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Lesson 90: What in the World is Worldliness? (John 17:13-19)

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April 26, 2015

What in the world is worldliness? That issue has spawned confusion, legalism, division, and just plain weirdness among Christians down through church history. Some have thought that the cure for worldliness is isolation from the world. In the 5th century, Simeon the Stylite tried to escape from worldliness by living for 36 years on a platform on top of a pillar. Thousands flocked to see him perched up there and to listen to his preaching. He spawned a movement of other pillar-dwellers that lasted for 500 years!

In modern times, the Amish and some sects of the Mennonites are known for their distinctive clothing and lifestyles that separate them from American culture. Many of them think that it’s worldly to own or drive cars. Some, known as black bumper Mennonites, can drive black cars as long as they paint all the worldly chrome black! My parents used to know a German Christian woman who was disgusted with American Christians who judged her for drinking beer, while the American Christians went to bowling alleys, which she regarded as worldly! My parents grew up in the era when Christians thought that you were worldly if you did any of the “filthy five”: smoking, drinking, dancing, going to movies, or playing cards. I never went to a movie until I was 16 and I never have learned to dance.

On the other side, some Christians have reacted to separation from the world by becoming so much like the world that there are no noticeable differences. They claim that they’re trying to reach the world for Christ, but all too often their attempts to relate to the world end up compromising biblical absolutes. First John 2:15-17 commands:

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

John doesn’t let us love the world a little bit, while we still claim to love God. He draws the line: either you love God or you love the world. Take your pick, because you can’t have both!

So it’s important to understand biblically what worldliness is and what it is not. “World” (Greek = cosmos) is a favorite word for John, who uses it 78 times in his Gospel (including 9 times in our text), 24 times in his epistles, and 3 times in Revelation. It’s only used 85 other times in the New Testament, 47 of which are in Paul’s writings (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 126). It originally meant “order,” and it came to refer to the universe as the well-ordered creation of God. It may refer to the physical world (John 1:10) or to the people of the world (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2). In those senses, there is nothing wrong with loving the world. We should enjoy God’s creation and we should love worldly people who need to know the Savior.

But John also uses the word to refer to the evil, organized system under Satan, which operates through unbelieving people who are opposed to God. He writes (1 John 5:19), “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Jesus spoke of the world hating both Him and those who follow Him (John 7:7; 15:18-19). The world operates on the basis of ungodly thoughts, attitudes, motives, values, and goals. It does not seek to promote God’s glory or to submit to His lordship. It’s in this sense that we must not love the world. Here in Jesus’ prayer we learn that …

Christians are to relate to the world as Jesus did: to be in it, but to be distinct from it.

1. Christians are to be in the world, as Jesus was in it.

Note three things:

A. Jesus was in the world, not isolated from worldly people.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that to be holy, you had to avoid all contact with sinners. So they were shocked when Jesus chose a tax-collector named Levi (Matthew) as one of His apostles and then went to a dinner party where Levi invited all of his notoriously sinful friends (Luke 5:29-32). Another time, a Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus for dinner at his house. A well-known sinful woman came in uninvited, anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and some perfume, and dried His feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). Simon was shocked. He thought that if Jesus were a true prophet, He wouldn’t let such a woman even touch Him.

But Jesus’ philosophy was (Luke 5:31), “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick.” What good is a doctor who never sees sick people? So Jesus was known as a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). If we want to be like Jesus, we also need to be in the world, not isolated from sinful people.

This refutes the idea of monasticism as the model of unworldliness. Perhaps we Protestants aren’t tempted to join a monastery or convent, but we often have our own form of isolationism. I’ve heard Christians happily exclaim, “All of my work associates (or all of my neighbors) are believers!” Great! But then where is your mission field? I confess that one of my problems as a pastor is that I don’t have many natural contacts with unbelievers.

Another problem is that we have often reversed what Paul commanded. The Corinthian church was boasting in their tolerant spirit of accepting a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife! Paul was horrified and wrote to clarify (1 Cor. 5:9-11):

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

I’ve known Christians who have no contact with unbelievers, but they’re friends with professing Christians who are living in sin. Even when a church disciplines a sinning member, these Christians continue friendly contact with the disciplined member. But Paul says we are not to associate with such a one.

But before you head out to befriend worldly people, a word of caution is in order. Paul warned (1 Cor. 15:33): “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” So how do we befriend worldly, sinful people without being corrupted ourselves? The answer lies in the second way that Jesus was in the world:

B. Jesus was in the world with a divine mission.

Jesus came into this world with a clear purpose: to testify to the truth (John 18:37) and to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). John has repeatedly emphasized this by saying that Jesus was sent into the world (John 17:18): “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” The Father had sent His Son into the world with the message of salvation through faith in Him (John 3:16-18). He sends us with the same mission.

