Where does the saying “Be in the world but not of it” come from, and what does it mean?
This familiar expression is derived from Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17: “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world . . . They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (vv. 11, 16).
While the whole New Testament contrasts believer and world, no writer dwells on this distinction more than John. With over one hundred references, John accounts for about half of the New Testament total. And Jesus’ prayer in John 17 refers to “the world” nineteen times alone! Let’s see how this chapter helps us understand the meaning of this saying and of the world itself.
Jesus opens and ends His prayer confessing that He transcends the world. He asks the Father to glorify Him “with the glory which I had with You before the world was,” for the Father “loved Me before the foundation of the world” (vv. 5, 24, emphasis mine throughout). From this we see that by using the word world, Jesus has, in part, all creation in mind.
In between these two verses are several sayings that describe Jesus’ relationship with the world. Jesus states that the Father sent Him “into the world” (v. 18) and that He spoke “in the world” (vv. 13), yet He was “not of the world” (vv. 14, 16). But Jesus sharpens the distinction further. He says, “I do not pray for the world” (v. 9) but for those the Father has “given Me out of the world” (v. 6). And “the world has hated them because they are not of the world” (v. 14).
From these statements we glean that the world Jesus refers to so often in John isn’t so much the material cosmos as it is the spiritual condition of creation in its rebellion to its Creator. Although God “so loved the world,” the mission of God is “to save the world” from itself, from the darkness that defines it (3:16, 17; 12:47).
At the conclusion of His prayer, Jesus states clearly the defining difference between the believer and the world: “O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me” (v. 25). So to be in the world but not of it is to live as those who know and love God, in a world that does not know Him or love Him. The distinction is simple, yet monumental.
While the world hates, our relationship with it is not antagonistic. Just as the Father sent His Son into the world, Jesus leaves us with His mission: “I also have sent them into the world” (v. 18). Jesus prays that God’s mission goes forward as the love that unites Him and the Father, with every believer, bears witness to the world: “that the world may believe that You sent Me” (v. 21).
To be in the world but not of it requires discernment and vigilance. And it requires abundant grace toward this world. We must love as our Father does, while not loving worldly ways. John, one more time: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. . . . And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15, 17). May God help us!
— Elder Jason Overman
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