Jeffrey B. Russell
Professor of History
University of California Santa Barbara

Meaning of the world in the New Testament: kosmos, aion

The world is the cosmos that God has created, and it is good. And God loves it.

The world also means human society. And God loves it. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." Jn 3.16

But human society does not necessarily love God: "He was in the world...yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." (Jn 1.10-11)

It is this sense of world--as corrupt, blind, flawed human society--that the apostles teach us to beware of. (1)

For centuries scholars have debated a false question: is Christianity world-accepting or world-denying? It ACCEPTS the world, AND HUMANITY, because God loves them. And the Great Commandment to US is:---

"God did not send the Son into the world to CONDEMN the world, but in order that the world might be saved." Jn 3.17

What Christianity REJECTS the FALSENESS and LIES of human society. The sin of the world that tempts us all and draws us down, away from God. It is in this sense of the world that Satan is called lord of this world. (Jn 12.31)

We all are "anxious about the affairs of the world" (I Cor 7.33-34). And we are entitled to pray for our daily bread. But legitimate concern can pass into excessive concern. Need becomes greed. Jude 19 speaks of "these worldly people." Worldliness, excessive concern, opens us to the temptations of pride, power, sex, prestige, possessions. Christ's mercy can break us of these temptations--if we let it.

What does this mean for us in the university this evening? By merely being students or faculty on this campus, we are in the world, and in a world--a society--that is either hostile or indifferent--to Christ, and to us. If we seek to escape the secularism of the university by turning to the diversion of television, well, we know where that gets us.

Being in this world and being Christians at the same time, we feel a tension. Not to worry. First of all, you SHOULD feel this tension; if you don't, you're lost; second, everyone always HAS felt it, from the time of the apostles till now.

What does Christ ask of us. He asks us not to be worldly, not to immerse ourselves in limited values; he wants us NOT to be OF this world. In fact he demands it of us. Not being worldly is hard, but it is simple. All it involves is recognizing that WE are not the center of the universe, of the campus, even of ourselves. Simple--but hard. Once we do that, we open up and out, to love and joy and beauty and happiness, not down and in, to selfishness and misery.

What does Christ ask of us. Not to be OF this world. Yet he has placed us in it. It's hard not to be defensive as a Xn in a secularized society with false values. But Christ does not ask us to retreat from this world; he does not ask us to hide behind the couch like scared dogs and hope that none of our worldly acquaintances sees us and laughs at us. And he also does not ask us to lunge from behind the couch and sink our teeth into their ankles. He says: "Go forth into the world and preach the Gospel." (Mk 16.15)

GO into the world. That has great force. The apostles were already living in the world, the physical world, and the world of human society. If they were already in the world, why did Christ say GO INTO the world? So that they could go live in the midst of worldly society and preach the truth of liberation.

That means that we in the secular university don't just happen to be in this secular world. We have also been called, by Christ, into it, so that we may let our light shine before it, our only light, which is Christ's light. We're called to be here, God help us.

Just for a moment I'll be autobiographical. I've known for a long time that I was called to teach the history of Christianity. I've also known that I've been called to teach, not in a Christian college, but in a secular college. Whatever the reasons for this, I know that Christ means me to be here, at UCSB, or at least at some secular school. Christ knows that I can speak the secular language very well. And that, he knows, enables me to talk to the gentiles.

You gather here tonight as a group. And you need to. You need to have the strength and the resonance of Christian friends. It's very difficult to defend against the pressures of the secular world--alone. Cultivate and keep Christian friends. Keep a Christian discourse with your friends in meetings such as this, in formal gatherings and in brown-bag lunches, wherever you can. Talk with one another about Christ and his message of love and liberation. Pray together.

AND GO Into the world to talk to unbelievers. Now, here's a difficult thing. I said that I can speak Secular English as well as Christian English. In order to carry the truth to the gentiles you have to be able to talk with them, to be able to use their rhetoric, their buzz words, to bring it home to them on their terms. You have to be all things to all people. And at the same time you have not to capitulate to their terms, not to adopt their values. It's difficult, and I often lose. Often I find myself going so far to accomodate their thought and language that I lose the real meaning of the Gospel. Yet if I go to them speaking--right off--about Trinity, and Incarnation, and Gospel, I'll be speaking in some kind of foreign code or--often--a code that they mistakenly think they know about, and they hate.

How do we try to work God's love under these difficult circumstances? With humility. Insofar as we have anything that they do not, we have it as Christ's gift to us, not because we are inherently better than they are. God loves every one of us, saint, sinner, and ignoramus. With love. We are working for our secular friends, not against them. With prayer. By constant conversation with God we keep in touch with what he really wants to do with us, rather than what we THINK we ought to do. With readiness. We need to be ready to explain or defend the faith at any time; we need not to miss opportunities. With education. We can't explain or defend very well if we don't understand ourselves. We need to be educated about the Bible, about the church, AND about secular ideas too, so that we don't end up attacking out of ignorance. With obedience. While we never miss an opportunity to speak, we do not push a false opportunity, we do not force our wisdom or our love upon people who are not ready to receive it. Above all, with example. No matter what we say, if our actions are selfish, unloving, and narrow, we will convince no one. To sum this all up, we need to let Christ act in us. We need to let the Holy Spirit lead us. And we need not to confuse our own pride with the will of the Lord.

If we act and speak with openness and love, we will receive... What? Jeers, laughter, insults, loss of friendships, tension in our families, loss of esteem among our peers, even, sometimes, direct and open persecution for what we are. One early Church father noted that society says: Christians are not permitted to be. You'll be hated for being a Christian even if you try to keep as quiet about it as you can. There'll be the occasional reward: a friend or family member will open out to love. But mostly it's rough being a Christian in this world. But listen to how blessed we are. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of falsehood against you for my sake. REJOICE AND BE GLAD, FOR YOUR REWARD IS GREAT IN HEAVEN. (mT 5.11)