The world, taken in one sense, is one of the three great adversaries of the Christian. The three adversaries are, respectively, the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three are found in this passage.
“. . . And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:12-17).
John speaks first to children, fathers, and young men. The previous emphasis on darkness and light could have led some of his readers to believe that he really thought they were outside in the darkness. So John hastens to reassure them. He works through this pattern two times for purposes of emphasis. I take the imagery to be representative of the various stages of maturity in the Christian life, which of course frequently correspond to physical age. The first round is in the present tense, and the second is past.
John says of the children that they have received forgiveness of sins, and they have known the Father (vv. 12, 13b). Every one born of God, however young in the faith, has received forgiveness, and has known the Father. The fathers have known the One who is from the beginning (v. 13-14). Jesus Christ is the One from the beginning, and a Christian knows Christ. The young men, those strong in the prime of life, have overcome the wicked one, and have the Word of God abiding in them (vv. 13-14). We should not gloss over this expression. These believers overcame the evil one.
We then come to the antithesis. Here he says in the first place that the world must not be loved for the simple reason that it is sinful. Love of the Father and love of the world are inconsistent with one another. If someone loves the world, then the love of the Father is not in him (v. 15). This is because the constituent parts of a love for the world are individually things which proceed from the world, and not from the Father (v. 16). There are only two ways of thinking—the way that comes from the Father, and the way that doesn’t.
John next prohibits “agape love.” The word he uses when rejecting the world is agapao, popularly assumed to be a “godly love.” But, using this word, he flatly tells his readers not to love the world. Without pressing for exact parallels, notice how Eve was tempted in the garden, or even how Christ was tempted in the wilderness. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh], that it was pleasant to the eyes [lust of the eyes], and a tree desirable to make one wise [pride of life], she took of its fruit and ate” (Gen. 3:6).
First consider the lust of the flesh—these are the temptations which arise from within. Paul tells us that the Spirit and the flesh do battle. Peter tells us to abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. Christian, take care. You have an enemy within. Then there is lust of the eyes — these temptations are an assault from without. Achan saw the suit of mail, David saw Bathsheba when she was bathing, and so forth. Of course, these external temptations have a fleshly purchase within us, but we still have to be careful how we see. Certain obvious applications should be made with regard to sexual temptation. Discontent which arises from reading too many mail order catalogs may supply a less obvious manifestation of it. And last is the pride of life — this refers to the insolence of the fat and sassy. We are talking about the man who compares himself with himself, the man who contains wisdom within himself. Autonomy, or self-law, is the supreme arrogance. Self-reliance can be a good thing, but in our age is usually is not. It usually works out to prideful self-sufficiency.
John also says that we must not love the world because it is transient, and is fading away. We are taught this truth frequently throughout the New Testament. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:31, Paul says, “But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31). The Judaic aeon was coming rapidly to a close, with the beginning of the Christian aeon already begun. The world that these first century Christians were commanded not to love was a world on death row, and was due to be executed in just a few years. We can and should draw practical applications for ourselves from this, but it is not an application straight across. All of the Bible was written for us, but very little of it was written directly to us.
We must realize that a few verses down, when John comes to his discussion of the antiChrist, he says that he and his readers were living in the last hour (v. 18), and they knew it to be the last hour. Now if they were living in the same last hour as we are (two thousand years later), then words have apparently lost their meaning. But if they were coming to the close of the Judaic aeon, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, then the passage makes perfect sense. John’s readers were not to dash off infatuated with a world that was coming to an end.