Just as location is vital in the real estate business, context is vital in the understanding of literature. A small example: “The dog ate my homework” takes on one meaning on the lips of a child who didn’t do the assignment, and quite another for a writer who left the only copy of his manuscript in reach of his teething puppy.
Context is vital in understanding the Bible too. Theologians do word studies, but sometimes they are not helpful. For instance, how can “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16) make sense compared to these verses . . .
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15–17)
The word used for “world” is the same. It would not be too outlandish to say both speak of giving one’s life for the world. Yet the concepts are entirely different, made so by the context in which they are used.
In the first example, the attitude of God toward sinners who live in the world was so filled with love that He sent His Son to die for our sin that we might have eternal life.
In the second example, the attitude of sacrificial love for the world is not about saving sinners but about indulging myself. These verses do not make the world an evil place, but do say human lust toward forbidden things is an evil attitude.
Again, this is a finely tuned passage. It is not saying human desires are evil either, only those that become twisted when the love of God and the will of God are left out of it. For instance, food, sex, sleep, and other comforts are blessings from God, but if I let them control me by ‘loving’ them for selfish reasons and to that degree, then I become a slave to cravings instead of a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The lust of the eyes probably describes the nice things of the good life. The original readers of this passage may not have had cars or time-shares, but they might have had jewelry, gardens, and other fineries, or at least wanted them. These things are not wrong in themselves, but looking at them with greedy or covetous eyes is not God’s love toward the world. That becomes very practical when considering activities like window shopping or trying to have everything the neighbors have.
The pride of life points to self-sufficiency and independence, that attitude that I don’t need anyone and I can do this myself. God’s love isn’t like that either. Although He alone is complete in Himself and does not need us, He did not dismiss sinners. He sent Jesus to die for us.
Regardless of how sufficient I might be, loving God and others means relying on Him to work in my life, to help me be like Jesus and be identified as one who sacrificially gives rather than self-centeredly relies on and thinks only of me.
Loving the world is a huge spiritual danger. It is fed by the media, but also by my own imagination. If at any time my desires and pride go unsatisfied, I can think of a million ways to fill that void. My television says I’m worth it. All the advertising tells me I need it. However, this is worldliness because the love of God relies on the love of God, not on whatever I can come up, purchase, or invent to satisfy my own self.
I know that history is not an endless cycle but is moving toward a conclusion willed by God. The world is passing away. Loving the world to satisfy my own desires puts my affections on a temporary foundation. Loving the world as God loves the world changes everything.