With Christ: In But Not Of The World
This post is derived from the manuscript that was the basis of a presentation from Grace Communion Seminary faculty member Dr. Gary Deddo at the July 2023 Grace Communion International Denominational Celebration in North Carolina, USA.
|"Follow Me" by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with artist's permission)|
Who is Jesus Christ? All of Scripture is aimed at answering this important question. Our challenge in understanding how Scripture does this is to gather up the pieces of the puzzle that make up Jesus' portrait. Doing so is a life-long task, getting to know more and more of who Jesus is, not just what he did, nor the names and labels we have for him. There is no shortcut—we must continually read and review Scripture with special concentration on the life of Christ and especially what we learn from his telling us of his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. As we do this, our faith and lives become more and more a response to all of who our Triune God is. As we grow in relationship with the Triune God, we are prepared to meet the challenges of living between the times of Christ’s first and second advents. Perhaps many, if not most of us, have found fighting the fight of faith more difficult and demanding in recent years.
Missing pieces of the Who puzzle?
In my own life, I've found it easy to concentrate on certain pieces of the puzzle that tell us who Jesus is, while neglecting (even avoiding) other pieces. It’s easy to be unaware that we're getting a lopsided portrait of Jesus. When that happens, we lose sight of all that we can trust him for, all that makes him worthy of our worship. Studying together and interacting with each other helps us fill out the picture of who Jesus is and of all he reveals about the Triune God we worship. Making use of the resources God gives us helps us avoid a truncated understanding of who Jesus is, and also then a shrunken faith in him. The Gospels themselves chronicle how Jesus took his disciples on a three-year-long journey of getting to know him better and better—a journey that held many surprises they were not ready to absorb, as Jesus turned out to be far more than they could ever anticipate.
There is far more to Jesus than we at first realize—more to be thankful for, more to trust him with, more to glory in and give him our praise and worship. Some of the things we go through, sometimes with no choice in the matter, prove more difficult than others in grasping how Jesus is at work. Because the pieces of the puzzle we see before us don’t seem to fit together, we can be tempted to give up. But that’s where we should focus much of our energy—looking again to see who Jesus is, so that we remain steadfast, attached to the vine, assisting others when the going gets tough.
The question intensified
Over these past few years I've wrestled more intensely with questions of how we are to be joined with Jesus, yet participate with him in this fallen world. That dilemma is often summarized as “being in the world with Christ but not of it." That phrase serves as a good start, but what does it mean? What does it look like? Let me share some of my observations and present understandings that have come to me over the past several years as more tragic events and circumstances came into view. The overall effect was the realization that the world is more deeply fallen, and in more ways than I had previously recognized—or perhaps was willing to admit.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had been mostly operating as if the background in which I lived and in which our churches were seeking to minister was mostly neutral (with the exception of a few bad spots here and there). I hadn’t taken as seriously as I should have the biblical teaching that this present evil age is not neutral towards Christ and towards the Body of Christ. The reality is that there is much more widespread resistance toward and even rejection of God and his plan for humanity created according to his image through Jesus Christ, who himself is the very image of God. And the result is that along with the world's loss of the true knowledge of God comes the loss of who and what humanity is, who human beings belong to.
Perhaps in actuality not a lot has changed over the last several years. But there have been circumstances, developments and informational revelations that highlight more exactly just what the church is up against: namely the power and influence of evil, the depth and extent of evil that I and perhaps you have become more and more aware of. A lot concerning this growing awareness has to do with the pandemic, how people were responding to it, and with the related concerns such as health, medical, financial, tragic deaths, suicides, increasing division, hostility, anxiety and fear. A lot of these tensions and challenges were coming from outside the church, but they work their way inside, they encroach into our lives, wanted or not. As Christians, we cannot simply avoid “the world” and its evils. However, are there some things about who Christ is that can prepare us better to be in the world but not of it, not conformed to it?
