We know Jesus is referring to his students and disciples when he says "they."
But what does Jesus mean by "the world" here?
We know that Jesus was on the planet when he said this. He was walking around "the world" and he was eating and talking and doing other things that other people did. So why would he not be "of the world"?
"The world" is being translated* from the Greek word κόσμος (kosmos), which refers to "the world, the universe;" and "the inhabitants of the earth, men, the human family" according to the lexicon. But the lexicon also says it means, "world affairs, the aggregate of things earthly" as well, and "the ungodly multitude; the whole mass of men alienated from God."
So this gives us a little more dimension to the meaning of being "of the world." But how is it that a person can be sitting at a table eating one minute and then stating they are not "of the world" the next minute?
Jesus is speaking of the substance of their lives. Not only what they were doing, but why they were doing it. How does this relate to not being "of the world?"
We have to understand the "world" Jesus is referring to and how it differentiates with the spiritual realm. Jesus is referring to the material world. The temporary physical world we see around us with our physical eyes.
The spiritual realm is our home. This is where we each are from. Yet most of us have forgotten our home. And we have forgotten who we are.
How did that happen?
First, we have to start with identity. Who are we? As we have discussed elsewhere - and scientifically investigated here - we are not these physical bodies. These bodies are vehicles that we are driving, much as a person drives a car, a boat or a plane. These bodies are instruments through which we access the physical dimension.
Let's compare this to flying a plane. A plane is built for a particular purpose: For lifting a person off the surface of the earth and into the air. It is essentially a vehicle by which a person can leave the environment on the ground and travel into the environment in the sky - above the clouds.
Can a normal person get up above the clouds otherwise? No. We need to climb into the physical body of the airplane, turn on the airplane's motors and take off. Then we need to operate the steering wheel and the instrument panel to guide the plane through the sky. The instruments allow us to stay balanced and maintain altitude so we can keep flying.
The airplane is essentially allowing us to travel into another atmosphere or plane (excuse the pun) of existence. Without that plane, we'd remain on the earth.
The physical body might well be compared to the airplane because with it we can travel into - and access - the environment of the physical world - the physical plane. And like the airplane, the physical body has a steering wheel and an instrument panel to enable us to steer and maintain our existence in the physical world. These are the brain and the senses.
So just as a pilot operates the plane, each of us operates the physical body through the instrumentation of the mind, brain and senses.
But once we leave the physical body, it stops working and begins to decompose. This is a direct indication that the person operating the body has now left. When the body dies, every cell, every organ and every sense organ is still there. There is nothing physically missing. But once the person leaves, the body is lifeless.
This means that the person who operates the physical body is not physical. Since we cannot see this living entity, yet we know the living entity is operating the body and leaves it at the time of death, we can logically arrive at the conclusion that this entity is not of the physical dimension.
That is each of us. We are each of another dimension - the spiritual realm. And we each have a particular form - a spiritual form.
We cannot see this spiritual form with our physical eyes, however. Why not?
This is God's programming
He set up the physical world and these physical bodies in such a way that we could not see the spiritual realm with these eyes. The body's senses cannot see into the spiritual. Why not?
Because the physical world was set up for those who wanted to get away from God. We wanted to be independent of God. We rebelled.
You see, God created each of us to love Him, serve Him and play with Him. This is our purpose for existing. But in order to truly love Him, He had to also give us the choice not to love Him as well. Without this choice, any so-called love would not really be love because we'd be like robots.
Just consider how easily a young boy will get tired of his toys. Why? Because they simply do whatever he wants them to do and have no choice to do otherwise. He might have a bunch of toy soldiers but they will be where ever he puts them without question. So where is the challenge in that? Where is the excitement? For this reason, the boy soon gets bored of his toy soldiers.
Now imagine if the boy's toy soldiers were robots? (Say he was a boy of the future.) These toys could walk around and pick up guns and really fight each other.
Still, the boy would get bored because the robots still have no choice. They can do whatever the boy programs them to do.
The only way the boy would truly be able to remain excited with his toy soldiers were if they had the choice to follow his directions or not. They had the choice to fight for him or not.
Thus those toys would no longer be toys. They would have choices. This would require the boy have and develop relationships with the soldiers - to try to convince them to do what he wanted. This is a completely different situation.
