In an earlier piece of writing, I attempted to offer my thoughts on relationships among “the earth,” “the world,” and God’s everlasting covenant. A central element of that effort had to do with distinguishing among the root meanings of the several Hebrew and Greek words for either “earth” or “world” as they appear in the King James English translation of the bible. My intent in this effort is to examine that area more deeply.
As a beginning point, let’s consider a simple sentence: “There is a world of people on the earth.” Most of us would have no trouble understanding the point of such a sentence, since we’re used to the word “world” being used to refer to a group of people - in this case, it refers to all the people on earth. But it is also understood that a distinction is being made between the “world” of all those people and the physical earth where they are gathered.
We might also hear someone use the word world in a somewhat colloquial way, as in “That behavior will get you into a world of trouble.” Here, the word “world” is easily taken to mean something other than the physical earth, and such a distinction is easy for us to understand.
To carry this point a bit further, think about the time when John Glenn first orbited the earth. As he circled the globe, (the earth) he was passing over a succession of “worlds.” He passed the over “the New World,” as historians have referred to North and South America. He passed over less developed countries we have often referred to as “third world” countries to distinguish them from countries with sophisticated economies. We could separate the “worlds” he passed over into historic, racial, geographic, or many other categories, and in each case we would be talking about groups of people who live in different places and conditions on the planet earth.
With it in mind that we’re examining biblical distinctions between “world” and “earth,” let us focus on the first place in scripture where the word “world” is used. Bear in mind that the word “earth” has already appeared earlier in scripture; the first verse of the bible contains that word, and it refers to the physical planet. Clearly, the writer of I Samuel, 2:8 uses the word “world” to refer to something other than the earth in a sentence in which both words appear; “He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them.”
In this verse, “earth” refers to the physical sphere that God created according to the first verse of Genesis. According to James Strong's Hebrew dictionary the “world” in the last phrase of the verse refers not just to the physical planet, but to a part of it described as "moist and therefore inhabited." As I understand it, the writer is denoting the parts of the planet where climate and other conditions allow humankind to live.
The first use of the word “world” in the New Testament occurs in Matthew 4:8, “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;” In this case, “world” refers to a collection of political subdivisions. In effect, Satan said, “Look at this kingdom, this group of people who are living under the control of one government, and here is another kingdom and yet another.” The kingdom visible to ordinary humans from any nearby vantage point would have been the kingdom of Judaea, which was part of the Roman Empire, but we might assume that Satan had the ability to try to tempt Jesus by showing him any kingdom that might have existed or would ever exist. Any of these would still be a group of people, in some time and place on the earth, who were governed by one or another ruler, and all them taken together would constitute the “world” in this verse.
We could go on almost endlessly with various examples of different biblical meanings of the word “world.” None is unimportant, but I want to move this effort toward one central point that helps us understand more about God’s work in behalf of his beloved people. For that reason, I intend to focus on uses of the word “world” that delineate one group of human beings from other groups of human beings.
In some instances, the word “world” in scripture refers to all the people who have ever lived or will ever live. In other instances the word “world” can make a distinction between one group of people in one time, place, or condition and another group of people in another time, place, or condition.
As a way to begin examining these distinctions, let us contrast two familiar New Testament scriptures, John 3:16 and I John 2:15.
John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I John 2:15 reads, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Clearly the two scriptures refer to different “worlds.” John 3:16 speaks of a world that God loves. I John 2:15 sets another world firmly outside of the love of “the Father.”
This introduces an important element into our analysis, the reality that God has a people whom he loves, a people comprising some, but not all, of mankind. This principle is made abundantly clear in every part of the bible, including the clear distinction God made between the children of Israel and all other people. In God’s covenant with the nation of Israel, that nation would be “His” in a way that others would not; they would follow his laws, and He would guide and protect them. That was a different covenant from the “Everlasting” covenant that contained God’s plan for his beloved people from all time and all places to eternally live with Him in peace, but it was a “figure” or representation of the everlasting covenant. In both covenants, God loved one people and recognized them as his own and did not love and recognize the other.
To further develop this “figure” or representation, we will briefly examine some Old Testament language. While the word “world” is not used in Deuteronomy 32:8,9, the language clearly speaks of one chosen group of people as distinct from other people. The descriptive word used is “nations.” “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.”
