The definition of “pure and undefiled religion before God” is “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1: 27). The first section - visiting orphans and widows - even a child can understand. What, however, does the second part mean? What is this “world” from which we are to keep ourselves unspotted? Later on in his epistle, James mentions “the world” again, and in uncompromising language: “know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore is minded to be [the] friend of the world is constituted enemy of God” (James 4: 4). John also expresses similar sentiments: “Love not the world, nor the things in the world. If any one love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2: 15). Clearly, the world ought to be no light matter with the Christian. So what do we mean by the world?
There are three senses in which the word world is used in Scripture. Literally, it means the order or system by which human affairs are managed on the earth - which is why we read of “the spirit of the world” (1 Cor. 2: 12). However, the planet itself is called the world as well, because it is the platform on which the world-system operates. Thus Acts 17: 24: “The God who has made the world and all things which are in it”. Again, the people who live according to this world -system are also called the world - as in John 3: 16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son”. Thus we have the world-system, the world-platform, and the world-people. When the Father sent the Son as “Saviour of the world” (1 John 4: 14), it was the world-people that was in view. As thus sent, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1: 15), but now it is His coming onto the world-platform. However, in so doing, He necessarily came into contact with the world-system - of which He could say “me it hates” (John 7: 7). It was no different for His disciples: “They are not of the world, as I am not of the world” (John 17: 16), that is, they did not find their life in the system. Furthermore, “the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world” (John 17: 14). Christ and the world are ever in conflict. To be a friend to that system is to be an enemy to God. Why? On account of its being governed in independence of God instead of being subject to God. The Lord Jesus was bound by the will of His Father; the world is characterised by the spirit of Babel.
What do I mean by the world-system? Take for an illustration the military. When a man enlists in the army he finds everything provided for him: the paymaster’s department supplies his funds, the quartermaster’s department clothes him, and the ordinance department arms and equips him. It is arranged for him that he shall go here, and lodge there. There are regular hours for drill, parade and roll-call. To all this military system he is bound when he enters the army. It is even called a little world in itself, so complete and systematic are its arrangements. Now this is but a faint illustration of the all-governing system that is ‘the world’ in Scripture - where every want of man is provided for.
Man wants society and so the world provides the social system. Position is everything -it is sought for at great trouble, and no expense is too great to secure it. Behold the great ladder ‘Society’ with the countless thousands upon it - some striving to climb higher and higher, others only to hold on to their present positions! What a tremendous power to absorb heart and mind the social system possesses! Again, what a complete arrangement there is for what we call business. The working system of the world is truly amazing. Men of muscle find physical work; inventive minds have full scope for their genius; artistic souls revel in their world of painting, music, and poetry. Students sit and study, writers write books, and the very lusts of some furnish the means of livelihood to others. As men say, it takes all kinds to make a world.
Man is a very complicated creature. A good many different things taken together are needed for most: a little business, a little politics, a little society, a little study and a little religion. This last is critical in the consideration of our subject, for man is naturally religious. Religion is as much a part of man’s natural make-up as his intellect or memory. Being therefore so important a part of the human nature, the world-system has made a special provision for it. Some think they have escaped from the snare of worldliness if they have given up so-called worldly pleasures, and become religious, not realising that they are just as much in the world-system as before. Satan has only shifted them from one department of his world to another, to quieten their uneasy consciences and make them better satisfied with themselves. Nor is this only for the merely religious. Many true saints are ensnared by a worldly worship. One individual is very sensitive to tender impressions - has a love for the beautiful. Fine music, imposing ceremonies and religious rites are provided for him. Another is free and outspoken in nature - he must have opportunity to give vent to his feelings unrestrained. A scene of high emotion is made for this one: loud music, hand-clapping, and physical exertion. Another is cold, reserved, reasoning - a stern orthodoxy and critical theology will suit him. Thus there are creeds and doctrines and sects for every variety of temperament and for every shade of the fleshly religious feeling.
Could any system be more complete than the world? Nothing is left out. Everything is there to keep the great mass of humanity thoroughly occupied: their minds are kept busy, their bodies are kept busy, their hearts are kept busy. If one thing fails, another is provided. Even death and bereavement are not left out of the calculation, for the world-system has its arrangements of funerals, mourning attire, notes of sympathy and all the other varied accessories - and so the world is able to tide over sorrows before long, and occupy itself away from God just as before. Now God would have you see that all this business, politics, education, governments, science, inventions, cars and planes, films and theatre, internet, social arrangements, fashion, charitable institutions, sport, religion and all, are of the world-system. The stark truth for the Christian is that “all that [is] in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2: 16).
