Theology in 3D

At War with the World—in the New Testament

July 16, 2019
New Testament, Theology

This is Part 4 in an ongoing series by PhD graduate Jon Cheek. Click here for earlier posts in the series.

The primary distinction in the OT reflecting the enmity between the seeds is that of Israel versus the nations. The NT continues this distinction between the people of God and unbelievers, but it gradually shifts the terminology from local and ethnic (Israel and nations) to global and spiritual (church and world). The nations oppose Israel’s advancement and promote the demonic practices that draw the people of God away from Yahweh. Israel’s mission is (1) to minister to the nations while (2) remaining distinct from the nations in their behavior and thinking. The church’s role is also to minister to the world (Matt 28:19–20; John 17:18–23) while remaining distinct from the world (1 John 2:15–17).

Israel & Nations → Church & World

A comparison of Matthew’s use of use of ethnē and John’s use of kosmos illustrates this shift in terminology. Matthew, writing much earlier than John, speaks of “the nations/the Gentiles” in terms consistent with the OT (Israel and the nations), whereas John refers to the same concepts when he refers to the distinction between the church and the world. Matthew never uses kosmos in the sense John usually does, and John never uses ethnē in the way Matthew uses kosmos. The following table shows how Matthew and John use these differing terms to speak of the same concepts.

ConceptMatthew—ethnē John—kosmos
Object of Christ’s mission4:15; 12:18, 21 1:9; 3:17, 19; 9:5; 12:46; 17:11
Rejects Christ20:191:10; 7:7; 15:18, 24
Rejects believers24:915:18–19
Distinct from God’s people10:5, 1814:17, 19, 22; 17:6, 9, 16, 25
Distinct behavior as sinners6:32; 20:2514:27; 16:8, 20
Object of mission of believers24:14; 28:1917:18–23
Object of impending judgment25:329:39; 12:31; 16:8, 11

Peter specifically identifies the church’s role “among the Gentiles” (ethnē) as a NT application of the divine intention for Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Pet 2:9–12; cf. Exod 19:5–6). In Ephesians 2:1–3 and 4:17–24 Paul refers to a specific behavioral style of “the Gentiles” (ethnē) as parallel to the specific behavioral lifestyle and mindset of the world (kosmos). The NT authors consistently view the church’s responsibility toward the world as parallel to Israel’s responsibility toward the nations: minister to the world but remain distinct from the world.

The serpent, the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), seeks to prevent the church from fulfilling these purposes by continuing the same plan he used in the OT: (1) oppose the continued existence of the church, or (2) gain the spiritual allegiance of the church.

The Continued Existence of the Church

As the world and its ruler sought to oppose Jesus, so they also seek to oppose Jesus’ followers (Luke 21:12; John 15:18–19) and the continued existence of the church. In the parable of the soils, “the evil one” works to snatch away the word from the hearers (Luke 8:12), and in the parable of the tares (weeds) among the wheat, the devil is the “enemy” who sows weeds among the good seed to spoil the harvest (Matt 13:25–28, 38–39). In identifying the weeds as the “sons of the evil one” in a parable that demonstrates a conflict between two kinds of seed, Jesus seems to be making an allusion to Genesis 3:15.

Jesus clearly tells his disciples that they would be “hated by all nations” for his sake (Matt 24:9) and that the world would hate them (John 15:9; 17:14). The Book of Acts recounts numerous attempts of the seed of the serpent to prevent the spread of the gospel. In one example, when the magician Elymas opposes Paul, Paul identifies him as a “son of the devil” and an “enemy of all righteousness” (Acts 13:8–10). In the divine plan, it is fitting that attempts to prevent the gospel ultimately serve to aid in the spreading of the gospel (Acts 8:4).

The Spiritual Allegiance of the Church

The enmity between the seeds also represents a battle for the spiritual allegiance of God’s people. The serpent works to deceive believers and lead their thoughts “astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). Satan often uses false apostles disguised as servants of righteousness to turn men away from the gospel (2 Cor 11:13–15). Satan is the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4), an age that promotes lusts, pleasures, and wisdom that draw men away from allegiance to Christ (Eph 2:1–3; Col 3:2).

These attacks by Satan and his forces demand that believers engage in warfare against him (Eph 6:11–18). God’s people must live distinctly from the mindset and lifestyle of this age (Rom 12:1–2). People who refuse to place themselves in a position of enmity with the world are positioning themselves as enemies of God (Jas 4:4). Those who love the world demonstrate that they do not love the Father (1 John 2:15–16).

The reason the NT urges such a strong distinction from the world is that the world is seeking to fulfil the mission of Satan against the church. The church today is engaged in a war that has endured since Genesis 3. Satan has so infiltrated popular culture and the power structures of our society that believers often fail to recognize the world. Satan engages in many methods to oppose God’s church, and he has been effective in using deceit with humans since his conversation with Eve in Eden. Many professing Christians today, though, err on the side of folly, as Eve did, and they ignore the signs that many of the seemingly innocent aspects of our culture may actually be part of the intelligent and cunning plans of the devil, the one in whose power the whole world lies (1 John 5:19).

The final post will examine the key ideas the NT writers address when they discuss the world and worldliness.

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