John is in the midst of a digression. Some of you remember the Rev. Ian Tait, a British pastor, lover of the Puritans, who preached in this pulpit on several occasions some years ago. Mr. Tait was here for a month of sermons on one particular occasion. He was fond of digressions. He would be preaching on a theme and get sidetracked on some other thought and typically say some fascinating and memorable things off the top of his head that had nothing particular to do with the topic of the sermon but were highly interesting in their own right. I remember scribbling down his digressions as often as I took notes on the sermons. And then he would catch himself, realize what he was doing, and say, “But that is a digression,” and return to his subject. Well, John has lost the thread of his main point. He is digressing and won’t return to his main line of argument until the paragraph that begins in v. 18.
In the previous three verses he broke off his argument to add some encouragement to his readers. If they were discouraged by his first two “tests” of genuine Christian faith – as if they might not pass those tests – John assures them that they have and will. He has great confidence in the reality of their spiritual life. But preachers tend to think in predictable ways. They worry about their hearers and about their responsibility to make things clear. They want to be sure that they are saying everything they should. They tell them one thing and then it occurs to them that they should probably tell them this other thing as well. They want them to have the whole picture. And so after complimenting them on their faith and life as Christians John thought, “Well, I don’t want them to be discouraged by what I have written so far, but I don’t want them to relax either. So, I’ll add some exhortation to the encouragement.” In these verses John is, in effect, saying, “You are indeed living the Christian life. I take great satisfaction in knowing that. But you must continue to do so, you must continue to follow the Lord Jesus, and lest there be any doubt as to what that means, think of it this way: you can measure your fidelity to Christ by your disinterest in the world and in the allurements of the world. Here is a stark either-or. One either loves God or the world. You can’t love both at the same time and, for that reason, you can judge the one by the other. A man who loves the world in the nature of the case does not love God and the man who truly loves God cannot and will not love the world. John’s statement is very like the Lord’s who, you remember, said that no one can love both God and money.
But John’s remark about not loving the world raises an obvious question. God made the world. He made it in many ways a surpassingly wonderful place. He made it beautiful. He filled it with splendid things. The world is full of people after all. Aren’t we to love the world and appreciate the world and to enjoy the world? Wouldn’t it be ungrateful on our part not to appreciate the wonderful things that God has made? And certainly we are to love the people of the world, our neighbors and even our enemies. Isn’t it an entirely Christian thing to love the world that our heavenly Father made?
Well, yes it is. In that sense Christians always have been lovers of the world and, indeed I think, the most ardent lovers of it. In fact in my view, only Christians can love this world to the fullest because only they can love it as the masterpiece and the gift of their heavenly father. No one loves the beauty of a flower or a sunset or a human face, no one can appreciate the taste of good food or drink, no one can be as deeply moved by a magnificent building or an exquisite painting or piece of music so much as the one who knows that such beauty and the capacity to admire it were born in the genius and the wisdom and the goodness of our heavenly Father’s heart. But it is not in that sense that John is using the term.
The word “world” is used in different ways in the Bible and especially in the writings of the Apostle John. For example, “world” can mean the entire created order. John used the word in that sense in 1:10 of his Gospel when he wrote that Jesus Christ the Son of God made the world, or in 21:24-25 where John says that the world is a big place that can hold a lot of books! The term can also refer to the nations, the human community. Jesus, you remember, said that he would not return to the earth until the gospel had been preached throughout the world (Mark 14:19), which is to say, to all the nations, all the peoples of the world.
