Christians have been the object of persecution by many nations and many regimes for centuries. In the years following Christ’s death, Nero the Roman Emperor declared Christians to be the enemy of Rome and began an empire wide persecution that if not for the grace of God would have eradicated Christianity. In the nineteenth century the Ottomans massacred about two-and-a-half million Christians. In the twentieth century, it’s estimated that the Soviets killed half a million Christians; and the Germans under Hitler, another quarter of a million. In the last 66 years in China, it is possible that those numbers have been exceeded. One source said that in 2014 alone, 17,800 Christians were persecuted by the communist regime. Christians have been persecuted by the hundreds of thousands all over the planet, from Africa to Spain, from Mexico to Iran, from Japan to India, from Germany to Russia, from France to the Middle East. This is what I would call organized persecution, that is state supported persecution. That kind of persecution was certainly included in this warning from Christ.
There is another, more common means of persecution though that also would have been in His thoughts. This kind does not usually make headlines except in well publicised cases like that of the bakers in Colorado. But it is persecution on a personal level brought about by families, work places, and local people that react to you on some level of antagonism due to your religious beliefs. Jesus warns His disciples and by extension is warning us, that as we are reflections of Him, we can expect that kind of hatred and persecution because they persecuted and hated Him. The more we are like Christ, the more we will find ourselves hated. That’s really ironic, isn’t it? Because you would think that the more you are like Christ, the more the world would like you. But that is not what Jesus is teaching. He is saying that the more you act like Him, the more you teach what He taught, the more the world will hate you.
And the reason is because Christianity purports to be the truth. That’s why it’s hated. That is what Christianity is, by the way. It is believing in the truth as explained and proclaimed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is believing in absolute truth, and thus it brings hatred from every facet of society that feels threatened by the truth. That is why Satan is so opposed to Christianity. Because he is the father of lies, and there is no truth in him. He has organized the world system so that it keeps mankind captive to his lies. He hates the truth because as Jesus said the truth will make you free. Truth frees mankind from the snare and trap of the devil’s lies. So the devil hates the truth, thus he hates Christians who are a living testimony to the truth.
And likewise the world hates Christianity, because it exposes their belief system as a lie. And the world hates to be told that it’s way is a lie. That everything they are working for, everything they believe in and hold dear is a lie. No one wants to hear that.
When I was actively involved in the antiques business, before I became a pastor, I quite often gave appraisals to people. For a while I did it in conjunction with appearing on the Antiques Roadshow. And as a result, people would often contact me for an appraisal of something they had acquired or inherited. When my appraisal agreed with or exceeded their expectations, then things were good. The people were happy, gratified to learn how much their item was worth. But when I had to tell someone that their item was fake, and consequently it was worthless, then they could get very angry at me. They would become defensive, and that would sometimes escalate to anger and even hatred. The reason that had that reaction was usually because they had invested so much in the item. They had bought it at an auction or flea market believing they were getting a great deal and it was really worth a lot of money. So when I threw cold water on their dream, which by this point they are so invested in, their response is to be angry, which often resulted in acting hateful towards me.
The same situation occurs in the world concerning religion. Some people inherit their religion. It’s passed on from parent to child, from generation to generation. So they are quite invested in their religion, and to have it challenged, and have their ancestor’s faith challenged is quite upsetting to them. Others come to their religious beliefs by buying into a plausible sales job by a church that perhaps is a cult. They may have worked at it very hard, and sacrificed a lot for what they perceive to be true. Others have come to their religion or anti-religion because of research and study or science. Regardless of how they come by their religious views, when confronted with orthodox Christianity that purports to be the only truth by which you can be saved, the world not only hates the message, but also it hates the messenger.
So in these last hours before His death, Christ speaks to this fact of Christianity to prepare His disciples for what will occur after He has left them. He wants to prepare them for the reality of continuing His ministry and the animosity that will be towards them. He doesn’t want them to be dismayed at the persecution that is coming, resulting in falling away from the faith. In chapter 16 vs.1 Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling.” That means to fall away, or be tripped up in your Christian walk.
Now just to remind you of the context, Jesus and the disciples have left the Upper Room and are walking in the darkness to the Mount of Olives. Jesus has told them He is leaving them soon. Judas has deserted them to betray Him to the authorities. And in these final moments Jesus is reminding them of certain essential things as His last instructions to them. He first reminded them of the importance of their relationship with God, which they should secure by abiding in Him, which really is another way of saying they were to love Him, to draw close to Him. Secondly He reminds them of the importance of their relationship to each other, which is buttressed by His command to love one another. That is the way in which they show their love for God. And now thirdly, He reminds them of their hostile relationship with the world. That relationship will be one in which they are hated by the world. But not so clearly stated is the underlying principle that though the world hates them, they are to love the world. Not to love the system of the world, or the lusts of the world, or the things of the world, but to love the people of the world who are antagonistic towards them. They are to love their enemies. And the way that they will do that is to be witnesses to the world.
