Christians live in the world, yet are not of the world.Letter to Diognetus
What does it mean to be in the world but not of the world? We have probably heard this saying many times. As far as I can tell, the first time this expression is used is in this anonymous second-century Letter to Diognetus. There are places in scripture where we get hints of this quote. In John 17, for example, Jesus says that his disciples are “in the world” (John 17:11) but “they do not belong to the world.” (John 17:14). In Romans 12, Paul writes that Christians should not “be conformed to this world.” The idea that we should be in the world but not of the world is certainly based on scripture. But the earliest instance of this direct quote is in this Letter to Diognetus.
This quote is found in Chapter 6 of this letter, where the author makes the point that “what the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the parts of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul lives in the body, yet is not of the body; Christians live in the world, yet are not of the world.”
As Christians, we are in the world in the same way that the soul is in the body. Isn’t that an interesting way to look at us? Scattered all around the world, doing much good for the world, offering healing and hope in the name of Jesus, but not truly of the world. We do not belong to the world, and this gives us an ability to minister to our world in a profound way.
As I will be shared in my sermon on John 17:6-19, the picture this gives me is that of a bunch of people tossed into the ocean from a capsized vessel. They are all struggling to stay afloat. A few of them make their way onto lifeboats, and now they can help those who are still treading water. We, as followers of Jesus, are on the lifeboats. We have been set apart in that way. We no longer “belong” to the ocean. We are still in the ocean, but not of the ocean. And so, we are in a unique position to help those still in the ocean, struggling to stay afloat. So, let us do so faithfully, sharing our love and hope with all those still in the ocean of this world.
There are a number of translations of this letter online. The translation that I have quoted can be found here: https://www.christian-history.org/letter-to-diognetus.html.