But, ordinarily in John, “world” means “fallen humanity and its ways, [apart from and] alienated from God and his truth.” [Wells, God in the Wasteland, 37] ”World” is, therefore, the community of men and nations insofar as it is in rebellion against God. “The world hates me…” the Lord says in John 7:7. The world cannot accept the Lord because it does not see him or know him. (14:17) The Devil is the prince of this world. We read that in the Gospel (14:30) and then near the end of this letter that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” The Lord said in his great prayer in John 17:9, “I pray for [my disciples]. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me.” And many other texts like that! As J.I. Packer puts it, “[world] is simply a synonym for bad men everywhere.” [God’s Words, 65]
One commentator sums up the meaning of the word “world” and concludes this way:
“Therefore when John tells us that God loves the world (John 3:16), far from being an endorsement of the world, it is a testimony to the character of God. God’s love is to be admired not because the world is so big but because the world is so bad.” [Carson, 123]
When John uses the term “world” in this very characteristic way here in our text the world contains no believers. Those who come to believe in Jesus, the Lord himself said later, are no longer of the world, they have been chosen “out of the world” (John 15:19). If Jesus is the Savior of the world as we read in John 4, well, then obviously the world needs to be saved.
This is why John here forbids Christians to love the world or the things in the world. There is no contradiction here. God loves the world with a selfless, sacrificial, love. He loves the world in order to redeem it, to save it, to transform it root and branch, to make it good because now it is bad. When Christians are forbidden to love the world, they are forbidden to love it in the sense of accepting it as it is, participating in its way of life, wanting in some way to be part of it. And that understanding is then confirmed when John elaborates the meaning of the love of the world in v. 16 by describing it as the desires of the flesh or the sinful part of man, the desires of the eyes, and the pride man takes in his possessions. Worldliness, or the love of the world, is man substituting lower things for higher, sinful things for things that are pure and good, and minor and temporary things for the divine and the heavenly. The way of the world in this sense is the repudiation of God, the rejection of God; it is a life lived in indifference to God or active hostility to God and rebellion against him. And that is why no Christian can love the world. To love the world is to scorn the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Think of it this way. You perhaps have thought, I have sometimes thought that, given our message, the world would want Christianity to be true. After all, it offers eternal life in a world of endless and perfect bliss, joy, and love! What is not to like about that? And, to obtain that life nothing is required of you but that you receive it as a free gift and love the one who gave it to you! How hard can that be? We think, “Who could possibly not want that message to be true?” But the world does not want it to be true. The world would rather die than find that message true. The world would be delighted, perhaps secretly, perhaps quite openly, delighted to learn that the bones of Jesus Christ had been dug up in Jerusalem or that somehow it could be definitely proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is no God and that the Christian religion were an invention pure and simple, nothing but a superstition. That is how contrary to God and to Christ the world is. And that is why no Christian can or will love it.
But, John was right to add his exhortation. We need it. John is writing to Christians, real Christians. He makes no bones about that. He has just told them as much. But real Christians need regularly to be reminded where their love should be invested; and they need to be warned where not to invest it. The power of the world’s attraction, allurement, and draw is nowhere more powerfully demonstrated than in the struggle Christians have not to love it. They know they shouldn’t. They know why. But even as they are disgusted by the world and offended by it and even frightened by it, they find themselves being drawn to it, like a moth to the flame.
We have noticed this already in First John. Real Christians, John said, obey the commandments of God. That is his first test. But, of course, they do not do that perfectly by any means. That is why John tells us always to be confessing our sins. In the same way real Christians love one another. Hardly perfectly! But nevertheless, add up what John has written so far and it is clear that what characterizes unbelief remains to some degree in every Christian life. And so even as John recognizes the genuineness of these believers and their life of faith, like every other biblical writer, he exhorts them more and more to do those very things that are their mark as followers of Jesus Christ. As Paul would have put it, “put to death what remains of the old man and bring more and more to life the life of the new.” That is what John is urging upon his readers here. The best way to be sure of your salvation, in other words, is always to be working it out! And so these remarks about loving God and not the world. Does anyone here think he or she is beyond the need for such a reminder?
