True Belonging: World

In the first semester of my freshman year of college, a new, agnostic friend asked why I believed in Jesus. Her question held genuine curiosity, but my response lacked so greatly that I regretted my inability to speak my why, muchless sway her to follow Him. 

That day, my attempt to explain my faith came out as one, feeble word — because. And that frustrated me. Not only was I unable to articulate my reasons for following Jesus, but I was forced to question if I followed Jesus. I’d grown up in a healthy church, so I certainly knew of Him. I even knew stories in the Bible. And for a lot of my growing up years, Jesus and I had spoken daily. But in that season, I’d wandered far from Him and felt the tension of having one foot in faith and the other in the world.

God’s Word for Me

At my lowest point a year later, I grappled with a darkness I’d never known before, and, gratefully, I reached for the right resource, the dusty Bible on my shelf. When I opened it, having no clue where to look nor what I needed, I said a simple prayer — help. And the craziest thing happened. From within the book, a tiny piece of paper fluttered to the floor with the address for Isaiah 41:10. I quickly looked it up, and its words brought tears, not because I felt conviction or regret, but because God’s Word spoke a truth into my heart that I desperately needed. He was with me. He would help me. 

From that moment on my search for truth began in earnest. It was slow going for a few years, ebbing and flowing among the distractions and passions of a 20 year old, but not long after I married, at the ripe old age of 22, I found a church. And my life has never been the same.

I started reading God’s Word with two sets of believers in that church — a Sunday School class who were in the same stage of life and faith as my husband and me, and a group of women who were leap years beyond me in their faith journey. But they came alongside me, training me up in the ways of the Word and the world, which I discovered needed distinction, as well as, definition.

John 17:13-19

This week’s text juxtaposes ‘word’ and ‘world’ to emphasize the bold claim that while Jesus’ followers would be hated by the world, God’s word would make them holy and anchor them in truth. As you read, note how many times ‘world’ is used:

13 “Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. 14 I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to this world any more than I do. 17 Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. 18 Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. 19 And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth.

John 17:13-19, NLT

Eight times in the NLT ‘world’ makes an appearance in seven short verses — a clue that Jesus is making a significant point we’re meant to grasp:

  1. Jesus is with the disciples in the world.
  2. The world hates the disciples because…
  3. They do not belong to the world…
  4. Just as Jesus does not belong to the world.
  5. Jesus is not asking God to take the disciples out of the world but for God to keep them safe.
  6. The disciples don’t belong to the world any more than Jesus does.
  7. God sent Jesus into the world.
  8. Jesus is sending the disciples (and future believers, see verse 20) into the world.

Not Belonging

At first glance, these prayers of Jesus seem repetitive and obvious. I can picture restless, yet-to-be-clued-in disciples opening an eye to squint at Jesus, wondering why they couldn’t just get on with conquering the Romans, ‘cuz, duh, the world was rotten. The world they lived in held hardships and injustice that they were ready to make right. After all, the Messiah was in their midst.

But, instead, Jesus poured out over them deep, spiritual truths intended to help them make sense of their holy discontent, their feelings of things not being right. Because they weren’t. 

They didn’t belong to the world.

Once the disciples had been given God’s word, which one commentator describes as “the revelation of God as a whole” (Cambridge Bible), they no longer belonged to the world as unbelievers would. Another theologian explains that to receive the word of God is to be hated by the world (Bengel’s Gnomon). 

As a person who has been searching for the meaning and a place of belonging, this antithetical statement of not belonging screams of deeper ideas I don’t fully understand. Yet, the longer I sit with it, the more I sense my mind wrestling with it.

And I begin to see for myself that the word received by a believer brings about an immediate reaction by the world — resistance, antagonism, hatred. God gifts us with Himself, His Son, His Spirit, and His Word, but the world opposes all of it. Hence, the world opposes us. 

We don’t belong to the world.

Into the World

It’s important, I think, for us to push and pull with these ideas until something like comprehension begins to take shape. Because while we don’t belong to the world, we do live in it. And, Jesus sends us out into it.

This prayer, however, proves that Jesus doesn’t send us into the world that hates us without power and protection. His request that God keep the disciples (and us) safe, specifically from evil, reveals His heart for our good. This is no heartless god who throws its followers to wolves, hoping that one might survive long enough to do its bidding. No, this is the God of the Universe, the One of All Power, who surrounds us with His angels (Luke 4:10, Psalm 34:7) and holds us in His victorious hands (Isaiah 41:10). 

Photo by Dewang Gupta on Unsplash

And, as often happens with Jesus, the very thing that begets the hatred of the world is what equips and empowers us — God’s word, both the ““the revelation of God as a whole” and His Word. Verse 17 reveals in greater detail what the word of God does within its believers. It makes us holy.

In a remarkable usage of words, John helps us see that the word makes us separate from the world just as the word makes the world hate us, but the word also sets us apart from the world because it makes us holy.

And that’s how we’re sent into the world. Holy. Set apart. Protected. Armed with God’s truth.

Jesus’ sacrifice makes all this possible. Not by our doing. Not by our striving. But by His dying and defeat of death. These disciples (and we) are sent into the world to love people as Jesus would love them (Matthew 22:37-40) and to make disciples who will follow Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20 ). And as we step into the world, it serves us well to know the world will resist God’s word and us. It hated Jesus. It’ll hate us. And that’s why we’ll find ourselves in seasons and places where the opposition will make us acutely aware that we don’t belong to the world.

Unpack This Hot Mess, Shelley

Word. World. Hatred. Holiness. It’s all so jumbled and intermingled that our minds start to numb and our eyes cross. But wait! Sweet sister, this journey of finding belonging is aided by this passage because it helps us understand where we don’t belong — the world.

The world is fallen. Disease and death, hurricanes and heart attacks, earthquakes and other elements of nature wreak havoc on a daily basis.

The world has evil. God’s Word makes it clear that we have an enemy who is always on the prowl, like a lion, ready to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). Evil is real. And too often it wins the battles here on earth.

The world is full of broken people. In His infinite wisdom and compassion, God has given us free will. We can choose to follow and love Him, or we can choose to go our own way, giving in to our carnal, sinful selves. And lots of people do, making life here on earth violent and tragic.

The world — full of broken people and an enemy who lies like no other — also presents messages that absolutely conflict and stand opposed to every truth of God’s word. We’re offered choices at every turn to believe what the world has to say or what God’s word says. This was the tension I lived in for years as I struggled to make sense of all the messages. I’m so grateful that God continues to use His word to open my eyes to His ways and truths because living in the world but not being of it is oh-so hard.*

But we can take this prayer of Jesus in John 17 with us into the world and remember its truths. God goes with us. He protects us. He sets us apart with His holiness. And His Son died so that all this can happen. No matter what the world’s hatred looks or feels like, we can remember two truths — we don’t belong to the world. But we do belong to Jesus.

*”Being in the world but not of it” is a Christian idea that derives implicitly from this passage!

  • Journal your thoughts about what it means to be in the world but not of it. How does unpacking this section of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples help you gain a deeper, more personal understanding?
  • “This Is Where I Belong,” a song by Housefires on our Belonging playlist, is a spontaneous worship song with few words, which makes it the perfect one to have playing on repeat when you feel the tension of living with one foot in your faith and the other in the world or when you feel the isolating hatred of the world backing you into a corner. This is truth. This is what we anchor ourselves in:

This is where I belong, held by the arms of love
Oh this is where I belong, held by the arms of love
Love don’t let me go, don’t let go

Featured photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

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