By Pastor Glenn Pease
"Atlanta's Race" is the title of Sir E. J. Poynter's most successful paintings. The story behind the painting is from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Atlanta was the daughter of Schoenus of Boeotia, and she was famous for her matchless beauty. She was also so swift of foot that none could outrun her. To everyone who asked for her hand in marriage she gave the same answer. She would be the prize of him who could vanquish her in the race. Defeat, however, would carry the penalty of death. Many lost their lives in trying to outrun her. After a lull there appeared a youth by the name of Hippomenes who challenged Atlanta once more to race. He knew he could not conquer her by fleetness of foot, so he carried with him three golden apples, for he had received this advice from Venus:
When first she heads the from the starting place
Cast down the first one for her eyes to see,
And when she turns aside make on apace.
And if again she heads thee in the race
Spare not the other two to cast aside,
If she not long enough behind will bide.
The race began, and he followed these instructions. As Atlanta was about to pass him he dropped the first apple. She looked down, but ran on. He dropped the second apple and she seemed to stoop, and when he dropped the third she did stoop to pick it up. It was only a few seconds lost, but it was enough, for Hippomenes had touched the maple goal, and Atlanta had at last been defeated. Poynter's painting pictures Atlanta at that decisive moment when she turned her eyes from the goal and stretched her arm toward the golden temptation which brought her to defeat.
The painting is an illustration of the danger that faces every believer in the race toward the goal of Christ likeness. We must be looking always unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith, but along side of us runs the world competing for our love, and John says it also has three golden apples to cast in our path: The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The world casts these down before us hoping we will take our eyes off Christ and stoop to gain these earthly prizes and forget the goal.
All of life is a competitive battle between the love of the eternal and the love of the temporal. One or the other must win, for one excludes the other. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Atlanta must either win the race by keeping her eyes on the goal, or she must sacrifice the race to gain the golden apple. A choice must be made, an John says the Christian must make this choice as well. He cannot love God and the world, for love must be limited to one or the other. John knows that Christians will be tempted to stoop and pick up the golden apples of the world, and that is why he warns them and commands them to love not the world.
He had just written about love being the very essence of the Christian life, and that to be without it is to be in darkness. Now, however, he makes it clear that love must have its limitations, for it cannot be indiscriminate. The object of one's love must be God, and if this be so there are some things that cannot then be loved, and they are called in one word-world. Fortunately John goes on to tell us just what he means by the world. He names the three golden apples of the world's appeal, and he thereby defines the worldliness that we are to avoid. It is important that we see this clearly lest we misunderstand and pervert the statement, "Love not the world." Many have done so.
St. Bernard would spend days by the shore of Lake Constance and keep his eyes glued to his book lest he raised them and see the beauty, and be seduced away from God. John did not mean the creation when he said we are to not love the world. Jesus loved the world in that sense, and He said, "Behold the lilies of the field and the birds of the air." The heavens declare the glory of God and all of nature shows forth His handiwork. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. It is not the work of the devil. It is legitimate for us to love the world in the sense of delighting in God's creation. It can be excessive to the point of worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, and this of course is folly. But to love and enjoy nature is a part of our appreciation of God's nature.
Not loving the world does not mean we are to not love the people of the world. This would be a denial of what is commanded. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to die for them. We are to love the world in this sense of loving the people. We must see that the world in this context is what we call worldliness. It is that order of fallen society, and the attitudes of fallen people. It is the lust, pride, and all that is opposed to the light of God's righteousness. The world is that realm where darkness reigns. David Smith says the world here equals, "The sum of all the forces antagonistic to the spiritual life." This is the world we are not to love.
John does not just give a command and leave it at that. He says love not the world, and then he goes on to give reasons for command. God expects man to use his intelligence and to weigh values. He does not compete with the world by brute force. He offers reasons for choosing His was rather than the way of the world. We want to examine the 2 reasons that John gives us here for not loving the world. First-
I. IT IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE LOVE OF GOD.
The Christian cannot love the world, for to do so is to forsake the love of God, since it is impossible to love both. Paul said, "Demus has forsaken me having loved this present world." Demus had no choice but to forsake Paul if he was going to love the world, for loving it and serving God are opposites that cannot be reconciled. He had to forsake Paul if he was going to love the world, just as he would have had to forsake the world to truly serve God with Paul.
To love is to give someone a supreme and central place in your life. You cannot have two supreme loves. It must be either God or the world on the throne, for neither of them will share the throne with the other. If you love the world you are electing to lose the love of God. Show me a man who is lustful and proud in an evil sense, and I will show you a man who may be very kind, helpful, and even religious, but a man in whom the love of God does not abide. I believe, however, this can even happen to a Christian. John is wasting his time and ours if he writes to warn Christians about what they can never be tempted into. Who needs to watch out for what is impossible. It is possible for a Christian to lose the love of God, and cease to be a servant of Christ by letting the love of the world overwhelm their hearts.
