This is the usual English term for translating the Greek koʹsmos in all but one of its 187 occurrences in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
The King James or Authorized Version used “world” to render not only koʹsmos but also three other Greek words in some of its renderings of them, namely, ge, ai·onʹ and oi·kou·meʹne, and five different Hebrew words (ʼeʹrets; hheʹdhel; hheʹledh; ʽoh·lamʹ; te·velʹ). This produced a blurring or confused blending of meanings that made it difficult to obtain correct understanding of the scriptures involved. Later translations have served to clear up considerably this confusion, though in a number of texts many still treat certain of these terms as though they were virtually synonymous with koʹsmos.
The Hebrew ʼeʹrets and the Greek ge (whence the English “geography,” “geology”) mean “earth” “ground,” “soil” or “land” (Gen. 6:4; Num. 1:1; Matt. 2:6; 5:5; 10:29; 13:5), although in some cases they may stand metaphorically for the people of the earth, as at Psalm 66:4 and Revelation 13:3. Both ʽoh·lamʹ (Heb.) and ai·onʹ (Gr.) relate basically to a period of time of indefinite length. (Gen. 6:3; 17:13; Luke 1:70) Ai·onʹ may also signify the “system of things” characterizing a certain period, age or epoch. (Gal. 1:4) Hheʹledh (Heb.) has a somewhat similar meaning, and may be rendered by such terms as “life’s duration” and “system of things.” (Job 11:17; Ps. 17:14) Oi·kou·meʹne (Gr.) means the “inhabited earth” (Luke 21:26), and te·velʹ (Heb.) may be rendered as “productive land.” (2 Sam. 22:16) Hheʹdhel (Heb.) occurs only at Isaiah 38:11, and in the Authorized Version is rendered “world” in the expression “inhabitants of the world.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Vol. 4, p. 874) suggests the rendering “inhabitants of (the world) of cessation,” while pointing out that most scholars favor the reading of some Hebrew manuscripts that have hheʹledh in place of hheʹdhel. The New World Translation reads “inhabitants of [the land of] cessation.”—See AGE; EARTH; SYSTEMS OF THINGS.
“KOʹSMOS” AND ITS VARIOUS SENSES
The basic meaning of the Greek koʹsmos is “order” or “arrangement.” And to the extent that the concept of beauty is bound up with order and symmetry, koʹsmos also conveys that thought and therefore was often used by the Greeks to mean “adornment,” especially as regards women. It is used thus at 1 Peter 3:3. Hence also our English word “cosmetic.” The related verb ko·smeʹo has the sense of ‘putting in order’ at Matthew 25:7 and that of ‘adorning’ elsewhere. (Matt. 12:44; 23:29; Luke 11:25; 21:5; 1 Tim. 2:9; Titus 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:5; Rev. 21:2, 19) The adjective koʹsmi·os describes that which is “well-arranged” or “orderly” at 1 Timothy 2:9 and 3:2.
Evidently because the universe manifests order, Greek philosophers at times applied koʹsmos to the entire visible creation. However, there was no real unanimity of thought among them, some restricting it to the celestial bodies only, others using it for the whole universe. The use of koʹsmos to describe the material creation as a whole appears in some apocryphal writings (compare Wisdom 9:9; 11:18), these being written during the period when Greek philosophy was making inroads in many Jewish areas. But in the inspired writings of the Christian Greek Scriptures this sense is virtually, perhaps entirely, absent. Some texts may appear to use the term in that sense, such as the account of the apostle’s address to the Athenians at the Areopagus. Paul there said, “The God that made the world [koʹsmos] and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples.” (Acts 17:22-24) Since the use of koʹsmos as meaning the universe was current among the Greeks, Paul might have employed the term in that sense. Even here, however, it is entirely possible that he used it in one of the ways discussed in the rest of this article.
LINKED WITH MANKIND
Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament (1960 printing of the ninth ed., pp. 215, 216), after presenting the philosophic use of koʹsmos for the universe, says: “From this signification of χόσμος [koʹsmos] as the material universe, . . . followed that of χόσμος as that external framework of things in which man lives and moves, which exists for him and of which he constitutes the moral centre (John xvi. 21; I Cor. xiv. 10; I John iii. 17); . . . and then the men themselves, the sum total of persons living in the world (John i. 29; iv. 42; II Cor. v. 19); and then upon this, and ethically, all not of the ἐχχλησία [ek·kle·siʹa; the church or congregation], alienated from the life of God and by wicked works enemies to Him (I Cor. 1. 20, 21; II Cor. vii. 10; Jam. iv. 4).”
