By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
As Christians, we can often hear the phrase, “Be in this world, not of it.”
Although that phrase gets tossed around a lot in church circles, at youth group, and small groups, we don’t often pause long enough to discuss the meaning behind this saying.
This article will dive into the basic meaning of the phrase, what verses contribute to this saying, and what it can look like practically to be ‘in the world but not of it.’
What is the meaning of the phrase ‘not of this world?’
Because God has set us apart as His people, this makes us different from others in the world around us who do not know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Some differences that we may exercise are:
A difference in belief about how the world works. For instance, we may believe God created the world (Genesis 1:1), but a person who does not believe in Christianity may not.
- A difference in behavior. For instance, the world may encourage people to sleep with anyone they love outside of the boundaries of marriage, but as Christians, we believe Christians should exercise sexual relationships within marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8-9).
Similar to the Israelites during the Old Testament, God has called us to a higher standard than everyone else around us. Although He has placed us in the world, we are not of it in the sense that we do not practice or engage with the same things the world around us does.
Where in the Bible does it say ‘not of this world?’
The ‘not of this world’ part comes from John 18:36, where Jesus claims His kingdom is ‘not of this world.’
John 15:19 calls Christians out of this world, as it says: If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
John 17:14 claims the world will hate Christians because they are ‘not of the world.’
In many other passages in the New Testament, believers are referred to as aliens, pilgrims, and sojourners. This means, we will stand out from the crowd.
1 John 2:15 tells us not to love things in the world. Multiple parables Jesus preached had warned against storing treasure or casting great value on anything the world has to offer, as moth and dust will destroy them in the long run.
Although we may be part of the same country or work in the same office as someone else, we will always stick out.
What world are believers to be ‘of?’
Only two kingdoms truly exist, the kingdom of this world ruled by the prince of this world, and God’s kingdom (John 18:33-37). These two kingdoms battle constantly and will continue to do so until the end of time.
No matter what groups we’re are a part of in this world, we have to remember that we are also a part of a greater kingdom. Our status as citizens of the kingdom of heaven will lead to broken friendships, loss of opportunities or jobs, and danger down the road as we approach the End Times.
We do have to keep in mind living ‘in but not of’ does not mean hiding away from dangerous powers, like a group in the New Testament times known as the Essenes had.
Many heroes in the Old and New Testament continued to obey God’s commands whilst being in the midst of lifestyles far from perfect.
For instance, Daniel, an Israelite captive in Babylon, lived in one of the most corrupt cities in the world at the time. Nevertheless, he excelled in his Babylonian education, in his occupation within the palace, and never disobeyed God’s commands once.
What does it look like to live ‘not of this world’ practically?
How do we live in the world—without hiding away—but still not be of it?
Where we draw the line can sometimes differ amongst Christians. Questions like, “Should I attend a gay wedding of one of my relatives?” or “What television shows and movies should I or should I not watch?” can differ in answers depending on one’s upbringing, or one’s likelihood to fall into temptation with certain activities. Humor the world may find funny may make us uncomfortable.
To live in, but not of, the world, we abstain from activities that are encouraged but reap personal and social consequences.
Although this article can’t offer a clear-cut answer for every case, consider implementing the following criteria:
Will it cause me to stumble or sin? For instance, some Christians may have no issues with grabbing a drink with coworkers after a long shift. But others may struggle with alcoholic consumption and may have to turn down the offer because they will have an impeded judgment under the influence.
Does it offer a way to bring God glory or to think of things from above? Some Christians struggle with what they can watch for entertainment. Many families may go as far as to cut television completely out of their lives. But others may want to engage in some forms of art of entertainment to get them to think more about the kingdom of above. One way we can be in the world but not of it is to analyze what we put into our minds based on this criterion.
- What areas do I have to compromise to grow closer to Christ? This may look like taking a fast from social media or avoiding gossip around the watercooler.
Often, being in the world but not of it means we have to make those difficult choices that will isolate us or make us stick out like a sore thumb.
Whenever this happens, take heart. We are foreigners in a foreign land, and our true home rests in heaven. For the time being, in this temporary living space, we’ll live to glorify Him.
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 400 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released in June, and they contracted the sequel “Den” for July 2020. Find out more about her here.
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