The world in the Old Testament
It should be noted that Hebrew has no single term for universe in the full modern sense. This is denoted by such familiar phrases as “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1) or “heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exod 20:11). In the prophets one also finds “all” (Isa 44:24) or “the all” (Jer 10:16), and in Ecclesiastes “the totality of things” (2:8, 13). The words translated “world” bear a restriction either spatially (the earth and its inhabitants) or temporally (age, duration).
Even though it does not have the term, the Old Testament has a fully developed sense of the unity of all things. This is based on the doctrine of creation (cf. Gen 1:1). God made all things. They are all equally the works of His hand. One divine plan lies behind everything. The one divine purpose directs the course of all creatures. In nature and history alike (Isa 40ff.) God rules in all things. The world does not constitute an autonomous unity. It is constituted a unity by its divine origin and subjection.
Within creation a prominent place is occupied by the earth, especially in the sense of the land as distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10). The earth is important primarily because of its inhabitants, the nations or peoples (cf. Isa 34:1f.). Since God is Creator and Ruler of the whole universe, He bears a special relation to man, and consequently to the inhabited earth. The historical nature of human life, and of God’s dealings with man, seems to provide the link between the concept of world and that of duration. It is during His stay on earth, in the world of space and time, that man experiences God’s acts in providence, judgment and grace.
Greek ideas of the cosmos
In contrast to the Old Testament, the Greeks had a highly developed sense of the universe as a single entity quite apart from any reference to the Creator. This is implied in the word cosmos, which carries the basic meanings of (1) structure, (2) order between men, (3) order in general, and (4) adornment. These senses merge into that of the world as an ordered, harmonious, and beautiful structure. Predominant in the early days of Greek philosophy is the thought of the order or system, i.e. that which holds the world together. At some point not later than the 6th cent. b.c., the word came to be used of the totality held together by the order, i.e. the cosmos in the sense of universe. According to Heraclitus, the universe in this sense is eternal, having neither beginning nor end. It is interesting that even Greeks who suggested an origin for the universe always accepted the eternity of matter. The only beginning was that of form or order.
Plato and Aristotle
Plato took over the view of an integrated cosmos based on a universal order. The cosmos in this sense might be described as a body with a soul, a rational creature. It was a spatial manifestation of the idea, a sensual reflection of the eternal. In the famous passage in the Timaeus (28ff.) Plato can speak of the making of the world by a theos or demiourgos. This was done in accordance with the perfect idea. It should be noted, of course, that Plato, though he finds a cosmological demonstration of God, does not really believe in creation. The demiurge’s function is simply to shape what is formless into a cosmos. He also works according to the idea already present in the so-called noetic cosmos. In the last resort, God is simply the highest idea in the cosmos. Even the created cosmos may also be called God. This is theos aisthetos, i.e. God apprehensible to the senses. The very modest approach of Plato toward a genesis of the cosmos was abandoned by Aristotle, who accepted the eternity of the world and regarded God, not as the world’s architect, but as pure mind or form. On the other hand, Gnosticism developed the distinction between the noetic and the aesthetic worlds into a thoroughgoing dualism in which the material world, created by an inferior demiurge, is the prison of the soul, and redemption is a liberation from this, a return to the realm of pure mind or the true God.
Stoicism, like Platonism, has a doctrine of the genesis of the cosmos. It incorporates this, however, into an eternal recurrence, a process of constant becoming and dissolving. Hence, the Stoic beginning is no true creation, nor is the Stoic destruction a true end. Furthermore, there is no need of an architect. God is the world soul which permeates the whole cosmos, the reason (logos) which rules it. Indeed, so pantheistic is the Stoic understanding that a direct equation can even be made between God and the world. Man, as a participant in the soul of the world, is a part of God.
The inhabited world
Since the earth is included in the cosmos, the term “cosmos” can be used by the Greeks for the earth as distinct from heaven on the one side and from the underworld on the other. It is then only a step to the use of the word “cosmos” for the creatures which inhabit the earth, and a further step leads to the special sense of the human race, mankind. Indeed, in the later koine there is a very general use of “cosmos” for “people,” “everybody,” e.g. what people are saying.