Each of us must constantly examine our hearts lest we end up as castaways, and no longer worthy contestants for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. We are not talking about losing salvation, but about losing one's usefulness for the kingdom of God. Our love and loyalty must be continuously examined to see if its object is Jesus Christ or some selfish and worldly object. Just as a person can get a dishonorable discharge from the army and still be a citizen of the country, so a Christian can be set on the shelf and no longer be an active member of the soldiers of the cross, and yet still be a part of God's family. But this is a terrible demotion.
When two people get married they limit the expression of their romantic and sexual love to their partners. So it is in the spiritual realm. When a person is saved and enters into a relationship with Christ as Savior, he becomes a part of the bride of Christ. From that point on his love and faithfulness is to be to Christ alone. To love the world is to commit spiritual adultery. This was the most common sin of the Old Testament people of God, and it is doubtless in first place also in the New Testament dispensation. The message of the prophets is the message needed today. We need to forsake all other gods, and be loyal to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Set your affections on things above and not on the things of the earth, for these things are incompatible with the love of God.
The challenge of John is for believers to be loyal to the Lord in their love, and not corrupt it and diminish it by allowing the world to gain their affection. Young put it, "Let not the cooing of the world allure thee, Which of her lovers ever found her true?" E. J. Poynter, whose painting we earlier considered, painted another well known picture called "Faithful Unto Death." It is picture of a soldier at his post during the great volcano eruption that buried Pompei in hot lava. All the people were fleeing for safety, but the soldier grasped his spear firmly and stood erect. His eyes revealed terror, and one can sense the struggle that rages in his mind between duty and the desire to save himself. Obedience wins, however, and he remains at his post faithful unto death.
The Bible nowhere says it will be easy to be a Christian, but if a pagan soldier can be faithful to his superior even unto death, then any Christian should be ashamed to do less for his Lord who died foe his eternal salvation. The world desperately needs Christians who will love Jesus supremely, and forsaking all others keep themselves to Him alone. To love the world is incompatible with God's love, and so the degree to which you love the world is the degree to which you suffer the loss of God's love. Let our decoration then be that of F. W. H. Meyers:
Who so has felt the Spirit of the Highest
Cannot confound nor doubt Him nor deny;
Yeah, with one voice, O world, tho' thou deniest,
Stand thou on that side, for on this am I.
II. IT IS INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE WILL OF GOD.
Not only is it impossible to reconcile the love of the world with the love of God, but it will be impossible to do so in eternity, for the things of the world have no part in God's will for the future. These things will not last is what John is saying. They will pass away, for they are temporal and transient, and will have no place in God's eternal plan. To love them is to trade the solid diamond of eternity for the melting Popsicle of time.
The love of the world, which is really lust, is centered around pleasures that are purely a matter of the flesh, and do not go deep and affect the soul. The lover of the world has only surface pleasures. They are real, but not lasting pleasures. They do not produce joy and a sense of ultimate purpose and meaning.
Fading is the worldling's pleasure,
All his boastful pomp and show.
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None by Zion's children know.
This is why it is of no profit to gain the whole world if one loses his own soul. You can never come out ahead by trading the timeless for the temporary. The world throws down its golden apples of present pleasure and say enjoy yourself, for its later than you think. The world appeals with the same urgency as the Gospel. The world says today is the day to satisfy the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, and so let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Now is the time to live.
The Christian, however, with the eyes of faith looks ahead and sees the world and its lusts pass away. We claim the promise of God that those who do His will abide forever. John fights worldliness, not by shouting and getting angry, but by the calm appeal to the believer to consider how incompatible it is with God's purpose and will. He appeals to their sense of values and makes it clear that to choose the world is a poor investment, for the world and its lust are going to go out of style for good, but those who are in God's will have a style that will last forever. Omar Khayyam wrote,
The worldly Hope men set their hearts upon
Turns to ashes-or it prospers-and anon,
Like snow upon the desert's dusty face
Lighting a little hour or two is gone.
The Christian does not invest his time and trust in that which is fading and passing away, but it the will of God which is lasting and eternal. Love for both are incompatible. The world has a strong appeal in spite of the fact that it offers only fading pleasures, and the Christian can only refrain from stooping to snatch up its golden apples of temptation by keeping his eyes on Christ. John Henry Newman wrote,
Unveil, O Lord, and on us shine in glory and in grace,
This gaudy world grows pale before the beauty of Thy face.
Till Thou art seen, it seems to be a sort of fairy ground,
Where suns unsetting light the sky, and flowers and fruits abound.
But when Thy keener, purer beam is poured upon our sight
It loses all its power to charm, and what was day is night.
Do not love the world, for it is incompatible with the love of God and the will of God. To love the world is to lose the best for time and eternity, and so limit your love to the Lord. Keep your eyes on Him as your ultimate loyalty, and make sure all other loves are compatible with loving Him supremely.