The biblical concept of world falls into five categories: the physical world, the human world, the moral world, the temporal world, and the coming world.
The Physical World. The physical world at its largest extent includes the whole universe, the cosmos ( John 1:9 ; Acts 17:24 ) or the creation ( Rom 8:20 ). When biblical writers refer to the world, however, they usually mean the earth itself, not including sun, moon, and stars. No clear Old Testament references appear to the world as a planet, although Isaiah 40:22, "the circle of the earth, " is suggestive to some. Many Old Testament uses of world or earth (eres, in poetry sometimes tebel [lebeT]) could refer equally to the planet or the ground. When Old Testament writers wanted to refer to the universe, they used an expression like "the heavens and the earth" ( Gen 1:1 ) or an expansion of that expression ( Exod 20:11 ; Neh 9:6 ).
Scripture affirms first of all that God created the world ( Gen 1:1-2:4 ; Acts 4:24 ; 14:15 ; Rev 10:6 ). Because he created it, he owns it and may be addressed as its Lord ( Matt 11:25 ; Luke 10:21 ; Acts 17:24 ). The whole world is full of its Creator's glory ( Isa 6:3 ). Because God is Creator and Lord of the earth, it holds only secondary value; a believer must not swear by it ( Matt 5:34-35 ) or accumulate treasure on it ( Matt 6:19 ).
God designed the world to be fruitful. His creation includes provision for animals as well as for people ( Psalm 104:10-22 ).
God's judgment encompasses the physical world. He flooded it in Noah's time and it lies ready for his judgment at the end ( 2 Peter 3:7 2 Peter 3:10 ). The world's permanence is only relative. At the end God's angels will gather his chosen ones "from the ends of earth to the ends of heaven" ( Mark 13:27 ; NRSV ). Until that time the earth is the arena of God's activity through his people. Christians are to witness to Jesus "to the ends of the earth" ( Acts 1:8 ).
The Human World. The human world includes dry land where people can live, the inhabited earth where they do live, and by metonymy, the people who live there.
The dry land appears in contrast to the sea in Genesis 1:9-10 and Revelation 10:2. Much of this dry land makes up the inhabited earth. The inhabited earth was created with delight by God's wisdom ( Prov 8:27-31 ). Before Jesus' birth Caesar Augustus attempted to take a census of "the whole world" (really only the Roman Empire Luke 2:1 ). The tempter offered Jesus "all the kingdoms" of the inhabited world ( Luke 4:5 ; cf. Matt 4:8 ). Jesus predicted that the gospel would be preached to the whole world ( Matt 24:14 ; 26:13 ; cf. Rom 10:18 ), a prediction so successful that the early church, in its opponents' opinion, upset the whole world ( Acts 17:6 ). The whole world is deceived by the devil ( Rev 12:9 ) and will experience great trouble before the end ( Luke 21:26 ; Rev 3:10 ).
The people of the world are called simply the "world" or the "earth" occasionally in the Old Testament and frequently in the New Testament. "Yahweh will judge the world, " or a similar statement, means he will judge the world's inhabitants ( Psalm 9:8 ; 96:13 ; Isa 13:11 ; 26:9 ). Similar New Testament references to the Christ's or his apostles' authority appear. The Son of Man "has authority on the earth, " authority over the people of the world ( Matt 9:6 ; parallels Mark 2:10 ; Luke 5:24 ). The apostles have a derived authority, the power of "binding and loosing" ( Matt 16:19 ; 18:18 ).
In the Johannine literature the "world" often means the people of the world. The world did not know the Word ( John 1:10 ), the Lamb who would take away its sin ( John 1:29 ). God loved the world, sending his Son into it to save rather than condemn it ( John 3:16-17 ; 12:47 ; 1 John 4:9 ). The Son of God is the "Savior of the world" ( John 4:42 ; 1 John 4:14 ), giving life to it as the "bread of life" ( John 6:33 John 6:51 ).
The Moral World. The moral world includes people indifferent or hostile to God, the God-hostile environment generally, and in the widest sense, corruption and evil summed up under the general term "the world."
If the people of the world can be spoken of as "the world" in a neutral sense, "the world" can also refer to the subclass of indifferent and hostile people who reject God and his ways. Before the flood nearly all the people of the world became corrupt ( Gen 6:11 ). In Jesus' time the world hated him ( John 7:7 ) and will hate his followers ( John 15:18-19 ). The world, ungodly people, cannot receive the things of God ( John 14:17 John 14:22 ; 16:8-9 ; cf. 1 John 3:1 ) and is not even worthy of the people of faith who live among them ( Heb 11:38 ).
In the New Testament the world also appears as a hostile environment. Because of the hatred of the world's people, the Son asks the Father to protect his followers rather than remove them from their alien surroundings ( John 17:14-16 ). Paul expresses his indifference to the world by saying he "is crucified" as far as the world is concerned ( Gal 6:14 ). Seven times in 1 Corinthians 1-3 Paul refers to the world's ignorance of God and its powerlessness to find him without the cross of Christ.
Because of the world's hostility to God, it is full of corruption ( 2 Peter 1:4 ) and stands as a symbol of corruption. One cannot be friendly with the evil world and love God at the same time ( James 4:4 ; 1 John 2:15-17 ). Believers by their faith must "overcome the world" ( 1 John 5:4-5 ), killing whatever belongs to their "earthly nature" ( Col 3:5 ) and denying "worldly passions" ( Titus 2:12 ).
The Temporal and Coming Worlds. Although the Old Testament presents the idea that the present world is temporary ( Psalm 102:25-27 ), the distinction between this world/age and the world/age to come does not appear clearly until the late intertestamental and New Testament periods. By the time of the New Testament, the distinction is clear and frequent.
Satan rules only this world ( John 12:31 ; 14:30 ; 16:11 ; 2 Cor 4:4 ), not the next one, while Jesus' kingdom is "not of this world" ( John 18:36 ) but belongs to the coming age. Jesus warns that a person may "gain the whole world" (the material things of this passing age) yet lose life in the next ( Matt 16:26 ; parallels Mark 8:36 ; Luke 9:25 ). Paul expresses concern that believers may become so caught up in the affairs of this world that they will experience undue hardship in living for Christ ( 1 Cor 7:29-35 ).
The present world is passing away even now ( 1 John 2:17 ). Living in this transient world, one must not love it ( 2 Tim 4:10 ), become conformed to its ways ( Rom 12:2 ), or fall in love with its godless "wisdom" ( 1 Cor 2:6 ; 3:18-19 ; James 3:15 ). Instead one must live a godly life ( Titus 2:12 ), avoiding the snares of the "present evil age" from which Christ's death has set his people free ( Gal 1:4 ). The believer may look forward to the new world, "a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" ( 2 Peter 3:13 ; cf. Rev 21:1-5 ).
Carl Bridges, Jr.
Bibliography. H. Sasse, TDNT, 1:197-209; 3:867-98.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'World'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".