Holman Bible Dictionary
The created order in the totality of its space and time. The development of the biblical concept and the varieties of ways in which the term is used become evident when the Old Testament uses, Greek concept, and New Testament uses are considered in sequence.
The Old Testament The ancient Hebrews had no word for the “universe.” When speaking of the totality of creation, they used descriptive phrases like “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1 NIV), “heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” ( Exodus 20:11 ; compare Philippians 2:10 NIV), or “the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them” ( Nehemiah 9:6 NIV). Evident in these more extended descriptions is the view that the world consisted of an expanse of land (“the earth”) that was surrounded by water and set under the canopy of the heavens. More simply, they could use the inclusive “all” ( Isaiah 44:24 ; Jeremiah 10:16 ; Jeremiah 51:19 ).
Basic to Hebrew thought was the affirmation that God created everything above the earth, on the earth, and under it (Genesis 1:1-2:3 ; Job 38:1 ). The doctrine of creation asserted the sovereignty of God—and the superiority of the God of the Hebrews over the idols worshiped by other peoples. Four Hebrew words have been translated by “world.” The word eretz (2,047 times) normally means “earth” or “land.” It is translated as “world” four times in the KJV and twice in the RSV ( Isaiah 23:17 ; Jeremiah 25:26 ). Olam is translated as “world” twice in the KJV ( Psalm 73:12 ; Ecclesiastes 3:11 ). Its general sense is age , or long duration . Two other rarer words appear predominantly in the poetic writings (tebel , which is synonymous with eretz , 36 times, for instance, Psalm 18:15 ; Job 37:12 ; and cheled , which is synonymous with olam , 5 times, for instance, Psalm 17:14 ; Psalm 49:1 ). The Hebrews, therefore, did not have a single concept of the world but thought of the creation in terms of its geographical and temporal extent.
Greek Thought The word kosmos (from which we get the English words “cosmic” and “cosmology”) originally described anything that was constructed or built, then its order, or by extension its ordered beauty. The world was a perfect unity, beautiful in its order. From the time of the use of kosmos to describe the world, therefore, the order of the world was primary. Precisely this concept of the world as an ordered system is absent from Hebrew thought.
The order of the world was explained variously by the leading schools of philosophy. Plato held that the kosmos included both the visible world and all that could be known by reason. The concepts of world, heaven, and space began to merge. Heraclitus and later Aristotle rejected any notion of a beginning of the world. The world was infinite, without beginning or end. For the Stoics, the logos was the rational principle that gave order to the world. The idea of God as Creator and the world as God's creation was foreign to the Greeks. The world was an extension of the logos that gave it order. Plato considered that a demiurge formed the world in a manner consistent with perfect being. Even for Plato, however, neither was the demiurge fully God nor was the world a creation. It was an extension or emanation of the demiurge.
The use of kosmos in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, marked the beginning of a biblical concept of world . The merging of Hebrew and Greek thought later found its fullest expression in the works of Philo of Alexandria, who used the word more than any other writer in antiquity.
In the New Testament Three words are translated as “world” in the New Testament: oikoumene (15 times, “the inhabited earth”), aion (over 30 times, similar to the Hebrew olam meaning “long duration,” “age,” or “world”), and kosmos (188 times). World can carry various nuances.
1. The whole created order Paul before the Areopagus in Athens spoke of “the God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24 NIV). The doctrine of creation was still fundamental to the New Testament writers. The early Christians in Jerusalem addressed God as “Sovereign Lord, you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them” ( Acts 4:24 NIV). The biblical writers could therefore refer to “the foundation of the world” ( Matthew 25:34 ; Luke 11:50 ; John 17:24 ; Ephesians 1:4 ; Hebrews 4:3 ; Hebrews 9:26 ; 1 Peter 1:20 ; Revelation 13:8 ; Revelation 17:8 ) or the creation of the world (see Romans 1:20 ; compare John 17:5 ).
2. The earth and its inhabitants John 1:9 refers to “the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (NRSV). Similarly, in the farewell discourse in John, Jesus spoke of His departure from the world ( John 13:1 ; John 16:28 ). The authorities complained that “the world”—meaning all people—had “gone after him” (John 12:19 ). Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” (Matthew 4:8 NIV), and Paul saluted the Christians in Rome, saying, “Your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” ( Romans 1:8 NRSV). The meaning of “the world” in John 3:16 should probably be understood in this sense.
3. The arena of human activity. This especially pertains to wealth and material goods. “The cares of this world” can choke out the word (Mark 4:19 ). Married persons may be especially troubled over worldly affairs (1 Corinthians 7:33-34 ). In this sense, the elder admonished the Johannine community, “Do not love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15 NIV; compare 1 John 2:16-17 ).
“The world” can also designate all that is hostile, rebellious, and opposed to God. Paul referred to the effects of the fall on the whole cosmic order: “The creation was subjected to frustration [but] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage” (Romans 8:19-25 NIV; compare 2 Peter 1:4 ). The world, therefore, is under the power of “the prince of this world” (John 12:31 ; John 14:30 ; John 16:11 ), “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2 ), the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ); “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19 NIV).
Paul contrasted the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of God (1Corinthians 1:20-21,1 Corinthians 1:26-28 ; 1 Corinthians 3:19 ). “The rulers of this age” cannot understand God's wisdom hidden in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:7-8 NIV). Through the cross, Christ triumphed over all the powers of this world ( Colossians 2:15 ). Indeed, God was in Christ “reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ; Colossians 1:20 ).
The hostile sense of “the world” is especially pronounced in the Johannine writings. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the world is not inherently evil. John still affirmed the creation of the world through the logos ( John 1:3-4 ). Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NIV), was sent to save the world ( John 3:17 ; John 10:36 ; John 12:47 ). He is, therefore, “the light of the world” (John 8:12 ); the Samaritans acclaimed Him as “the Savior of the world” (John 4:42 ).
The coming of Jesus, however, brought judgment to the world (John 9:39 ; John 12:31 ). The world will hate the disciples as it hated Jesus (John 15:18 ) because they are not of the world (John 15:19 ). Jesus called His disciples to show love for one another that all may recognize them through this love (John 13:35 ) The disciples are to be in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:14-16 ). Victory over the hostility of the world is assured through the cross of Jesus (John 16:33 ) and through faith (1 John 5:4-5 ). The world, in fact, is already passing away (1 John 2:17 ).
In the new Testament, therefore, world is influenced by both Hebrew and Greek thought and may be considered primarily in its natural order, its human order, its fallenness, or its place in God's redemptive order. See Creation ; Earth; Heaven .
R. Alan Culpepper
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