who appointed Him over the whole world?” (Job 34:13). Secondly, the Bible sometimes describes and discusses the world in an extensive sense, dealing with the human inhabitants of the earth, the nations of the world. This concept takes account of mankind as a race. Often it means all peoples in all places simultaneously. In Romans 3 the apostle uses it to describe the whole human race, asking, “How will God judge the world?” (v. 6). Thirdly, the Scriptures speak of the world in a moral or ethical sense. This is a particular favorite of the apostle John, quoting or following the Lord Jesus: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil.” (John 7:7)
These shades, nuances, and combinations of meaning are important to note because one of the right and proper rules of biblical interpretation is that, generally speaking, the same word is used in the same way in the same context. And yet, as so often, exceptions exist, and these shades of the concept can lurk in various linguistic forms and different phrases. It is important that we ask how and to what purpose these various shades of sense are employed.
Part 2 will be available next Thursday