After encouraging his readers by listing the privileges they have in Christ, John now gives them the first direct exhortation of the letter. Their sins are forgiven and they know God and they have overcome the evil one; consequently, they cannot and must not love the world. He not only tells them they are not to love the world but gives them the reasons why. He then ends what is otherwise a negative command by explaining the positive alternative and the rewards that come to those who love what is right.
The passage can be broken down as follows:
Why not love the world, nor the things in the world?
Because if anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
Because the world is passing away, and also its lusts.
Why is the love of the Father not in him who loves the world?
Because all that is in the world is not from the Father, but is from the world.
What is in the world?
The lust of the flesh.
The lust of the eyes.
The boastful pride of life.
Who has the love of the Father in him?
The one who does the will of God.
Why do the will of God?
Because the one who does the will of God abides forever.
The initial command is this – Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. The world that he refers to is not the created order. If it were the created order the command would directly contradict God’s love for the world (Jn 3:16). What he means by world he actually defines in verse 16 – it is everything that is not from God. It is a life view that does not include God but is centered on man and his desires. It is a way of life where satisfaction is pursued anywhere and everywhere but never found in God Himself. It is a reference to the world that lies in the power of the evil one (5:19). It means, in other words, the typical kind of life that is being lived by the average person today, who has not thought of God, but thinks only of this world and life, who thinks in terms of time and is governed by certain instincts and desires. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 85.)
The world is so opposed to God that to love it means the love of the Father is not in us. It is impossible by definition to love God and love what is completely opposed to God. We cannot love God and then love a world that does not include God. This echoes John’s words earlier that we cannot walk in the light AND walk in the darkness (1:6). Darkness is defined as a lack of light; so to walk in darkness by definition means no light is present. God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1:5). The world is darkness.
John’s words are similar to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about money – No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Matt 6:24). James says it even more strongly – You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4). James also defines someone who tries to love God and the world as double-minded (James 1:6-8) and says his prayers will not be answered. Love of God does not allow for love of the world. And love of the world does not allow for love of God.
Thought: Do not miss the implication of what John says. To love the world means we cannot love God. If we do not love God we are not His child. It is that simple and that crucial. Someone who loves the world is not a believer. A man cannot be a serial adulterer and claim to love his wife. A man cannot be an enemy of God – as James says – and claim to be His child.
Note that the command actually has two parts – we are not to love the world nor the things in the world. What are the things in the world? He answers that in verse 16. They are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.
Lust as it is used in this passage refers to desires that control us. Instead of using our desires to bring us to Him (the purpose of their creation), the desires themselves become our god and our lives are marked by an endless – and fruitless – pursuit of satisfaction. Lust is never satisfied and is characterized only by the desire for more (desire inflamed leads only to more desire). It is the opposite of the thirst-satisfying living water Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:13-14). It is the opposite of the satisfaction that comes to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). Lust says that whatever satisfied me last time will never satisfy me again and I need more. It is the opposite of the rest Jesus offered to all who come to Him and take on His yoke (Matt 11:28-30). Lust says, “There is no time for rest, give me more.” Lust is completely opposed to God.
The lust of the flesh refers to natural desires contaminated by sin. It includes sexual sin but is not limited to it. It represents physical desires elevated to become ends rather than means. The man who overeats (God created us to need food but not to live for food) or overspends (God gave us material needs but not so we can pursue possessions for their own sake) or is addicted to pornography (God gave us sex but not for the purpose of self-indulgence) is an example of someone pursuing the lust of the flesh.
The lust of the eyes can best be defined as covetousness (and goes hand in hand with the lust of the flesh). When we desire what we do not have because we think it will fill the emptiness in our lives we engage in the lust of the eyes. We see it, we desire it, we will not be content until we get it. It is what Eve did when she noticed the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6). It is what Achan did when he saw the riches of Jericho (Josh 7:20-21). It is what David did when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop (II Sam 11:2). All of them engaged in the lust of the eyes. They desired what their eye told them they must have to satisfy the longing of their souls. And what they had to have did not include God.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus used the eye as a metaphor for the focus of our heart. In discussing where our real treasure is and who or what we truly serve, He said, “The lamp of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt 6:22-23). An eye not trained on God that seeks satisfaction apart from Him is actually full of darkness – it cannot see at all. But a clear eye full of God provides light for the soul. The lust of the eyes is actually a picture of one frantically searching and trying to see in the dark.
The boastful pride of life is close to the other two but comes from a different direction. Whereas the first two things of the world refer mostly to what we do not have, this refers to pride that comes from what we possess. The word for life in this verse is the same word translated as the world’s goods in 3:17; consequently, it makes sense that John refers primarily to the pride that comes from possessions or lifestyle or accomplishment. It is someone who derives their self-worth from what they have or from what they have achieved (and who are at risk of falling into despair when those things are taken away). Thus, John has in mind an attitude of pretentious arrogance or subtle elitism that comes from one’s view of wealth, rank, or stature in society. It is an overconfidence that makes us lose any notion that we are dependent on God. (Gary M. Burge, Letters of John, NIV Application Commentary; 65.)
These describe what is in the world. The created order turned upside down. Setting self in the place of God and pursuing the creation rather than the Creator. It is truly a picture of insanity. Pursuing satisfaction everywhere except the one and only place it can be found.
He ends this verse by elaborating on why the love of the Father is not in the one who loves the world. All that is in the world is not from the Father, but is from the world. It may seem redundant to state that the things of the world are from the world. But that is what makes them opposed to God. They are from the darkness. And to love the darkness means we hate the light. We who love the Father cannot love what is not from the Father. We who love what is from the Father cannot love what is from the world.
In verse 17 John gives us the second reason not to love the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts. Everything that the world stands for is dying. The world itself is dying. What the world values will not last. Those who desire what it desires and who share its lusts will be destroyed along with it. This is similar to what he said in 2:8 about the darkness passing away. Loving what will be destroyed leads to destruction.
But there is an alternative. We can love God. Note the end of verse 17 – the one who does the will of God abides forever. Who does the will of God? John said in 2:5 that the love of God is perfected in the one who keeps His word. The one who does the will of God loves God. The love of God results in obedience and the one who obeys abides forever. The opposite of loving the world and its lusts is loving God and doing His will. And it follows that if we do the opposite of the world the result will be the opposite of the end of the world. Instead of destruction we will abide forever.
It is actually quite logical – why love what is only temporary and leads to destruction when you can love God and abide forever? John’s reasoning is similar to the argument Jesus used about treasures in Matthew 6. When Jesus said not to store up treasures on earth He did not use as His reason that it is wrong. He said instead that it is not very smart. Why store up treasures in a place that is not secure and will be destroyed? It makes much more sense to store them where they are secure and everlasting. John likewise points out the foolishness of loving what is temporary at the cost of missing what is eternal.
Note again that John does not give us wiggle room. We either love the world and are destroyed or we love God and abide forever. There is no such thing as one who loves the world and abides forever just as there will be no one who loves God and is destroyed. Loving God is not optional and loving the world is not okay. We are in one camp or the other (whether we realize it or not).
So do we love the world? Are we more enamored with the shiny things of creation than we are with the Creator? Are we looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places? Do we see God waving at us and telling us that ultimate contentment is found only in Him only to speed by Him looking for the real answer? Are we serving our desires rather than the Author of those desires? Are we frantically searching in the darkness for something found only in the light?
Jesus said for a reason that the first and greatest commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). Everything starts there. We cannot love the world if we love God this way. And we cannot love God this way if we love the world.
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works.