A bridge between the Greek view of the cosmos and the Old Testament is to be found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Philo, who makes considerable use of the term, distinguishes in Platonic fashion between the noetic and the “aesthetic” cosmos. He argues from Genesis 1 that God first created the world of ideas, which then served as a prototype for the material world. The cosmos is characterized by order and beauty. But it stands under the divine transcendence. God as father and architect created the world. He did this by the logos, the mediator between the world and God. Thus Platonic and Stoic ideas are here combined with the fundamental Old Testament belief that the cosmos is the creature of God. There is, however, a certain imprecision in Philo’s thought and language which leaves some doubt as to whether he is speaking of a real creation of the world by God, or of an ordering of existing formless matter in the Greek sense. He certainly avoids any identification of the world and God; at this point he is faithful beyond question to his Jewish heritage.
The world in the New Testament
The word ecumene, which has assumed such importance today in the socalled ecumenical movement, is of little theological account in the New Testament. Related to oikos (house), it is a participle used as a noun, and denotes from the very first the inhabited earth (for examples, cf. TDNew Testament, V, 157). The primary sense is geographical, but this quickly merges into the religious, cultural, and political, so that the ecumene is the civilized (Hellenic) world, or, after the Rom. conquests, the Rom. empire as a political and cultural unit.
Used in the LXX, Philo, and the rabbis (a loan word), ecumene is fairly common in the New Testament, especially in the gospels and Acts. In the prophecy of Matthew 24:14 the reference is to all inhabited parts of the globe, and the word imparts a certain solemnity to the phrase. In Luke 2:1, however, the Rom. empire seems to be in view, though elsewhere in Luke (cf. 4:5; 21:26; Acts 11:28; 17:31) there is a fuller reference to the whole inhabited world. The Matthean parallel to Luke 4:5 (Matt 4:8) has “cosmos.”
It is worth noting that Paul uses ecumene only in the quotation of Romans 10:18. In Hebrews, “inhabited world” is the meaning in 1:6, but the future ecumene of 2:5 bears more of the sense of aeon or cosmos. Ancient apocalyptic tradition might well underlie both this use and also the two instances in Revelation 12:9 and 16:14. In general, however, the New Testament attaches no particular significance to the term. It uses it either for the inhabited earth in general or for the politico-cultural unit constituted by the Empire.
Aeon is a much more important word. It is basically a word of time rather than space. From its early use in Homer for “vital force,” it quickly came to signify “lifetime,” “generation,” “space of time,” “time” with a past, present, or future reference, and finally “eternity.” It played a considerable role in the Greek discussion of time, and in the Hel. age it was personified as the god Aeon.
The temporal sense of aeon is preserved in the New Testament in various phrases used to signify eternity, e.g. from or to eternity (often pl.). The adjective aionios also is used to denote the eternity of God. God is king of the ages in 1 Timothy 1:17. On an Old Testament basis this seems to imply, not that He exists so long as the aeons last, but that He is before and after all times or time. A decisive feature in the New Testament is that similar statements are made with reference to Christ, implying both His preexistence and also His essential deity.
Aeon as world
How could a word which means time come to be used for the world? The answer seems to lie in the use of aeon for time of the world, i.e. time limited by the creation and end of the world. As Sasse notes (TDNew Testament, I, p. 202), it is sing. that “in the Bible the same word is used to indicate two things which are really profoundly antithetical, namely, the eternity of God and the duration of the world.” Nevertheless, this is true. The end of the aeon in Matthew 13:39 is undoubtedly the end of the time of the world. Even in the pl., aeon has the same sense (Heb 9:12; 1 Cor 10:11), though with a suggestion that the one time of the world is made up of two or more periods.
