God is in the business of separating Christians from the world. Normally we focus our thinking on God’s unifying work. The Apostle Paul has quite a bit to say about the unity of believers in the sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection of Christ (especially in 1 Cor 1). At the same time, Jesus teaches that he came to bring a sword (Matt 10:34), meaning that he came to fight for the dawning of a new era in human history marked by healing and resurrection (the “Age of the Spirit), which is in contrast to the era marked by corruption, darkness, and death (the “Age of the Flesh”; more here on Pauline eschatology). He has come to make us part of his Kingdom, which is very different from, set a part from, the world.
This separating work of God reaches all the way back to the creation account in Genesis 1. On the first day, God created light. Immediately after creating the light, he separated the light from the darkness (Gen 1:4).
On the second day, God created the space (firmament) in order to create a separation between the waters above and the waters below (read here for more information on the ancient Near Eastern belief about the waters above and the waters below).
On the third day, God called forth the dry land by collecting the water into one place (Gen 1:9–10). The emphasis here, made clear through the language of “gathered into one place”, and “gathered together”, attest to the separation, or distinction language.
So what is the significance of this? God creates order and life by separating things that do not belong together. This is true in our lives as well. There are things in the lives of each of us that we need to separate ourselves from. There are things in our lives that just don’t belong there and God wishes to gently remove these things. These can be behaviors, mentalities, feelings, certain people, and more that God wishes us to abandon.
On a more collective scale, God sets His Covenant People a part from the world. In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says that one cannot serve two masters. Every ship only has one captain.
Many of us have two captains. In some areas of our lives, we are quite happy to obey and submit to the Lordship of Jesus. In other areas of our lives, we block out the voice of the Holy Spirit and follow our own will. This is equivalent to serving two masters. Jesus wants to be the Lord of everything in our lives. He wants us to the completely abandoned to him.
This is the concept wrapped up in the symbol of baptism. Baptism symbolizes the death to self (i.e.g, the death to our own will), and coming to life in the life of Jesus. In Galatians 2:20, Paul says,
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV)
With all of this in place, it’s crucial to remember that in God’s separating work, he does not come to take us out of the world. His Kingdom is for, and meant to be an earthly Kingdom. This is evident in the book of Exodus where God builds his tabernacle among his people. God’s plan is for his Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. The people of God represents the place where the healing presence of God meets the world.
This reality balances our thinking about what it means to be in the world but not of the world. In the end, what we’re talking about his holiness, but more specifically, the healing power of holiness when it comes in contact with a broken and hurting world.