The book of 1 John is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating books in the New Testament, if the not the whole Bible. On the one hand, it is fondly admired by many (myself included) for its inspirational and encouraging passages. Verses that explain to us the depths of God’s love, assure us of our forgiveness, and remind us of the Light. But from an exegetical perspective, it also presents many challenges of interpretation. John’s writing style in this letter has been described by various scholars as cyclical, spiraling, rhetorical, metaphorical, and back-and-forth, just to name a few.
The result, if we do not start from a firm and agreed-upon foundation, can be a confusing mess of spiritual “tests” that has left many a reader wondering where they even stand with God. But the goal of this blog series (and dare I say, of scripture itself) is not that the reader would leave more confused and unsure than when they started, but that they would instead find confidence in the truth and authority of the word of God. So with that in mind, let’s start by laying that foundation.
The letter of 1 John is written to believers, those who have trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the gift of eternal life. However, as we know from many of the other New Testament letters, especially those of Paul and Peter, the first century church was under constant threat of false teaching. What we see in this beloved letter is a lot of contrast, showing what the life and actions of a follower of Jesus ought to look like when compared with the life and actions of those who are against Christ and his message.
There are some really harsh and hefty statements made in this letter, because the issues John is addressing are not light and meaningless. He wants the reader to know the importance of living as Christ would have them live, and the equal importance of avoiding the opposite.
However, we once again return to the foundation that he is writing to believers. So while he does talk about enemies, those outside the church (and within) who are anti-Christ, and addresses their consequences; he is not bringing into question the authenticity of those whose salvation has been assured by grace through faith in Jesus. In other words, for the believer reading this letter, the purpose is not that you would question the validity of your salvation. But it definitely invites the question of whether or not your lifestyle points to the one in whom your hope is found (cf. Matt. 5:14–16).
Loving the World
With our starting point established, let’s turn now to the focus of today’s post.
15 Do not love the world nor 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 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. 17 The world is passing away and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God continues to live forever.1 John 2:15–17 NASB
There are three verses here, and I think each one has some interesting content; so let’s take them one-by-one. Just before we do that, however, I encourage you to take note of all the repetition. John wants to make it abundantly clear the opposition between that which is godly and that which is worldly.
So what does John mean in the first half of verse 15 when he says “Do not love the world nor the things in the world”? Many a Bible commentator have been quick to point out that he is clearly referring to something different than in his most famous words:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16 NASB
In these words from his gospel account, John is demonstrating God’s sacrificial love for his creation, particularly those made in his very image. Whereas in chapter 2 of his first letter, he is warning those very created ones against being enamoured with creation in place of their Creator. It’s not so much about not caring people, or not finding pleasure in that which God has given us. Rather it’s a warning against making our central focus that which is opposed to God or caring too deeply for that which is temporal versus what is eternal.
Think of Colossians 3 where Paul writes “Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth” (vv. 2); or Matthew 6 where Jesus warns “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (vv. 24). Eventually (or perhaps even regularly) we are going to have to choose what comes first: God, or something else?
Verse 16 seeks to clarify the point that John has just made; to demonstrate what he means by “the world”, and to show just how diametrically opposed Godliness and worldliness are. The problem is that God’s good creation has been marred by sin, and that fallenness has made the things of this world into everything that a holy and perfect God is not. Thus, the world is characterized by the “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” rather than that which characterizes God.
I won’t spend too much time extrapolating these specific terms. But it’s clear that by including “lust of the flesh” and “lust of the eyes”, John is referring to the full extent of our sinful desires. Is the sinful actions we long to engage in, the accolades and possessions we sinfully long to acquire. In the same way, the “boastful pride of life” is sinfully finding our confidence in those actions, possessions, or accolades; that which is temporary.
I find it very interesting that rather than qualify “the world” by listing what we might think of as more active sins (e.g. murder, adultery, stealing, etc.), John instead follows Jesus’ lead from the Sermon on the Mount and refers to the sinful desires behind the actions (cf. Matt. 5:21–48). Now, we want to be careful not to call temptation a sin, for Jesus himself was tempted in the desert (Matthew 4, Mark 1, Luke 4). But instead we acknowledge that desiring to do that which God has called wrong is obviously from the world and not from God, from the flesh not the Father.
Why Does it Matter?
Verse 17 is the starting point for our application today. Why does it matter? Because “the world is passing away and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God continues to live forever”. When we put too much stock in that which is temporary, we are wasting time that could be spent on that which is eternal. The sinful desires we have on this earth, and that which the world says is “good”, it’s all fleeting. But our God isn’t going anywhere! It’s not even worth the time of engaging the thought of partaking in sin when compared with the endless expanse of eternity.
The second half of the verse is not meant as some sort of test. We don’t believe in a works-based salvation where we need to be asking ourselves if we’ve accomplished enough of God’s will to live forever. Instead, as was mentioned in a recent sermon, John makes it clear what the will of God is:
“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”John 6:40 NASB
Remember, this passage is being written to believers. It’s a reminder to all of us of where our hearts and priorities should lie, in light of the truth of our eternity. Don’t waste time chasing after the things of this world, but focus your attention on that which is from God.
Again, that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to enjoy creation or that it’s always sinful to want things (although it definitely can be!) But if the things of this world are taking priority over our Father in heaven, it’s worth it to take a step back and ask ourselves some tough questions, as John is inviting us to do. No one can serve two masters; where does my love lie?