The Command Not to Love the World
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. (2:15a)
By examining its use in a particular biblical context, and properly comparing Scripture with Scripture, one can understand the various meanings of the term world. In this verse it is clear what John is not referring to. First, he is not speaking of the physical world, or the created order. John would not have commanded his readers to hate something that God in Genesis 1:31 pronounced was originally “very good.” Even though creation is marred by the fall (cf. Genesis 3), nature’s physical beauties still reflect God’s glory and demand praise. The psalmist expressed this principle eloquently:
The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; it rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them; and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (Ps. 19:1–6; cf. 104:1–32; Acts 14:15–17; 17:23–28; Rom. 1:20)
Second, John would not have commanded believers to hate the world of humanity. That is because God loves people in the world and sent His Son to be the propitiation for their sin (see 2:2; 4:9–10, 14; cf. John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 Tim. 2:3–6; Titus 2:11–14; 3:4–5).
The world and its things, which John warned his readers not to love, is the invisible, spiritual system of evil. It is the kosmos (“world order,” “realm of existence,” “way of life”) governed by Satan; as Paul reminded the Ephesians, “You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Later in this letter John wrote: “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (5:19; cf. 4:1–5; John 12:31). The “world” here refers to the same evil system that Jesus referred to when He said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18; cf. 17:14). So, it was not humanity in general or the created order that hated Christ, but rather the wicked, corrupt (2 Peter 2:19), demonic ideologies and enterprises that stimulate fallen humanity (cf. Matt. 13:19, 38; 2 Cor. 2:11; 4:4; 11:14; 1 Thess. 2:18; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 16:14). In keeping with this understanding, the apostle Paul correctly viewed the world as engaged in a massive spiritual war against the kingdom of God:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10:3–5; cf. Eph. 6:11–13)
“Speculations” means ideologies or belief systems, ranging from primitive, animistic systems to sophisticated, complex world religions, philosophies, political theories, or any unbiblical worldviews. They represent all unbelieving ideas and dogmas that, often from an elitist standpoint, rise up against the true knowledge of God. In response, believers are commanded to confront and destroy the world’s spiritual lies and false speculations with the truth. Paul thus identifies the world as the full spectrum of beliefs and inclinations that oppose the things of God, and John implicitly echoes that definition. When a person becomes a Christian, he or she is no longer a slave to the world system. Christians have been “rescued … from the domain of darkness, and transferred … to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13; cf. 2 Cor. 6:17–18; Eph. 5:6–12).
Reasons Believers Are Not to Love the World
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (2:15b–17)
The kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God are inherently incompatible (cf. 4:5–6; 5:4–5; John 15:19; Gal. 6:14). The two are mutually exclusive and opposed to one another. They are antithetical, and cannot peacefully coexist. True Christians therefore will not be characterized by a habitual love for the world, nor will worldly people demonstrate a genuine affection for the gospel and its Lord (John 3:20; Acts 7:51; 13:8–10; 17:5, 13; Rom. 8:7; Col. 1:21; 1 Thess. 2:14–16).
Clearly, there is an unmistakable line of demarcation between the things of God and the things of the world. The ongoing moral and ethical deterioration of contemporary culture makes this obvious. Even brief consideration provides a lengthy list of cultural agendas that are aggressively hostile to biblical Christianity: an attack on the traditional family by feminism; an active promotion of sexual promiscuity and homosexuality; an increasing acceptance of violence; an emphasis on materialism and hedonism by the secular media; a steady decline in standards of personal integrity and business ethics; an undermining of right and wrong by postmodern relativism; and so on.
In order to support his admonition, John does not offer a long list of specifics or detailed illustrations. Instead, he presents three general reasons believers must not love the world: because of who they are, because of what the world does, and because of where the world is going.
because of who believers are
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (2:15b)
Because believers are forgiven (Pss. 86:5; 130:3–4; Isa. 1:18; Matt. 26:28; Luke 1:77; Eph. 1:7; 4:32; Col. 1:14; 2:13–14; 3:13; 1 John 2:12), have a true knowledge of God (2 Cor. 2:14; 4:6; Eph. 4:13; Col. 1:9–10), have the Word of God abiding in them (Ps. 119:11; Col. 3:16), have overcome Satan (James 4:7; 1 John 4:4), and have an increasingly intimate relationship with the Father (1 John 2:12–14), they cannot love the world. Anyone who loves the world demonstrates that the love of the Father is not in him. Like Demas, such spiritual defectors manifest that any previous claim to know and love God was nothing but a lie (2:19).
Nonetheless, the basic identity of believers as God’s children does not make them immune to the world’s allure. Because they are still fallen sinners—though saved by grace—true followers of Christ are tempted through their remaining flesh by the world’s behaviors and enterprises (Matt. 26:41; 1 Cor. 10:13; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 6:16; James 1:12–14; 1 Peter 5:8–9). Whether the temptation comes from worldly priorities, worldly amusements, worldly riches, or worldly lusts, believers desire to resist the world’s effort to seduce them. As Jesus warned His listeners, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13; cf. Matt. 6:19–21, 24).
because of what the world does
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. (2:16)
The meaning of all that is in the world and is from the world appears in the three qualifying descriptions of sin’s categories. Sin is the dominant reality in the world, and launching from this verse it is helpful to look more extensively at sin, by definition called “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4)—any violation of God’s perfect and holy law. Whereas the law of God encompasses all that is righteous (Pss. 19:7; 119:142; Isa. 42:21; cf. Josh. 1:7–8; Ps. 119:18; Neh. 8:9, 18; Isa. 51:4; Matt. 22:36–40; Acts 28:23; Rom. 3:21; James 1:25), sin encompasses all that is unrighteous (Prov. 24:9; Matt. 15:19; 1 John 5:17; cf. Gen. 6:5).