This gives us a glimpse into the life of God. We are those "soldiers" God created as playmates. But in order to truly enjoy, God needed to give us choice. He had to make us alive, and capable of loving or not. He thus gave us a little bit of Himself - a rebellious streak so to speak.
This set up the perfect scenario for God. He created an entire species of personalities that He could play within the spiritual realm - assuming they chose to play with Him and love Him. This means creating relationships.
And only those who choose to play with God and love God remain with Him. What about those who choose not to play with God - and choose not to love Him? What happens to them? Are they forced to remain with Him - are they forced to play with Him?
Absolutely not. Those of us who rebelled against God and chose not to love Him were shipped off (out of the spiritual realm) to another world - the physical world. And He created the physical world in such a way that those who rejected Him do not have to see Him. They - each of us - were given physical bodies that essentially allow us to completely forget His existence entirely.
That is the physical world and these physical bodies: Vehicles to play without having to see God. Giving us the ability to pretend that we are the center of the universe instead of God being the center of the universe - which He is.
This is a reflection of God's kindness
He never forces Himself upon us. If we don't want to be with Him, He lets us go.
There is a song to that effect - "if you love someone, set them free..."
We could compare this physical world to a video game. In a video game we are given an avatar and then the avatar travels through the video game imagery.
And interestingly, video gamers do seem to get somewhat lost in today's video games. They will begin to identify with their avatar and forget their physical existence for awhile as they merge into this virtual realm, where there are certain rules and engagements.
Our physical bodies are like the avatars. They are set up by God's programming. And the state of the physical world - while it is real - is dissolving. Everything is temporary here. Our house will one day decompose and become earth again - just as our bodies will. Everything decomposes into matter. The soil and sand on the beach are made up of dead bodies. Everything around us is decomposed dead bodies, and our bodies will one day decompose and become part of it.
This means that all those things our senses see that we are attracted to: Food, cars, and others' bodies - are simply made up of decomposed dead bodies. Those molecules that make up the things we desire were making up other things in the past - things that are now decomposed.
This might be compared to actors on a stage thinking that the set was their home. The set is a facade. It might seem real but it is only a stage - set up for a particular performance. Then it will be knocked down.
The physical world is like that. It is temporary. We are passing through. The molecules that are making up our physical body now, in five years will make up something else. We consume molecules in our foods and breathing, and other molecules are excreted in exchange. Our physical bodies are not permanent - they only appear so.
Why do we think these bodies and this temporary decomposing physical world is permanent?
Because we want them to be permanent. We want to pretend that we are these bodies and we will live here forever. Why?
Because we want to remain away from God. We are enjoying our freedom from God.
This means we are, by Jesus' definition "of the material world."
But Jesus and his students and disciples - according to his statement - and are not "of this world." Why not?
Because they are not wanting to remain away from God. They are wanting to be with God. They are wanting to serve God and love God and be God's playmate.
And their purpose for remaining in their physical bodies is not the same purpose that we have. They do not want to get away from God.
They are calling us back home to God
They are carrying out God's wishes. They are serving God within the physical world.
We might compare this to the difference between a tourist in a foreign country and an employee of the embassy. The embassy employee is not in the country to take in the sights and tour around. The embassy employee is there to work. They have a job to do in the foreign country. They might not even like the foreign country. They probably miss being home. But they continue to work in the foreign country because that is their duty. Their job.
This can be compared to Jesus. He came to the physical world to call us home. To carry out God's wishes to bring us back.
Or do you think that God just forgets about those who get sent to the physical world? No. God is full of love. He loves even the most rebellious of His playmates. He knows that we need Him and we'll never be happy without our loving relationship with Him. So He sent Jesus to bring us back home. This is why Jesus' most important teaching was:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)And Jesus recruited some of those whom he saved to help him and God bring back others. This became their duty as a rite of passage for their ability to return home: They became God's loving servants - carrying out God's wishes prior to their return to the spiritual realm.
This makes Jesus' disciples and students who were passing on Jesus' teachings to others part of Jesus' mission - and makes them also not "of the world."
*Here is the translation of this verse of Jesus' prayer from the Gospels of Jesus:
"They are not of the material world, just as I am not of the material world.” (John 17:16)