Have the mind of Christ
There are two aspects of being in the world but not of it that I want to address here. The first is to have the mind of Christ—a phrase used by the apostle Paul:
12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” [Is 40:13]. But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:12-16)
Here Paul addresses the particular problem of how persons were wrongly regarding human leaders in the church at Corinth. He corrects them by indicating that they together “have the mind of Christ” and so should think, react and behave towards each other on that basis and not out of immaturity and ignorance that come from the spirit of the world rather than the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. Then in the book of Romans, Paul admonishes them not to be conformed to this world but to have their minds renewed:
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed [ or “schematized”] to this world, but be transformed [Gk: metamorphose] by the renewal [Gk: anakainosis] of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
By "mind," the New Testament means far more than having an idea, a concept, a logical line of argument, or an accurate labeling or mental description. It means an entire perception of reality, a whole grasp of a situation that apprehends things from the standpoint of Jesus Christ—all of who he is, all of what he has done, is doing and will do. It means standing with Jesus, seeing things from his point of view with his eyes.
Notice the strong contrasts made by Paul in both passages. Such a grasp of reality from a Christ-centered standpoint is not easily come by. It can be missed and requires a deliberate resistance to easily assuming the perceptions and convictions of others—it anticipates a different framework, a distinct center: as if Jesus Christ is Lord of History, as if persons belong to God through Christ, as if he alone will be the final judge and ruler of all things. As if he alone knows what true human being is and can enable us to recognize and begin to live out what it means to be a human being created to conform to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
But all this has to be discovered, discerned. So at one very important point Jesus sets out for us the task this way: give or devote to Caesar what is Ceasar's, and give to God what is God’s. And the clue he gives us to do this is to look to see whose image is stamped or impressed into those things. What bears the image or stamp of Caesar? The metal coin! And who bears the image of God? Every human being! Recall Genesis 2 and Paul’s writings regarding Jesus being the Image and we being renewed and conformed to his image. The point here being that we are not to be devoted to, come under the absolute unthinking lordship of any human authority, including Caesar’s. Human beings are to be treated as if they are answerable to God, as if they belong to God, and are given their identity, meaning and purpose by their Creator and Redeemer and no one else.
Jesus himself shows us what it means to be a human being in his own earthly life. He was content to pay the temple tax, but gave final answer to not one other human authority, neither Pharisee nor Sadducee, neither king nor governor, nor Caesar. His ultimate loyalty was to God the Father in fellowship with the Holy Spirit. He worshipped him alone. Only in response to and within that relationship and the will of his Father would he comply with the limited righteous demands of human authorities. But when their will and ways diverted from the will and ways and worship of the Father, he always responded out of his love and trust to the Father and to his good and right purposes for all human beings who belong to God, their Creator and Redeemer, and did not comply. In this way he neither denied the Lord God nor did he violate the human personal agency and divine purpose of any human being. That is, he overcame all temptations, did no evil and perfectly fulfilled both the great commandments. He remained free from all human authorities in order to serve them perfectly according to the authority of God. So, too, the Christian who trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior follows in his ways in regard to the ways of the world and its authorities.
Wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves
The second aspect of being in the world but not of the world comes from Jesus' warning to his apostles (and thus his church) that he is sending them out into the world as sheep among wolves, and that as they go they are to be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves. Indeed, that’s what it will take to live in this world during the time between Jesus' two advents. It means being discerning both individually and corporately. This is not easy to do. The deceptions in the world can be subtle, and evading being trapped by them can take effort. So Scripture says this:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. (1 John 4:1-3)
Of the things to be wise about are those particular plans, goals, ideals, or ideologies being promoted by human authorities to fix things, make things right—even if they are meant to address real problems or real evils. There are false hopes and misguided ideals. Not all hopes are true, not all ideals are right. False hopes are often vague, ill-defined and exude a messianic sense of offering some sort of salvation. They often have a high moralistic appeal. But they can be used by individuals or groups to gain influence, power and control over persons and populations that do not belong to them, but to their Creator and Redeemer.