Although it manifests itself in external actions, the roots of sin go much deeper, embedded in the very fabric of the depraved human heart. Sin permeates the fallen mind, internally defiling the sinner in every aspect of his being (cf. Matt. 15:18–20). Thus, the Old Testament likens sin to a deadly plague (1 Kings 8:38, nkjv) or filthy garments (Zech. 3:3–4; cf. Isa. 64:6). Sin is so foul that God hates it (Prov. 15:9) and sinners hate themselves (Ezek. 6:9) because of their inherent wickedness.
Sin is by nature both rebellious and ungrateful—so much so that if possible it would dethrone God in favor of sinners (cf. Ps. 12:4; Jer. 2:31; 44:17). Its attitude is that of Absalom, who when forgiven by his father, King David, nevertheless immediately plotted to overthrow him (2 Sam. 14:33–15:12). Romans 1:21 says of the ungodly, “Even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (emphasis added; cf. 2 Tim. 3:2).
Sin is also humanly incurable. Sinners have no capacity in and of themselves to remedy their sin (Rom. 8:7–8; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1). The prophet Isaiah described Israel’s incurably sinful condition:
Alas, sinful nation, people weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again, as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it, only bruises, welts and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil. (Isa. 1:4–6)
Sin is like a terminal illness, or hereditary condition, about which sinners can do nothing in their own strength. God demanded of Israel, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23; cf. Job 14:4; Matt. 7:16–18).
Finally, sin is universal. David wrote, “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14:3; cf. Isa. 53:1–3; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:10–12; 5:12). Thus all people, left to their own devices, choose to sin:
This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. (John 3:19–20; cf. Ps. 7:14; Prov. 4:16; Isa. 5:18; Jer. 9:5)
It is because people are sinful that evil overpowers fallen mankind (cf. Gen. 6:5; John 8:34; Rom. 6:20a), such that all that unregenerate people can think about and do are sinful things, because sin so utterly dominates their minds, wills, and affections. It is because of sin that they are under Satan’s control, as slaves to the prince of darkness (cf. Eph. 2:2). It is because of sin that the unredeemed remain under the wrath of God, destined for eternal hell unless they repent (Ps. 9:17; Matt. 3:7, 10, 12; 7:13; 13:40–42; 25:41, 46; Luke 13:3; John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 2:5; Col. 3:6; Rev. 6:17; 19:15; 20:11–15). And it is because of sin that people are subject to all the miseries of this life. As Eliphaz the Temanite, one of Job’s friends, remarked, “Man is born for trouble” (Job 5:7a). And Solomon reminded his readers of the emptiness and meaninglessness that sin causes, “I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14; cf. vv. 2, 8; Isa. 48:22; Rom. 8:20).
It is also crucial to rightly understand the nature of sin’s origin in human behavior. While it is true that temptation comes from Satan’s system (cf. Eph. 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8–9) through the world, sinful behavior cannot ultimately be blamed on external influences. The sinner himself is responsible for his sinful actions, which spring from his own wicked desires (James 1:13–16). Sin, then, abides in all human hearts, as Jesus clearly taught:
After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” (Mark 7:14–23; cf. Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; James 1:13–15)
The Lord’s words illustrate the doctrine of original sin; all sin stems from mankind’s fallen nature, and that nature derives from Adam and Eve’s initial disobedience (Genesis 3; cf. Pss. 51:5; 58:3; Eph. 2:3; 4:17–19; Col. 2:13a). Since then, it has been an integral part of everyone who has lived (Rom. 5:12–21).
Understanding the serious danger sin poses, the apostle John summarized the avenues the world uses to incite sin: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. Though briefly stated, those three designations are of profound importance.
The lust of the flesh refers to the debased, ignoble cravings of evil hearts. The flesh denotes humanness and its sinful essence. The word translated lust (epithumia) is a common New Testament term denoting both positive and negative desires (Luke 22:15; Rom. 1:24; Phil. 1:23; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 2:17; 2 Tim. 2:22; Titus 3:3; James 1:14–15; 2 Peter 1:4; cf. Matt. 5:28; Gal. 5:17; Heb. 6:11; James 4:2). Here it refers negatively to the sensual impulses from the world that draw people toward transgressions. The expression lust of the flesh brings to mind primarily sexual sins, but, while they are included in its definition, the phrase is certainly not limited to that meaning.
The base desire of the human heart perverts and distorts all normal desires (Jer. 17:9), sending them into a relentless, slavish pursuit of evil that exceeds the proper limits of what is good, reasonable, and righteous—any attitude, speech, or action that opposes God’s law (cf. Rom. 7:5; 8:7). Those lusts include all the immoral excesses about which Paul warned the Galatians:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19–21; cf. Rom. 1:24–32; 1 Cor. 6:9–10)
Those sinful attitudes and actions are primary characteristics of the world system and are irresistibly appealing to the corruption of the unconverted soul.
