The pursuit of holiness is not often a priority in today’s church; in fact, it seems to be an unattainable goal and a topic rarely taught from the pulpit. This was not the case within the first few centuries of the Church (prior to 325 AD). Jesus taught His disciples holiness; how to be separate from the world, and in turn they taught their own disciples. The early Christians understood the fundamentals of what it means to be separated from the world, but they also understood and pursued a greater separateness—how to be separate from the world within themselves. Contrary to what most teach today, the Early Church taught that “the world” is speaking of our soulish nature, and in order to truly be separate from the world, we must overcome the vices of our flesh.
Who is the World?
In his first epistle, John writes,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17, emphasis added)
We may point our finger at those who do not believe in God, or those who frequent bars and smoke, etc, and label them as the world, however we read John referring to attributes (or vices) of our fleshly nature as “the world”. In another place the Apostle Paul terms the fleshly nature as our “former man” (see Ephesians 4:22), which the Early Church considered to be “the world” that is to be renounced. (1)
In Greek, the word world is kosmos, and refers to:
The seat of cares, temptations, irregular desires. … The spirit of this world. Those who have this spirit are described as being “of the world” or “of this world”. In contrast, Christ’s disciples are described as being “not of the world”. The state of the world arising from the influence of this worldly spirit is one of dire moral corruption. … Through faith, the Christian can overcome the world, i.e., no doubt, the worldly spirit in himself and the opposition of worldly men and the world’s ruler. (2)
This definition lays it out plainly: as believers, we still have “a worldly spirit” (otherwise known as our soulish nature) that we need to overcome; our cares, temptations, and irregular (opposed to God) desires. Just because we call ourselves Christians and profess Jesus, does not mean we are separated from the world. There is more to it. Hence, the Apostle Paul writes, “Now we [the apostles] have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12). According to Paul, there are two spirits- that of the world, and God’s spirit. So, by overcoming the spirit of the world, we become separated from the world, and obtain the knowledge of God.
In his homily on Leviticus, second-third century church father Origen states: “Understand that you are another world in miniature and that there is within you the sun, the moon, and the stars.” (3) He goes on to explain that the animal sacrifices outlined in Leviticus are symbolic of characteristics within our soul, such as pride and lust. The Early Church taught that these animals represent attitudes (or characteristics) within us that need to be overcome, hence the apostle Paul termed the Law a shadow of good things to come (Hebrews 10:1). There is a hidden meaning within the sacrificial laws that need to be revealed. Now we must ask ourselves, what are the worldly things within our souls that need to be sacrificed spiritually? (1 Peter 2:5). The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life? (1 John 2:16).
God’s holy nation, set apart:
In his first epistle, the Apostle Peter writes,
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from all fleshly lusts which war against the soul. (1 Peter 2:9-11, emphasis added)
Delving into the Hebrew roots of the word holy, we read that it means “to be set apart: someone or something that has been separated from the rest for a special purpose” (4). In the above scripture, the Apostle Peter is stating that as believers, we are called to be set apart. He goes on to urge us, (“I beg you”), to desist from our flesh (carnal nature), in order to achieve that separateness. Therefore, we can only be God’s people (cf. Psalms 4:3) and fulfil our purpose, by first pursuing to be set apart. We know that Jesus was set apart for a special purpose: to fulfil God’s law (Matthew 5:17); and to go to the cross in order to show us how to overcome “the fleshly lusts that war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). But did everything stop at Jesus’ sacrifice? If it did, why do all the Apostles who were taught by Jesus, and the early church fathers teach that we too, as believers, are to crucify our fleshly nature (cf. Galatians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 15:31; James 4:4)? As followers of Christ this is something we need to deeply contemplate, as it disagrees with many theologies taught today, regarding our salvation.