If, however, aeon is the time of the world, it is no less easy to equate the world’s duration with the world as to equate the world’s order with the world. Later Hebrew had done this, and it is natural enough to find the same usage in the New Testament. The clearest instances of equation are in 1 Corinthians 1-3, where one finds as equivalents “wisdom of the cosmos,” “wisdom of this aeon,” “wisdom of this cosmos,” and in Mark 4:19 and Matthew 13:22, where the cares of this aeon are undoubtedly worldly affairs (cf. cosmos in 1 Corinthians 7:33). Demas’ love of this present aeon would seem to demand a similar understanding, and the aeons of Hebrews 1:2 are surely worlds or spheres rather than epochs.
The two aeons
As noted already, the pl. “aeons,” though often equivalent to the sing., can also suggest more than one stretch of time. This can be worked out in different ways. Eternal recurrence, for example, postulates an infinite series of aeons. The Biblical view, however, is incompatible with successive aeons in this sense. The world begins and ends. Nevertheless, a break has been made in the world by sin. This means that the creation-conclusion understanding yields to the more complicated understanding in terms of creation, fall, destruction, new creation, and consummation. Directly related to this is the New Testament doctrine of the two aeons.
The background of this doctrine is incontestably Jewish. In later Jewish apocalyptic writings there are constant references to the two aeons, both spatial and temporal (cf. Ethiopian Enoch). These aeons are the time of this world on the one side and eternity on the other, with an accompanying antithesis between the visible or present world on the one side and the invisible or future world on the other. Between the aeons stands the resurrection and the judgment. The rabbis apparently followed up the same idea, for there are examples (mostly post-Christian) of the distinction between this aeon and the aeon to come.
In the New Testament the contrast occurs in the synoptic gospels. Mark 10:30 distinguishes this time from the coming aeon. Luke 16:8 contrasts the children of this aeon with the children of light (cf. Luke 20:34f., with its reference also to the resurrection). Matthew 12:32 says that the sin against the can be forgiven neither in this nor the future aeon. If the present aeon is not expressly described as sinful, its sinfulness seems to be a fairly clear implication in some of these passages.
Paul speaks expressly of the aeon to come only in Ephesians. Nevertheless, his many references to this aeon (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18; 2 Cor 4:4) leave no doubt as to the contrast with a future aeon. Paul also says plainly that the present aeon is evil (Gal 1:4). This shows clearly why the Biblical doctrine of creation can still allow for a doctrine of two aeons. The aeon of revolt against God is to be replaced by the aeon of salvation and fulfillment.
Hebrews contains only one direct reference to the future aeon (6:5), but this is very important, for it says that even now, in this world, believers have tasted of the powers of the future aeon. Galatians 1:4 also speaks of redemption from the present aeon. While Jewish apocalyptic writing is still looking toward the future aeon, the Christian message is that this aeon has already come in and with , so that Christians live in the new aeon. This is not, of course, a fully realized eschatology. Only with the and the resurrection will the old aeon be destroyed and the new aeon completely manifested.
The coexistence of the new aeon with the old is a salutary warning that aeon here does not simply mean world. At the same time, one must not distinguish too sharply. The Bible also speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. Hence the relationship between time and space is maintained even though the nature of the new creation is beyond our powers of apprehension. Even in the new aeon, at least when it is consummated, there is to be something of world. The new aeon is also the new world.
If aeon is important, cosmos is perhaps the most significant of all the New Testament terms for world. In the LXX it had been used first for the “host” of heaven (Gen 2:1), then for “adornment” (Exod 33:5). Only in the Greek books did it become a prominent word for the universe created and overruled by God. It could also be used for the world of men, the human race. Hellenistic Judaism prob. adopted it instead of older terms, not as a philosophical concept, but simply as a term in current use. In this sphere it even found its way into the vocabulary of liturgy.
In the New Testament cosmos occurs over 180 times. It never has the sense of order, and means adornment or beauty only in 1 Peter 3:3. Elsewhere the meaning is always “world.” Over half the references are in the Johannine writings, especially the gospel. The word is also common in Paul, but comparatively rare in the synoptic gospels and Acts. The use of “heaven and earth” in the sayings of Jesus explains this paucity in part. On the other hand, the usage seems to stand in fairly clear relation to the theological importance of the word in the different books.
