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John 17:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the wicked one.
The text strongly suggests the contrast between the world and heaven and the relations that Christ’s servants bear to each. The world and heaven are contrasted ideas, contrasted places, and contrasted states. And the peculiarity of the relations that Christians bear to these contrasted places and states is that they may be simultaneously in very express relations to both. While walking this earth of ours as a man among men, our Lord Himself was yet in the bosom of the Father. And the Christian, His follower, while still in the world, the object of the world’s hate and the recipient of its persecution, may yet be in the heavenly places with his Lord. Let us resolve the paradox by considering in turn:
- Our Lord’s idea of “the world.”
- His idea of heaven.
- His desire for His followers.
It is often said, and this is the first thought that occurs to us on facing this paradox, that our Lord’s idea of “the world,” as recorded in John, is an ethical rather than a local one. But this must not be taken too exclusively. Our present verse is the disproof of too exclusive an attribution of the ethical idea to the Lord. Christ prays that his followers should not be taken out of the world but yet should be kept from the evil. In this single prayer, the word “world” is used in quite a variety of implications. In the fifth verse, it means apparently the universe, as a creation. In the eleventh verse, it is equivalent to the earth, with the implication that it is the world of man that is in mind. It is the world of man in the fifteenth verse. But as man is sinful man, it usually in this sense has the connotation of what we call the sinful world. This sense comes out strongly in the ninth verse, where Christ’s followers are contrasted with the world, and more strongly still in verses fourteen and sixteen, where the world is said to hate the good, and so also in the twenty-first and twenty-third verses. In a word, then, the term world means usually the world of mankind, which, because man is universally sinful, comes to bear the implication of the world of sinful man, which then is brought into contrast with Christ’s children in whom the power of sin is broken and a radical divergence from the world begun. Accordingly, when they come to Christ, they come “out of the world,” even though they remain in the world. Therefore, the “world” designates a place, but this place as the abode of man, and this man as sinful. And though there is an ethical coloring to the term, yet this ethical coloring does not constitute its essence. Because there is an ethical coloring to it Christ represents His people as gathered out of the world, and because this ethical coloring does not constitute its essence, we can, nevertheless, speak of them remaining in the world while kept from its evil.
As the contrast to that of the world, the idea of heaven must, therefore, partake of this twofold sense. It is primarily a place to which Christ’s children would be removed if they were taken out of the world. But as the world is a bad place, so heaven, its contrast, is a good place; and those who are good are, therefore, already in principle in it. Therefore Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven and that we may even here and now be with Christ in the heavenly places. The word “heaven” does not occur in this prayer. It does occur in the introduction to it, where we are told that “Jesus, lifting up his eyes to heaven, said Father,” as if His pure eyes pierced the wall of space and saw the Invisible One. Heaven is, therefore, in this context, the place where God is in His manifested glory, in contrast with the world where the “god of this world” manifests his power for a season. Accordingly, our Lord speaks of it as the place where God can be known and enjoyed, or with more personal point and pathos, as the place where He Himself should be, in His destined glory which was also His primal glory; where He, as He is, and not as, in His humiliation, He has seemed, should be and be manifested, and where His children should be partakers of His glory.
And now, what is Christ’s desire for His people?
It is certainly not that they should remain in the world, in its ethical sense. Already they had been given Him out of the world, and therefore they were no more of the world—no more than Christ Himself was. The truth had already been given them, that truth which should free from sin,—God’s own name had been manifested to and in them,—and they were in radical opposition to the world, so that the world hated them. Accordingly, His prayer distinctly is that they should be kept from that evil which constituted the very characteristic of the world and that their sanctification should be continued in the truth. He does not desire them to remain in the world in this sense. He has instituted a radical contrariety between them and “the world” ethically considered; and He is providing for this contrariety to widen into an ever broadening gulf.
Just as certainly, it is not that they should always remain in the world, in its more local sense. The tone of joy with which the Lord notes that the time of His sojourn on earth is over and He is ready to re-enter His heavenly glory is unmistakable. Equally unmistakable is the tone of sadness with which He adverts to leaving His followers in the world. They are in danger there, in danger from the world’s hate, and in danger from the world’s temptation. They are away from their true and proper home there—in the enemy’s country—not householders at home, but soldiers on duty, pilgrims on their journey. He longs for them to enter their rest. And though He leaves them joy and the means of more joy in the word of truth, His desire for them is something higher than they can find here below. Nay, His distinct “will” for them is that they also may be with Him where He is to be; that they may behold His glory; that they may share in that glory. He wishes for them what His servant afterward declared to be “far better,” that they too like Him should go out of the world and enter into glory—where Christ is on the right hand of God, where God dwells and His knowledge is, and where love is perfected in all.
But it is that they may temporarily remain in the world, out of which they have in one sense already come, but in which, in the other sense, they are still left, while kept from the evil of it.
Why? Well, for one thing, for their own sakes—that they may be sanctified. God’s name has already been manifested to them; God’s words have already been given them, and they have received them; and men hate them for it. The good work is already, therefore, begun with them. Its fruits are already shown in their radical departure from the world and the world’s consequent hatred. But the work is not completed. Therefore, the Saviour prays that “they may be sanctified in the truth,” that “they themselves also may be sanctified” in truth, just as He had been. They are to remain in the world then for their own sakes that the good work begun in them may be perfected unto the end. This appears as needful. Not, of course, as if they might not conceivably, like the dying thief, be prepared for heaven in a moment. God’s almighty grace can work wonders. But that is not God’s ordinary way; the muscles of holiness must grow by practice; hence temptation itself and trials are blessings. Hence, too, it emerges that sanctification is to take place in this life, in the ordinary provision of God. God’s children are to remain in the world for their sanctification.
For another thing, for others’ sake. God’s plans need their presence in and work for the world. They are not the whole harvest, but the first-fruits only. And that the first fruits may share in the harvest, it is needful to have them stay and labor here. They are to be the seed—“the good seed are they who …” And after a while, this sowing is to ripen into a goodly ingathering. Accordingly, our Lord prays not only for them but for them also who believe—throughout the whole future—on Him by their word. His glance takes in His whole Church, of all the ages; and these are to abide for it.
For still another thing, for the sake of the world itself. There is a testimony to be borne to the wicked world itself. “The wicked world,” apparently, because in contrast here not only with those whom Christ left behind, but also with those who should believe on His name through their word. The world is to be convicted of sin and convinced of Christ’s mission and glory. His own are to remain in the world and to propagate and grow into a mighty, unitary Church, in order that the world itself may know that the lowly Jesus whom it has despised and rejected is none other than the Son of God; and that these lowly followers of His, despised and persecuted by it, are loved of the Father even as the Father loves Him. The mighty testimony of the Church of God! How little we are bearing it! How we ought to bestir ourselves to it!
And then, finally, we must also say, for the Son’s own sake. For He, too, reaps advantages from their abiding below. So, and humanly speaking, so only, may His mission be vindicated and His glory manifested to the world, in His Church; may His glory be fully manifested to His own, when at last they come to Him; may His love then be perfected in them.
For these reasons, at least, it is well that Christ’s people remain for a season in this wicked world.
Benjamin B. Warfield