It is very important that we notice and don’t pass over without thoughtful reflection the nature of this alternative between God and the world as John poses it. It is the love of one or the other. How true to life the Bible always is, striking as it does down to the root and nub of things. We are not talking about a mere preference, about feelings and commitments now here now there. We are not talking about mere intellectual interest or curiosity. We are talking about a passion, about love, the greatest and strongest word in ours or any language. John is absolutely right. Unbelieving people don’t tolerate the world, they love it. And believing people do not simply agree that God is good, in the depths of their hearts they love him. In a fallen world, a world of sin, a world that lies under the power of the evil one, in a battle to the death between God and the world that has rebelled against him, there are no half-measures, no middle ground, no neutrality. One loves either God or that which hates God. Men and women imagine that there they can find a place between, but there is no such place. It is love for the one or for the other. The human being is not first homo sapiens, thinking man, but homo adorans, worshipping man. And if he will not love God, he must and will love the world and the things of the world. Man loves; his life is the effulgence, the overflow of his loves. He loves all the time: loving himself with a passion; loving things; loving pleasures; sometimes loving others, especially the members of his own family. Oh, man has no problem loving. He will love! The great question of human existence, at the last the only question of human existence, is: what will man love?
But it isn’t revealing and doesn’t it strike you as a very important fact, that while any Christian is happy to confess his love for God and quick to say nothing would make him or her happier than to love God more, most people remain ashamed to say that they love the world and the things of the world. They know instinctively that such a love is exactly what John describes it to be in v. 16, desires of our baser nature and a form of pride. Christians, once they have tasted the love of God, certainly have no difficulty seeing how unworthy the love of the world is in comparison. And when we have the opportunity to stand back and see the two of them together it is perfectly obvious which is good and which is bad.
I read recently a new history of the Puritan settlement of New England beginning with the pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth in 1620. You have read or heard that history many times yourself, especially at Thanksgiving time. What these men and women did was stirring and noble in many ways. They came facing great danger and uncertainty to a new world to build the kingdom of God and to bring honor to the Lord by establishing a community that would live according to his will. And their hope was that in doing so they would prove to the rest of the world that man’s satisfaction and fulfillment in life was to be found in fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ. And they proved that in some wonderful ways.
But there is a chilling side to that history as well. Once settled, once comfortable in their new surroundings, and it didn’t take very long to become so, having built homes and cleared their fields, once beginning to enjoy the fruits of their labors and discovering that the new world was, for them, to be a place of prosperity and advancement, even wealth, they began to make some overt compromises with the plan and purpose that had brought them across the Atlantic in the first place. It was the native population of New England that suffered most for this love of the world. First their land was purchased – even in ways contrary to solemn agreements that had been made and signed by Puritan and Indian alike – and then it was simply taken. Wars were begun that could certainly have been avoided and Native American neighbors were treated far from the way in which the Pilgrim’s would have been wanted to be treated themselves and in some ways had been treated themselves. Nothing undoes the Christian project – in an individual life or in a community – so much as does the love of the world. There were many in the community who knew what was happening and did not hesitate to acknowledge out loud that the love of the world had overcome the love of God. When you see it in a picture like that, the love of the world or the love of God and what each creates, it is perfectly obvious to you which is right and which is wrong, which is good and which is bad, which is pure and which is dirty.
But, then, we don’t have to go back to the 17th century to illustrate the power of the world’s attraction or our tendency to love it in ways we should not. We know very well, in our own case, or in the case of our children, what are the desires of the flesh, of the eyes, and pride we take in our possessions. I’ll never forget standing out in the alley behind our home with two of my children when they were little. I had one piece of gum and I told them that when we finished our small chore I would tear it in two and give a piece to each one of them. And with all the innocence of a child Courtney asked, “Daddy, can I have the bigger piece?”
All of us, all the time are wanting the bigger piece: more than we have and more than we need. The world has found a place in our hearts. Be honest with yourself, our daydreams are very often taken up with the desires of the flesh and the pride of life. Tell me brothers and sisters: is it not so that hour by hour and day by day there are desires in our hearts and passions found there that we would be absolutely mortified for another Christian to discover. The thirst to be noticed, the desire for money or the possessions that money can by, the hunger for sexual pleasure, for power, for revenge, for ease, all the things that John means by the desires of the flesh and of the eyes. And in, under, around and through all of that the infernal pride of life: the urge to be first and that tendency to look down on others. Shakespeare was describing not only King Henry the 8th but every man and woman when he said of the King: “I can see his pride peep through every part of him.” The love of God creates in us sympathy for others, kindness toward them, and humility before them. The love of the world has no such effect. Love the world and you will be content to rejoice in someone else’s misbehavior or misfortune because it serves your pride; you will rise if only because the one next to you is sinking.
