Mutually Exclusive Loves, Lesson 8

Originally posted at Women of Purpose.

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. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

As we go through our lessons, we must remember to read each new passage in the context of what has gone before. The portions of 1 John that we study each week are small snippets of a larger whole—an entire epistle—with a logical flow of thought. John has just encouraged his readers that they are indeed beloved children of the Father. He knows this to be true. He now holds up for our inspection the outrageous inconsistency that one so loved should choose to also love the world which is at war with all that our Father—and therefore we—should hold dear.

In earlier passages, John spoke hypothetically, with “if we,” and “whoever says” (1:6-10; 2:4-6, 9-11). However, his tone and manner of addressing his readers has changed from the hypothetical to straightforward, solemn, and commanding. He asserts his apostolic authority in full as he tells these beloved children of the Father who are looking forward to an eternity in heaven that they must not, under any circumstances, love the things of the world which are opposed to their Father and are merely temporary.

In verse 15, he commands that believers not love the world or the things in the world because anyone who loves the world demonstrates that “the love of the Father is not in him.” This is no light concern, but strikes at the heart of our belief, for the love of God (whether this means God’s love for us or our love for God) is central to being a born-again, in Christ, redeemed, ransomed, cleansed, and adopted child of God. For, as John writes later in this epistle, “love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (4:7). Conversely, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:8).

Furthermore, by writing that it is the love of the Father that is missing from the lover of the world, John is pointing specifically to our relationship to God not as his subjects, but as his children. In this he reminds us that we are God’s beloved children, and he is our heavenly Father who has given us life. Let us, therefore, try to understand what John means when he sets before us these mutually exclusive loves, and examine our own hearts in light of this scriptural command.

The word used in verse 15 for “love” is the same word John uses in 2:10 and carries the same meaning as in Matthew 22:37-39, which read:

Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. (1 John 2:10)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39)

According to those passages, the kind of love John has in mind is a love which comes from abiding in the light of Christ, a devotion of deep attachment to its object; an attachment of heart, soul, and mind; a devotion which influences one’s affections for others. This deeply attached devotion which originates in the purity and holiness of Christ is reserved for the mutual affection of the Godhead and all who, because of their union with Christ, join in the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We learned in lesson 4 that in this same epistle John writes of Jesus’ propitiation being sufficient to save “the whole world” (2:2), by which he meant every kind of person around the world without distinction. In that passage, “the world” was used in a positive way, speaking of those who will be redeemed by the blood of our Savior. We find this same usage in John 3:16, which tells us that God was so moved by his love for “the world” that he gave his only Son to save all who would believe in him from perishing, giving them eternal life. In our passage this week there is a decidedly negative connotation, and those who love the Father must not and cannot love “the world.”  So what does John mean here? If we are told in such strong terms that we must not love something, we need to know what that something, in this case, “the world,” means.

We may safely rule out the “world” of creation: mountains, forests, and oceans, etc. To love the creation in which God has placed us to live and work is not opposed to loving God our Father. When he finished his work of creation he declared it to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31). After the fall of mankind into sin, the created world was also subject to decay and futility (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:20-22), but it is not an enemy of God and we are not forbidden from enjoying it. This is, after all, our Father’s world, and creation displays his eternal power and divine nature, and is even said to declare his praise (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1). To determine what John means here, let’s find what Jesus said about “the world” and some of the other apostles wrote.

How do Jesus and the apostles speak of “the world” in the following passages? [John 7:7; 15:18-19]

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Gal. 4:9)

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.  (Col. 2:8)

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, … so that … you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.  (2 Peter 1:3-4]

Based on the testimony of our Lord and his apostles, we can safely understand “the world” to mean the people and worldviews in rebellion against God, and they are therefore his—and our— enemies. Douglas Sean O’Donnell summarizes the thoughts of many theologians this way:

“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.[1] It is the Babylon described in Revelation, “the sensual, materialistic pagan society that Christianity has overcome.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4][5]

Recall last week’s lesson on the passage immediately previous to this, in verses 12-14. If you are a Christian, John has declared that you are a beloved child of the Father, forgiven for the sake of the high and exalted name of Christ, in relationship with and knowing the Creator of the cosmos, and an overcomer of the evil one who is strengthened by the indwelling word of God. How incredibly incompatible then, is it for us to befriend the deceitful, corrupting world which so hates our Savior?!

Similar to John’s point in this week’s passage, Paul argues in Romans 6 for why the believer must turn from living in sin. Let’s trace out the logic of his argument. He begins by asking, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2). Paul then proceeds with a list of reasons for the incomprehensibility of a believer continuing to live in sin.

We were baptized not only into Christ Jesus, but into his death—and buried with him!—so that, just as he was raised from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life (3-4). We have been united to Christ in a death like his and will certainly therefore be united with him in a resurrection like his (5). We know that our old self was crucified with him in order to bring the body of sin to nothing and to end our enslavement to sin (6). We have been set free from sin by dying with Christ and we will also live with him (7-8). We know that since Christ was raised from the dead he will never die again—death no longer has dominion over him—for he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives now he lives to God, and so we also must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (9-11).