We should also carefully consider the means human authorities proposed to solve even admitted real problems. There are also mistaken means promoted to combat or eliminate real evils. But the means proposed can also be evil even if they seem to be justified because the proposed means are claimed to be a way, or often the only way, to combat a wrong. That is why Paul says this:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good... (Romans 12:9)
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:16-19)
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
Using corrupt or evil means to combat an actual evil does not eliminate evil, but multiplies it! Using lies to overcome deceit, violence to overcome violence, the abuse of power to overcome the abuse of power, to divide people to overcome division is not the way of Jesus and in actuality strengthens the grip of evil, not overcomes it. Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth. He also tells us to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Using only good means to overcome real evils while refraining from using evil means, is being meek. Jesus himself is the Meek One who never returned evil for evil but overcame evil by his Cross.
To live in the world but not of the world we have to discern both the goal (ends) and the means being promoted or used by worldly authorities. But a step further: we have to recognize who or what is behind the evil in this world. We have a real enemy ("we" meaning humanity in general, but more particularly those who know and trust our Lord Jesus and who acknowledge his authority and recognize its goodness and glory—that he alone has the words of life). That enemy is widely recognized throughout the New Testament, given particular focus with the temptations of Jesus. That enemy is Evil itself, Satan, the Devil, the Accuser and Deceiver. He is also called the god of this world, the prince of the air who is aligned with the invisible principalities and powers, the demonic.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. (Hebrews 2:14)
These are some of the ways we are called and freed to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in this world.
Where is Jesus in all of this?
The relationship of the Christian and the church to the wider world is complicated, but not impossible to describe. Jesus himself gave quite a bit of guidance and encouragement to his apostles and disciples about this. For instance, he acknowledged that there would be challenges and opposition to be aware of and to resist, and we are not to be taken in by them. Note this from Jesus:
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
No doubt we have all faced a range of trials and tribulations these past few years—and some we are still moving through. But what Jesus offers us is our ultimate hope—to take us through whatever circumstances we or our loved ones face. But note Jesus' prayer for us and the kind of relationship he has with the Father and with us:
9 I ask on their behalf. I do not ask on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those You have given Me; for they are Yours. 10 All I have is Yours, and all You have is Mine; and in them I have been glorified. 11 I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to You. Holy Father, protect them by Your name, the name You gave Me, so that they may be one as We are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected and preserved them by Your name, the name You gave Me. Not one of them has been lost, except the son of destruction, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to You; and I am saying these things while I am in the world, so that they may have My joy fulfilled within them. 14 I have given them Your word and the world has hated them; for they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I am not asking that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I have also sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify Myself, so that they too may be sanctified by the truth. (John 17:9-19)
This is Jesus’ prayer for us. It describes his awareness and understanding of the situation we are in. He warns us that just as he faced a real enemy, so too, those who belong to him will face real opposition. But we also hear that he has made a provision for us and will make our stay here in this world, with all its challenges, temptations and evils, serve a good and glorious purpose. Like all true hope, it is not seen in the present, but we see it in the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was made to lead to his resurrection, ascension and glorification in the very presence of the Father. Then, through him, he serves as our redemption into eternal life and perfect communion with our God and with all those who enter into his kingdom, come under his rule and reign. Recall Jesus' word of promise in that final word of Revelation 21:5: "Behold, I am making all things new!"
Living with hope here and now
In the meanwhile, our Lord gives us guidance on living with hope here and now. In that regard, I want to conclude by highlighting some points that often are not recognized.
An aspiration frequently promoted among Christians is to build the kingdom of God. If taken in the wrong way, this phrase can be quite misleading and distorting. Scripture never says this is what we are up to. What it does say is that we are to make disciples. We form local assemblies (churches). We proclaim and share the gospel of Jesus. But we are most comprehensively bearing witness to our hope—witnessing to the coming rule and reign of Jesus, not to an ideal society we bring about by our efforts with the assistance of God. We can embody signs, parables, pointers to Christ and his kind of rule and reign which will be established upon his return. We can be living signs that are partial, provisional, and temporary—signs that point to the rule and reign of Christ Jesus. But that will be possible only after all evil is conquered in individual hearts and also at its source—the Devil and his angels. In the meantime, the central task of the church is to have individuals surrender to Jesus as Lord and Savior and enter into a fellowship and communion with him under his Word and Holy Spirit, hopefully with at a least a few others who are incorporated into the Body of Christ.
