Thursday, August 15, 2019

Do not love the world

An excerpt from Karen Jobes' 1, 2, and 3 John (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series):

2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them (Μὴ ἀγαπᾶτε τὸν κόσμον μηδὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ τὸν κόσμον, οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν αὐτῷ). After affirming his confidence in the genuine Christian faith of his readers, John here issues the first of ten imperatives in the letter (also in 2:24, 27, 28; 3:1, 7, 13; 4:1 [2x]; 5:21). He has previously said that the one who loves a brother or sister abides in the light (2:10), so this command stands in sharp contrast, creating a new category in the Johannine duality, the "world" (κόσμος). Living in the light means a life of love for God and for fellow believers; love for the world is excluded from living in the light. In fact, love for the world as John defines it is mutually exclusive with love for the Father (see "In Depth: The ‘World’ in John’s Letters" at 2:16).

Because love for the world is syntactically parallel with "love for the Father" (ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρός), the genitive is most likely objective, referring primarily to the believer’s love for the Father, which is expressed by loving others according to the will of God. This expression of love for God achieves the goal of God’s redemptive love for his people (see comments on 2:5a-b). Therefore, those who love God must not love "the world," for by John’s definition the world is all that is in rebellion against God. Clearly "love" for the world is of a qualitatively different kind than the love one is to have for a brother or sister, which is an expression of care and concern. Here, "love" refers to an attraction to something that one wishes to enjoy, an indulgence in things that are not in the light. It is to want to participate in what is set in rebellion against God.

2:16 Because everything in the world-the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life-is not of the Father but is of the world (ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν καὶ ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου, οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐστίν). John continues to build a dualistic structure as a moral principle. Having defined "the world" as the comprehensive sphere of human life that is under the control of the evil one, John now names more specifically the things in the world: "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life." "Everything in the world" does not refer to its physical makeup, such as seas and mountains and animals, but to the moral and spiritual impulses that determine how people live.

"The desire of the flesh" (ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκός) is a subjective genitive, i.e., what the flesh desires. In other words, it is the impulse of human behavior that arises from the natural, even God-given, physical needs. The term "flesh" (σάρξ) is used in almost exclusively negative ways in the apostle Paul's writings, but that understanding should not automatically be brought into John's thought. In John's writings, "flesh" is that which is merely human as opposed to divine (John 3:6; 6:63; 8:15). It was John who said that the Word became flesh (John 1:14), and so in John the concept of "flesh" does not denote innate sinfulness as it does, for instance, in Paul. The desires of the flesh may be natural, but our fallen nature drives people to satisfy them in ways that are not of God, leading to things like gluttony, alcoholism, and sexual immorality.

The desire of the flesh is simply the desire for those things that pertain merely to this life, which, in light of eternity, count for nothing (John 6:63). At best, it is shortsighted to allow one's physical needs to become the driving force in life, and in many people it leads to addictions of various kinds. Such a self-centered life is spent on things that have no lasting, eternal value. As John goes on to say in v. 17, "the world and its desires are passing away." Only those who order their lives by God's revealed Word have crossed over from the merely mortal to the eternal.

Because human impulses now operate under the power of the evil one, they are cast here with a negative connotation as being "of the world" (ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου), putting "flesh" in John's writings in antithesis with the Spirit. It is the Spirit that gives birth to spirit (John 3:6) and the Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing (6:63). In the Johannine duality, therefore, life and Spirit align with truth and light; flesh aligns with this fallen order, the world, and is under the power of the evil one. The desires of the flesh are criticized because they are not of the realm of the Spirit, and consequently, of life.

Although the "desire of the eyes" may suggest lust or pride to modern readers, in this statement it stands in distinction from both the desires of the flesh and the pride of life. Given the context of the world's temporary status (cf. v. 17), Brown is probably right that this phrase refers to the shortsighted desire for only what the eyes see physically.2 He follows Dodd, who defines it as "the tendency to be captivated by the outward show of things without enquiring into their real values."3 As Brown explains, the eyes in John's gospel are used twelve times in the story of the healing of the blind man (John 9), a sign that makes the point that Jesus must heal spiritual blindness, allowing us to see what is not merely physical but the reality that has been revealed from above. A similar distinction is made in 1 John 1:1, where the author has not only "seen with our eyes" (ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς) but has also perceived the significance of "what was from the beginning" (see comments on 1:1). Do not love the things of the world that you can see but that have no eternal value. Jesus has healed our spiritual blindness so that we can see the significance and scope of the salvation he has brought into the world.

The Greek word translated "pride" (ἀλαζονεία) is in the semantic domain of pride, arrogance, and boastfulness, and is often used in contexts that express overconfidence in one's own resources and wealth (2 Macc 9:8; 15:6; 4 Macc 8:19; Wisd 5:8; 17:7). The word bios (βίος) occurs only twice in John's writings, both in 1 John (2:16; 3:17). Although it is often translated with the same English word "life," it is sharply distinguished from the more common term for "life" (ζωή) that occurs frequently in John's writings to refer to the Life that was revealed, and through whom we are given eternal life.

In the Johannine conceptual framework, bios refers to physical life. In both of its occurrences in 1 John, it has the sense of "the means of subsistence,"4 that is, the resources needed to maintain one's livelihood. While pride in one's occupation and the material goods it provides or pride about one's social status is common enough in every society, in context with the previous two phrases, John is more pointing to those whose security in their worldly things and wealth makes them so prideful as to overlook their need for and dependence on God (cf. Prov 18:11; 30:8). They do not realize that all they have that is not of God will pass away and be of no eternal value.