The creator and manager of the whole stupendous system is Satan himself. He is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4: 4). He is its “prince” (John 12: 31), and its “ruler” (John 14: 30), and “the whole world lies in the wicked [one]” (1 John 5: 19). Satan is the energy of it all, and the presiding genius behind it. When the Lord Jesus Christ was on earth, the devil came and offered him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, “for”, he said, “it is given up to me, and to whomsoever I will I give it. If therefore thou wilt do homage before me, all [of it] shall be thine” (Luke 4: 6-7). Here we have the curtain lifted, and Satan’s agenda exposed. Deluded mankind is rushing after ‘progress’, but men are mere pawns in the hands of a fearful being, whose goal is the revelation of “the man of sin” (2 Thess. 2: 3), and a system openly and publicly satanic - a full revelation of what is now still hidden in mystery. Scripture describes him as “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ez. 28: 12) transforming himself “into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11: 14). Who can wonder if unthinking men, and even the more thoughtful ones, are deceived and deluded? How few have their eyes opened to see what the world really is! We speak of ‘man’s world’, but at bottom it is Satan’s world.
Is it not high time then for Christians to awake out of sleep, and to see to it that they are not associated with such a system? ‘Ah’ you say, ‘how can we help it?’ ‘Are we not bound by necessity to these things by our trades and professions, and as members of society? Business must be attended to surely?’ Yes, this is a necessity that everybody admits, but mark, the very fact that everybody admits it, stamps it as not of God. “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12: 2) says the apostle - yet how can we avoid it? “This is the victory which has gotten the victory over the world, our faith” (1 John 5: 4). People everywhere, on every hand, will tell us what it is necessary to do, and not to do here among men, for what suits man is their standard and measure. By contrast, the child of God pays no attention to what they say, for what suits God is his standard and measure - he is walking by faith. It is not a question of what seems reasonable or appropriate. As one of God’s sons, the Christian is “led by [the] Spirit of God” (Rom. 8: 14), and is under the immediate direction of God in all things. The world says many things are essential - money, work, exercise, insurance, entertainment and a thousand others. Faith needs only God - He will provide whatever else is necessary - if it is His will for me to have employment then I will have it, if not, then I will not. Where faith is in real exercise I am no longer dependent on the world-system.
For instance: everybody says that a citizen of the country should be interested in the government of the country to which he belongs, and ought to vote, so as to help to put good men in power. God says differently: He tells me that, as His child, I am not a citizen of any earthly country - my citizenship is in heaven (see Phil. 3: 20) and I have henceforth to do with heavenly things. The cross of Christ has crucified me to the world, and the world to me (see Gal. 6: 14). If I give my mind and heart to these earthly things I shall be the enemy of the cross of Christ. What then should be our attitude be to the government? We should submit to rulers since God ordains them, and when they impose tax, we should pay it (see Titus 3: 1; 1 Pet. 2: 13-18). Furthermore, we should make supplication to God “for kings and all that are in dignity (1 Tim. 2: 2). All therefore that a Christian has to do with politics is to be subject to the powers set over him, “not only on account of wrath, but also on account of conscience” (Rom. 13: 5). If then, a Christian declines to vote, it is not so much that he thinks voting in itself is wrong, as that he has given his vote and interest to the Man in heaven, whom God has exalted as King of kings, and Lord of lords (see Rev. 17: 14). He has lost interest in these worldly things by virtue of something he has found which is far more attractive.
