'Do not love the world' is my title, and it's also how our passage this evening from John's First Letter starts. That's 1 John 2.15-17. You can find it on page 1021 in the Bibles – please have it open. And alongside that it would be great if you could have my outline as well, and you'll find that on the back of the service sheet. So it begins (1 John 2.15):
"Do not love the world or the things in the world."
That is the command, and that's what we're exploring this evening. It's a command that throws up certain questions if we're going to understand it properly and then live by it, which is what we need to do. The questions are there on the outline, and they are these. First, what is the 'world' here (and what isn't it)? Secondly, what in the world is attractive to us? Thirdly, what does it mean to 'love the world'? And fourthly, why should we not love the world? If we can get clear answers to those questions, we'll be better placed to obey this vital divine command.
And it's worth noting that this is a command directed to faithful followers of Jesus – the kind of people who come out to church on a Sunday evening rather than sitting at home in front of the telly. This is a word of warning to us – because we are in danger. If we weren't, the apostle John wouldn't need to say to us what he says here. There is a real possibility that we will love the world. If we do, we'll be placing ourselves in real danger. And what is more, loving the world is something that we can fall into in quite subtle ways that we can easily close our eyes to so that we don't have to deal with it. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you about something that happened to me recently.
I was driving. And there was a flash. Vivienne said, "that was a police car with a speed camera". My heart sank. Time went by. The letter arrived. I had been driving 35 in a 30 mph zone. I could book myself onto a Speed Awareness Course if I wanted to avoid a fine and penalty points on my licence. That was a choice that took milliseconds to make.
A few weeks later I went to the course. I felt slightly aggrieved that I had been penalised for being a mere 5mph over the speed limit – it's so easily done, I thought to myself. The first thing the instructors said to us was something along these lines, "You may be feeling slightly aggrieved that you have been penalised for being just a few miles per hour over the speed limit. You're all in that situation because if you'd been over by a lot you wouldn't have been offered this option. Please pay attention to what we're going to say."
So I did. And very helpful it was – the first driving instruction I've had since I passed my test when I was seventeen – a very long time ago. Three hours of it. One of the things they did was to tell us – and show us on film – what a difference it makes if you drive into someone at 35 mph rather than 30 mph. The injuries are likely to be far more severe. There is a very sound reason for a 30mph speed limit. We were made to think through the consequences of such a collision for everyone involved. It was salutary.
Then right at the end we were asked to reflect on one key thing we'd learned, and what we were going to do about it. I realised that, contrary to what I thought my behaviour was, I had in fact been pushing the boundaries – trying to get away with a little at the margins, accelerating just a little beyond the limits. I did not have a real intention always to stick within the speed limits. I was allowing myself some drift. What was I going to do about it? Have a change of heart. Make a decision to be constantly and permanently careful to stick to the limits – whatever the government sets them at.
When it comes to loving the world, we very easily think we're committed to obeying Christ and not loving the world – when in reality we think it's OK to love the world a little bit. 75 in a 70 zone. 55 in a 50. 35 in a 30 zone. But it's not OK. Why not? Let's see what the apostle John has to say. So, to our questions.
First, What Is the 'World' Here (and What Isn't It)?
Take a look at the beginning and the end of verse 16 – we'll come to the middle part in a bit:
"For all that is in the world … is not from the Father but is from the world."
So clearly when John talks about the world here, he's not talking about the good created world and the blessings from God that come with it. Nor is he talking about humanity itself – the people who inhabit God's good world, who are created in his image. This is that aspect of the world that does not find its source in our loving Creator and heavenly Father. Rather, John says at the end of the letter, at 5.19:
"We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one."
In other words, of Satan. This world we're thinking about under its surface, all invisible, is the realm of the devil. And it's a world in spiritual darkness. Jesus says – this is John's Gospel (rather than Letter) 12.46:
"I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness."
The world in this sense is under judgement – but it is also the object of God's love. Famously John 3.16 says:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son …"
Before going to his death, Jesus said (this is John 12.31):
"Now is the judgement of this world; now will the ruler of this world [that's Satan] be cast out."
And Jesus went to that cross to deal with the sin of all of us who belonged to the world, and to call us to turn and put our trust in him. So just at the top of this chapter, in 2.2, John says:
"[Jesus] is the propitiation [the atoning sacrifice] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."
What, then, is the world? It is humanity in rebellion against God, under the influence of Satan, in spiritual darkness, and therefore needing to be redeemed by the blood of Jesus and reconciled to God the Father through him.
And what is our relationship to this world as disciples of Jesus, if that is what we are? We live our lives in tension this side of heaven. We are in this world but not of it. That's part of the tension we live – and that's bad enough, but it cuts even closer to the bone because this tension runs right through us. There is a war in each one of us between our spirit, lived in by God's Spirit, and our sinful nature – what the Bible calls our flesh – which is no longer who we really are, but which struggles against the Spirit's leading, and which still belongs to the world in rebellion against God. So this goes right to the heart of who we are between now and the day Jesus returns to transform us once for all into his likeness.
Next question. So:
Secondly, What In the World Is Attractive To Us?
Because that's the problem with this godless world. It appeals to our godless side. How? Take a look at verse 16 – this time the whole of it:
"For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world."