It is naive and not wise to think we can put a final end to any evil common to humanity—that human effort such as education, wealth, science, government can eliminate evil. It will be especially impossible if there is a resistance to admitting the power of evil, to confessing human inability to manage evil, and a rejection of the grace of God in and through Jesus Christ. A humanitarianism hangs in mid-air and cannot sustain itself without a foundation in the Source of all humanity and their redemption from evil, namely the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Humanitarianism will degrade and become undermined, become divided or be tempted to use evil means to accomplish the humanitarian ends/goals. But our Triune God through Jesus Christ, by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and glorification, has conquered evil itself and undone its ultimate threat, death. Under the cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ, evil has no future.
Trust, do not fear
Jesus tells us to not fear, despite fearful circumstances in this world. We are easily fooled, manipulated and controlled when we fear, but the primary reason not to fear is because Jesus is (right now!) Lord of all, King of kings. The whole Trinity oversees all things, and judges all things—not allowing anything to occur that cannot be redeemed by Jesus Christ, just as no evil, such as his crucifixion, could stop his being raised from the dead and becoming Lord and Christ over all the cosmos.
Jesus judgment against all evil is now in this time between the times put into slow motion, rolling out through history to its final end at his personal return. That judgment against evil is his patient sorting out of what is good and right and what is evil. His merciful judgments bring to light the deceitful and damaging destruction of the ways of evil that lead to eternal death. These judgments put into great contrast the Way, the Truth and the Life that leads to eternal life. These sorting judgments in these times between the times of Jesus first and second advents, are not condemnation, but rather they are meant to lead persons to turn away from darkness, to repent of their unbelief so that they might avoid the final condemnation and eradication of all evil, and surrender to the Living God. These earthly judgments are signs of God goodness, grace and glory. They are indicators here and now of our God’s merciful patience to rescue and separate persons from evil—if and as they surrender the ministry of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the Son’s completed working.
For those persons who become members of the Body of Christ in these times between Jesus’ first and second advents, we are told that there will be temptations and sufferings. But we are also told that it will be worth it; all the pain and suffering. Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. As his witnesses, locally and globally, we are called to join him in his sufferings as witnesses to his grace, mercy and victory over evil. As the Scottish pastor and author George MacDonald wrote more than a century ago, what we are promised by the Lord Jesus is not that we will not suffer, but that in joining him in his sufferings, they will all be made like his. By his overcoming all evil, our sufferings will lead to our sharing in his glorious redemption of all things.
So, let us have this mind of Christ about everything! Let us see everything in the light of who Christ is, what he has done, is doing and will do—which we can discern from considering the whole of Scripture. Let us discern Jesus' mind and heart, his purpose and will between the times, enabling the church to engage in worship and witness in this present dark, evil age.
The church will have to remain independent and discerning, not simply aligning on one side or the other of societal debates as they are set forth and defined in the public sphere. We will come at any and every problem in a unique way, doing our own research and interpreting the entire social cultural and global situation in a theological framework—as if Jesus truly is Lord of all and we are to be those who worship and witness to him and his way of doing things in this world—certainly not becoming accusers of the brethren, especially when involving secondary matters.
Let us understand that Jesus is bringing evil to light and delivering us from evil. He is gathering folks into his net, shepherding people into his fold. Let us also be aware that Jesus is pruning his church— purifying it, testing it to sanctify its faith and worship and witness. This pruning is often painful, as we share in the ongoing sufferings of Christ.
What is the greatest danger to the church, to the members of his body? It's not suffering, not loss, even loss of life. Rather, the greatest danger is loss of faith, loss of confidence in the Lord God and in the fulfillment of his promise of a coming kingdom at his appointed time. We have all been tested—and we have experienced the testing, sometimes severe. But our prayer is not first a change in circumstances—but a preservation of faith and confidence in who Jesus is and what he promises will come to be—and that what we go through now will be worth it—because evil has no future. For the joy set before him Jesus endured the Cross—because he trusted in the Word of the Father. Let us do so with him, for him and in him.