The world also entices sinners to thoughts and actions contrary to God’s will through the lust of the eyes. Eyes are gifts from God (cf. Prov. 20:12; Eccl. 11:7) that enable people to see His beautiful creation and excellent works (cf. Pss. 8:3–4; 19:1; 33:5; 104:24; Isa. 40:26; Rom. 1:20). However, as they let in light, so they are open windows for temptation to enter; thus sin perverts the use of the eyes (cf. Prov. 27:20; Eccl. 1:8; 4:8) and plunges people into dissatisfaction, covetousness, and idolatry (cf. Pss. 106:19–20; 115:4; Eccl. 5:10). Lot’s wife misused her eyes, and God killed her as a result (Gen. 19:17, 26). Achan plundered the forbidden goods he saw, which also led to his death (Josh. 7:18–26; 22:20). From his rooftop David saw Bathsheba bathing, subsequently committed adultery with her, and paid severely for his sin the remainder of his life (2 Sam. 11:1–5; 12:1–20; Ps. 51:1–17). Because of such potential consequences, it is imperative for believers to guard their eyes (cf. Job 31:1; Ps. 101:3; 119:37). Jesus’ graphic hyperbole underscores the necessity of avoiding the lust of the eyes.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matt. 5:27–29)
The third human element that provides an avenue into the soul for temptation is the boastful pride of life. Such pride is the arrogance (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3; 17:4–10, 41–45; Pss. 10:3; 75:4; Prov. 25:14; Jer. 9:23; Rom. 1:30; James 3:5; 4:16) that arguably motivates all other sin, including the lust of the flesh and eyes, as it seeks to elevate self above everyone else (cf. Ps. 10:2, 4; Prov. 26:12; Dan. 5:20; Luke 18:11–12; Rom. 12:3, 16). Pride is the corruption of the noblest parts of man’s essence (cf. Ps. 10:2–6, 11; Prov. 16:18–19), his rationality and spirit that were created for him by God (Gen. 1:26–27). Instead of accepting that reality with appropriate humility and gratitude to God, sinners exalt themselves and seek fulfillment in things that glorify the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:22–25).
In the flesh (sensuality), humanity functions according to the base desires of animals (cf. Ex. 32:1–9, 19–20, 25). With the eyes (covetousness), individuals seek to have more than others (cf. Luke 12:16–21). Through pride, humanity defies God and arrogantly attempts to dethrone the Sovereign of the universe (cf. Gen. 11:2–4). That threefold matrix of temptation, however, is more than a theological abstraction. Two of the most foundational and pivotal passages in Scripture, Genesis 3:1–7 and Luke 4:1–13, support concretely and historically how Satan has attacked via those avenues.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’ ” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. (Gen. 3:1–7)
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’ ” And he led Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “I will give You all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’ ” And he led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you to guard you,’ and, ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” When the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:1–13)
In both cases Satan utilized the same threefold temptation to attack his target. Adam and Eve succumbed in Genesis 3:6, plunging the human race into sin: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” The devil appealed to Eve’s desire for food (lust of the flesh), her desire to have something attractive (lust of the eyes), and her desire to have wisdom (pride of life). Adam accepted the same enticements without protest and ate the fruit his wife gave him, and Satan’s kingdom gained its initial foothold on earth.
In the second account, Satan used a similar approach as he sought to derail Jesus’ redemptive mission (cf. Matt. 16:21–23; John 13:21–30). He appealed to the Lord’s humanity (His hunger for bread), His eyes (His appreciation of the world’s splendor), and His perceived pride (His jumping from the temple’s pinnacle would have presumed on God’s protection and gained extra prestige when He landed safely). But all three of the Devil’s sinister approaches were unsuccessful as the Lord refuted each appeal by quoting Old Testament truth (Deut. 8:3; 6:13, 16; cf. 10:20).
It is not surprising, then, to see that the world, under Satan’s leadership, continues to assault sinners through those same three pathways of temptation. The Devil plays on the corruptibility of the fallen human heart to achieve the maximum impact for evil and chaos in the world. But believers are not slaves to the diabolical, corrupt world system (Rom. 6:5–14; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8–9; 1 John 4:1–6). Like their Lord who has redeemed them, they possess the ability to successfully resist the temptations of this world (cf. Rom. 8:1–13; James 4:7).
because of where the world is going
The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (2:17)
The third reason believers are not to love the world is because it is passing away. The principle of spiritual death that permeates the world is the exact opposite of the principle of spiritual life, which operates in God’s kingdom. Thus, the living dead in the world are destined for eternal death in hell, but Christians are destined for eternal life in heaven (Matt. 13:37–50; 25:31–46; cf. Matt. 5:12a; Luke 10:20; Heb. 12:22–23; 1 Peter 1:3–5).
The verb translated is passing away is a present tense form of paragō (“to disappear”). The present tense indicates that the world is already in the process of self-destruction (1 Cor. 7:31b; 1 Peter 4:7a; cf. James 1:10; 4:14; 1 Peter 1:24). The entire system contains the seeds of its own dissolution (cf. Rom. 8:20–21). (God will destroy the physical universe at the end of the millennium and just prior to the second coming of Jesus Christ [2 Peter 3:10], but that is not what John had in view here.) John looked ahead to the destruction of the satanic world system and all those who cling to its lusts—its ideologies that oppose God and Christ (2 Cor. 10:3–5; 2 Peter 2:1–17; Jude 12–15; Rev. 18:21–24; cf. 19:11–21; 20:7–10). They are all hurtling rapidly toward eternal damnation, as Paul wrote concerning the ungodly who persecuted the Thessalonian believers:
For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed—for our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thess. 1:6–10)
Paul did not say that those unrepentant members of the world would cease to exist (that would be the unbiblical doctrine of annihilationism), but that they would undergo an everlasting punishment in hell (cf. Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:43–49; Rev. 20:15). The world’s process of self-destruction will only accelerate and grow worse in the coming years (cf. 2 Tim. 3:13) until the Lord returns.