Jesus’ mission is behind His prayer in verse 19, “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” To sanctify means to set something apart for its God-intended use. In the Old Testament, the sacrificial animals had to be sanctified or set apart before they could be killed and offered to God. In prayer Jesus here is setting Himself apart for the cross. His mission was that as a result of His death, His disciples would be set apart in truth. D. A. Carson explains (The Farewell Discourse and Final Prayer of Jesus [Baker], p. 193), “Jesus sets himself apart to perform his redemptive work on the cross, in order that the beneficiaries of that work might set themselves apart to the work of mission.”

So the way to be a friend of sinners without being corrupted by them is to stay focused on your mission. Your aim is not to carouse with them as you may have done in the past, but rather lovingly to warn them of the judgment to come and to tell them the good news of the Savior (1 Pet. 4:1-6). But, don’t expect them to welcome you and your message with open arms! This leads to the third way that Jesus was in the world:

C. Jesus was in the world with a realistic mindset: He expected opposition.

To be in the world and yet distinct from it because you hold to biblical truth will result in hostility from the world. Jesus prays (John 17:14), “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” God’s word, as Jesus says (John 17:17), is truth. The world can tolerate us if we water down the truth. But even if we say it graciously, if we proclaim God’s word as the absolute, unbending truth for all people, we’ll catch the world’s hostility. As Jesus told His still unbelieving brothers (John 7:7), “The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil.” The minute you say that certain behavior is evil, you will be accused of being intolerant and judgmental. If you go into the world expecting to be popular and well-liked, you’ll be in for a rude awakening. By all means, be in the world as Jesus was in it. But go with a realistic attitude: you will not be welcomed by all.

To review: Jesus was in the world, not isolated from worldly people. But He was there with a mission, to testify to the truth. He knew that while some would receive Him, many others would not. We are to be in the world in the same way that our Savior was. We are to relate graciously to sinful people with the mission of testifying to the truth. But go with the realistic understanding that while some will respond favorably to the gospel, others will not.

2. Christians are to be distinct from the world as Jesus was distinct from it.

Twice (John 17:14b, 16) Jesus states, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” The first time, He is explaining why the world will hate His followers. The second time, He is giving the reason why He asks the Father to keep them from the evil one. The repeated emphasis shows that we are to be distinct from the world as Jesus was. Consider these five things:

A. To be distinct from the world is the path to genuine joy, not to depriving you of all your fun.

Jesus prays (John 17:13), “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves.” Be honest: When you think of holiness, do you think of genuine joy, or do you associate it with being deprived of a good time? Satan’s perpetual lie is that sin will bring you lasting pleasure, while holiness deprives you of having fun. The truth is, sin often brings immediate pleasure, but it always results in long-term pain and destruction. Holiness may be more difficult in the short-run, but it always results in lasting joy and pleasure. As David exults (Ps. 16:11), “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.”

Here, Jesus prays that we would be holy or distinct from the world so that we may experience the fullness of His joy. Jesus’ joy was that of unbroken fellowship with the Father and delight to do the Father’s will (John 4:34; 8:29). To be distinct from the world, you’ve got to keep in mind that holiness is the path to genuine, eternal joy, not the path to depriving you of fun.

B. To be distinct from the world, you must have a separate origin.

Jesus was not of this world because He came from above. We are not of this world because we have been born from above through the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-8). The new birth sets us apart from the world that does not know God.

Through the new birth, we have a new nature that desires to please God. We have a new Master, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We have a new power to overcome sin, the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. We have a new purpose in life, to glorify our Savior in all that we do and to tell others the good news of His salvation. We have a new identity as the people of God, members of Christ’s body, the church. We have a new destiny; we will be in heaven with our Lord throughout eternity. (Some of these points are from A. W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, online at

So the crucial question is, have you been born again? Has God changed your heart and your desires? Have you trusted in Jesus Christ and His shed blood as your only hope in life and in death? Apart from the new birth, every attempt to be distinct from the world will be legalism or asceticism, neither of which result in genuine holiness or lasting joy. As Jesus said to the legalistic Nicodemus (John 3:7), “You must be born again.”

C. To be distinct from the world, you must develop a separate mindset that comes from God’s Word.

In John 17:14, Jesus prays, “I have given them Your word.” Again in verse 17, He prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” And again in verse 19 He prays “that they themselves may be sanctified in truth.”