Similarly, the book Studies in the Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, by K. S. Wuest (p. 57), quotes Greek scholar Cremer as saying: “As kosmos is regarded as that order of things whose center is man, attention is directed chiefly to him, and kosmos denotes mankind within that order of things, humanity as it manifests itself in and through such an order (Mt. 18:7). . . .”
As to the difference between koʹsmos and ai·onʹ, Schaff-Lange’s Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical Commentary, in commenting on Ephesians 2:2, says: “χόσμος is the external appearance, the external continuance of the world of men, αιών [ai·onʹ] its course, current, impulse . . . ; the latter may change, vary, in different periods, the former remains, and as the latter is estranged from God, so is this.”
Koʹsmos or the “world” is therefore closely linked and bound up with mankind. This is true in secular Greek literature and is particularly so in Scripture. When Jesus said that the man walking in daylight “sees the light of this world [koʹsmos]” (John 11:9), it might appear that by “world” is meant simply the planet Earth, which has the sun as its source of daylight. However, his next words speak of the man walking at night who bumps into something “because the light is not in him.” (Vs. 10) It is primarily for mankind that God gave the sun and other heavenly bodies. (Compare Genesis 1:14; Psalm 8:3-8; Matthew 5:45.) Similarly, using light in a spiritual sense, Jesus told his followers they would be “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), certainly not meaning they would illuminate the planet, for he goes on to show their illuminating would be for mankind, “before men.” (Vs. 16; compare John 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46; Philippians 2:15.) The preaching of the good news “in all the world” (Matt. 26:13) also means preaching it to mankind as a whole, even as in some languages “all the world” is the common way of saying “everybody” (compare French tout le monde; Spanish todo el mundo).—Compare John 8:26; 18:20; Romans 1:8; Colossians 1:5, 6.
In one basic sense, then, koʹsmos refers to all humankind. The Scriptures therefore describe the koʹsmos or world as being guilty of sin (John 1:29; Rom. 3:19; 5:12, 13) and needing a savior to give it life (John 4:42; 6:33, 51; 12:47; 1 John 4:14), things applicable only to mankind, not the inanimate creation nor the animals. This is the world that God loved so much that “he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, 17; compare 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 John 2:2.) That world of mankind forms the field in which Jesus Christ sowed the fine seed, the “sons of the kingdom.”—Matt. 13:24, 37, 38.
When Paul says that God’s “invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made,” he must mean from the creation of mankind forward, for only when mankind appeared were there minds on earth capable of ‘perceiving’ such invisible qualities by means of the visible creation.—Rom. 1:20.
Similarly John 1:10 says of Jesus that “the world [koʹsmos] came into existence through him.” While it is true that Jesus shared in the production of all things, including the heavens and the planet Earth and all things in it, koʹsmos here applies primarily to humankind in whose production Jesus likewise shared. (Compare John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-17; Genesis 1:26.) Hence the rest of the verse says: “. . . but the world [that is, the world of mankind] did not know him.”
The “founding of the world”
This clear connection of koʹsmos with the world of mankind also aids in understanding what is meant by the “founding of the world,” as referred to in a number of texts. These texts speak of certain things, such as “tribulation,” the ‘shedding of the blood of prophets,’ and ‘names being written on the scroll of life,’ as taking place “since the world’s beginning” or “from the founding of the world.” (Matt. 24:21; Luke 11:50, 51; Rev. 17:8; compare Matthew 13:35; 25:34; Hebrews 9:26; Revelation 13:8.) Such things relate to human life and activity and hence the “founding of the world” must relate to mankind’s beginning, not that of the inanimate creation or the animal creation. Hebrews 4:3 shows that God’s creative works were, not started, but “finished from the founding of the world.” Since Eve was evidently the last of Jehovah’s earthly creative works, the world’s founding then could not precede her.
As shown under ABEL (No. 1) and FOREKNOWLEDGE, FOREORDINATION (Foreordination of the Messiah), the Greek term (ka·ta·bo·leʹ) for “founding” can refer to the conceiving of seed in human conception. Ka·ta·bo·leʹ literally means “a casting or laying down” and at Hebrews 11:11 may be rendered “conceive” (RS, NW). Its use there evidently refers to Abraham’s ‘throwing down’ human seed for the begetting of a son and Sarah’s receiving that seed so as to be fertilized.
