"Friendship with the world is in opposition to God," writes James, the brother of our Lord. "Therefore, whoever wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4; all English translations are mine).
The World Hated Jesus
Perhaps Jesus Himself explained it best when His brothers wanted Him to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles held just six months before His death. "You go on," He told them. "My time has not yet come, but any time is right for you. The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me, because I testify of it that its works are evil" (John 7:6-7).
According to Jesus, the world at this time did not hate James or the rest of His brothers, for all of them at this time were friends with the world. Indeed, they were a part of the world, for at this time they did not believe in Jesus (vs. 5). They had nothing to fear in going to Jerusalem to attend the festival. But Jesus knew that His enemies would be waiting at the city gates to arrest Him (vss. 1, 11). His enemies were the religious leaders of His day!
What Does the Term "World" Mean?
The "world" here is the domain of the Devil, the sphere of Satan. It consists of everything that is under his control, including Planet Earth, for he is now "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31) and "the god of this present age" (2 Corinthians 4:4). "The whole world lies in the power of the Evil One" (1 John 5:19), including all the lost of humanity and even many religious people who ignorantly seek to do his bidding.
Thus, friendship with the world is in reality friendship with the Devil himself. But he is hardly anyone's friend, for he only prowls the Earth like a lion stalking unsuspecting prey (1 Peter 5:8). And he has but one goal in mind: To take as many people to Hell with him as he possibly can.
Satan's Plan for the World
Satan is no longer trying to win a war, for he knows that he has already lost. He already stands condemned (John 16:11). First he was kicked out of Heaven and cast down to the Earth, when he led a third of the angels (Revelation 12:4) in a futile rebellion against God.
7And there was a war in Heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8But he did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. 9And the great dragon was cast down-the ancient Serpent, the one called the "Devil" and "Satan," he who leads the whole world astray-he was cast down to the Earth, and his angels were cast down with him. Revelation 12:7-9
And then on Earth, when Christ came to save mankind, Satan tried to thwart God's plan. But Christ conquered him through the cross and sealed his doom with the empty tomb. Filled with fury at this final defeat, Satan now awaits his punishment at the end of time. But God is not punishing him right now. Nor is Satan idle, for he is active in carrying out his own plan of revenge against God.
Jesus told His disciples that Hell was designed for the Devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). God did not design Hell for any human. God does not really want any of His human children to go to Hell, for the Bible tells us plainly that He wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). God does not want any of us humans to be punished eternally with the Devil and his angels (2 Peter 3:9). God designed Hell as a place of punishment specifically for the Devil and his angels after they rebelled against Him, and He was forced to cast them out of Heaven. God did not design Hell for mankind!
But the Devil has his own plan. Unable to strike back at God directly, he now intends to hurt God in the only way that he can-through God's children! With the time that he has left on Earth, Satan seeks to mislead as many as he can away from God. This is his vengeance against God, to break God's heart.
Woe to the Earth and the sea, because the Devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. Revelation 12:12b
The World Will Hate You
Those of us who choose to follow Jesus and to be His friends must face up to the fact that we will be hated by the world just as Jesus was hated by the world. At the Last Supper, Jesus warned His disciples:
18If the world hates you, know that it first hated Me before you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20Remember what I told you: No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. John 15:18-20a
Likewise the Apostle Paul warned young Timothy: "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12). True Christians can never really be friends with the world, for just as surely as the world hated and persecuted our Lord while He was on Earth, so the world will continue to hate and persecute all who follow Him.
In the World, but not of the World
On the night before His death, Jesus prayed to His Father in behalf of His disciples:
13Now I am coming to You, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of My joy. 14I have given them Your word, and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the Evil One. 16They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17Sanctify them by the truth; Your word is truth. 18Just as You sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. John 17:13-18
Like Jesus, we Christians must live in the world, but we must never become a part of it. The people of this world are the sexually immoral, the greedy, and the swindlers (1 Corinthians 5:10). While living in the world, we must keep ourselves "from being stained by the world," and this includes our speech (James 1:26-27).
More than that, we must refrain from falling in love with life here on Earth. The Apostle John wrote:
15Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16For everything in the world-the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life-is not of the Father, but is of the world. 17And the world will pass away along with its desires, but he who does the will of God shall remain forever. 1 John 2:15-17
As those who are in the world but not of the world, not only must we avoid the sins of the flesh. We must also never become so enamored with this life that we cannot bear to leave it behind, for one day the Earth and everything in it will be burned up (2 Peter 3:10). We must "fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Friendship with the World?
One year before her death at the age of thirty-nine, Elizabeth C. Clephane (1830-1869) wrote the words to the hymn "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." In stanza 5 of the original poem (some hymnals have it as stanza 4 or 3), we find the statement "Content to let the world go by." Those of us who are in the world but not of the world must be content to let the world pass us by, for one day it will pass away. And with Paul we must be willing to say, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Galatians 6:14).
But there is a sense in which we should not be "content to let the world go by." We are not of this world, yet Jesus has left us in this world. Why? We have already made our decision to follow Him. Why should we have to endure more suffering and temptation? Why should we have to face more hatred from the world? Why should we battle anymore with Satan?
Perhaps because there is one thing that we can do here in this world that we cannot do in the next. Only in this world can we build friendships with those who are still of the world in the hope that we can pull them away from Satan's grip. Jesus knew how to be "a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34; 15:2). And no one loved them like Jesus, for He knew how to be a true friend to those who were still of the world without becoming a part of the world Himself. In being their friend, Jesus never compromised His faith and morals. James also wrote about this kind of friendship: "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (James 5:20). This is the kind of friendship that the world needs.