When we read the New Testament there can be, sometimes, confusion over what the term “world” means. For example John 3:16 famously says, “God so loved the world,” and yet in 1 John 2:15 we read, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” What becomes more confusing is that in Genesis 1 we read that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” and after God surveyed all He had made He declared it all, “exceedingly good,” and yet in 1 Corinthians 4:4 it says, “In whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
Furthermore the Prophets speak of a future world where the lion will lay with the lamb, the lion will eat straw like the ox, the child will have no fear of playing near a viper’s den; and yet in the Gospel of John Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36).
Does God love the world or does He hate it? Is God the God of this world or is Satan the god of this world? Will there be a future kingdom present in the tangible reality or will it be a spiritual existence?
The problem, I believe, is two-fold:
1) Many English translations render two Greek words as “world”, kosmos and aion. Which have very different meanings, and, in fact, neither mean (literally) the planet we call Earth. Kosmos means “order” and aion means “age”
2) In the case of the Greek, kosmos, the word has a long history of use as it developed layers of meaning through roughly five hundred years of Greek philosophy prior to the time of Jesus. Originally it simply meant “order”, and it was the opposite of chaos, disorder.
About six hundred years before Jesus, the Ionian philosopher Thales famously said, “The world [kosmos] is water.” Without getting too much into it, the earliest philosophers were deeply interested in what the world–the kosmos–was. In Sicily, the philosopher Pythagoras would, taking a different approach, said that the world–kosmos–was number; being interested in how the world was. The Ionians were interested in matter, the Pythagoreans were interested in function.
However what these two schools had in common was that there was, in fact, an order, a kosmos, that reality was an ordered structure, an orderly unity–some believed that the order was unitary (one thing) others said the order was many pluralistic (many things). So, for example, Thales said the world was water, everything was water, Pythagoras said everything was number. Democritus held that there were only atoms and void, Anaxagoras held there existed only mind and matter. Heraclitus would say that the kosmos is in constant motion under the power of the logos, the creative word, which was like a cosmic fire causing all things to be in perpetual motion. While Parmenides would say that there is no motion, change and motion are illusions, everything is absolute, being has always been and everything is perpetual being.
Through all this was an attempt to grasp what is and how is kosmos. What is the order and how is it ordered? Is it one thing or many, is it in motion or is it motionless?
From this concept of order–of kosmos–the conception of kosmos being “the world” developed, we are in the kosmos, the order, we are part of it. It’s from this idea that we speak of the universe as “the cosmos”–it’s all that is, and all that is an order–a kosmos.
So here is what I propose, that the writers of the New Testament were aware of these layers of meaning as the word kosmos was used in Greek. It could refer to “the world” as might understand it, as creation, the earth, moon, sun, the stars and all that is within them. It could be used to refer to the peoples of the world, but it’s most basic meaning was still “order”, and coulse be used in that sense to refer to how things or something is organized, ordered, or ruled. Thus we can speak of, for example, the Roman Kosmos, the Roman World, specifically the Rule and Order of Rome spread across the Meditareranean; including Roman government and power.
In this sense God can love–agape–the world (kosmos), showing His benevolent grace and compassion through the selfless act of sending His Son into the world. And thus Christians ought to imitate this by loving and being for the world through agape, service and self-sacrifice, loving our neighbor as we would love ourselves. And at the same time if any one loves–agape–the world (kosmos)–that is if they have affection for the way things are done, loving the present order and structure of authority spread across the world, with hate and war and oppression, if anyone loves these things, loving the order of how things are presently run–then the love of the Father is not in them. Because the god of this world(age)–aion–is the ruler which the world–kosmos–follows.
When the Prophets speak of a future age–aion–where peace exists on earth, with lions and lambs laying together, lions eating straw like an ox and children playing fearlessly around viper nests, this is true; and when Christ says that His kingdom is not of this world–kosmos–He is saying that His authority and dominion is nothing like the authority and dominion of the present order–kosmos. Christ’s kingdom has nothing to do with temporal, “worldly” kingdoms, His is not a kingdom led and governed by the sword, but goverened by the Gospel of Peace. His kingdom is not going to supplant Rome in any usual sense, He wasn’t about leading a zealous revolt against Roman occupation with swords and daggers; His was a kingdom removed from the present order, this present kosmos. His kingdom is above this kosmos, it is something different altogether, and altogether better, and altogether MORE dangerous to the kingdoms of the world and the present order than any insurrection could ever be.
