Read: John 17:14-19
Growing up, my mom told my siblings and I time and time again that we are to be “in the world, but not of the world.” She told us we ought to be grounded in God rather than in the culture around us; but she also told us that we shouldn’t pull away from communities that don’t know God. My mom taught us to hold these two ideas in tension—that we should care for the world, but be characterized by it. The saying, “Be in the world, not of the world” was ingrained into my thinking from a very young age, and persists to this day.
As Jesus prays for His disciples in today’s passage, His heart is that they wouldn’t be of the world—meaning the corrupt and unbelieving human society that lives contrary to the ways of God—but that they would reflect Him and His ways in it. Jesus’ prayer for His disciples, and the disciples to come after them, was that they would be “sanctified” in the truth.
Let’s not pretend this passage isn’t complicated—Jesus is throwing around some pretty technical language when He says words like “sanctification”. You shouldn’t feel intimidated by this kind of language, but it’s important you have an idea of what He means. Sanctification is like running dirty water through a filter; it’s a purification process for the whole self. A sanctified person isn’t just someone who obeys all the rules—a sanctified person is someone who is living in a healthy relationship with Jesus as their Master and source of life. The more you are mastered by what culture demands of you, and the more you seek your life in the world, the less sanctified you are. By letting yourself be shaped by the dead and dying world, you shouldn’t be surprised when you don’t find a lot of goodness or life in yourself. It’s against this kind of spiritual death through conformity to culture and society that Jesus was praying against here.
On top of this, He prayed that they would be shaped by the truth of God’s Word (v. 17). As believers, we know we are meant to look different from the world—but it can feel hard or even impossible when our lives are bombarded by external influences which program our minds to think a certain way from a young age. How do we get free of the world’s deep rooted lies? The solution Jesus prescribes is to be conformed to holiness (sanctified) by the truth of His Word. (v. 19).
Yes, we should be in the Word, meaning digging into the richness of the Bible, but we should also remember that, earlier in the book of John, Jesus Himself is called the Word. Jesus Himself is the truth, and all our focus should be on getting as near to Jesus as possible. If we try to know Jesus more by reading His Word, but don’t actually put down the Bible and follow Him, we’re never going to come any closer to having a right relationship with Him as our Master and life—which is what sanctification means.
We are not sanctified by our own merits. It’s not a game where you get to the next level after getting enough points. We can make efforts, but without Jesus’ free gift of grace, what Jesus calls being “born again” (John 3:3), we’re not going to make any real progress. Once we submit to God’s power and are “born again”, we find a power working in us which we could never generate. We work with the Holy Spirit to sanctify ourselves, but can never take credit for it, because without Jesus’ free gift, we would never have begun to change at all.
We should expect to change when we follow Jesus, meaning we’ll look different from the world, but we’ll still be in it. The same way Jesus turned heads because of His radical love, peace, wholeness, and spiritual authority, we should stand out as people from a different world! We don’t have to act like the world to love the world. We don’t have to love the values of the world to love the people behind the values. The more we focus on loving others more than ourselves, which is at the core of the Kingdom of God on earth, the harder it will be to fall into the mindset of the world. By seeking to reflect God, while being present in our present world, we will point people to the truth of who He is.
Take some time to quiet your heart and listen to the Spirit. Ask yourself, do you take your cues from the world, or from the word—Jesus and His truth in the Bible? Are you governed by what Jesus says, or by what the world tells you? Don’t be ashamed if you’re heavily influenced by the world, come humbly to God and ask for grace to grow and steadily become more like Christ.