The Bible’s most memorable statement about the world has no prepositions in it:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16)
It’s a categorical statement of unconditional love. For emphasis, the text adds:
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
Sadly, the world did not love him back. In fact, the world hated him and hates his followers as well (John 15:18, 17:14). This means that all true believers in Jesus Christ have a complicated relationship with the world. This is expressed in the New Testament through the use of a series of prepositions.*
IN the World
Jesus was in the world, but he left it after his death and resurrection. However, we, his followers, are in the world, and that’s his intention for us. His plan is to guard and protect us from the world’s danger and to experience joy during our time in it. (John 17:11-15).
OF the World
But while we’re in the world, he reminds us that we’re not of the world. In the original Greek, this simple preposition expresses our differentness; we’re made of unique stuff, since we’re “born from above.” Some modern translations use the phrase “belonging to” to express this relationship. (John 15:18-19; John 3:3; 1 John 2:16).
WITH the World
We need to remind ourselves that we are not with the world, in that we don’t share a common purpose or “friendship.” (James 4:4). We can’t let the world “squeeze us into its own mold,” as Paul puts it in Roman 12:2. Rather, allow God to “remold us from within,” out of that “born from above” part of us.**
TO the World
As he left his earthly life, Jesus gave his Great Commission to his disciples:
“Go to all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15)
The last preposition is a renewed expression of God’s unconditional love for the world, his ultimate hug to embrace his Creation:
God so loved the world . . . .
That he gave his only Son!
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* Grammar refresher: A preposition is a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform,” “she arrived after dinner,” “he came to his senses.”
** J.B. Phillips translation.