Base desires, false desires – the desires of the eyes, that is, the desires inflamed by that organ of the body that sees only the outside of things, the superficial and insubstantial meaning of things – and egoism. Such is the love of the world. Is it not so that our worries – and worries are a reliable indicator of the desires of the heart – are far too often provoked by the same things. Would that we were as often worried about the measure of our godliness or the faithfulness of our prayer or the consistency of our witness or the willingness of our love and charity, as we are concerned, worried, and disquieted by our desire for more money or a better job or a prettier face or for some other worldly consideration. Is it not so? And what does any of that worry do for us? How does it help us? Does it make us better? Does it bless those around us?
And what is the great conflict and crisis in the spiritual life of a Christian child? Is it not again the draw, the attraction of the world? It is not easy for a young Christian, growing up in a Christian home, a Christian church, and a Christian school, not even for that fortunate young person to reach a point where he or she cares so much more for what is important to God than for the world’s glittering prizes. And nothing is more obvious, is it, in a Christian teenager’s life than the pull of the world and the contest between God and the world for the loyalty of his or her heart that is being waged. And is there anything more tragic to watch – and we have watched it – than for a young man or woman from a Christian home be overtaken by the love of the world. Is that young person ever the better for it? Is his or her life enriched by the world he or she has come to love? Paul says that his erstwhile friend, Demas, deserted him having loved this present world. Demas may have found for himself an easier life, but I can guarantee you he did not find a better one. And, then, what of Demas when Demas died?
On the other hand, may I say it, there is, I think, nothing more beautiful or more hopeful in all of human life than to see a young person grasp the nettle of this contest, this looming alternative – God or the world – and choose for God with all the enthusiasm of his or her youthful ardor and passion. Parents, your children need nothing so much as to see you love God and not the world and to see the blessing that comes to you and to them because you love God and not the world. You husbands and wives in the same way will find your marriage purified and your love deepened and your happiness in one another grow greater to the extent that you love God and not the world. The more you love God the more your neighbor will profit from your life. The more you love God the more the church will gain strength from your being a part of her.
And God is worth our love, all of it entirely. When we love him we love what is absolutely deserving of all the love we can possibly ever offer to him. It is not so with the world. The world will disappoint us and deceive us. It will take our love and give us very little or nothing in return. The world will prove itself unworthy of the love and the commitment that people have given to it. But God will never disappoint his lovers. The more any Christian loves God the more he understands the beauty and goodness and true happiness of such love.
Ask yourself: what is the great cause of the unhappiness that you see in so many human lives and certainly in the lives of those who are not Christians. What is the problem? Is it not that they do not have enough to love? Have you ever met an unhappy person who is deeply and wonderfully in love? I doubt it. Love and happiness are two sides of the same coin but sadly most people love very little, at least compared to how much they might love. There is nothing in their lives that draws them up to higher and higher places of human thought and feeling and experience. There is nothing that satisfies them and makes them feel that their life is being lived in the right way and directed to its proper end. Their hearts are being poured out on objects that are not worth this attention. But our Christian faith brings us into the condition for which every human being was made, each man or woman with this extraordinary capacity for love. We are the people in the world who love the one who is worth all the love that we can possibly muster. Only the Christian life does this
G.K. Chesterton once said that the acid test of any religion is: what do they deny? Well, this is what we deny. We deny that any human being can come to the fulfillment of life or live the life he was made to live by loving the world. We deny that there is any other way to life as we all know life ought to be but by loving God. God is love, John will say in a few chapters, and so when we love him we are uniting ourselves to the very center of reality.
John reminds us that the world is passing away. It can provide nothing lasting, certainly nothing eternal. But God is eternal and Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Those who love God and Christ will find that they want to do that forever, and then they shall find that they shall!