WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE WORLD?
Is it possible that believers have missed a vital ingredient to the “good news” that is essential and important, something so awesome, so transforming, so liberating that it has the potential to draw millions of people into the Kingdom of God?
Instead of bringing a message of freedom, deliverance, hope and encouragement, perhaps the misplaced focus has created an unnecessary barrier between Christians and people who need to hear something that brings them life, peace, joy, and confidence about the future.
Christians have often sat in judgment of people, conveying a message of wrath and eternal judgment on those whose lives are broken, preaching the dangers of ‘worldliness’ and the need for separation from the world and from the society that shapes it..
A casual reading of God’s word seems to leave the impression that believers are to be “in the world” but not “of the world” (John 13:1; 15:19; 17:6, 11, 14, 15, 16). The apostle Paul writes, “And do not be conformed to this world…” (Rom. 12:2). James warns, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). In context, the message seems clear: Christians are to make themselves ‘separate’ from the “world” at all costs!
However, before one can understand what Jesus, Paul, James and other inspired writers were saying, it is vital that a proper definition of “world” is given before one draws any conclusions. The meaning of the word “world” must be seen from the perspective of those to whom it was written in the first century. What did THEY understand reference to “the world” to have been, in their own place, time, and circumstances?
Unfortunately there are several very different Greek words that have been translated into the English language as “world” without any distinction between the specifics to which they refer. This has created the impression that all of the words translated as “world” carry with them the identical meaning, which is not the case.
Some might be surprised to learn that the use of “world” throughout the Bible is not in reference to the physical planet, but rather to people living in a particular place, time and circumstance. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear someone say, “The world today is not the same as it was back when my grandfather lived.” Certainly this is not a reference to the physical planet itself, because everyone recognizes the fact that those living today are continuing to live on the same planet as before. The reference being made has to do with cultural trends, political movements and other aspects of society. It has to do with the people living on the planet and not to the planet itself.
In the case of the flood, the apostle Peter wrote, “By which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water” (II Pet. 3:6). Was he talking about the entire planet being destroyed or replaced by another world or planet? Notice what Peter said earlier that defines the definition of the “world” under consideration: “And [God] did not spare the ancient world, but saved Noah…bringing in the flood on the world of the ungodly” (II Pet. 2:5). The flood was directed toward the “world of the ungodly” and was not a reference to the destruction of the literal planet itself. It was the people living at that place, in that time and circumstance that experienced the flood that destroyed their “world” or society.
During the first century, as the time for the birth of Jesus approached, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). Most people can understand that this decree from the Roman ruler was not meant to imply that every person on every continent on planet earth was expected to come and be registered. The reference to “all the world” then is limited by the particular perspective given by the inspired writer Luke.
The Greek word οἰκουμένη, is translated “world,” in 14 of the 15 times it occurs (Matt. 24:14; Luke 2:1; 4:5; 21:26; Acts 11:28; 17:6, 31; 19:27; 24:5; Rom. 10:18; Heb. 1:6; 2:5; Rev. 3:10; 12:9; 16:14), and means, “the Roman empire, all the subjects of the empire” (Thayer). Thus, when Luke refers to “all the world” being registered, the readers would have understood that he had reference to those living in the Roman empire.
The Greek word αἰών, usually translated “world,” is used by the inspired writers in 102 verses (e.g. Matt. 12:32; 13:22, 39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20 et al) and means “age” or a specific “period of time” (Thayer). With regard to this, Jesus contrasted “this age” with the “age to come” (Matt. 12:32), meaning that one “period of time” was being compared with and distinguished from another “period of time.” In his discourse of the Mount of Olives, the disciples had approached Jesus to discuss those events that pertained to the “end of the age” (Matt. 24:3). Certainly a “period of time” is not a reference to the end of the physical planet, but rather about certain events and circumstances that defined the “age” under consideration.
The Greek word κόσμος, most often translated “world,” is found 187 times in the New Testament (e.g. Matt. 13:38; Mark 14:9; 16:15; John 3:16; II Pet. 2:5; 3:6), and means “an orderly arrangement” (Thayer) society or system. This is the word used by the apostle Peter in his reference to the “world of the ungodly” that perished at the time of the flood, and therefore is a reference to people and not the physical planet itself.