This choice that God made between a beloved nation and a nation that was not beloved is pointedly described in Gen 25:21 - 23. This passage relates a quandary confronting Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, when she was pregnant with twin sons. “And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus?” And she went to enquire of the Lord. And the Lord said unto her, “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”
In Matthew 25: 31 - 46, in the opening book of the New Testament, we see language that deals with the end result of the everlasting covenant, the one prefigured in Deuteronomy 32. Once again, “nations” is the delineating word and, once again, a choice that God made is described. We won’t reproduce every verse of that passage here, but we will begin with the first three verses. “When the son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.”
Most of us are familiar with the scenario that follows. The “King,” speaks from his throne to the sheep, bidding them in verse 34 to “… come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” and saying, in verse 35, “For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat … .” He describes this group as offering to the King himself many acts of love and kindness. The group replies, wondering when they did those things, and the reply, in the 40th verse is “… Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as he have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The opposite pattern is played out when the King speaks to the goats. They are told, in verse 41, “… Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire …” This is followed by a recitation of acts of love and kindness denied, with the same explanation that the treatment of one of the King’s people is the same as treatment of the King himself.
I want to emphasize some points in this passage. First, the King - Jesus, the Son of Man - does the separating between the sheep and the goats. The question is, on what basis is the separation made. Was the separation made because one group of people, the sheep, acted in a loving, kindly way and another, the goats, did not? No, in my view, it was not.
The loving behavior described here is an identifier. It marks a person as having the principle, the spirit of love within him or her. Collectively, the sheep in this passage are people who carry that spirit, a spirit that can only come from God himself, within them. The King, in this passage, is saying “You who carry the spirit of God’s love within you are “blessed of my Father,” and you may now “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Again, the converse is true of the goats. They exhibit no loving behavior because the spirit of God's love is not within them.
The point of this, to put it in my own simple language, is that people do not become what they are as a result of what they do; they do what they do because of what they are. The important distinction in Matthew 25 is, simply, whether the person or persons referred to have the spirit of God and his love within them. If so, they have the ability to act out that love. If not, they do not have that capacity.
This brings us to a further discussion of God's everlasting covenant. Let me explain the connection. It was in the formulation of that covenant that the means were devised that would result in the presence of God's spirit - God's love - within any part of human kind. How and when was that covenant formulated?
Let me begin with the text of a song that can be found in C. H. Cayce's The Good Old Songs. While these verses, number 426 in the book, are obviously not scripture, they are an excellent description of the elements of God's everlasting covenant:
Long ere the sun began his days, or moon shot forth her silver rays,
Salvation's scheme was fixed, 'twas done in covenant by the Three In One
The Father spake, the Son replied, The Spirit with them both complied;
Grace moved the cause for saving man, and wisdom drew the noble plan.
The Father chose his holy Son to die for sins that man had done;
Emmanuel to the choice agreed, and thus secured a numerous seed.
He sends His Spirit from above, to call the objects of His love;
Not one shall perish or be lost, His blood has bought them - dear they cost.
What high displays of sovereign grace! What love to save a ruined race!
My soul, adore His lovely name, by whom thy free salvation came.
When, then, was the everlasting covenant formulated? In II Timothy, 1:9, the language refers to God, "Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began." The word "world," in this case refers to a period of time, one that existed in God's mind and purpose and is everlasting. It encompasses all time that has to do with mankind, and the meaning we can take from this scripture is that God's purpose and grace with respect to the people whom he loved was in effect before the first moment of mankind's existence. As I see it, the closest we can come to fixing the exact time of that moment is on the sixth day of God's creation of the earth. Whether a person chooses to see the work described in Genesis 1 as taking place within a literal block of 24-hour days or as taking place in steps over a long period of time, the creation of mankind comes at the point in that sequence referred to in that chapter as the sixth day. That is when the "world" of mankind began.
Many scriptures that are about this process use the phrase "foundation of the world," and it is in such verses that the distinction between all of mankind and that part of mankind whom God loves begins to be drawn. These verses I want to discuss in that connection indicate that the covenant process began before the world of mankind had come into being, but they indicate more than that. Recalling our discussion of different meanings of the word "world," let us examine some scriptures that contain the phrase "foundation of the world."
First, let me point out that, according to Strong's Greek dictionary, in every verse I want to cite here, the word "world" has the same meaning. The Greek root in each case is kosmos, referring to "an orderly arrangement" and an "adornment."