On the other hand, the one who does the will of God, who savingly trusts and obeys Christ, has nothing to fear concerning the world’s destruction (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9). It is God’s will that people believe the gospel, repent of their sin, and embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Mark 1:15; John 6:29; 1 Tim. 2:4–6). John earlier had heard these words of Jesus: “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). Each person who has obeyed that teaching is a Christian and lives forever (Luke 6:46–48; John 8:51; 10:27; 14:21; 15:10; James 1:22–25; 1 John 2:5; 3:24; cf. Pss. 25:10; 111:10).
The apostle Paul is a sterling example of one who learned what it means to love the things of God rather than the things of the world. In Philippians 3:3–11 he recounts his transformation:
For we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (cf. Acts 9:1–22; 26:4–23)
Like Paul, believers must persevere in sanctification and righteousness by “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead … toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13b–14). By doing this they will demonstrate that they love what God loves and hate what He hates. They will clearly no longer be devoted to the unbelieving world system and will shun its continuous appeal to sin, which comes through the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.
An Appeal to John’s Readers (vv. 15–17)
The first part of John’s long parenthesis, verses 12–17, was written to reassure his readers, for John did not want them to think that he was questioning their salvation. Rather, he has written to them because their sins have been forgiven and because they do know the Father. If they miss this truth, they have misunderstood him. On the other hand, John does not want them to think that what he has written regarding the tests of life has no relevance for Christians, for this would be a misunderstanding too. Thus, he now goes on to show how what he has said should be applied to their lives. They are not to doubt their salvation, but rather, being assured of it, are to press on in those areas that give evidence of their transformation and that indeed bring the greatest measure of personal blessing. What is the Christian to do? Quite simply, he is to refuse to love the world and its values and instead love God and the will of God. In stating this John also gives two reasons why this is the only sane course for any Christian.
Love Not the World
John’s appeal to his readers is stated negatively, but the positive side must be understood also. Christians must not love the world. At the same time it must also be said that they are to love God and do his will. Indeed, it is only as the love of God fills them and the will of God motivates them that the world can be conquered, just as in the preceding verse it is only as the Word of God abides in them that Satan can be overcome.
With the exception of one passing reference in 2:2, this is the first time in the letter that John has used the word “world” (kosmos). But now it occurs six times in just these three verses, and it will occur many more times later on. On the whole, it is one of the most important terms in the Johannine vocabulary. What is the “world”? The answer to that question is a complex one, for the word itself has a wide range of meanings. At times, though this is a very minor usage, John seems to mean little more than the “universe,” as in John 1:10. This, of course, is the basic meaning of the Greek word. In the early history of the Greek language, kosmos meant “an ornament” (this meaning is preserved in English in the word cosmetic), then later the “universe” or “world globe,” as the ornament of God. In this early period kosmos could also mean “that which is well constructed,” “well ordered,” or “beautiful.”
In time the application of the word to the world led also to a further development by which it came to denote “the world of men.” This use is also present in John, occurring at times without apparent moral overtones. It is said of the world in this sense that God loved it and gave his only begotten Son for it (John 3:16), that it is the object of his saving purposes (John 3:17), that Jesus gave himself as a propitiation for it (1 John 2:2), and that Christ is its Savior (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). It must be understood of this use of the word that it refers to the human race collectively and not necessarily to each individual; otherwise, the verses in question would imply a universal salvation of all men, which is, however, repudiated elsewhere.
The third major use of the word is one that involves the ethical dimension; and it is not only the most common, it is also the most significant usage in John’s writings. The idea here is of the world of men in rebellion against God and therefore characterized by all that is in opposition to God. This is what we might call “the world system.” It involves the world’s values, pleasures, pastimes, and aspirations. John says of this world that the world lies in the grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19), that it rejected Jesus when he came (John 1:10), that it does not know him (1 John 3:1), and consequently that it does not know and therefore also hates his followers (John 15:18–21; 17:14). It is in this sense that John speaks of the world in the passage before us.
If the first sense of the word is used, Christians are to receive and be thankful for the world, for it is God’s gift. Jesus himself was appreciative of the world in this sense. If the second sense is used, Christians are to love the world and seek to evangelize it, for God also loves the world. In the third sense, the sense we have here, Christians are to reject the world and conduct their lives according to an entirely different set of values.
When John says that Christians are not to “love the world or anything in the world,” he is not thinking then so much of materialism (“things”) as he is of the attitudes that lie behind materialism. For he knows, as we should all know, that a person without worldly goods can be just as materialistic as a person who has many of them; and, conversely, a rich person can be quite free from this and any other form of worldliness. John is actually thinking of selfish ambition, pride, the love of success or flattery, and other such characteristics. Law recognizes this in his excellent rephrasing of the apostle’s appeal. He writes, “Do not court the intimacy and the favour of the unchristian world around you; do not take its customs for your laws, nor adopt its ideals, nor covet its prizes, nor seek fellowship with its life.” The neb says, “Do not set your hearts on the godless world or anything in it.”
The first reason why Christians are not to love the world or the things that are in the world is that love for the world and love for the Father are incompatible. God is set over against the world’s sin and values. Consequently, it is impossible to both love and serve God and at the same time love that which he hates and which opposes him. Does the believer love God? Then he must serve him. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24).
The truth of this statement becomes even more evident when the nature of the world system is analyzed, as John now proceeds to do in three succinct and memorable phrases: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does.”