The man of God sees, too that the world in spirit and essence is ungodly, and that its boasted reforms and improvement are all tending to shut out God from the heart of man. He desires to stand as a witness for God and for the truth - for “the world is passing” (1 John 1: 17) and even when men will be congratulating themselves on peace and safety (see 1 Thess. 5: 1-3), judgment will come. He desires that others may learn through him to escape the snare by which Satan is entrapping the mass of mankind. We who are saved are to be distinct, as taking side with a rejected Christ, against a world which has crucified Him. We should be marked out as men of a heavenly race, “harmless and simple, irreproachable children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation; among whom ye appear as lights in [the] world, holding forth [the] word of life” (Phil. 2: 15, 16). This is the great mission of God’s children - but to live in this way costs something. It is to be like a rock in a mountain stream. Everything round it is on the move, all tending strongly one way - constant, unremitting pressure and opposition. If it was not rock, it would surely be swept away. Thus when we learn to take the words of God and practise them, and bear testimony to them in our lives, the storm comes. To belong to a so-called church or meeting is easy enough, and to do as others do - to be an honest and good citizen - brings no persecution. One may be all that and yet go with the current, but to shine as lights in the world for God provokes the world’s enmity. Wherever Christ is seen, He is hated, and if He is seen in me, then I will be hated on that account: “Do not wonder, brethren, if the world hate you … If the world hate you, know that it has hated me before you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on account of this the world hates you” (1 John 3: 13; John 15: 18-19). However, if I enjoy a fair reputation, mix with all and sundry, act and talk like the world, what then? The life of Jesus is not being made manifest in my mortal flesh (see 2 Cor. 4: 11), and whatever I may proclaim, my testimony is non-existent.
When a person has really come to know God, and has been blessed with all God’s riches in Christ, it is a fitting question how he can be interested in the world at all. If we saw a boy eating bitter, worthless fruit in an orchard, while on the very next tree, there were delicious apples, we should conclude that he did not know about the good fruit. In the same way then, if a man is enthusiastically engaged in the things that make up man’s system, can he, we ask, really know God? This is why the words of God often do not come as definite orders: ‘thou shalt not vote’, ‘thou shalt not be honoured in this evil age’ or ‘thou shalt suffer shame’ and so on. The true-hearted saint who walks with God knows instinctively what is of the Father and what is of the world. Furthermore, to him the Word of God is plain and full of instruction for every situation and eventuality that presents itself, while to the worldling all seems dark and obscure. God is the rewarder of those that search Him out.
Now whatever Christ’s present relation to the world is, that is the Christian’s too. Our place is defined by the place which the Lord is in above, and the place that He is not in below. Where He is accepted is where I am accepted. Where He is rejected is where I am rejected: “He was in the world, and the world had [its] being through him, and the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1: 10, 11). How then can we expect to be well received? He Himself said “In the world ye have tribulation” (John 16: 33). It is a Christless world, and so my relationship with it as a Christian, can only be that of a stranger and pilgrim. Of course, we need to be in contact with the world-system to some degree, but this contact is never to be one of fellowship: “what fellowship of light with darkness? and what consent of Christ with Beliar? (2 Cor. 6: 14, 15). The Lord prayed to His Father thus: “I do not demand that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them out of evil” (John 17: 15). He, who was not of this world, suffered while in the world - the loneliness and tribulation were real to him - and they will be real to us just as we follow in His steps. Too many of us are comfortable and satisfied, and enjoying a ‘home’ feeling that is entirely unwarranted in this godless world. Home here, where Christ is not? How could that be? We are homeless wanderers and weary pilgrims - indeed foreigners, if we really be Christ’s. Contact with the world there must be while we are in it, but sadly we bring ourselves into contact at many points where there ought to be no contact at all, and where there would be none if we were truly “bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4: 10). Many are the deceptions with which the enemy allures the heart of God’s children - even in service and fellowship the flesh can participate and may be substituted for living by faith in the Son of God. Again, how often does the “fashion of this world” (1 Cor. 7: 31) find a place among the people of God? Some speak of the Church as having a place in ‘the community’. What is this but a place in the world? The Church has one place here, and that is as a company of outcasts. The godly of old, whose report has come down to us that they “pleased God” (Heb. 11: 5), were “[the] offscouring of the world” (1 Cor. 4: 13), and “went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, evil treated, (of whom the world was not worthy,) wandering in deserts and mountains, and [in] dens and caverns of the earth” (Heb. 11: 37, 38). Their commonwealth had and has “its existence in [the] heavens” (Phil. 3: 20). In contrast to them, many of us are honourable (as the world counts honour). We live too much according to the world-system to be brought into conflict with it, and the result is we are disloyal to Christ, and escape the cross and its reproach. The Word stands unalterable: “all indeed who desire to live piously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3: 12). He said, “If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15: 20). May we be among those who “shew clearly that they seek [their] country” - another place that is “better” and “heavenly” (Heb. 11: 14-16).