Therefore the “founding of the world” need not be taken to mean the beginning of the creation of the material universe, nor does the expression “before the founding of the world” (John 17:5, 24; Eph. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:20) of necessity refer to a point of time prior to the creation of that material creation. Rather, these expressions evidently relate to the time when the human race was ‘founded’ through the first human pair, Adam and Eve, who, outside of Eden, began to conceive seed.—Gen. 3:20-24; 4:1, 2.
“Spectacle unto the world, both to angels and men”
Some have understood the use of the word koʹsmos in 1 Corinthians 4:9 to include both invisible spirit creatures and visible human creatures, by the rendering: “we are made a spectacle unto the world, both to angels and men.” (AS) However, the footnote offers an alternative reading in saying: “Or, and to angels, and to men.” This latter rendering is also the way in which other versions render the Greek text here. (AV; La; Mo; Vg; CC; Murdock) Young’s reads: “a spectacle we became to the world, and messengers, and men.” Just preceding this, in 1 Corinthians 1:20, 21, 27, 28; 2:12; 3:19, 22 the writer uses the word koʹsmos to mean the world of humankind, so that evidently he does not depart from that sense immediately afterward in 1 Corinthians 4:9, 13. Hence, if the rendering “both to angels and men” is admitted, the expression is merely an intensification, not to enlarge the meaning of the word koʹsmos, but to enlarge on the spectator-ship as going beyond the world of mankind, so as to include “angels [messengers]” as well as “men.”—Compare Rotherham.
The human sphere of life and its framework
This does not mean that koʹsmos loses all of its original sense of “order” or “arrangement” and becomes merely a synonym for mankind. Mankind itself reflects a certain order, being composed of families, tribes, and having developed into nations and language groups (1 Cor. 14:10; Rev. 7:9; 14:6), with their wealthy and poor classes and other groupings. (Jas. 2:5, 6) A framework of things that surround and affect mankind has been built up on earth as mankind has grown in number and in years of existence. When Jesus spoke of a man as ‘gaining the whole world but forfeiting his soul in the process,’ he evidently meant gaining all that the human sphere of life and human society as a whole could offer. (Matt. 16:26; compare 6:25-32.) Similarly with Paul’s reference to those “making use of the world” and the married persons’ ‘anxiety for the things of the world’ (1 Cor. 7:31-34), as also John’s reference to “this world’s means for supporting life.”—1 John 3:17; compare 1 Corinthians 3:22.
At the close of his Gospel the apostle John says that, if all the things Jesus did were set down in full detail, “I suppose, the world [koʹsmos] itself could not contain the scrolls written.” (John 21:25) He did not use ge (the earth) or oi·kou·meʹne (the inhabited earth) and thereby say that the planet could not contain the scrolls, but he used koʹsmos evidently as meaning that human society (with its then existing library space) was not in position to receive the voluminous records (in the book style then used) that this would have entailed, with copies available for each library shelf or set of shelves. Compare also such texts as John 7:4; 12:19 for similar uses of ko’smos.
Coming ‘into the world’
When one is ‘born into this world,’ then, he is not merely born among mankind but also comes into the framework of human circumstances in which men live. (John 16:21; 1 Tim. 6:7) However, while references to one’s going or coming into the world may refer to one’s birth into the human sphere of life, this is not always the case. Jesus, for example, in prayer to God said: “Just as you sent me forth into the world, I also sent them [his disciples] forth into the world.” (John 17:18) He sent them into the world as grown men, not as newborn babes. John speaks of false prophets and deceivers as having “gone forth into the world.”—1 John 4:1; 2 John 7.
The many references to Jesus’ ‘coming or being sent forth into the world’ evidently do not refer primarily, if at all, to his human birth but more reasonably apply to his going out among mankind, publicly carrying out his assigned ministry from and after his baptism and anointing, acting as a light bearer to the world of mankind. (Compare John 1:9; 3:17, 19; 6:14; 9:39; 10:36; 11:27; 12:46; 1 John 4:9.) His human birth was solely a necessary means to that end. (John 18:37) In corroboration of this, the writer of Hebrews represents Jesus as speaking words from Psalm 40:6-8 “when he comes into the world,” and Jesus logically did not do this as a newborn babe.—Heb. 10:5-10.
When his public ministry among mankind came to its close, Jesus knew “that his hour had come for him to move out of this world to the Father,” dying as a man and being resurrected to life in the spirit realm from which he had come.—John 13:1; 16:28; 17:11; compare John 8:23.