If may be, as John uses the phrase, that “the cravings of sinful man” refers to those sinful desires that arise out of man’s fleshly or carnal nature. We can think here of the grosser sins. But in John’s writings, as throughout Scripture, “sinful man” or “flesh” usually has a broader connotation by which is meant the whole of man’s nature as it is apart from God’s grace in Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is more likely that “flesh” is to be understood broadly in this context. In this case the phrase would refer simply to all godless desires. As Barclay notes,
It is to live a life which is dominated by the senses. It is to be gluttonous in food; effeminate in luxury; slavish in pleasure; lustful and lax in morals; selfish in the use of possessions; regardless of all the spiritual values; extravagant in the gratification of worldly, earthly and material desires. The flesh’s desire is forgetful of, blind to, or regardless of the commandments of God.
Clearly, we do not need to think of this as concerning particularly gross sins alone, though they are part of it. Rather, we may include all activity that is oblivious to God and insensitive to the needs of other people.
The second phrase refers naturally to covetousness. But again, this must be understood in a broader sense than a desire merely to possess things. The “lust of his eyes” certainly refers to the desire to “keep up with the Joneses” in regard to the appearance of the home, the second car, the vacation cottage, and other material considerations. But it also refers to the desire to keep up with the Joneses in terms of the husband’s status at work, the wife’s position in the Women’s Association, the social acceptability of the children, and all other such nonmaterial but nevertheless worldly values. These are the things that the Christian is not to love. In other words, he is to be content to be overlooked for the promotion, do without the external symbols of success, be thought unsophisticated or unglamorous if such actually contributes to the glory of God and the living out of the will of God for the individual Christian.
Finally, worldliness is here characterized as “the boasting of what he has and does.” The unique quality of this phrase lies not so much in keeping up with the Joneses as exceeding them. This characteristic, while the hardest of the three to define, is probably also the subtlest, for it is easy to see how quickly a perfectly laudable ambition may slide over into pride that glories not so much in doing well as in being better than one’s fellows. An example is that of the student who tries desperately to be the best in his class. This can be done in a proper way. If he has been given the talent by God and applies the talent in order that God might be honored by his achievement or better served by it, his ambition is good. On the other hand, if he finds himself thinking that he is rather superior and therefore entitled to an extra measure of deference or respect, then his ambition is at base satanic, for it arises from him who is the prince of this world and of this world’s godless system. The same kind of satanic ambition can affect men in business, wives in the home, or ministers in the pulpit. Indeed, Paul even warned us that some of Satan’s tools would wear doctoral robes and teach theology (2 Cor. 11:14–15).
These, then, are the ideals that are accepted and even prized in the world but that are antithetical to Christianity. To love God is to move away from such values. To love the world is to increasingly drift from love for God and thereby also lose love for others.
The second reason why the Christian is not to love the world is the one that closes the passage. It is that all that is in the world is transitory and therefore headed for destruction. The world is passing away, John states. So are its values and those who are characterized by its values. How foolish, then, to pin one’s hopes on the world system, however attractive it may appear or however rewarding.
But does nothing at all abide? Yes, says John. The one who does God’s will abides forever. The object of his love, even the Father, abides forever. His love itself, having its source in God, abides forever. His works, being an aspect of the work of God, abide forever, for he is the possessor of eternal life and heir to all God’s riches in Christ Jesus. The conclusion is that Christians should therefore love God and serve him fervently.
Do we love and serve God fervently? Then we must turn from all that would keep us from such love and service. When Jesus called men to be his disciples, he challenged them with the words “Follow me.” This meant that they had to leave their nets or money tables or whatever else had been occupying their attention and time up to that moment. Similarly, when we are called to embrace the truth of the gospel, we must reject error. When we are called to righteousness, we must turn from unrighteousness. When we are called to love God, we must turn from all lesser loves and loyalties. To fail to do this does not mean that we thereby lose our relationship to God, but it does mean that we are unfaithful to him and disgrace our calling. It is like a marriage. Adultery does not change the legal status of the marriage, but it destroys the fellowship and is dishonorable. As Christians we are married to Christ. Therefore, we must not dishonor that relationship by adultery, or even by flirting with the world.
What Not to Love
1 John 2:15–17
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not. She loves me, she loves me not.” We all know the words and cadence of that familiar lover’s game in which the petals of a flower fall to the ground until there remains but one. That one providential petal supposedly reveals whether the affections of the person desired are mutual or not.
The theme of love is addressed throughout the Bible, but nowhere more than in 1 John. In this little letter, the word love (with its derivatives) is used fifty-one times, and all those uses are positive except one. The only place we are told to “love not” is in 1 John 2:15. Here, and only here, we hear that “great negative exhortation”2 to “not love the world or the things in the world.” This chapter will examine that negative imperative—what it is and why we should heed it—so that we might apply it positively to our lives.
Context and Command
When my son Sean was a freshman in high school, he played on the freshman basketball team. At that same time, I helped to coach the varsity team. For practices, we were often in the same large gym. At the start of each practice, all the teams would do some basic drills. Sometimes I would wander down to the freshman squad, jump in the line, and do the drills with them. One day Sean told me that a number of the boys on his team were intimidated by me. I asked him, “Why? Is it because of my basketball prowess?” He said, “No, it’s because you always have a serious look on your face.”
The members of John’s congregation, as they read the first twenty-one verses of his epistle, might have sensed some apostolic intimidation. Perhaps they felt that his presentation of their calling in Christ was too hard and too high. That is why John penned that pastoral poem in 1 John 2:12–14, where he said in essence, “My children, let me reassure you that you are in a state of grace. Beloved, you are loved by me and, more importantly, loved by God in Christ.” He gave them a fivefold encouragement. Here John returns to his old countenance. Because of the dangers that the beloved encounter in this often-unlovely world, he puts on his serious and intimidating game face. He moves from affirmation to exhortation and admonition. Like any good coach, he goes from saying, “Good job,” to shouting, “Let’s go!” For here in 1 John 2:15–17, we begin with his sternest warning and most stringent demand yet: “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (v. 15).