In the New Testament, as elsewhere, the cosmos is primarily the sum of all things, the universe (Acts 17:24). In this sense it is equivalent to “heaven and earth,” or to “all things” (cf. John 1:3, 10). Sometimes the cosmos is simply space, with a possible distinction from that which fills it, but in the main it represents, in this sense, the totality of things.
The transitory cosmos
The fundamental connection between space and time is reflected in the New Testament assumption that the cosmos is of limited duration. The cosmos has an aeon (Eph 2:2). This is the time between its creation and its end. “From the beginning, the creation or the foundation of the cosmos” is a common New Testament phrase (cf. Matt 24:21; Heb 4:3). With this one may link the reference to the end of the aeon in Matthew 13:40. If the cosmos as a whole is marked by duration, everything in it is also transitory. The world passes away (1 John 2:17; 1 Cor 7:31). The present cosmos is thus set in eschatological antithesis to the future aeon. The same antithesis is expressed by John when he speaks of the coming of Christ into the cosmos. An important point in this regard is that the New Testament does not speak of the future cosmos. There is an aeon to come and there will be a new creation. There is no new cosmos. The reason for this will appear later. God Himself has created the cosmos (Acts 17:24) and He obviously overrules it. But He is not described as the Lord of the cosmos. One finds only the eschatological hope that the kingdoms of this cosmos will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev 11:15).
New Testament cosmology
A question which has assumed some importance in modern theology is that of New Testament cosmology. Bultmann seemed to base his call for demythologization on the need to correct the supposedly outdated New Testament concept of the universe as a three-decked structure. Is this picture correct? One must concede that the Bible does speak of heaven and earth. The sea or underworld can also be a third division. One should note, however, that heaven is also a system of worlds or spheres (aeons) in Hebrews 1:2, and that there are references to the elements of the world in Galatians 4:3 and Colossians 2:8. Sasse (TDNew Testament, III, 87) has some sober observations on this whole matter when, from a survey of the evidence, he points out (1) that the New Testament does not deliver express cosmological teaching as part of its message, (2) that the New Testament simply alludes to current ideas which make sense only against the background of the time, and (3) that one can hardly piece together a coherent system and say: This is New Testament cosmology. If Sasse is right, it is just as pointless to demythologize the New Testament here as it would be to demand the demythologization of a meteorological report which mentions sunrise and sunset.
The theater of history
The predominant concern of the New Testament, as of the Old Testament, is not with the cosmos as a whole but with man in the cosmos. God made the whole world, but He made man in His image, and His main dealings are with man. Hence, in the familiar phrase, the cosmos is the theater of human history, and more specifically of the history of God and man. In many instances, then, the word cosmos will bear the special sense of the inhabited world, the earth, the dwelling-place of man (cf. Matt 4:8; Rom 1:8). This could well be the meaning in the saying about gaining the whole cosmos (Mark 8:36). We find it again, with a tendency to shade off into nations in Romans 4:13.
It is because the world is the theater of human life that the New Testament can speak of entries and exits. To come into the world is common in John, whether with reference to everybody, to Christ, or to “that prophet.” Sin and death come into the world (Rom 5:12f.). So, too, do false prophets (1 John 4:1). As there is a coming into the world, so there is a going out of it. Christ goes out of the world (John 13:1). Christians would have to do so to avoid all contact with fornicators (1 Cor 5:10). Between coming into and going out of the world, there is a being in the world. The Logos is in the world (John 1:10), as also are the disciples (17:11), and other Christians (1 John 4:17; 2 Cor 1:12, et al.). An important principle is involved here. Christians are not to be of the cosmos. Yet during the period of their present pilgrimage they have no option but to pursue their life in the cosmos.
In a passage like Romans 4:13, the sense of “world” as the dwelling of the race merges into that of the race which dwells in it. This use is found already in Hebrew, Aram., LXX, and the koine. In the New Testament it may be seen plainly in Mark 16:15 (cf. 14:9) where the disciples are charged to go to the whole world, i.e. not just to every place, but to all men. Obviously, one cannot always mark off this sense with precision, but it would seem to be the most apposite meaning when the Lord says that Christians are the light of the world (Matt 5:14) or that the field is the world (13:38). Peter, too, seems to have men in view when he refers to the cosmos of the ungodly (2 Pet 2:5), and this is also the meaning when Paul calls the apostles the scum of the cosmos (1 Cor 4:13). Angels can be included as well (4:9), but in the main the reference in such cases is to humanity.
