As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
It's not uncommon for Christians to think of reality as having three layers. The top layer is Heaven, the place of God and goodness. The bottom layer is Hell, the place of Satan and evil. In the middle is the world. It is neither good nor evil, but rather a kind of demilitarized zone between good and evil, a neutral battleground in which the cosmic war between good and evil is fought.
This notion of the neutral world is not taught in Scripture, however. In Ephesians 2:1-2, for example, it says: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world …" The original Greek refers to the "aion of this world." Aion can mean "length of time, age, or eternity." In verse 2, it could well be translated as "the ways of this world," as in the NIV, or as "the course of this world," as in the ESV and NRSV. The Message paraphrases well: "You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live."
When Paul speaks of "this world," he is not thinking about the physical earth: rocks, trees, water, and the like. Rather, he is thinking about what we might call culture, worldview, or spirit of the age. He is envisioning the world as a system of powers that pulls us in the direction of sin and death. When we were dead in our trespasses and sins, we were living according to the ways of the world, a world that entraps us and entices us to live contrary to God.
It's crucial for us to see the world from a biblical point of view. Though God's ways can be found in it because God is present, the dominant system of the world opposes God's values and practices. We all live in cultures, communities, and contexts that lure us into the ways of sin and death.
Yet, this does not mean we should withdraw from the world because God is in the business of restoring it in Christ (see Eph. 1:9-10). In fact, you and I are called to participate in God's work of restoration. But, because we live in this world, we need to see it for what it is. We need to learn how to discern what in the world is of God and what in the world opposes God, so that we might experience and share the life of God rather than the death associated with the ways of this world.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: As you think about your world, where do you see evidence of systemic sin and death? Where do you see evidence of God's presence? How is the world luring you away from God? What helps you to be "in the world but not of it"?
PRAYER: Gracious God, I live in a world that is not what you intended it to be. Around me I see sickness and death, oppression and injustice, selfishness and corruption. I see people praising that which opposes you and condemning you and your ways.
Though you have delivered me from the death associated with this world, I am still, in many ways, influenced by it. My thinking and my acting are not yet fully consistent with you and your values. Forgive me, Lord. Help me to discern rightly what is worldly and what is godly. In every context of my life, may I look for–and may I long for–your truth, your justice, your righteousness, your love. Amen.
Thanks to everyone who has invested in the Theology of Work Project! Thanks to your generosity, we were able to meet all our needs for 2017! We ask that you continue to keep us in your prayers and charitable giving in 2018 as we equip Christians to connect to God's purposes for work.