This categorical and comprehensive command appears to be fairly straightforward. Yet the more we look at this command, the more questions arise: What does John mean when he says that we are not to love the world? What’s wrong with the world? Genesis teaches that God created the world—the mountains, trees, rivers, animals, and people in it. John’s Gospel adds that God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save the world (John 3:16; cf. 1 John 4:19) and that Jesus is “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42; cf. 1 John 2:2). First John reiterates Jesus’ own teaching that Christians are to love other people in the world (see 1 John 3:11). So what in the world does John mean by “do not love the world”? If he doesn’t mean avoiding people, snubbing social action, discarding political involvement, resisting medical treatment, rejecting the invention of the automobile, refusing to believe in the law of gravity, and leaving planet Earth posthaste, what does he mean?
In John’s writings, the word world has a wide range of meaning. To summarize the data: on one hand, the world was made by God through Christ and is loved by God through Christ. On the other hand, the world lies in the grip of Satan and comprises people on earth who oppose and ignore God and seek to live independent of him. It is obvious that it is this second “world” that John has in mind. Robert Yarbrough’s summary of “the world” is worth quoting in full:
As a whole it is a realm that does not (or will not) recognize Christ (3:1) and that despises people who follow Christ (3:13). It is shot through with the influence of dangerous deceivers like false prophets (4:1) and antichrist himself (4:3), the evil one “who is in the world” (4:4). “The world” is conceived of as the stronghold of those who ignore the apostolic testimony (4:5; cf. 4:6). While “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (4:14 niv), this saving work consists in equipping believers to “overcome the world” (5:4–5), not benignly acquiesce to its ways. In the end, in a sense “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (5:19 niv). In the light of such numerous and pervasive negative associations, the κόσμος is a sinister sphere indeed; it is an image “of life where God does not rule” (Loader 1992:24).
Therefore, “the world” in this passage does not mean the world in general; rather, it means the world that has abandoned its Creator and lives apart from his rule. It is the godless world that is totally “at variance with God” and his will. It is the Babylon described in Revelation, “the sensual, materialistic pagan society that Christianity had to overcome.”6 It is a group of people who are part of a system that is “organized on wrong principles, and characterized by base desires, false values, and egotism.” Quite simply, “the world” means “worldliness,” and quite sadly, it means “the typical kind of life that is being lived by the average person today.”8
In the book Worldliness, C. J. Mahaney defines the term worldliness as “a love for this fallen world.” He clarifies: “It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God. More specifically, it is to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God. It rejects God’s rule and replaces it with our own.” To that definition he adds self-evaluating questions, such as:
Does outward prosperity appeal to you more than growth in godliness?
Do you esteem and crave the approval of those around you?
Do you go to great lengths to avoid looking foolish or being rejected for your Christian faith?
Do you consider present and material results more important than eternal reward?
Have you departed from God and adopted idols instead?
Do you love the world? We must not! As Christians, we must continually refuse to let worldliness “squeeze [us] into its mold.”
The Three Things
If we must avoid worldliness, what are the characteristics of such worldliness? First John 2:15 says that we are not to love the godless world and the “things” of that world. But what exactly are these “things” that we are to avoid? Should we avoid reading muscle magazines, buying designer jeans, playing video games, gambling at casinos, listening to rap music, showing cleavage, watching sitcoms, getting a second home, upgrading to a luxury sedan, downloading an R-rated movie and then ignoring the violence, talking over the obscenities, and fast-forwarding through the sex scene? Maybe. Let’s find out.
While Hollywood is commonly a cesspool whose films desensitize us to sin, the glow of the idiot box dulls our brains, and the world outside us beckons with an omnipresent seduction, John takes us inside ourselves. The beast is within! In 1 John 2:16, John writes of our “desires of the flesh,” our “desires of the eyes,” and our “pride of life” (kjv). Those are the three “things”—or inordinate attitudes, interests, ambitions, affections, or actions—that we also must not love. And while these three are not a comprehensive catalogue of every vice, they do embody “every kind of wickedness which exists” and characterize what we all know is natural to everyone (see Mark 7:20–23; John 2:24–25). Thus, they exemplify the core of what we daily struggle against.
The first thing is “the desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16). We might use the word desire in a positive sense, such as “I desire to be a better husband” or “I desire to honor God.” But the word used here is almost always used in the Bible in a negative way. It has a morally negative connotation. That is why the nlt translates it “a craving for physical pleasure” and the niv “the cravings of sinful man.” Perhaps “sinful bodily cravings” gets the point across best.
When the Bible speaks about the flesh, it does at times refer to sexual sin. Here, however, the term is as broad as our bodies. It is all the evil lusts that we might have or do have for physical pleasure, and all the accompanying aims and ambitions. Martin Luther defined it this way: “The lust of the flesh is that pleasure with which I desire to indulge my flesh, such as adultery, fornication, gluttony, ease, and sleep.” William Barclay gives a fuller summary:
To be subject to the flesh’s desire is to judge everything by purely material standards. It is to live a life dominated by the senses. It is to be gluttonous in food; [overindulgent] in luxury; slavish in pleasure; lustful and lax in morals; selfish in the use of possessions[;] … extravagant in the gratification of material desires. The flesh’s desire [disregards] the commandments of God, the judgment of God, the standards of God and the very existence of God.