Marcus Rainsford (Our Lord Prays for His Own [Moody Press], p. 216) observed, “If there is one thing more remarkable than another in the recorded life of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is His constant endorsement of Scripture, and His evident faith in, and constant use of Scripture.” He adds that if anyone was ever qualified to speak on his own apart from Scripture, it was Christ. And yet He never did so.

In John 5:39, He told the hostile Jewish leaders, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.” He said (John 7:38) that “the Scripture said” the Holy Spirit would be given to those who believe in Him. He later called the Scriptures “the word of God” and asserted that they cannot be broken (John 10:35). When He predicted Judas’ betrayal, He explained that it was “that the Scripture may be fulfilled” (John 13:18). After His resurrection, He told the disciples (Luke 24:44), “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Luke (24:45) adds, “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Jesus was saturated with the Scriptures.

And here (John 17:17) He calls God’s word “the truth.” He doesn’t say that God’s word contains the truth or that it is one truth among many. Rather, its very essence is truth. It is the absolute, final, and eternal source and standard of truth against which all else is to be measured. God’s truth does not vary from culture to culture or from age to age. All spiritual and moral truth is contained in God’s written word.

Jesus says that God’s word will sanctify us or set us apart from the world for God’s purpose. Whether you are worldly or godly is primarily a matter of how you think. In Romans 12:2, Paul tells us how not to be worldly: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Our minds are transformed and renewed as we saturate them in God’s word so that we think biblically about all of life.

Thus to be distinct from this world, realize that it is the path to genuine joy, not the path to depriving you of fun. Make sure that you have been born again. Develop a separate mindset that comes from God’s Word.

D. To be distinct from this world, live in obedience to God’s Word.

Knowing God’s Word is foundational; you can’t obey what you don’t know. But I’ve known many Christians who know the truth, but they don’t obey it. Personal application is always the goal of Bible study. As you read and study the Word, always ask, “So what?” How does this Scripture apply to my life? Do I need to change the way I think? Do I need to change my attitude? Is my speech pleasing to God and edifying to others? Are there sinful habits that I need to destroy? Are there godly character qualities that I need to develop? Do I need to adjust my priorities and change my daily schedule? Do I need to be a better steward of the resources that God has entrusted to me?

Becoming an obedient, godly person is related to our mission of testifying to the truth of Christ. Andreas Kostenberger (John [Baker], p. 496) observes, “Personal holiness is not to be an end in itself but a means to an end: reaching the lost world for Christ.” J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 4:195) comments, “Holy living is the great proof of the reality of Christianity. Men may refuse to see the truth of our arguments, but they cannot evade the evidence of a godly life.”

For example, when people at work are complaining about the boss or the lousy pay, you are cheerfully thankful because you’re obeying Philippians 2:14-15: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.” When someone cuts you down with an unkind remark, you respond with grace and kindness, because you’re obeying 1 Peter 3:8-9: “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” You’re distinct from this evil world because you’re obedient to God’s Word. Finally,

E. To be distinct from this world, realize that you’re in enemy territory.

Jesus prays (John 17:15), “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” This may be translated, “keep them from evil,” but the definite article indicates that Jesus was referring to Satan, the evil one. Peter warns (1 Pet. 5:8), “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” In the context, Satan especially is prowling when you’re going through difficult trials. That’s when you need to be on special alert, resisting him by being firm in your faith. If a real lion was on the loose in Flagstaff, you’d be especially careful when you walked to your car after church. A real lion is on the loose in Flagstaff! Walk carefully!

Again, this relates to our mission of testifying to the truth. Peter himself had succumbed to the enemy’s attack when he denied Christ three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:31). But thankfully, because of God’s grace, Peter was restored and God used him to preach powerfully on the Day of Pentecost, resulting in 3,000 being saved.


Each of us needs to apply our Lord’s words in our text according to our own needs. Some, like me, need to be more in the world. I’m too isolated. I can’t bear witness if I don’t have contact with worldly people. Others may need to be more distinct from the world. You can’t bear witness if you live just as the world lives. We should relate to the world as our Savior did: to be in it, but distinct from it.

Application Questions

  1. Which side do you need to apply more: Are you too isolated from the world or are you too much like the world?
  2. Do you have a sense of mission in your contacts with the world? How can this sense of mission be developed?
  3. When does the attempt to avoid worldliness become legalism or asceticism? See Col. 2:16-23.
  4. Obviously, some Old Testament commands are no longer valid in the New Testament era. How do we know which ones?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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