The evil cosmos
The human race is a fallen race. This means that the cosmos, too, is presented as alienated from God, especially by Paul and John. Paul in 1 Corinthians uses a whole series of contrasts to make it plain beyond all possibility of doubt that there is this alienation. The wisdom of this cosmos (or aeon) contrasts with the wisdom of God, the spirit of the cosmos with the Spirit of God, the repentance of the cosmos with the repentance of God. An even darker picture is painted in Romans. Since sin has entered the cosmos, the whole cosmos is guilty, and it is judged and condemned by God (Rom 3:6, 19; cf. 1 Cor 6:2). The ultimate and definitive nature of this sin is manifested in the fact that the rulers of this cosmos crucified the Lord of glory. Cosmos here is obviously the human race. Yet it is more, for angelic powers rule the sinful cosmos (cf. 1 Cor 2:6; Eph 2:2). This explains why God is not called Lord of the cosmos, and also why there is no cosmos to come. So fully is the cosmos identified with sin and the Fall that the cosmos can only be condemned and destroyed in the judgment. It comes to represent the world of evil which is in irreconcilable conflict with the world of God.
John uses different language, but the thought is materially the same. Christ is not of the cosmos; He has come to it from God. He is in the cosmos but the cosmos does not know Him (John 1:10). Nor does it believe in Him (7:7). Though He comes to save, not to condemn, His coming does in fact bring judgment on the sinful, unbelieving cosmos. The prince of this cosmos is judged first (12:31). The first epistle of John has contrasts reminiscent of Paul: he that is in you and he that is in the world (4:4), those who are of the world and those who are of God (4:5, 6), we who are in Christ and the world which is in wickedness or the wicked one (5:19). Here again is final conflict. The world has not escaped God’s control, but it is in revolt against Him. By a new birth from God men may be saved. The cosmos itself, as sinful cosmos, cannot be saved.
The object of salvation
The evil cosmos is condemned and lost. Yet the cosmos is still the theater of God’s saving action and the object of His saving love. Paul and John are again as one in stating this fundamental truth.
Thus Paul says plainly that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15). The cosmos is not just that from which sinners are saved; it is the place where they are saved. John made the same point with even greater cogency. Christ has not merely come into the cosmos. He has come as the Savior of the cosmos (John 4:42) or the light of the cosmos (8:12). He has come into the cosmos in order that in it, as the abode of men, He might be the Savior of it, i.e. of men.
The impulse behind this mission is that the world is the object of God’s reconciling love. Two of the most basic and comprehensive vv. in the whole of the New Testament state this fact: John 3:16: “God so loved the world...,” and 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world...” (cf. also Rom 11:15). Predominantly the cosmos here is, of course, mankind, but there are hints that it might have a wider reference, namely, to the cosmos as God’s creation.
Though the cosmos is thus the sphere and object of God’s gracious work, it is still true that there is no cosmos to come. The reconciled cosmos is the kingdom of God, the future aeon, the new creation. As Sasse observes, it seems as if this term cosmos, which comes from Greek philosophy, is ultimately “reserved for the world which lies under sin and death.” Though the world is reconciled, believers are saved out of the world. A deep ambivalence lies over the word. “When the cosmos is redeemed, it ceases to be the cosmos” (TDNew Testament, III, 893).
Christians and the world
The theological understanding of the cosmos determines the relation of Christians to it. This may be summed up in three theses. Christians continue to live in the cosmos, they are not of the cosmos, and they are sent, or are to preach, to the cosmos.
They continue to live in the cosmos. The cosmos is still the setting both of human life and also of Christian life and ministry. As Paul says, Christians cannot leave it (1 Cor 5:10). They have to care for its affairs (7:32ff.). They cannot avoid dealings with it (7:31). John gives the same teaching. Christians are in the cosmos as Christ was (John 17:11). They cannot try to remove themselves from it. It is here that they war and conquer (cf. 16:33).
