The word world is found almost twenty times in Christ’s prayer in John 17. Sometimes it means the created or material world (5, 24) and other times it means the people of the world (14, 23, 25, where hatred and knowledge are attributed to the people of the world). Sometimes when the word world is used it brings these two meanings together. For example, in verses 15 Christ means that we would not be physically taken out of the material world, but the emphasis is obviously on being taken from among the influence and hatred of the people of the world.
In this prayer, when the word world refers to the people of the world it is always divisive, discriminating, and either condemnatory or comforting. The division is made between the sinful population of the world and the redeemed population; between those who are haters of the Lord and those who love him (14); between those who have been saved from sin and those who are still “condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). Christ discriminates between the Christian and the unbeliever when He says that He is not praying for the world in this prayer, but for His people in the world (9). This is the comfort for the people of God—the decided love of God for His particular people whom He has separated from the people of this world (14, 16).
The fallen and ungodly world is condemned. The material world is cursed and will one day evaporate and all that is in it (2 Peter 3:10). The kingdom of the world will be cast down and the principles that govern it will be destroyed. The people of this worldly kingdom will be destroyed with it. They shall call on the hills and rocks (Revelation 6:16) to hide them from the wrath of God, but, ironically, both they and the rocks are under the same curse.
The focus of this prayer, however, is for the comfort of those of this world that have been redeemed. Of them Christ says, “They are not of this world,” and Paul says there is “therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). This statement, “They are not of this world,” is repeated (14, 16). This is not a vain repetition; two key thoughts emerge from this repeated statement.
In verse fourteen Christ makes this statement as a reason for their persecution: they are hated because they do not fit the mold of this world. In verse sixteen Christ repeats this as a reason for their preservation. Christ is saying (if I could paraphrase this), “You will be hated by the world because you do not fit in, but I am praying that you will be kept from evil because you belong to another world.” To put it another way, Christ is preserving us for another world because we no longer conform to this world.
1. We do not belong to this world (verse 14)
C. H. Spurgeon quoted a convert once who said after his conversion, “Either the world is altered or else I am.” When the Lord says, “Ye are not of the world,” it should be noted that this is a statement of fact, not a petition of the prayer. The term that the apostle used is “strangers and pilgrims,” pilgrims in a country that holds no real attraction. It is pictured in the Scripture as a wilderness hostile to the life that we live.
We may flirt with the attractions and allurements of this world but Christians will invariably be disappointed because we are not of this world. We may try to fit into the ways of the world or try to accommodate ourselves to a particular group of friends in the world or unbelieving family, but we soon discover that we are like a square peg in a round hole because we are not of this world. This is a statement of fact, the stated position of the child of God, and no matter how often the Christian tries to fit into the world the fact remains: we are not of this world.
In this world the children of God are misfits. We are not different in a superficial way—merely in our dress, or our hairstyles, or our music or our mode of living (this is where the traditional Amish religion is mistaken). We are different in the most fundamental way possible—in our relationship with the Creator (verse 25, our knowledge of Him) and in His communication with us (14, His Word). It is the Word of God illumining the mind that makes us different from the world. All other differences apart from the word are a form of worldliness in themselves no matter how conservative in appearance they may be.
2. We are preserved for a another world (verses 15–16)
Although we are fundamentally different from the people of the world, yet we are to co-exist with them, and we are sent out into the midst of them (18). This poses serious and obvious problems. If we are so fundamentally different from the world and in opposition to its governing principles, the Christian life in this world is like negotiating a minefield or being stranded in enemy territory—exposed, vulnerable, and powerless to escape. Indeed, Christ goes on to state that He is not praying that we be removed from this world, but that we are kept here!
It is here where Christ’s mediation becomes effective and a great encouragement for us in the present time. Christ is praying that in this hostile world we are kept from the evil. By this He evidently means both the evil one (Luke 22:32) and the evil influences (Matthew 6:13). We are being preserved in the midst of the trials and temptation of this world as testimony of the power of the Word to keep us and to sanctify us (Vs. 17) in order that the world might know Him as we Know Him (Vs. 18).