It is insightful to realize that the word “world” in our English translations does not refer to the same thing all the time. There are several different meanings that surface as one contemplates the contexts in which the word is found. Let us consider this important English word in varying uses.
One, there is the “world” as universe. This is the world of “the heaven and the earth” of which Moses wrote. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Years later Paul in Athens would assert that our Maker was “The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth…” (Acts 17:24). Our universe is most remarkable in its makeup and in its design. It is indeed a marvel. The psalmist would affirm, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psa. 19:1-4a). The world and its components testify clearly to the existence of our God (Acts 14:17). The evidence is so obvious that a man who in his own heart denies God is a fool (Psa. 14:1; 53:1).
Two, there is the “world” of sin. The apostle John wrote, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vainglory of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passeth away and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever” (1 John 2:15-17). Here the world of sin is described. It is the description of evil and how it comes about in the lives of men. The three categories or vehicles for the expression of sin in humans have always been limited to the three classes John gives. Moses had written long ago before John, “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food (lust of the flesh, MD), and that it was pleasant to the eyes (lust of the eyes, MD), and a tree to be desired to make one wise (pride of life, MD), she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Gen. 3:6). All of the sin of all of the people from Adam on down has come via these three routes. This is the world of sin.
Three, there is the “world” of sinners. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God did not send his son to die for the universe. And God doesn’t love sin. But he does love sinners in whose behalf he sent his son. But the sinners in whose behalf his son died were human sinners—not angelic ones (Heb. 2:16). I would offer the suggestion that the reason why Jesus did not die for sinful angels (2 Pet. 2:4), but did die for sinful men has to do with the nature of their sins. The free will of man was poised at the point of connection between flesh and spirit (Gal. 5:17). The free will of angels was not. And since there is an inherent weakness in flesh (Matt. 26:41), Adam’s sin was one of weakness while angelic sin has always been one of rebellion (cf. 1 Tim. 3:6). Jesus died for sinful men and in John 3:16 we are told that believers “should not perish” (not “shall not perish). The verb is in the subjunctive mood rather than the indicative. It is no promise that believers will be saved, but it is the affirmation that Jesus died so that believers could be saved, and that God wanted them to be saved.
Four, there is the “world” that is a period of time. When Paul affirmed that God made the world (Acts 17:24), he used a word that derives from “cosmos.” When John described the world of evil (1 John 2:15-17), he used the same word. The world that God loved (John 3:16) is identified by the same word. But when we come to Matthew 18:20 we find another word that is translated “world.” It is a Greek word that derives from aiown, which refers to a period of time or an era. When the Lord promised the apostles that he would be with them “even unto the end of the world” he was not telling them that he would be with them until he came again at the destruction of the universe (2 Pet. 3). What good would a promise like that be to them? By that time they would all have been long dead. In fact, right now they have already been long dead. The promise that he was making to them was that he would be with them to the completion of their work in carrying the gospel to the world. He said, “Go ye into all the world (cosmos), and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). The promise of Matthew 28:20 to be with them to the end of the “world” was a promise to be with them to the end of the “age.” The transition from Gentile-ism and Judaism to Christianity which began with the work of John the baptizer (Luke 16:16) would be completed only when the apostles finished carrying the gospel to every creature. Then that era of transition would be over. Jesus told his apostles that he would be with them until that work was completed. Notice Mark’s ending: “And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed. Amen” (Mark 16:20).
Five, there is the “world” of mankind’s natural attachment to his physical environment. Consider carefully in the book of Ecclesiastes where Solomon points this profound truth out to us three times. Most of us are familiar with Ecclesiastes 3:1 where Solomon writes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” but we aren’t as familiar with what follows in verse 11. “He (God, MD) hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” Isn’t that something? God has so deliberately arranged our human situation so that there will always be things we cannot find out! Actually, the original word for “world” in Ecclesiastes 3:11 entails the concept of “time.” Man is by nature a finite creature who is limited by time. The reader likely remembers Deuteronomy 29:29 which tells us that “secret” things belong to God. So, God has withheld things from our knowledge by not revealing them either in the revelation of his word or in the revelation of his world. But Solomon in Ecclesiastes says that the impossibility of our knowing certain things is at least partially attributable to the fact that we are connected to the material or natural world by our creation. In it we fit. To it we are attached. And by it we are limited. God has set the world in our hearts.
Our divine limitation by time and boundaries is designed to lead us to search for God (Acts 17:26-27), but even after finding him, because of our attachment to the material world, there are things that we will never be able to comprehend about God’s activities. Later Solomon put it this way: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him” (Eccl. 7:14). The exact “why” and the “when” of things in an individual’s life are open to interpretation. We cannot know for sure in many situations what God is exactly doing, though we can learn what our duty in regard to our experiences in those situations should be.
Solomon also wrote, “Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it” (Eccl. 8:17). The Bible clearly teaches all Christians to trust a loving and caring Father who can only wisely operate in the affairs of men. And though we cannot tell what God is doing and intending by the detailed events that become a part of our human experience, we do have his precious promises to us regarding his will for us and what awaits us (cf. Rom. 8:28). May God be praised that it is so!