In the case of οἰκουμένη, it had reference to geography and those who inhabited a certain area such as the Roman empire–the “world” of that place, time and circumstance. With αἰών, the emphasis is upon the “time” element of whatever “world” is under consideration. The term κόσμος is about the people who lived from within an “orderly arrangement” or society.Thus, when these three terms are brought together, it can be seen that the “world” according to the Bible contains three constituent elements:  location,  time, and people. When all of the verses are seen collectively, a beautiful picture begins to emerge about the unfolding of God’s redemptive purpose.
Since Israel is the specific people to whom the Bible was written, the location for an understanding of their “world” has reference to the “land” where they lived. In the first century, people from Israel was scattered throughout the Roman empire. The time aspect or “age” in which Israel heard the message of Christ and the apostles was the Old Covenant. Inside the time aspect were contained–as the world–people who lived and belonged to that Old Covenant.
The “world” about which Jesus, Paul and James warns his followers to be separate from, was the Old Covenant “world” that was in the process of “passing away” (I John 2:17). It was their love for this “world” (I John 2:15) and their attachment to those things of the Old Covenant, that they were being “called out” (Matt. 16:18; I Pet. 2:9) from, during this period of time or “age” (Rom. 12:2).
God so loved the “world” of Old Covenant Israel that He “gave His only-begotten Son” (John 3:16), who, as the sacrificial “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and Messiah, came to “take away the sin of the world” — people of the Old Covenant. Redemption was being made for Israel (Luke 2:38; 21:28). Inclusive in this grand demonstration of God’s love for His people, Gentiles also became partakers of the promises and spiritual things that had been given to Israel (Rom. 9-11; 15:27).
In the first century, following the death of Christ on the cross, was the work of preaching the gospel to the whole “world” of that time (Matt. 24:14; Mark 16:15; Col. 1:23) — meaning that people of the Old Covenant were being “called out” from their former “world” and being transferred into the New Covenant “world” of God’s Kingdom (Col. 1:13). The “church” during this time of transition and transformation as the “chosen generation” had been “called out darkness into His marvelous light” (I Pet. 2:9). The gospel, as the “power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) spread to a specific location, time, and people — all of the elements necessary for a comprehensive understanding of the “world” under consideration.
That “world” of the Old Covenant, of which believers were warned to be no part of, “passed away” with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and a New Covenant “world” was born, a “new heavens and a new earth” (II Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-3). There was no replacement of the physical planet at that time, but rather a transformation of people whose lives had been changed by the message of Christ!
Today believers must adopt a different perspective about their relationship to the “world” of society in which they live. Believers are no longer being “called out” of the “world” in the same sense as was the case during the first century transition period between the cross and A.D. 70. Instead, the book of Revelation pictures a far more wonderful picture of how believers should respond to those living around them.
With the arrival of “new heavens and a new earth” (II Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-3) also came the very presence of God living among His people in the New Jerusalem. The grand and glorious City of God, the spiritual dwelling place of God’s people was fully accomplished and the blessings of the New Covenant were made available to everyone who would accept the invitation to “enter through the gates into the City” (Rev. 22:14).
Instead of calling God’s people to separate themselves from “the world,” believers now become those whose mission is to bring about the “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2). The message is not about judgment and condemnation, but rather about enjoying the best life God has for people who enter into Covenant relationship with Him today. From within the New Covenant, believers who experience the very presence of God’s face, His love, mercy and grace to those whose lives are broken, tired and weary from being “outside” the gates now shines forth!
Once we grasp the magnitude of this message, the love of God takes on a whole new significance and meaning! The whole purpose of redemption comes alive as people begin to understand more clearly the meaning of the “world” God loved, and how He opened wide the gates of His marvelous grace for all who would accept and embrace the true meaning of life!
May all believers become the “touchstone” through which people can finally begin to enjoy the riches of the “estate” into which they have entered and now live!