To start with, the world itself has a pull on us, because of the lure of rebellion and the seductive nature of evil. The spirit in us, enlivened by the Holy Spirit who lives within the believer, resists it fiercely. But the flesh, the sinful nature in us, feels the pull. Before Jesus takes hold of our lives and turns us around, we are rebels at heart. The reason that the temptations of Satan are tempting is that they have a powerful pull on our sinful natures. But John here digs below the surface of that lure and seduction, and he identifies three different aspects of it.
First, there are "the desires of the flesh". The flesh – our sinful nature – is self-centred, wants to be independent of God, and wants to go its own way for its own gain. Almost anything in the good creation that God made can become a source of distorted and sinful desire and craving, even though it's good in itself if it's in its proper place and used appropriately. We're very good at spoiling God's blessings.
Secondly, there are "the desires of the eyes" – the same kind of sinful desire – but this time deriving from what we see with our eyes. It's the greed aroused by what we see. We tend to associate the desires of the eyes with lustful, sinful sexual desire, and of course that's an important and dangerous part of it. There's what we see on TV, film, the internet. There's the cesspit of pornography. Less obviously, there's the second, illicit lustful look at people. But this lust of the eyes goes way beyond sexual lust. We can lust over holiday destinations, houses we'd like, clothes we want to own, gadgets we'd like in our pockets. The other day I got a text telling me that I should really upgrade my phone to the latest model, and they'd give me a discount. More expensive than what I've got, of course. The thoughts immediately rise in the mind: "I could do with that. Maybe I will." Thankfully I caught myself on this occasion, and realised that the phone I've got already does more than I need. But the assault of the world through our eyes is relentless. Jesus warns us in forceful language (this is Matthew 5.29):
"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell."
Third, (and back to verse 16) there is "the pride of life" – boasting of what we have and what we do. This is glorying in stuff and glorying in ourselves rather than glorying in God. It is exaggerating what we have and do in order to impress other people. Or there's an inverted version of the same thing, which is envy and jealousy of what other people have and do. Either way we are building our worth on precisely the wrong things.
The desires of the flesh; the desires of the eyes; the pride of life. There is a sequence there. As someone put it:
Selfish human desire is stimulated by what the eye sees and expresses itself in outward show.
[I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John]
You can see much the same thing going on back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were tempted by the snake. Genesis 3.6:
"So when the woman saw that the tree [the one tree God had forbidden them] was good for food [the desires of the flesh], and that it was a delight to the eyes [the desires of the eyes], and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [the pride of life], she took of its fruit and ate …"
The world is attractive to us now as it has been ever since that forbidden fruit was eaten.
Thirdly, What Does It Mean To Love the World?
This is not the kind of love that the apostle John urges on us – Christ-like love for one another, and outgoing care and compassion, concerned for the good of others even at our expense. Loving the world is seeking pleasure for us from the objects of our love, even if it costs them.
Here's a trivial illustration. I love salted caramel ice cream lollies. When I get my hands on one, it is not with a view to benefiting the lolly. I get pleasure from it. The lolly gets eaten. Lollies don't have feelings. People do. When we treat them like that, they get hurt.
Verse 15, the second part:
"If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."
So loving the world is the polar opposite of loving God. It is choosing the world in the place of God. Love for the world and love for God are incompatible. We can't have both at once. It's one or the other. James 4.4 says:
"Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?"
It's the opposite of seeking God's will and wanting to please him. So there's a useful test of anything we're doing – or thinking of doing. Take some time out before it's too late, and ask yourself: "Is this something that I can give thanks to God for, before, during and after?" If not, you're probably experiencing the pull of the world, and misplacing your love.
Fourthly, Why Should We Not Love the World?
Look back at the second part of verse 15:
"If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."
And on to verse 17:
"And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides for ever."
If we love the world, we end up missing out on the glory of the Father's love, and on the fellowship with him and with our brothers and sisters in Christ that John wrote about back in 1.3-4:
"… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete."
The world is passing away, so anything it offers will be turned to dust and ashes. All it does offer is a cycle of temptation, seduction, disappointment, disillusionment and renewed temptation. All that Satan can offer is desires which will never be satisfied. As the Rolling Stones pithily put it: "I can't get no satisfaction." That is the hymn of the world. It's not worth it. If we tie ourselves to the world, we too will end up destroyed. It's like strapping ourselves to a time-bomb. But if we love God in Christ and not the world, then we find ourselves caught up in the life of God, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And we begin to taste now the life with a capital L that we will have for all eternity. The storms of life will roll over us, but they won't destroy us. Like the man who built his house on the rock in the parable of Jesus, our house will stand firm because it's on an indestructible foundation. So, it's a no-brainer. That's why we should not love the world.
In conclusion then – back to where we began in verse 15, and the command that lies at the heart of this powerful passage;
"Do not love the world or the things in the world."
Overcome the world by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within you. Don't be complacent. As the apostle Paul urges us in 1 Corinthians 10.12:
"… let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall."
None of is immune from the seductive power of the world. It pulls at our flesh. This passage from John opens our eyes to what's going on and gives us defences and ammunition. We must let these verses sink deep into our hearts so we're well armed. I told you about my Speed Awareness Course. Are there areas of your life in which, so to speak, you're accelerating beyond the safe speed limits that the Lord imposes for our good and for our blessing? How are you being tempted to love the world? Be careful! How are you loving the world? Stop it! Love Jesus instead. Live to please him.
Heavenly Father, please teach us not to be worldly – not to love the godless world, not to give in to its pull – by the power of your Holy Spirit at work within us, and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, who have his life that we might live for ever. In his name we ask it. Amen.