‘Do not love the world or the things in the world,’ John bade his readers, adding: ‘If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him’ (1 John 2:15). What things?
My devout father thought Hollywood was a world centre of immorality, so my first cinema visit wasn’t until I was about thirty to see ‘The Ten Commandments’. And he warned me that reading Sherlock Holmes would ‘do your soul no blessed good, son.’
The world’s distinguishing features
So how does John define ‘the world’ so as to cause such negative reactions? He uses the word kosmos just over one hundred times in his Gospel and letters, referring occasionally to planet earth (eg ‘before the world existed’, John 17:5, 24; 9:32), but mainly to human society alienated from God (that hates Christ and ‘its works are evil’, John 15:18; 7:7). However, John details ‘the things in the world’ as pleasures, prestige and possessions: ‘For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world’ (1 John 2:16).
From John’s Greek word kosmos (meaning ‘order’ or ‘arrangement’) derives the English adjective cosmetic (implying superficial) and the noun cosmetics (beauticians’ make up), since kosmos can mean ‘adornment’; see 1 Peter 3:3-4 – particularly: elegant hair, attractive jewellery and stylish clothes. Does this mean that true followers of Christ should only appear in public with a dishevelled coiffeur, shabbily dressed and with ne’er a trace of lipstick or even a gold wedding ring? Well, Jesus never looked oddly dressed (see Luke 24:15,18). And his quality coat was gambled for undivided, unlike his under garments, in ‘winner takes all’ stakes by the four soldiers at Calvary (John 19:23-24).
Summing up ‘the world’
The kosmos (‘arrangement’) is an ordered system but with a pervasive spirit (John 12:31 and Ephesians 6:12 indicate it is ruled by Satan and his demons). But it lasts only for the present season (1 Corinthians 7:31; 3:19,18 – ‘this world’, ‘in this age’).
Overcoming ‘the world’
‘[W]ith Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world’ that impose ‘regulations – “Do not taste”… (referring to things that all perish as they are used)’ – [mere] ‘human precepts and teaching, promoting self-made religion and asceticism … but … are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh’ (Colossians 2:20-24). This exposes the flaws in the ‘no cinema’ and ‘no gold’ approach to godliness. Rather the answer is: ‘[E]veryone … born of God overcomes the world – [by] our faith’ (1 John 5:4). How?
Christ’s followers are sent into the world as he himself was (John 17:18) with a heavenly attitude (‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and …[temporal] things [food and clothing] will be added to you’, Matthew 7:25-33). Thus we can be ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14-16) as his community – ‘a city set on a hill [that] cannot be hid.’ Joseph in Egypt, Daniel in Babylon, and Nehemiah in Persia held top ranking posts in pagan empires, testifying effectively to the kingdom of God.