So the “desires of the flesh” are like a lasso that tightens around our chests, seeking to turn our attention from the eternal, invisible, and holy God to that which is merely material, transitory, and evil.
In Genesis 4:7, the Lord said to Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The same is true for us. Sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is to push its way through in order that it may rule over us. But unlike Cain, we must succeed in keeping that door to sin shut. The apostle John has already told us that we have “overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13–14)—the devil himself! Here he is simply telling us that we need also to overcome ourselves and those internal desires that seek to choke the life of faith. In Romans 13:14, Paul tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” John’s intention is the same. Because, through faith, we have put on Jesus, we must put aside all bodily desires that are opposed to God.
“The desires of the flesh” are the first thing that we must avoid. The second thing is “the desires of the eyes.” Here we move from the temptations within—our flesh—to the temptations without, those cravings that come through those two little crevices that we call our eyes. Of our whole body, these two one-inch-wide openings are the parts most susceptible to sin. The devil wants our eyeballs wide open to all that is worldly on this terrestrial ball. He wants us to covet all that is opposed to God, whether it is ungodly status, success, pursuits, possessions, or people. The lustful look, the greedy gaze, and the being dressed to impress (or seduce or tempt) are three of three thousand sins that fall under this expansive root vice.
Here is the same temptation that Eve experienced in the garden of Eden and Jesus in the wilderness. Eve listened to the crafty snake and thus allowed sin to enter into her heart through her eyes. Genesis 3:6 says that she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” So she disobeyed God’s one command, and “she took of its fruit and ate” (3:6). Our Lord Jesus experienced a similar temptation. He was tempted by the same tempter and through the same means. In Matthew 4:8–9, we are told that that same serpent tried to get to Jesus’ heart through his eyes. In the third temptation, “the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ ” But what did our Lord do? He closed his eyes to this strong seduction. He refused to desire those delights dangled before him. He resisted: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’ ” (4:10).
We live in a world of images. We cannot drive the highway, turn on the television, walk through the mall, or check out at the supermarket without being surrounded by seductive images. And our fallen eyes, being so vulnerable to the wiles of this world, are greatly tempted to be lifted up to view such worldliness. It is hard to avert our eyes. It is hard to turn away from these attractive icons. Yet we must not indulge our eyes. We must not follow the first Eve but rather the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). Resist the devil. Overcome his allurements. Close our eyes to those attitudes and ambitions that take us from our vision of God. Worship the Lord and him alone. Long for and look to God, in whose presence there is “fullness of joy” and there are “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).
There is one final member of the unholy trinity of temptations, perhaps “the most serious and terrible of the three,” and that is the “pride of life” (1 John 2:16 kjv). The word translated “life” (biou) can refer to “possessions” (thus the esv translation, “pride in possessions”), or simply “everyday life” or “livelihood.”15 The idea here, then, is something like this: “pride of life” speaks of the attitude of someone who refuses to rely on God as Father while he boasts in what he has seemingly gained by himself. It is self-dependence and self-glorification. It is unholy conceit in viewing God’s gifts as human achievements. It is “boastful self-confidence in the ability to secure one’s own life.” It is Jesus’ parable of the rich fool in fullest form. It is pride in your life, rather than the life you could have in the Son as a child of the Father.
Some Christians talk like the fools atop the fourth floor of the Tower of Babel. They talk with their heads near the heavens, about making “a name” for themselves (Gen. 11:4)—be it through their elite education, elevated erudition, ecclesial honors, or even extravagant almsgiving. We must abandon such self-promotion. We must reject all boasting, lest the bricks of our vanity crumble down upon us. We cannot let a hint of the “pride of life” creep into the church. God is not impressed by what family we are from, how we look, what we own, whom we know, what we know, where we went to school, what club memberships we hold, or how we have supposedly changed the world. What God loves is when his children look like his beloved Son. He has fatherly pride when we “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than [ourselves]” (Phil. 2:3). He rejoices when we share the humble mind of Christ, the One who taught: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3) and “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (20:26–27). He is glorified when we follow the Savior’s path to greatness—the path of the One born in a cave and crucified on a cross, the One who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 28).
Far be it from us that we boast in anything “except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14)—not our birth or appearance or knowledge or wealth or status or accomplishments. For hasn’t the “world … been crucified” to us and we “to the world”? In Christ and him crucified, our birth is now rebirth, our wealth is the riches of heaven, our loftiest associations are the communion of the lowly saints, and our honor will be to hear those blessed words on the last day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.… Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
Love Not! Why Not?
“The desires of the flesh,” “the desires of the eyes,” and “the pride of life” are the three things of the world that we must not love. “But why?” we might ask. We must love not, but why not? Thankfully, John handles that very question next by providing us with two sensible reasons why having these worldly interests is wrongheaded.
The first reason is that such attitudes and actions are incompatible with God’s nature. Two verses touch on this. First, at the end of 1 John 2:15 we read, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” While love for the Father must be preceded by the Father’s love for the sinner—“In this is love, … that he [God] loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10)—here in 2:15, God is the object of our love (or lack of love, as the case may be). Second, in verse 16, this is followed by “all that is in the world … is not from the Father,” namely, that in the world which does not accord with God’s will. The fallen world and the things of that world are incompatible with “the Father.” If you love the world, you forfeit the Father! There is a famous saying by Cyprian on ecclesiology: “You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother.” John’s version on ethics goes: “You cannot have God as your spouse and still have the world as your mistress.” You cannot be in an intimate relationship with both God and the world. You cannot love all that God is and has to offer and still love this world and all that it has to offer.