What is this orderly arrangement ? It is, in my view, God's entire plan that led to the creation of the universe, of the earth, and of mankind. The plan also included all that would be necessary for those whom God loved to ultimately live with him fully and eternally. This part of the plan, the part dealing with the ultimate destiny of God's people, is not just another component of the overall plan, it is the centerpiece of it. It is the ultimate expression of God's purpose and of his glory. It is the ultimate "adornment," and the surety of it is spoken of in II Samuel, 23:5, in words that are recorded as coming from the mouth of David. "Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure: for this is all my desire, although he make it not to grow.
We will continue with Ephesians 1:4, "According as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:" Here we read about God's motivation to begin the "world," the orderly arrangement, and about the first steps of it. The key phrase is "in love." All of the plan took place because God loved his people. Acting on that love, God chose his people. He chose them "in" Christ Jesus. A restatement of this verse could be, "God loved his people, and he chose them and made a plan for their ultimate salvation, and Christ would be central to that plan." I might point out that this loving and choosing took place before the "arrangement" began, and this is why this verse says the choosing took place "before the foundation of the world."
From the time that God, having loved His people and having chosen them, determined that his son Jesus Christ would be central to carrying out his "arrangement," Christ's redemptive work and sacrifice was an accomplished fact in God's mind. That is the sense of the phrase "..the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" as it appears in Revelation 17:8.
Taking the process further, Hebrews 9:26 speaks of things that Christ ultimately endured as a result of the "arrangement," or the "foundation of the world." The verse begins, "For then must he have often suffered since the foundation of the world..."
Moving on, we should note that this same verse as it continues contains an entirely different use of the word "world," yet another example of the different meanings that are attached to the word in scripture. "... but now in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." The root of the word that was translated as "world" in this case, refers, according to Strong, to an "age," a specific period or block of time. In this case, in my opinion, it refers to the fact that the life of the human, historical Jesus came during the final years of Israel's historical existence as a nation.
In II Peter, in both Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, references are made to a "world" that was destroyed in the great biblical flood. In my opinion, these references are to a group of people who lived during a certain time. The earth itself was not destroyed, it was flooded. What was destroyed? In my view, it was the people who were so corrupted by wickedness that God determined to begin the human story anew by directing Noah to build and ark and save only him and his extended family from the flood.
Another rendition of the world "world," and one that obviously denotes a specific era, even a specific part of the earth during a specific era, appears in Luke 2:1. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." A basic understanding of history tells us that this passage cannot refer to all of the nations of the world in all eras. Caesar Augustus ruled Rome and its dominions during a finite period of time, one that coincided with Christ's time on earth within a political subdivision that was a part of the Roman Empire. "All the world," in this case, simply refers to everyone living at that time in Rome or in a province of Rome
The same root, referring to the Roman "world" during a specific time, appears in Act 17:6. "And when they found them not, they drew Jason and certain brethren unto the rulers of the city, crying, These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also; ..." In this case the ones who have "turned the world upside down" are Paul and Silas, who had gone preaching the gospel of Christ throughout many of the Roman provinces that surrounded the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea. They were, at the time being recounted, in Thessalonica. The sense of the verse is that their preaching had greatly threatened the religious traditions of that part of the "Roman world."
My central purpose in this effort is not to attempt to "turn anyone's world upside down" by advocating any new interpretation of scriptures. It is, rather, to "turn right side up" the broad misunderstanding of one of the most often quoted verses in the New Testament, John 3:16. If, after reciting some of the many scriptures in which the word "world" is used in different ways to mean different things, we can take a fresh look at that passage, and understand what that verse means when it says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
The "world" in that verse is the "orderly arrangement," the "adornment" that we focused on during most of these comments. It is not the earth, and it is not the whole of mankind. If God's covenant, his plan, his "orderly arrangement" embraced all of mankind, there would be no discussion in the scriptures of sheep and goats or of those whom God loved and did not love. The verse, then, simply says that God gave his son so that everyone who was part of the "orderly arrangement" would have everlasting life and would not perish. The phrase "whosoever believeth," like the loving behavior described in Matthew 21 during the discussion of sheep and goats as they appear before the "son of man," is an identifier, a descriptor. It refers to people who are able to believe because God's spirit within them has given them the capacity to do so.
But for those whom God loves, the message of that verse, and of much of both the Old and New Testaments, is that God's plan, his covenant, his "orderly arrangement," is sure, effective, and everlasting.