God is love. As Christians, we are called to be like Him—yet He tells us not to love the world or things in it. What does that mean? How is it possible?
“Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15).
That’s a tall order from the apostle John.
After all, we live in the world. There are, without a doubt, good things here. How can God ask us not to love them?
More to the point, how can God ask us not to love them when He Himself “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)?
That seems like a contradiction. But if we believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, then we know that there aren’t contradictions here—just nuances that warrant a closer look.
As Christians in progress, it’s absolutely vital that we understand why God inspired John to warn us about loving the world.
The world John was talking about
The first key to understanding this passage comes through understanding the words involved. In biblical Greek, the words John used for “world” (kosmos) and “love” (agapaō) can have a range of meanings—just as they can in English.
In the Bible, “the world” often refers to the moral, spiritual and physical elements of the human race that are disconnected from (and often opposed to) God’s way of life. John explained that the world “does not know us, because it did not know Him [God]” (1 John 3:1), and Paul elaborated that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7, English Standard Version, emphasis added throughout).
William Barclay wrote that “kosmos acquired a moral sense. It began to mean the world apart from God” (The Letters of John and Jude, p. 63).
In other words, John wasn’t warning us away from loving the physical world God created, and he wasn’t cautioning us against loving the human race that inhabits it. When he said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” he was telling us not to love a way of life that leaves God out of the picture.
There is a great divide between the world, filled with “those who live according to the flesh” and “set their minds on the things of the flesh” (Romans 8:5, ESV), and God’s people, “who live according to the Spirit” and “set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (ibid.). Even though we all live on the same physical planet, the Bible reveals that we live in two different worlds.
The love John was talking about
John took his warning one step further when he said, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).
It’s not just that loving the world is a bad idea—John wanted us to understand that loving the world is incompatible with the love of God.
When we understand what John meant by “the world,” it becomes obvious why the two are incompatible. How can we love both God and a worldview that rejects Him entirely?
But there’s more to it. John was also contrasting two different kinds of love. He wasn’t writing about an altruistic kind of love that wants only the best for others. He was writing about desires.
“Here . . . the thought is of the pleasure which the person hopes to get from the object of his love. To love, in this sense, is to be attracted by something and to want to enjoy it; the thought is of appetite and desire” (I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, p. 143).
Here, loving the world doesn’t mean caring about the world the way God cares about it. Here, loving the world means wanting the world. Wanting what it offers. Wanting to be part of it. Wanting to possess it.
Now John’s meaning comes into sharp focus:
If we desire to make our home in a world that exists apart from God, then we don’t love God.
How to identify the “things in the world”
To drive home his point, John provided three signposts to help us identify what the “things in the world” look like—three traits that help us determine whether we’re getting involved with a way of life that rejects God:
“For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16).
Here, again, it’s important to take a close look at the words John chose to use. For example, what the New King James Version translates as “lust” is a Greek word that describes an earnest, intense desire (epithumia).
It’s not inherently a bad word—Jesus had a “fervent desire” (epithumia, Luke 22:15) to eat the Passover with His disciples. Our desires become problems when they set us at odds with God or lead us toward the things God has forbidden (James 1:14-15).
John’s three signposts highlight three desires that can do just that. The desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life are not godly desires—they belong instead to a world that ignores and opposes God’s sovereign rule.
What is the lust of the flesh?
Barclay wrote, “The flesh’s desire is heedless of the commandments of God, the judgment of God, the standards of God and the very existence of God” (The Letters of John and Jude, p. 64). Like the world, the flesh (our physical body) is not interested in what God wants—the flesh is interested in what it wants.
If we pursue and desire what looks good—if we never stop and ask God to show us what is good—then the desires of our eyes will also lead us away from God.To be clear, God designed us to have certain desires—and to enjoy it when those desires are met. We desire food, and food can be delicious. We desire friendship, and friendship can be rewarding. But John was talking about a life driven by the desires of the flesh—a life where the flesh makes the decisions about what to do and when.
God doesn’t want us to become ascetics, distancing ourselves from any enjoyable thing this life has to offer. But He also doesn’t want us to become hedonists, “whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).
When we let the desires of the flesh take charge of our lives, we step away from God and into the world.
What is the lust of the eyes?
Similarly, the lust of the eyes can be seen as “the tendency to be captivated by the outward show of things without enquiring into their real values” (C.H. Dodd, Johannine Epistles, p. 41)—or, more poetically, “the love of beauty divorced from the love of goodness” (Robert Law, The Tests of Life, p. 151).
Our eyes notice when something looks attractive, but if attractiveness becomes our only standard—if the only thing we care about is how something looks on the outside—then we will naturally come into conflict with God: “For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
If we pursue and desire what looks good—if we never stop and ask God to show us what is good—then the desires of our eyes will also lead us away from God.
What is the pride of life?
Once again, John’s word choice is significant. The Greek phrase behind “pride of life” can also be translated “pride in possessions” or “life’s empty pride.” It hinges on a particular word that implies “the braggadocio which exaggerates what it possesses in order to impress other people” (Marshall, The Epistles of John, p. 145).
The desires of the flesh and the eyes culminate in life’s empty pride—a constant need to appear important and successful to others, regardless of the truth. No matter how much we have, the pride of life is a desire that pushes us to oversell and brag about ourselves and our accomplishments.
This is a hollow existence, requiring us to ignore the true spiritual riches God has to offer.
The world is passing away—but God’s people won’t
John concluded his thought by highlighting the ultimate foolishness of craving what the world has to offer:
“And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17, ESV).
The world that God commands us to be separate from and come out of is ultimately a world that will end. Removed from God, it has pleasures that are temporary and empty. As Christians in progress, we cannot afford to love—to desire, to crave—this world and its empty pride.
Instead, “we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
A better world is coming. Don’t give it up for one that won’t last.
Read more in our free booklet The World to Come: What It Will Be Like.
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