The Way of the Cross is a thousand times more threatening and dangerous to the world and its powers than a rebellion. One kingdom rising against another in war is simply more of the same, it’s the same kind of kingdom simply attacking another, they are ultimately the same kind of kingdom and under the same rule, the same order, the same kosmos. Christ’s Kingdom will ultimately decimate them all, not through sword and war, but through the ultimate destruction of the present kosmos, which St. Peter says, is “reserved for fire.” This is the Fire of God’s Presence, the Fire that burns and purifies, the burns away the chaff and the dross. The all-consuming fire that consumes everything, destroying that which is impure and leaving only the pure, which St. Gregory of Nyssa envisions will mean (at least) the potential for the salvation of all and the restoration of all–apokatastasis. It is this fire, after it has consumed everything, where God is all in all, and makes all things new, where St. John sees a “new heavens and a new earth”, in effect, a new kosmos. A kosmos ordered not under strife and pain, but ordered under love and grace, where every tear is dried, every life made whole, where the lion will lay with the lamb and the child play near the viper’s den.
Christ came to set captives free and proclaim the Jubilee of God (Luke 4:18) and it is within His very Person that the Kingdom of God is manifest (Luke 17:21), the one Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is near, and that it’s the time of change (repentance–metanoia). And this Kingdom is manifest through the Crucified Jesus who then rises from the dead. It is the Christ of the Cross who brings forth God’s Reign, and sets to ruin this present age and kosmos, establishing within it’s crumbling decay a new order, a new kosmos, found structured within His Ekklesia, His Church. While the present kosmos is crumbling in its own self-destruction, Christ having overcome it (John 16:33), and establishing a new world order within His disciples, gathered together as ekklesia–as called community–the new kosmos is being ordered, and will be finally and fully ordered at Christ’s Parousia, His Second Coming.
In this sense the Church is the microcosm of the Age to Come, or in Hebrew, Olam Ha’ba. It’s purpose is the continued ministry of Christ in the present world and age, it is the Presence of Jesus in the world operating under the power of the Promised Comforter–the Holy Spirit–within the Community of God (the Church) through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Through the incorporation of individuals into the Body of Christ, by the Grace of God, through the Mystery of Baptism (death of the old and birth of the new), and called into Communion–koinonia–at the Table of Jesus, i.e. the Eucharistic Supper where the Gathered partake of body and blood of Jesus in and under the elements of bread and wine; which both rekindles the memory of Christ’s Passion which is as much a present reality as it is an historical one, and calls one to meditate upon the fullness of the Coming Time, when all will be gathered with Christ to partake of the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
The Church, therefore, exists in the present, with the crumbling of the old order and the dawning of the new to function like Noah’s ark, the only place of refuge against the diluge which is washing away the corrupt things of the present.
It is not a message of condemnation which the Church bears, but of reconciliation and peace. It is not with hellfire on her lips that she speaks, but of persevering grace and a call to come and partake. To welcome all and love all and accept all, with all the insurmountable love of Jesus Christ which is beyond all height, width, length and depth.
The present order is a dying order, the principalities and authorities, the powers and dominions, are a dying thing. A facade, and coming to an end. Many kingdoms and nations have come and gone in two thousand years, and many more. America will wither away and die and be replaced by another–these are beside the point. It is the order that is itself dying, whether manifest through Rome or Byzantium, China or the Ottoman Turks, Britain or America.
The powers that be are, by the light of Christ, not powers at all, but merely fabrications without permanence.
This kosmos is dying, it has been dying for two thousand years. It is self-destructive and self-destructing.
This is not “end-of-the-world” hysteria, because I’m not saying everything you know will come to an end tomorrow, or even a year from now, I’m saying it’s already been coming to an end for two thousand years and it may continue to be coming to an end for another two thousand.
The present reality, the present kosmos, is one that is ultimately unreal and without permanence, reserved for fire.
Christ has overcome the world, and by His loving grace has saved the world, so that the world can have eternal life in the Shalom–the Peace–of God. Unto the ages of ages. Amen.