The “elementary things of the world”
At Galatians 4:1-3, after showing that a child is like a slave in the sense of being under the stewardship of others until he is of age, Paul states: “Likewise we also, when we were babes, continued enslaved by the elementary things [stoi·kheiʹa] belonging to the world.” He then proceeds to show that God’s Son came at the “full limit of the time” and released those becoming his disciples from being under the Law that they might receive the adoption of sons. (Vss. 4-7) Similarly at Colossians 2:8, 9, 20 he warns the Christians at Colossae against being carried off “through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things [stoi·kheiʹa] of the world and not according to Christ; because it is in him that all the fullness of the divine quality dwells bodily,” stressing that they “died together with Christ toward the elementary things of the world.”
Of the Greek word stoi·kheiʹa (plural of stoi·kheiʹon) used by Paul, The Pulpit Commentary (II Corinthians, Galatians, p. 181) says: “From the primary sense of ‘stakes placed in a row,’ . . . the term [stoi·kheiʹa] was applied to the letters of the alphabet as placed in rows, and thence to the primary constituents of speech; then to the primary constituents of all objects in nature, as, for example, the four ‘elements’ (see 2 Pet. iii. 10, 12); and to the ‘rudiments’ or first ‘elements’ of any branch of knowledge. It is in this last sense that it occurs in Heb. v. 12.” The related verb stoi·khei·oʹo means to “instruct in the basic principles.”
In his letters to the Galatians and Colossians, Paul was evidently not referring to the basic or component parts of the material creation, but, rather, as the Commentary of German scholar Heinrich A. W. Meyer (Galatians, Ephesians, p. 168) observes, to “the elements of non-Christian humanity,” that is, to its fundamental or primary principles. Paul’s writings show this would include the philosophies and deceptive teachings based purely on human standards, concepts, reasoning and mythology, such as the Greeks and other pagan peoples reveled in. (Col. 2:8) However, it is clear that he also used the term as embracing things of a Jewish nature, not only non-Biblical Jewish teachings calling for asceticism or “worship of the angels,” but also the teaching that Christians should put themselves under obligation to keep the Mosaic law.—Col. 2:16-18; Gal. 4:4, 5, 21.
True, the Mosaic law was of divine origin. However, it had now been fulfilled in Christ Jesus, the “reality” to which its shadows pointed, and it was therefore obsolete. (Col. 2:13-17) Additionally, the tabernacle (and later temple) was “worldly” or of human construction, hence, “mundane” (Gr., ko·smi·kosʹ; Heb. 9:1, Mo), that is, of the human sphere, not heavenly or spiritual, and the requirements related thereto were “legal requirements pertaining to the flesh and were imposed until the appointed time to set things straight.” Christ Jesus had now entered into the “greater and more perfect tent not made with hands, that is, not of this creation,” into heaven itself. (Heb. 9:8-14, 23, 24) He himself had told a Samaritan woman that the time was coming when the temple at Jerusalem would no longer be used as an essential part of true worship but that the true worshipers would “worship the Father with spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24) So the need to employ such things that were only “typical representations” (Heb. 9:23) within the human sphere picturing the greater things of a heavenly nature had ceased with Christ Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.
Hence the Galatian and Colossian Christians could now worship according to the superior way based on Christ Jesus. He, and not humans and their principles or teachings, nor even the “legal requirements pertaining to the flesh” as found in the Law covenant, should be recognized as the appointed standard and the full means of measuring the truth of any teaching or way of life. (Col. 2:9) Christians should not be like children by voluntarily placing themselves under that which was likened to a pedagogue or tutor, namely, the Mosaic law (Gal. 3:23-26), but they were to be in a relationship with God like that of a grown son with his father. The law was elementary, “the A B C of religion” (Meyer on Colossians 2:8), as compared with the Christian teaching. Anointed Christians, due to their being begotten to heavenly life, had, in effect, died and been impaled to the koʹsmos of the human sphere of life, in which regulations such as fleshly circumcision had been in force, and had become a “new creation.” (2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 2:11, 12, 20-23; compare Galatians 6:12-15; John 8:23.) They knew that Jesus’ kingdom was not from a human source. (John 18:36) They certainly should not turn back to the “weak and beggarly elementary things” of the human sphere (Gal. 4:9) and thereby be deluded into giving up the “riches of the full assurance of their understanding” and “accurate knowledge of the sacred secret of God, namely, Christ,” in whom are concealed “all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge.”—Col. 2:1-4.