In his commentary on Romans 6, James Montgomery Boice makes a point about our being baptized into the death and burial of Christ that, for me, opens up a whole new depth of meaning to this passage, beginning with verses 3-4 and spilling over into the rest of the chapter—indeed, into the rest of scripture.[6] I’ll try to keep this brief. His point centers on the use and meaning of the Greek word translated here as “baptism.” The Greek baptizō may mean at least “to immerse,” but it may convey other meanings, sometimes metaphorical, as well. In usage from classical literature to about 200 years after Christ “baptizō always pointed to a change having taken place by some means.”[7]

Boice gives a number of examples from literature, and then adds:

The clearest example I know that shows this meaning of baptizō is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles, … to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be “dipped” (baptō) into boiling water and then “baptized” (baptizō) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern immersing the vegetable in a solution, but the first is temporary. The second, the act of “baptizing” the vegetable, produces a permanent change.[8]

This is an illustration that we can really sink our teeth into. A cucumber, once it has been pickled in the vinegar solution, has been permanently changed. It will be from that point forward a pickle and cannot be “un-pickled.” It will always be a pickle—never again a cucumber.

Paul is saying that if you are in Christ you have undergone a permanent change (you didn’t change yourself—you have been changed) from which there is no going back: you cannot be “un-pickled.” Of course, Boice makes this point far better than I: he writes that, “the key to a holy life is not our experiences or our emotions, however meaningful or intense these may be, but rather our knowledge of what has happened to us… because the most important and basic reason for going forward in the Christian life is that we cannot go back.”[9]

Paul strongly emphasizes his point that our union with Christ has fundamentally changed us in our relationship to sin by writing next that we have not only died to sin, we are dead-and-buried to it (3-4). Union with Christ means death to sin. There is an aspect of death which is not entirely final until the one who has died has been buried. Until the burial, they are, in a sense, still with us. But Paul says that in Christ, we are not only dead to sin, in Christ we are buried—by baptizō—into death, in order that we might be raised with him and walk in newness of life.

And this new life in Christ is a life free from the shackles of sin which enslaved us (6-7). Paul hammers this point in every phrase of this discussion, ending with our proper response to the knowledge of this truth: we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (11). To consider the facts is not to imagine a fantasy or pretend a falsehood, it is to think truthfully. It is true of us that if we are in Christ we are fundamentally changed, we are dead to sin, we are free from slavery to sin, sin has no dominion over us, Jesus accomplished this once for all; this is true of us.

Paul concludes that our response to the freedom from sin purchased for us by Christ, and our resulting identity in Christ, is that we must LIVE IT (12-13). Why? Because “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (14). This is definitive sanctification: because of the crosswork of Jesus we are free from the power of sin.

Neither the world nor sin have any claim on us because we no longer belong to them. We belong to the Savior who bought us by his blood to free us from our former bondage to sin and death. We have died to the world and to sin and are now raised to new life in union with Christ. Paul emphasizes that the way of sin is death, both now and eternally, while the way of Christ is life, both now and eternally (6:20-22).

Returning to our passage in 1 John, if the way of the world is darkness leading to death, and the way of our Father is light and life, how then could we continue in our old ways of friendship with and love for the world?

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.[10]

If we must fight the temptations of worldliness, we need to learn how to recognize our enemy.

Worldly Desires

In verse 16 John breaks down “all that is in the world” into three categories of “love for the world” which we are to consciously avoid: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life.

What are “the desires of the flesh”? These are the sinful desires which come from within us, as Jesus taught:

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)

According to James, these desires originate within us, but it isn’t until we let them run amuck, toying with their temptations, allowing their allurements, and enjoying their enticements, that desire conceives and gives birth to sin (James 1:13-15). “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.”[11]

On the other hand, “the desires of the eyes” are those temptations which are outside of us, calling to us to engage in sin which we have not yet considered. When the serpent approached Eve, he came with a new (to her) idea: disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit and be released from (a fictitious) oppression which had never occurred to her (Gen. 3:6). These desires originate with that ancient serpent, Satan himself, who goes about trying to destroy the sons of God, and even repeated his original temptation with the Son of God himself when he offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world in exchange for Jesus falling down to worship him (Matt. 4:8-9). While Jesus immediately rebuffed Satan, we often tuck these new desires away and they move into the first category which we are here considering, becoming desires of the flesh which will come back to bite us if we aren’t on our guard.

