“In the world but not of the world” is a popular phrase used by Christians to describe how we fit into the world around us. You often hear people say that we are citizens of another kingdom. And yet, here we are right in the middle of the world. There is a distinction in scripture between where we exist and where we belong. Here is a chart I made up to work through the possibilities:
Where do we exist?
It is obvious that we exist in the world. We see it, smell it, touch it, etc. No doubt about it. But we also exist in God’s kingdom. Ephesians 2:6 says we are “seated with Christ in heavenly realms.” Jesus said the kingdom of God was near and that some would not taste death before it came (Mtt 16:28). The New Testament is clear that God’s kingdom exists here and now and that as Christians, we are already a part of it. So we exist in this world and in the kingdom of God, simultaneously. Some have taken either extreme and missed the point of the dual-nature of Christian existence. On the one hand, a unitarian/universalist approach would say all that exists in the world also exists in God’s kingdom. On the other extreme, a monastic approach would be to remove oneself from existing in the world to a great a degree as possible and try to separate the spheres of what is is in the world and what is in God’s kingdom. But the middle option is what we see in scripture. We exist in the overlap of both realms. Not all that is in the world is in the kingdom of God (sin for example). Not all that is in God’s kingdom is a part of this world.
Where do we belong?
Jesus said we can’t serve two masters (Mtt 6:24). He also prayed for his disciples to remain in the world and yet be protected from the evil/evil one of the world (John 17:11-17). In that passage, Jesus says his followers are not “of the world.” That is an important point to consider. “Of” usually denotes possession. Jesus’ followers are not to be possessed by the world or exhibit the qualities the world exhibits. Colossians 1:21 says that before we were Christians we were “alienated” from God. But when we become a Christian, things change. We go from being alien to God to being an alien/stranger to the world. The Hebrew writer tells us that God’s people are “aliens and strangers” on the earth, looking for “a country of their own.” (Heb 11:13-16). Peter addresses his readers as aliens and strangers (1 Peter 1:1, 2:11). The New Testament makes it clear that we don’t belong to this world even though we exist in it. We belong to God and God’s kingdom and so we live as a citizen of the kingdom to which we belong.