Concerning separating oneself from this fleshly nature, Clement of Alexandria, a second-third century Church Father writes:
…since “each pleasure and pain nails to the body the soul” of the man, that does not sever and crucify himself from the passions. “He that loses his life,” says the Lord, “shall save it;” either giving it up by exposing it to danger for the Lord’s sake, as He did for us, or loosing it from fellowship with its habitual life. For if you would loose, and withdraw, and separate (for this is what the cross means) your soul from the delight and pleasure that is in this life, you will possess it, found and resting in the looked-for hope. (5)
Clement explains that the cross is symbolic of us separating our souls from the lust of this life. By crucifying our passions and fleshly, habitual (or beastly) nature (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:18) we are separating ourselves from the world within us. Thus, we lose our old nature (vices of the soul), and gain the Lord’s nature (virtues of the spirit). This is what Jesus meant when He instructed His disciples to deny themselves and take up their own cross:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26, emphasis added)
What profit is it to us to remain in our carnal nature, when the Lord has offered us His? Jesus did not say to His disciples “you won’t have to do anything about your salvation, just believe in me”, rather, He clearly articulates there is a process of separation and self-denial we must go through, in order to be His. This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer, rather He wants to free us from the bondage of corruption, our old nature (Romans 8:21; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:53).
Tatian, a Christian writer and theologian in the second century, writes:
I do not wish to be a king. I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command. I detest fornication. I am not impelled by an insatiable love of gain to go to sea. I do not contend for chaplets. I am free from a mad thirst for fame. I despise death. I am superior to every kind of disease. Grief does not consume my soul. If I am a slave, I endure servitude. If I am free, I do not boast about my good birth. . . . Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it! Live to God, and by apprehending Him lay aside your old nature. We were not created to die, but we die by our own fault. Our free-will has destroyed us; we who were free have become slaves; we have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God; we Ourselves have manifested wickedness; but we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it. (6)
Tatian is not boasting in his triumphs, rather, by sharing his testimony he explains that is is possible for us to overcome the lust of our flesh. He explains that by dying to our worldly nature, we live to God, by obtaining His nature. Tatian uses death symbolically, explaining that sin is what kills us spiritually, because it separates us from God (cf. Exodus 32:33; Isaiah 59:2; 2 Corinthians 6:4). This aligns with what we read in the book of James, who writes, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15). And on the contrary, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12, emphasis added)
In alignment with the aforementioned Church Fathers, third century Bishop of Carthage Cyprian, writes:
Hence, then, the one peaceful and trustworthy tranquillity, the one solid and firm and constant security, is this, for a man to withdraw from these whirls of a distracting world, and, anchored on the ground of the harbour of salvation, to lift his eyes from earth to heaven; and having been admitted to the gift of God, and being already very near to his God in mind, he may boast, that whatever in human affairs others esteem lofty and grand, lies altogether beneath his consciousness. He who is actually greater than the world can crave nothing, can desire nothing, from the world. How stable, how free from all shocks is that safeguard; how heavenly the protection in its perennial blessings, – to be loosed from the snares of this entangling world, and to be purged from earthly dregs, and fitted for the light of eternal immortality! (7)
Cyprian beautifully articulates that by withdrawing from the distractions of the world, we find our peace in the harbour of salvation, being near to God within our minds. We must ask ourselves, what are the distractions of the world within my mind? Fear of man, anxiety, depression, lust, pride? This list goes on. We are greater than the world (within us) when we overcome the vices that distract us from God. Hence, the Apostle Paul writes, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, emphasis added)
We have merely scratched the surface; there is an abundance of writings from the Early Church (prior to 325 AD) explaining how to truly be separate from the world. We see the continuation of thought through the Scriptures, and the writings of our forefathers, that the world is our fleshly nature, which separates us from God, because He is all spirit. Therefore, separation from the world goes beyond abstaining from going to bars, swearing, fornication, and so on; it is about dying to our worldly nature (the carnal mind, or the pleasures of our flesh). Jesus, who was born in this fleshly nature, half man, half God, showed us by His life and sacrifice that we can overcome our fleshly nature too. Therefore, let us escape the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 2:20).
- Cyprian, The Treatises of Cyprian, Treaties XII, Third bk.
- The Complete Word Study dictionary: “World” (G2889). [emphasis added]
- Origen, Homily 5 on Leviticus, pg. 92. [emphasis added]
- Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible: “Holy” and “Sanctified” (H6942)
- Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Bk. II. Chap. XX
- Tatian, Address to the Greeks, Chap XI
- Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle I. [emphasis added]
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.