Finally, “the pride of life” is, as O’Donnell writes, “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 an unholy conceit in viewing God’s gifts as human achievements.”[12] And it is precisely the attitude of king Nebuchadnezzar, for which God struck him with his beastly madness (Dan. 4:28-33). This pride originates in a sinful desire to pull God from his heavenly throne and assume his place (Isaiah 14:13-14). Not only that, but the assumption that one already has taken the throne and is ruling one’s own life. The pride of life is the subtext to so much that passes as “inspirational” today: “She believed she could, and so she did,” or the classic, “I am the captain of my own soul,” and the recycled ancient lie, “You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”[13] We must be on our guard at all times and critically aware of the messages which we allow into our homes and hearts, because the pride of life isn’t only marketed under secular labels, but can be found even on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore.

Ultimately, all three of these kinds of desires come to us, as John writes, “not from the Father but . . . from the world” (16b). “Christians, according to the Apostle’s definition, . . . are people who have in them the life of Christ—Christ dwelling and living in them. Therefore, says John, if you claim that Christ is dwelling within you, you cannot be guilty of loving the things that arise from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Look at Him; He was never guilty of those sins. . .”[14]

How can Christians overcome worldly desires? Our most powerful weapon against worldly desires is the truth of who we are in Christ and what God has done for us already. As discussed already when we looked at Romans 6, we must know the truth of who we are in Christ, and we must LIVE IT.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8)

God has granted to us, in Christ, everything we need to live godly lives, and he has given us his precious and very great promises, causing us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, or, as John will write, God’s seed abides in us and we therefore cannot keep on sinning (3:9). In Christ God has provided for our escape from the corruption of sinful desire, so we can now make every effort to grow in godliness, being effective and fruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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).[15]

In verse 17 John gives us another pair of reasons, by way of sharp contrast, not to love the world or its desires. John tells us that the world and its desires are passing away, but whoever does the will of God—meaning, believers—abides forever. Oh, what encouragement to strive for holiness! These temptations which would lure us into sin and misery are only temporary, but the blessings which are promised to those who fight against worldly desires are eternal. The striving and self-denying, and battles against temptation may seem unending now, but they will come to an end and we will not be plagued by them forever. When Jesus said that those who would come after him must deny themselves and take up their cross to follow him, he gave this promise: “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). And then, the Lord underscored his point by asking, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (36).

Finally, Jesus’s prescription for the Christian who is having trouble letting go of her love for the world is found nestled in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.[16]


The Covenant Connection

God in his kindness saved us out of the world, transforming us from his enemies into his beloved children. In doing so, he was keeping the promise he made to Abraham (then called Abram) when he first called him to leave his home country and go to the land of Canaan and later ratified into his covenant with him (Genesis 15). God’s first promise to Abram was as follows: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

According to the author of Hebrews, Abraham’s response was obedience, and though he did not know where he was going, he left his home and lived the rest of his life as a nomad, by faith, because, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). The author of Hebrews then writes of the result of this, the Covenant of Grace:

Therefore from one man [Abraham], and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:12-16)

Through the course of the Old Testament, God added details to his Covenant of Grace: the Law, the holy priesthood, the royal family of David with a king to occupy the throne forever. With each detail added, the picture of what God’s people would look like took shape. But first and foremost they were a people called to leave the world behind and follow where God told them to go. They were strangers and exiles, passing through an alien world, looking forward to their promised, eternal, heavenly home.

The passage above from Hebrews 11 speaks of the Old Testament saints as “them,” but the same promises and hope given to them are given to all who are in Christ. See here what the apostle Peter writes of us: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:9-11).

If you are in Christ, you are being described in this passage. Do you see your connection to Abraham and the believers who have gone before us?! You are the chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and people for his own possession, and you are therefore to proclaim the excellencies of him because you have received mercy, and you are to abstain from the passions of the flesh, because they wage war against your soul.

We are beloved sojourners, looking forward to our heavenly home. The battle may be long, and it may be wearisome, but it will not be forever. Take courage, Christian, know what is true of you—that you have been fundamentally and permanently changed by Christ—and go forward in this Christian life!

[1] John Calvin, “I John,” in John Calvin and Matthew Henry, 1, 2, 3 John, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 39.

[2] Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982),113.

[3] C. H. Dodd, quoted in William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, Daily Bible Study Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 56.

[4] Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ, 216.

[5] O’Donnell, 1-3 John, 68.

[6] I am indebted to my friend Jana Henry, who brought this to my attention after discovering it while she was preparing to lead the class on this lesson.

[7] James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Vol. 2, The Reign of Grace, Romans 5:1-8:39, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), p. 659.

[8] Ibid., 659.

[9] Ibid., 658. (Italics Boice’s, underline mine.)

[10] O’Donnell, 1-3 John, 74.

[11] Ibid., 71

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Rachel Hollis, Girl, Wash Your Face, (Thomas Nelson) reviewed by Tim Challies,

[14] Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ, 220.

[15] O’Donnell, 1-3 John, 73, Quoting Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ, 221.

[16] O’Donnell, 1-3 John, 76, quoting Missionary and martyr Jim Elliot, shared by Elisabeth Elliot, ed., The Journals of Jim Elliot (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1978), 178.

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