Romans 12: 2
"Do not be conformed to this world." Simple, clear and concise. But what exactly does Paul mean? Other translations bring out various shades of meaning: "Do not act like the sinful people of the world" (New Life). "Do not change yourselves to be like the people of this world" (New Century Version). "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking." (Amplified). "Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world" (New Living Translation). J. B. Phillips: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould."
The general meaning is clear if we take all the different translations and paraphrases together.
We are not like the people around us, and we shouldn't act like them.
We must not try so hard to fit in to the culture that we no longer think and act like Christians.
The world around us actively works against us. So the warning is, as a Christian, you are constantly swimming upstream with the current of the world rushing against you. Don't be surprised and don't give in and don't get swept away. Perhaps our greatest danger is to look at this command and draw wrong conclusions from it.
a. We might end up thinking that Paul means to warn us only against the external marks of the world.
In another generation, this verse applied to the big sins: drinking, smoking, dancing, women wearing lipstick or men with long hair or women with short skirts or listening to certain kinds of music or going to the movies. Sometimes the list of "Don'ts" became so long that a Christian was defined by what you didn't do. While Christianity cannot be reduced to a set a rules, in most cases the warnings had some basis in fact. Most of us don't hear that sort of preaching these days, and while I am glad about that, I not sure that dropping the rules we used to follow has produced a new wave of holiness.
b. We might think that Christians should withdraw from the world around us and having nothing to do it with it at all.
This might lead us into a monastery or to some isolated place in the wilderness or into a cave in the desert where we will not be tempted by the bright lights of big city. That cannot be what Paul meant because he himself ministered in all the big cities of his day. Whatever not being conformed to the world means, it can't be a call to run and hide.
If this verse is not giving rules about outward behaviour and if it is not calling us to retreat from the world, what is Paul warning us against? 2 words unlock this text:
The word "world" does not refer to this planet, as if Paul means to say, "Don't enjoy the creation God has made." He's not talking about physical things, such as the beauty of a sunset, the grandeur of a lake, the intricate design of a single human cell or the vastness of the universe. Still less is he speaking of enjoying a concert or a conversation with a friend or playing with a 2 year old or riding a motorbike.
Paul does not mean to say, "Don't enjoy life." He's does not call us to reject all the beauty and goodness that we see around us. Nor is he calling us to move away from the troubles of this world, hole up in a compound, build a fence, buy a shotgun, and dare anyone to bother us. If anything is clear from the NT, Paul plunged into the heart of the culture of his day. He focused on the major cities of the 1st century—Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Athens, Rome—and fearlessly entered the synagogues, the marketplace, the lecture halls—all with the express purpose of proclaiming Christ where he was not yet known. Later on he will say, "Everything created by God is good," (1 Timothy 4:4) and God "richly provides us with everything to enjoy" (1 Timothy 6:17). Paul read the secular poets and quoted them in his sermons and his letters. He knew the culture of his day so well that he could debate the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34). He knew that God has revealed himself in creation to every person (Romans 1:19-20).
So what "world" is Paul warning us against? NT uses 2 key words when it talks about the world. One is the word kosmos, from which we get the word "cosmetic." That's the word John uses to warn us against loving the world. It refers to the organized system of life that leaves God out. The second word is the one Paul uses in our text—the word aion, usually translated as "age." NT - 2 main "ages"—this present age of sinful darkness (Ephesians 2:2, Galatians 1:4), from which we have been rescued by the Lord Jesus Christ, and the age to come when the Lord Jesus Christ will reign on the earth (Revelation 11:15). The text literally reads, "Don't be conformed to this age." Why? Because this "age" is coming to an end soon, and when it does everything about this age will crumble to the dust.
Here is the paradox and the challenge of Romans 12: 2:
We live in this present age.
But this present age will not last forever.
We know there is a better age to come when Christ will reign on the earth.
We must live today by the values of tomorrow.
We must live in this present age, but this present age must not live in us.
The word "conform" translates a word from which we get the word "scheme," has the idea of a trap, like those email scams from someone in Nigeria promising you R10,000 if you will just send them your bank account number. Since the devil is the god of this world, we should not be surprised, indeed we should expect that he will set traps for us on every hand. Most of the traps he sets are very subtle, a way of squeezing us into the mould of the world so that like that proverbial frog in the kettle that does not realise the water temperature is rising and is paralysed by the boiling water, we find ourselves being sucked in little by little into the world's way of thinking.
Now why does Paul say that we are not to follow the fashions of this world, a reference less to clothing than to a whole way of thinking? We are not to think or act or otherwise fashion ourselves after the schemes of this age. What's wrong with that? This world is dying. This age will end soon.
The essence of worldliness, then, is to live as if this age will last forever. True worldliness means to buy into the notion that this world is the only world there is or ever will be. "This life is the only life there is so do whatever you want, indulge yourself, throw aside the restraints." That's worldliness. Living today as if tomorrow will never come.
"I Want a Passion"
“I want something to throw myself into. I want that fire that Jeremiah speaks of. I want a ministry that consumes my every thought and action. I want to know the infinite joy of serving my Creator. I want to love the Father with such reckless abandon that it borders on insanity. I want to find out what it’s like to live unselfishly. I want to know what it means to love unselfishly. I want a life of discomfort. I want to live a life that looks like a revolution but inspires reformation.”
Christians don't fit in, and we never will. Alice Cooper became a Christian – “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that's a tough call. That's rebellion.” It's a lot easier to get drunk and fool around than it is to follow Jesus Christ. Some people get drunk on alcohol. Others get drunk on sexual pleasure. Others get drunk on building an empire. Others get drunk on fame. Others get drunk on money.
Others get drunk on power. Others get drunk on ambition. Others get drunk on revenge.
Remember what worldliness is. It's living as if tomorrow will never come.
“The Paths of Glory”
In the end everything that man builds collapses before his eyes. “Gray’s Elegy” - country churchyard in England:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
1 John 2: 17 - "The world is passing away along with its desires." Indeed, the best and brightest of us will someday die. All that we do will eventually be forgotten. Consider these next 2 sentences carefully:
Those who look to this world for approval will eventually be disappointed because the best things of this world must one day disappear.
Those who look to the God who created the world will find safety and security that will last forever.
What a revelation the judgment day will be for all of us. The things we thought were so important, so crucial, so vital, the things we included on our personal CV, the degrees we earned, the money we made, the deals we closed, the classes we taught, the friends we cultivated in high places, the buildings we built, the organizations we managed, the budgets we balanced, the books we wrote, the songs we sang, the records we made, the trips we took, the portfolios we built, the fortunes we amassed, the positions we finally attained, all that stuff that we take such pride in, the things that in themselves are not evil or wrong or bad, but are the “stuff” of life in this world, all of it, every single last bit of it, every part of it, our standing, our place in the world, even our place in the Christian world, our name in the lights, our claim to fame, our reason for existence - all of it added together means nothing, zip, zero - vanity of vanities, all is vanity. How easy it is for us to get sucked into the world's way of thinking, how quickly it happens, and on so many different levels. All of it will someday amount to nothing.
It is precisely at this point that the message of the gospel becomes so powerful. Jesus Christ came to bring God to us and us to God. He is the very fullness of God in bodily form. He came to save us, and he lives now to help us. Ask the Lord to fill you with the fullness of who he is. Ask the Lord to show you the truth about yourself. Pray that he might break your addiction to the schemes of this dying age.
This world is passing away. Don't be swept away with it. Keep swimming upstream with Jesus. Amen.