Finally, Christians preach to the world. As God loved the world and Christ came into it, so Christians are to go into the world as the ambassadors of reconciliation. The great commission enjoins this. Paul states it in his own way (2 Cor 5). Christ says plainly that He sends His disciples into the cosmos (John 17:18). The cosmos is to see in them the love of the Father (17:21, 23). While the Church is not of the cosmos (the evil world), it is set in the cosmos (the theater of history) to minister to the cosmos (humanity). In this sense it is true that, though the Church is not of the world, its life here is for the sake of the world. If believers know that to gain the world and lose the soul is folly, they have also to remember that saving the soul is an unavoidable concomitant to the winning of the world.
The biblical meanings are best described under the several Hebrew and Greek words. Hebrew ’erets, “earth, land, country, ground,” is translated “world” when it refers to the kingdoms of the world (Isa.23.17; Jer.23.26). There is one occurrence of hedhel, thought to mean “land of cessation” (of earthly existence), i.e., Sheol. The word heledh, “short duration” (Ps.17.14; Ps.49.1), refers to the ephemeral character of life. Hebrew ‘ôlām, “long duration,” past or future (usually translated “ever”), always refers to time; ASV, RSV, NIV “eternity” (Eccl.3.11); RSV, NIV “everlasting” (Isa.45.17); ASV, RSV, “of old,” NIV “since ancient times” (Isa.64.4). The most common Hebrew word for world is tēvēl, “the habitable earth,” the earth as made for man, often parallel and synonymous with “earth.”
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. Original Words:
In the 1Co 4:9), but as a rule human beings only; then, in view of the fact of universal human failure, humanity in its sinful aspect, the spirit and forces of fallen humanity regarded as antagonistic to God and to good, "all around us which does not love God."
Of the above terms, some need not detain us; ’erets, as the original to "world," occurs only thrice, chedhel, once, cheledh, twice, `olam, twice (including Ec 3:11), ge, once. The most important of the series, looking at frequency of occurrence, are tebhel, aion, oikoumene, kosmos. On these we briefly comment in order.
Tebhel, as the original to "world," occurs in 35 places, of which 15 are found in Psalms and 9 in the first half of Isaiah. By derivation it has to do with produce, fertility, but this cannot be said to come out in usage. The word actually plays nearly the same part as "globe" with us, denoting man’s material dwelling-place, as simply as possible, without moral suggestions.
We have indicated above the speciality of aion. It is a time, with the suggestion always of extension rather than limit (so that it lends itself to phrases denoting vast if not endless extension, such as "to the aions of aions," rendered "forever and ever," or "world without end"). In Heb 1:2; 11:13, it denotes the "aeons" of the creative process. In numerous places, notably in Matthew, it refers to the "dispensations" of redemption, the present "age"of grace and, in distinction, the "age" which is to succeed it--"that world, and the resurrection" (Lu 20:35). Then, in view of the moral contents of the present state of things, it freely passes into the thought of forces and influences tending against faith and holiness, e.g., "Be not fashioned according to this world" (Ro 12:2). In this connection the Evil Power is said to be "the god of this world" (2Co 4:4).
The word oikoumene occasionally means the Roman empire, regarded as pre-eminently the region of settled human life. So Lu 2:1; Ac 11:28, and perhaps Re 3:10, and other apocalyptic passages. In Hebrews it is used mystically of the Empire of the Messiah (1:6; 2:5).
We have remarked above on kosmos, with its curious and suggestive history of meanings. It may be enough here to add that that history prepares us to find its reference varying by subtle transitions, even in the same passage. See e.g. Joh 1:10, where "the world" appears first to denote earth and man simply as the creation of "the Word," and then mankind as sinfully alienated from their Creator. We are not surprised accordingly to read on the one hand that "God .... loved the world" (Joh 3:16), and on the other that the Christian must "not love the world" (1 Joh 2:15). The reader will find the context a sure clue in all cases, and the study will be pregnant of instruction.