What Does it Mean to Be in the World but Not of the World?

We are not of this world and must reject the temptation to live as if we were. While here, we must work for our food and other necessities of life. We need to care for the things the Lord has entrusted us with.

What Does it Mean to Be in the World but Not of the World?

As a part of Jesus' prayer in John 17, he prayed for his disciples and those who would come after them. In this prayer, he expressed that his disciples were not of this world any more than he was.

And he prayed, not that God would take them out of the world, but that he would protect them while they were in it. This prayer makes clear that we are in this world but not of it. But just what does this mean?

“My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (John 17:15-16).

What Is the World?

The Scripture sometimes uses "world" to refer to the earth. But more commonly, it refers to something else. This usage is similar to what we do in the U.S. when we refer to Hollywood or Wall Street.

We generally are not referring to specific locations, although they are that. Instead, we are talking about our society's entertainment or financial segments.

Similarly, the Scripture generally uses the word "world" to refer to more than the physical planet on which we live.

It includes all our human-oriented activities: politics, economics, entertainment, education, conflict, and so much more. Everything that we as humans engage in, apart from God, is a part of this world.

Colossians 1:13 identifies this world as the dominion, or kingdom, of darkness. In John 12:31, Jesus refers to the prince of this world.

And Paul, in Ephesians 2:2, refers to "the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient."

None of these passages mention Satan by name. But it is clear this world is under his authority and influence.

Living in the World

So long as I live in this tent of the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:1), I am in this world. I am bound to all the limitations that come along with being in the flesh. I grow old, am subject to disease and sickness, and must work to support myself and my family.

Being a believer does not exempt me from any of the dangers of being human. Or from the countless mundane tasks, we must do to stay alive and healthy.

But, more significantly, when I am in the world, I am subject to all the godless influences of this world and its ruler — a world and ruler hostile to God and those who belong to him.

The temptation is often great to compromise with the world and conform to its standards and ways of life to avoid persecution or ridicule.

But, as a faithful follower of Jesus, I am subject to more than just the godless influence of this world.

In John 15:18-19, Jesus told his disciples, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you."

What Jesus told the Twelve here is just as applicable to believers today. We do not belong to this world. And the world hates us for that.

Paul takes this even a step further when he says that "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). This world is a hostile place for the one who is looking to live as a faithful follower of Jesus.

Not of This World

I was born into this world and its way of life, living under the authority of this world's ruler. And I was excluded from citizenship in the kingdom of God.

But, because of what Christ did for me, I died to that way of life and was born anew. Now, my citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). And I look forward to Jesus' return to take me to be with him (John 14:3).

But, until that happens, I still live in this world, even though I no longer belong to it. Peter alludes to that when he identifies us as foreigners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11).

And twice in Jesus' prayer for his disciples (John 17:13-19), he notes that the disciples are no more a part of this world than he is.

His prayer is not that God would take his disciples out of this world. Instead, it is that the Father would protect them from the evil one. The evil one, who is the ruler of this world.

As born-again believers, we inhabit two realms. We continue to live in this earthly realm until death takes us from it or Jesus returns for us.

But now, we also belong to the heavenly kingdom. God created our physical bodies to interact with this temporary earthy realm. And so, it seems more real to us.

On the other hand, the heavenly realm is eternal but much more challenging for us to sense. We must train our newly born spirits to see and touch the heavenly.

But as we mature in our faith, the heavenly realm will become easier to experience. And at the same time, this physical realm will become less appealing.

Living as Foreigners

I spent time stationed in a foreign country when I was a young man serving in the U. S. Navy. I lived off-base and interacted with the people of that country. I mostly looked like them, and it was easy to blend in.

But we were frequently reminded that we were not citizens there. We were American citizens living in a foreign country, representing the Navy and our nation. And we were expected to reflect well on both of them.

The situation is much the same for me as a believer in the Lord Jesus living in this world. My citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. And, as I live here, it is as a resident alien.

This world is not my true home. But, while the Lord leaves me stationed here, I need to live in a way that will bring honor to him, being faithful to the calling he has given me.

What Does This Mean?

We are not of this world and must reject the temptation to live as if we were. While here, we must work for our food and other necessities of life. We need to care for the things the Lord has entrusted us with.

And we are responsible for living under the authority of those who are over us in the things of this world. But we should never lose sight of whose we are, making sure he is Lord of every part of our lives, even when the world opposes that commitment.

For further reading:

What Does the Bible Say about the World?

How Can We Live a Fruitful Life While in the World?

Why Should We Not Be Conformed to This World?

How Can We Speak Life into a Broken World?

What Is the Significance of ‘For God So Loved the World’ in John 3:16?

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/gregrosenke


Ed Jarrett headshotEd Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.