The list of three negative qualities that specify "everything in the world" follows the convention of using the number three for referring to evil in the ancient world. Philo, for instance, attributes all wars to "the desire for money, or glory, or pleasure."5 This argues against seeing subordination of the second two to the first or reading them as entirely independent qualities. Furthermore, "all the" (πᾶν τό, the singular article rather than the plural "things") tends to unite these three impulses into one triad in grammatical apposition to "everything in the world." It is meant to refer not to three randomly chosen evils, but to the source of all the evil in the world's way of life lived where the light of Christ has not yet shone, a way of life that will not survive into eternity.

Here John uses, for the first of many times in his letter, the preposition ek (ἐκ τοῦ πατρός, "of the Father," and ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου, "of the world"; see "In Depth: Being of God (ἐκ) in John's Letters," above). This construction typically characterizes what is on which side of the duality of light and darkness by conveying its source of origin. Notably, even while Christ's followers are in (ἐν) the world, "they are not of the world" (ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου οὐκ εἰσίν, John 17:16). While once "of the world," Christ's followers have been called out of the world (John 15:19; 17:6). Therefore, although they still must live in the sphere where the evil one has power, their impulses for how to live come from the Father, who has given them new birth, and not from the world.

2:17 And the world and its desires are passing away, but the one who does the will of God remains forever (καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). John shifts the emphasis to a second quality of the world: its temporary nature. What the world has to offer is temporary; what God has to offer is eternal.

Because John's original readers have been cleansed from sin by Christ's blood (1:7), have come to know God (2:3), and have overcome the evil one (2:14), he affirms that they have been doing the will of God and can claim the reassurance of eternal life (see "The Theology of John's Letters"). In contrast, the world and all that it desires-food, drink, sex, money, the things always before our eyes, and its overweening pride that rejects any need for God-all of that is passing away. Even the most permanent things of this life that are not of God have no eternal value.

John reminds his readers that only the one who has been called out of the world into the light and who does the will of God will remain when the world and everything in it is gone. Because John writes under divine inspiration with apostolic authority, God is revealing his will through John's words. And his will is that those who know him do not love the world or the things in the world. The one who heeds this call to separate from the ways and attractions of the world is the one who will abide forever.

Theology in Application

Preachers have the reputation of railing against society's evils by identifying specific behaviors that are destructive and sinful-things such as drunkenness, addictions, or sexual immorality. While it is true those behaviors are not of God, John's thinking in this passage strikes at a much deeper level. The three evils he lists are not to be narrowed to three specific vices-as if "the desire of the flesh" was all about illicit sex and pornography-but John insists instead that we question the reigning value system of all of contemporary life at its roots. It is not enough to say that sexual immorality is wrong, or that pride is wrong, or that we must not covet material possessions. While all that is true, they are only symptoms of the much deeper problem of "the world's" alienation from God. All human values, ethics, and morality that are defined by fallen people are fatally flawed because they are built on false premises about reality.

People who reject the knowledge that "God is light" reject God's sovereign prerogative to define the standard of human values and morality. Even if not an atheist at the philosophical level, anyone who rejects God's rule of life in some aspect of their behavior is to that extent an atheist in practice. The underlying problem is a radical autonomy of the human spirit that insists on being its own god. And the result is each person "doing what is right in their own eyes" (cf. Judg 21:25) in a world that no longer has a uniform basis for law and morality. That is the way of "the world" as John uses the term.

His first imperative is, therefore, foundational for all others that will follow: do not love the world. Do not adopt the world's attitudes and ways of life with respect to God. For the attraction to human autonomy is a rejection of and, therefore, a failure to love God. There is no love for God in the one who loves the unbridled desires of the flesh for food, drink, and sex. There is no love for God in one who places the highest value on material things of this life that can be bought and sold but who undervalues the invisible things like love, faithfulness, and goodness. There is no love for God in the one who feels so self-satisfied and secure in the life they have built on their own accomplishments and wealth that they have no need for God.

It is only by allowing God to assume his rightful place in our lives as the sovereign Lord that we can rightfully satisfy physical needs, enjoy material blessings, and have true security to live comfortable and tranquil lives. When John commands us not to love the world or the things in the world, he is speaking of one's most basic life orientation. If our lives are not directed toward God in our every decision of each day, then even our most passionate efforts and causes amount to polishing brass on the Titanic. Day by day this world with its values and attitudes and autonomy is passing away. The famous poem "Only One Life" by Charles T. Studd (1860–1931) captures John's point well:

Two little lines I heard one day,
Traveling along life's busy way;
Bringing conviction to my heart,
And from my mind would not depart;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in 'that day' my Lord to meet,
And stand before his judgement seat;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

Only one life, the still small voice,
Gently pleads for a better choice
Bidding me selfish aims to leave,
And to God's holy will to cleave;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

Only one life, a few brief years,
Each with its burdens, hopes, and fears;
Each with its clays I must fulfill,
living for self or in his will;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

When this bright world would tempt me sore,
When Satan would a victory score;
When self would seek to have its way,
Then help me Lord with joy to say;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

Give me Father, a purpose deep,
In joy or sorrow thy word to keep;
Faithful and true what e'er the strife,
Pleasing thee in my daily life;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

Oh let my love with fervor burn,
And from the world now let me turn;
Living for thee, and thee alone,
Bringing thee pleasure on thy throne;
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one,
Now let me say, "thy will be done";
And when at last I'll hear the call,
I know I'll say "'twas worth it all";
Only one life, 'twill soon be past,
Only what's done for Christ will last.7

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