The world alienated from God
A use of koʹsmos unique to the Scriptures is in making it stand for the world of mankind apart from God’s servants. Peter writes that God brought the deluge “upon a world of ungodly people,” while preserving Noah and his family; in this way “the world of that time suffered destruction when it was deluged with water.” (2 Pet. 2:5; 3:6) It may again be noted that the reference here is not to the destruction of the planet nor to the celestial bodies of the universe, but is restricted to the human sphere, in this case the unrighteous human society. It was that “world” that Noah condemned by his faithful course.—Heb. 11:7.
The pre-Flood unrighteous world or human society ended, but mankind itself did not end, being preserved in Noah and his family. After the Flood the majority of mankind again deviated from righteousness, producing another wicked human society. Still there were those who took a separate course, adhering to righteousness. In course of time God designated Israel as his chosen people, bringing them into covenant relationship with himself. Because the Israelites were thus made distinct from the world in general, Paul could use koʹsmos, “world,” as equivalent to the non-Israelite “people of the nations” or “Gentiles” at Romans 11:12-15. (NW; AV) He there pointed out that Israel’s apostasy led to God’s revoking his covenant relationship with them and that it opened up the way for the Gentiles to enter into such relationship and its riches, by being reconciled to God. (Compare Ephesians 2:11-13.) The “world” or koʹsmos, then, during this post-Flood and pre-Christian period again designated all humanity outside of God’s approved servants, and specifically those outside Israel during the period of its covenant relationship with Jehovah.—Compare Hebrews 11:38.
In a similar manner, and with great frequency, koʹsmos is used to signify all non-Christian human society, regardless of race. This is the world that hated Jesus and his followers because of their bearing witness concerning its unrighteousness and because they maintained separateness from it; such world thereby showed hatred for Jehovah God himself and did not come to know him. (John 7:7; 15:17-25; 16:19, 20; 17:14, 25; 1 John 3:1, 13) Over this world of unrighteous human society and its kingdoms, God’s adversary, Satan the Devil, exercises rulership, in fact has made himself the “god” of such world. (Matt. 4:8, 9; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; compare 2 Corinthians 4:4.) God did not produce such unrighteous world; it owes its development to his chief Opposer, in whose power “the whole world is lying.” (1 John 4:4, 5; 5:18, 19) Satan and his “wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places” act as the invisible “world rulers [or “cosmocrats”; Gr., ko·smo·kraʹto·ras]” over the world alienated from God.—Eph. 6:11, 12.
Not simply humanity, of which Jesus’ disciples were a part, but the whole organized human society that exists outside the true Christian congregation is meant in such texts. Otherwise Christians could not cease to be a “part of the world” without dying and ceasing to live in the flesh. (John 17:6; 15:19) Though unavoidably living within that society of worldly persons, including those engaging in fornication, idolatry, extortion, and similar practices (1 Cor. 5:9-13), such Christians must keep themselves clean and unspotted by that world’s corruption and defilement, not entering into friendly relations with it, lest they be condemned with it. (1 Cor. 11:32; Jas. 1:27; 4:4; 2 Pet. 1:4; 2:20; compare 1 Peter 4:3-6.) They cannot be guided by worldly wisdom, which is foolishness in God’s sight, nor ‘breathe in’ the “spirit of the world,” that is, its selfish and sinful dominant feeling and activating force. (1 Cor. 1:21; 2:12; 3:19; 2 Cor. 1:12; Titus 2:12; compare John 14:16, 17; Ephesians 2:1, 2; 1 John 2:15-17; see SPIRIT [Dominant Feeling or Activating Force].) Thus, through their faith they ‘conquer the world’ of unrighteous human society, even as did God’s Son. (John 16:33; 1 John 2:17; 4:4; 5:4, 5) That unrighteous human society is due to pass away by divine destruction (1 John 2:17), even as the ungodly pre-Flood world perished.—2 Pet. 3:6.
Ungodly world ends; world of humankind preserved
Thus, the koʹsmos for which Jesus died must mean the world of mankind viewed simply as the human family, all human flesh. (John 3:16, 17) As to the world in the sense of human society alienated from God and in actual enmity toward God, Jesus did not pray on behalf of such world but only for those who came out of that world and put faith in him. (John 17:8, 9) Even as human flesh survived the destruction of the ungodly human society or world in the Deluge, so Jesus showed that human flesh is to survive the great tribulation that he likened to that Flood. (Matt. 24:21, 22, 36-39; compare Revelation 7:9-17.) The “kingdom of the world” (evidently meaning of humankind) is, in fact, promised to become “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,” and those reigning with Christ in his heavenly kingdom are due to “rule as kings over the earth,” hence over humankind apart from the deceased ungodly human society dominated by Satan.—Rev. 11:15; 5:9, 10.