One Christian sings This world is not my home; another sings, This is My Father’s World. The relationship between Christians and their world has been described as the enduring problem. You may feel that. How should Christian people relate to the world? Should we hate it or love it? Should we seeking to be pure from the stain of the world; should we be seeking to be relevant to our world; should we be defensive against it? Or all three at once? Or perhaps different reactions at different times? Or perhaps there are other alternatives?
And what is the world we are talking about anyway? The physical world, people generally, or bad people only?
What do the Scriptures say about this apparently complex subject?
I remember first seeing the movie Star Wars back in the day. The cinema was packed and the only seats left were in the very front row. As the movie began the back story to the movie unfurled across the screen beginning with those memorable words, A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… . With those words a context was given, a stage was set and a legend born. The impact of that opening was accentuated by our position in the cinema, so close to the screen that we had to swivel our heads like we were at a tennis match in order to read these words as they appeared on the giant screen before us. The prologue to Star Wars was an essential piece of narrative, setting a context for the story to follow.
In the beginning was the word… . We are no doubt familiar with the opening words to John’s Gospel, the prologue as it is called. These words perform a similar function to the Star Wars text but are even more thrilling.
The prologue (John 1.1-18) is a wonderful piece of writing that introduces the Fourth Gospel as a kind of overture. It gives an overview of its plot and themes, provides snatches of tunes to come in the narrative of the Gospel and generally hints at the various moods of what is to follow. By the end of the prologue the reader’s appetite is whetted for what is to follow.
These opening 18 verses place John’s biography of Jesus into the widest possible context.
The identity of Jesus is placed in the widest possible context. Jesus is introduced (eventually…we have to wait until verse 17 to actually read his name) in the context of his divine identity through the title, Word (John 1.1-5). The Word is identical and yet distinct from God we are told. To this is added the further descriptors life and light. This Word is brimful of promise. We are also told that all things came into being through the Word, all things made without exception. Finally we are told that the light shines in the darkness.
The story of Jesus is placed in the widest possible context. We are told that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. A battle is hinted at…not necessarily an eternal battle but a battle nonetheless from close to the beginning of creation.
As the prologue progresses the focus narrows to a more specific story. We are told of John, a witness to the light that is coming into the world. We are then told that the light, the word, was in the world but not recognised; that he came to his own place but was not received by his own people (John 1.9-11).
The general battle between light and darkness is localised to a story of the word interacting with the world. In verse 10 of the prologue we are told that the world did not recognise him. The world is personified here but we have already been prepared for this by the mention of men in verse 4: it seem that the world being referred to here is the world of humankind. The reference to the world in verse 9 might simply be a reference to the physical world but as the passage progresses it takes on different connotations. What does it mean to say that the world did not know Him? This may be a statement of fact or it might be more wilful.
Verse 11 seems to parallel verse 10 and localise things even further. The word comes to his own place and his own people do not receive him. This could be a general reference to the created world as the proper homeland of the word; the place where as creator the word ought to be known and received but is instead unknown and not received. Or, in the light of the story that unfolds in the Gospel that follows it could be referring to Jesus coming to his own homeland, to his own people and not being recognised or received. Perhaps the ambiguity allows us to read both stories at once?
This story looks like a tragedy unfolding: the word, full of life and light, coming to the world, to its own place and not being recognised or received. But as the passage goes on we realise that this will be a comedy; that all will end well as some receive the word and become children by God, by the miracle of God’s power and grace (John 1.12-13).
This story is then reflected upon in the latter part of the prologue (John 1.14-18) where John explains that this story has been talking about the incarnation of Jesus and that he has come, full of grace and truth, to reveal the Father so that anyone can become a child of God, enlightened and full of life.
In this opening we are given two stories to ponder. The first is the story of the Word and the relationship of the Word to God. This frames one of the central teachings of John’s Gospel that in Jesus, God has come near, in the flesh as it were in the person of his Son. This is a great story.
The second story is the story of the Word and the world; a story that frames and informs the narrative to follow as Jesus comes to the people of Israel and is rejected. It is a story that reaches back into Israel’s past as we recall the rejection of the word of God in the story recorded for us in the pages of the Old Testament. And it is a story that we recognise around us today as the word, Jesus, is still unknown and rejected. And yet we need to recall that this is a comedy and not a tragedy; that in Jesus’s time, Israel’s time and in our time, by God’s grace and power, people still are given the right and privilege of being a child of the living God.
In order to relate to our world we need to understand our world in the light of God’s revelation to us. John has given us a great start. He has reminded us that our world does not have an independent existence; that it has been created through his Word. Jesus will go on to talk about the ruler of this world and by this he means Satan but we read this in the light of what has been said in John 1: the world is created and ultimately ruled and ultimately accountable to the Word. God remains sovereign over this world. It is a world created good, but a world gone wrong.
We also see that the world has a negative feel to it: it is associated with darkness, ignorance and rejection of the Word. However we also see that the Word comes to the world and as the Gospel unfolds we will see that this is because, despite these negative features, the world remains the object of the Father’s love and the Son is sent to save the world.
In the context of the Gospel a relationship is established between the Jews of the Gospel and the world. In this relationship we may be able to see a little more of the exact nature of the world; how and why it rebels and how God’s children should respond to it.
This is only the tip of the iceberg of the Bible’s teaching on the world; there is so much more to be said but there is plenty of food for thought here. Not the least of which is the question as to where we find ourselves in the story of the Word and the world; are we with the world or with the Word?
And if we are with the Word what does this mean for us as we continue to live in the world as the children of God? John will pick this question up throughout his Gospel and again in his first letter. The short answer is that we will not sin, we will love, and we will testify. However, there is so much more to be said.
The fourth Gospel presents the world as one of the contexts for faithful living as the children of God. John shows us God’s unique Son, Jesus, living faithfully amidst his world and provides the raw materials for us to think about living faithfully in our world. It is complex, no doubt, but thanks be to God he has not left us alone to work things out alone but he has given us his Word to guide us in this world.