I once watched a sermon in which an immensely popular health/wealth preacher from Houston shared this awful illustration: Years ago, he and his wife were walking through a refurbished neighborhood in their city. He was a young pastor and was living in a small and simple apartment a few blocks away from this old neighborhood with its now new, beautiful, large, expensive homes. Each time they walked by these homes, they dreamed of how wonderful it would be to own one. Well, one day the Lord (so he claimed) spoke to his wife and told her that soon they would own one of those grand houses. He laughed at her prophecy. He didn’t have faith. But she did! And sure enough, as time went on and his ministry blossomed and as his salary quadrupled, they were able to buy that house of their dreams. Now, the point of this preacher’s multimillion-dollar-house illustration was that God can and will do the same for you if you will just let him. Through your faith, God will fulfill all your wildest (or should we add worldliest?) dreams.
What rubbish! Do not listen to such lies! Do not think you can have your best worldly life now and your best heavenly life later. You cannot have all that the world has to offer and all that God has to offer. As Jesus made clear: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Here John says much the same thing: you cannot love God and love the world. You cannot love that which the world loves most and then also try to put God first. If God is tied for first place in your heart, he is in fact placed last. God demands that you love him with heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5). “To attempt to love God in multitasking fashion, dedicating a portion of one’s love worldward and then the remaining godward, is fruitless because it fails to acknowledge God as he truly is: sole, unique, sovereign, alone deserving one’s core allegiance.” “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3).
The first reason that we should not love the world and the things of the world is that such a love is incompatible with God’s nature. The second reason is that this world and its values are transient. They are temporary and thus headed for destruction. That is what we are told at the beginning of 1 John 2:17. We should not love the world because “the world is passing away along with its desires.” As David Jackman notes, “there is no future in worldliness.” There is literally no future to clinging to that which this fallen, fading, and soon-to-be-forgotten world has to offer.
Once the richest American, the industrialist J. Paul Getty famously said, “The best things in life … are things.” That might be true if “the present form of this world” weren’t “passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31) and if everything under its shelter were not soon to prove bankrupt. I wonder how Getty’s final audit went when he died, stood before his Maker, and found his portfolio completely bare. “Riches, learning, knowledge, social status and all these things, they are vanishing, they have the seeds of death in them.” Loving this present world is disastrous (2 Tim. 4:10); having “living affections for dying things” is foolish. Saying “my precious” to Gollum’s golden ring or to Getty’s mansion in Malibu is simply silly. And this should be obvious to any observer.
In China, France, Greece, India, Italy, Cambodia, the Americas, and Egypt, we have unearthed pyramids, those elaborate tombs for royalty. The oldest and largest of the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Giza, is called one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. And yes, architecturally, it is indeed a wonder. But theologically, it is quite a blunder. We will never find even a footnote in a journal article saying, “Ancient Egyptian leaders such as Pharaoh Khufu and King Tutankhamen were among the world’s biggest fools.” But such a footnote would be quite accurate. For what an absolute waste of thought, strength, and time it was to build an elaborate burial tomb and fill it with priceless treasures that never made it into the afterlife. The golden chariots, gilded figures, fine jewelry, and heavy thrones are all still there, if not long since stolen. While we may enjoy them, the pyramids never served their original purpose. They illustrate how true 1 John 2:17 reads.
“The world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17a). Yet there is an alternative to loving and living for this world. Notice the conjunction but—an amazing contrast is coming! “But whoever does the will of God abides forever” (v. 17b). What a climactic ending, as we have moved from that negative command to this positive plea and amazing incentive!
Why would we, as heirs of the eternal world, concentrate our interests and ambitions on what is passing away? Why would we who are on the winning side—the light that is steadily but surely overcoming the darkness (1 John 2:8)—want to live like a loser? Why not rather do “the will of God” (v. 17), which is to love God first, trust in his Son for our salvation, and live according to his Word? There is a future in that kind of thinking. There is a future in that kind of lifestyle! It is like building a house on rock rather than sand (Matt. 7:24–27). The one who does the will of God abides “forever.” As missionary and martyr Jim Elliot put it, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Or as Jesus put it: Why lay up for ourselves “treasures on earth [that] moth and rust destroy” (Matt. 6:19–20), when we can lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven” (v. 20) that are as permanent as God and his kingdom (v. 33)? As Luther asks, “What sort of god is it that is not even capable of defending himself against moths and rust?” The choice is simple. Let us use our heads. Would we rather desire that which is “passing away” or that which “abides forever”? This last reason should be a good enough reason to love not this world.
Rivals for the Human Heart
We must admit that the world has great appeal. It takes our heartstrings and pulls at them each and every day. That is why we need to be reminded of what we are called to do and why we are called to do it. We need to be reminded of who we are and what we are to be about. We need to remember that question posed long ago by our Lord who still lives today: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). And we need to remember Jesus, who was unworldly for the world so that he might save the world! Yes, we need to remember him—to know that our lifelong battle with worldliness cannot be won by sheer willpower or personal resolve, but only through replacing our love for the world with a love for someone far lovelier. The glory of Christ is the antidote for all that dazzles and sparkles but fades. The old song got it right:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.
 MacArthur, J. (2007). 1, 2, 3 John (pp. 82–92). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Boice, J. M. (2004). The Epistles of John: an expositional commentary (pp. 62–65). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 O’Donnell, D. S. (2015). 1-3 John. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., pp. 66–77). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.