This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
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
Properly understanding this important verse hinges on correctly understanding the referent of the word “world.” If we think John is referring to creation, we may interpret this as an anti-nature statement calling us to attend only to things considered “spiritual” rather than physical. But the Bible is robustly positive about the natural world as coming from God (Gen. 1–2), pointing to God (Ps. 19), and something we should appreciate and enjoy. If we think “world” refers to humanity, then we will think this verse encourages us to be misanthropes and grouches, despising people.
That idea obviously flies in the face of the biblical witness, including Jesus’s treatment of people. In fact, we may think of John 3:16 as a statement about God’s love for humanity: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But this complicates the question further since in John 3:16 God does love the world (kosmos), and in 1 John 2:15 we are commanded not to love the world (kosmos).
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The key, as often, is context. John uses “world” (kosmos) in a variety of ways. In a more positive sense he proclaims God’s love for the world (John 3:16), Jesus as the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14), and Jesus as the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). In these instances, humanity, the inhabitants of the world, are in view. They are opposed to God, but God still loves humanity and comes to redeem them. But quite often the “world” is the realm, and even system, of rebellion against God (1John 4:4–5). It does not know God or believers (1 John 3:1) and indeed hates believers (1 John 3:13). It is the realm of false prophets and the antichrist (1 John 4:1, 3), and “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Into this realm of hostility Jesus came (1 John 4:17) in order to be the Savior to redeem people out of this realm, allowing us to overcome the world (1 John 5:4–5).1
We must not love this way of life which sets itself against God.
That this negative sense is in view in 1 John 2:15 is made clear by it being contrasted with “the love of the Father,” and even more so by “the things of the world” in 1 John 2:15 being described in 1 John 2:16 as “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life.” Furthermore, in 1 John 2:17: “the world is passing away along with its desires.” People die, but they continue into eternity, and while the earth will pass away, it does not have desires. Clearly, what is in view is this realm of rebellion against God. We must not love this way of life which sets itself against God. There are two competing systems vying for our affections, described here as God and the world. We must not seek to find a compromise position between the two, because they are diametrically opposed to one another. This is why James says “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4). True love for the Father will not allow for any rivals. We must wean ourselves from love for sinful ways, even though this is hard.
In 1 John 2, John is dealing with false teaching and the fact that some who had professed faith have now departed from the faith, following this false teaching. In this context, the warning against loving the world suggests that coddling love for sin endangers our souls and makes us susceptible to false teaching. For the sake of our souls and in response to the great love which God has shown to us (1 John 3:1), we must purify ourselves as God is pure (1 John 3:3), putting to death sinful desires and delighting ourselves in God and his ways. In fact, as John will write a bit later, we must watch over one another in order to help one another turn away from the love of the world and to set our affections on God (1 John 5:16–17).
- Some of the language in this paragraph is drawn from my commentary. Ray Van Neste, ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 434-435.
This article is written by Ray Van Neste and adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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