Now let’s look specifically at why the world will hate us. Look at vs.18,”If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:18-20 RSV)
Here Jesus helps us understand the hostility of the world. First, there is nothing personal about this type of reaction. He says, “It happened to me, too.” Jesus experienced hatred and rejection, and yet He was perfect. So one way to diffuse that type of hostility is not to take it personally. Yet I will concede that it can be hard to detach yourself from hatred or rejection or even persecution. I confess that I often find myself faced with rejection or even hatred based on things that I have preached as the pastor of the Beach Fellowship. I could avoid certain subjects that I know are controversial, but I can’t do that in good conscience and be true to the scriptures and what I believe is my responsibility. I do try my best not to offend people. But some people are eventually offended. And some of those people leave the church. And some of those, not all of them, thank God, end up becoming hostile and even hateful towards me. I can easily in those circumstances get a persecution complex. I can end up feeling like their rejection is of me personally. So I have to remind myself that they are not rejecting me, but they are rejecting Christ’s gospel. They are really rejecting Christ as presented in the gospel and redefining His doctrine to suit their agenda. So first, don’t take it personally. Realize that they hated Christ as well.
Secondly, Jesus says persecution comes because you are now a different person than you were. “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” You are different, and the world does not like anything different. The unrelenting pressure of society around us is to conform to the world’s system. And because we do not conform to the world but rather we conform to Christ, we stand in opposition to the world. And that attracts hostility.
There is a you tube video making the rounds about a waiting room situation in which a bell is rung every few minutes. The people waiting who are part of the experiment are told to rise when the bell rings. Then new people are added to the room, one by one. As they sit down, and the bell rings, everyone stands up and they stay seated, looking around quizzically at what is going on. But by the third time, the new person usually joins those standing. More and more people come in, and all follow the same example. Then the reverse happens, and everyone is called out one by one until there is one last person in the room. That person still stands when the bell rings.
I guess that experiment is an example of the herd mentality that is indicative of the human race. Everyone wants to fit in. Those that don’t are pushed out by the herd. In the animal kingdom, we even see the herd sometimes attack and kill a member that doesn’t fit in. So because of our new birth, our new life in Christ, we are no longer of the world. And also implicit in that statement is the understanding that we don’t act like the world, we don’t think like the world, we don’t have the same desires as the world. John expands upon this principle in 1John 2:15 which says, “Do not love the world nor 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 and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”
Peter also speaks of this principle. In the fourth chapter of his first letter he makes that distinction between the life of a Christian and the life of the world saying; “For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” We don’t fit in with the world, and so the world hates us. If we’re genuine believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we differ with the world. Jesus said He chose us out of the world. We are plucked out of the world system and given new life, new motivations, new desires. We are put on a different course. We are interested in knowing God, we are interested in spiritual things. We are interested in spiritual life.
As a result, Jesus declares, persecution is to be expected as a part of the Christian life: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” As we follow Christ, we can expect to follow in the sufferings of Christ. In fact, that is the hallmark of our relationship to Christ. Philippians 3:10, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” Paul goes on to say elsewhere that our suffering with Him is a prerequisite for our glorification with Him. Romans 8:17, “and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.”
As an example to us the saints of old counted it a privilege to suffer with Christ. You will remember the apostles being beaten and jailed for preaching the gospel of Christ and it said in Acts 5:41, “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.”
And suffer they did. Are you familiar with the end of the apostle’s lives? Do you know that all but the Apostle John were martyred in death? And John had to spend his life in exile on the Isle of Patmos. Steven was stoned to death. James, the brother of John, was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Phillip suffered martyrdom in Phrygia being scourged, imprisoned and crucified. Matthew was slain with a halberd in Nadabah. James the Less (Jesus’s half brother) was beaten and stoned at the age of ninety-four and finally had his brains dashed out with a fuller’s club. Matthias was stoned and beheaded at Jerusalem. Andrew was crucified at Edessa on a cross with the two ends fixed transversely in the ground. Mark was dragged to death in Alexandria. Peter, according to Jerome, was crucified at Rome under Nero with his head down thinking himself unworthy to be crucified as master. Jude was crucified at Edessa. Bartholomew was crucified in India. Thomas was thrust through with a spear in India. And Simon the Zealot was crucified in Britain. Paul was reported by Ignatius and others to have been martyred by decapitation near the end of Nero’s reign. This is what tradition tell us. But in any case, most of the apostles and those that followed them gave their lives for the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t know the extent to which we may be called upon to suffer for Christ. But I know that God has a special place for those that suffer for His name sake. And He has a special grace that He gives according to the measure of the suffering. I believe that. One need only to look at the martyrdom of Steven to know that. God gives a special grace in that time.
A further point Jesus makes concerning persecution is, it is marked by criticism. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” My interpretation is at odds with most commentators at this point, but in keeping with the context of the passage, I believe the idea of the Greek word “tēreō” indicates to observe critically. In a negative context Jesus relates “keeping” in the next verse (21) as something that is included in the phrase “all these things” as because they do not know the Father. If they do not know God, then they will not keep His word as we would normally think of the word “keep”. So then we must interpret the word translated as “keep,” which literally means “to observe,” as better interpreted “to observe critically”, because it results in something Jesus says is characteristic of those that do not know God. So with that context, we can deduce that the persecution of the world will include a critical watching of every word that we utter, in order to find fault, to find something by which they can condemn us. And we know that they did the same thing to Jesus in His ministry. They were continually watching Him to see if they could find something for which to find fault. And finally, at His trial, having failed to find something, they twisted His words, or made up things which they attributed to Him so that they might find reason to kill Him.
So then Jesus explains, their criticism stems from a deeper antagonism towards God. It’s because they hate God. ”But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both Me and my Father. It is to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.'” (John 15:21-25)
Jesus identifies the basic cause of this deep-rooted hatred as godlessness. It is because “they do not know Him who sent me.” Any attempt to subvert the truth of God for a lie results in a religion that at it’s root hates God. No matter how noble or plausible it may seem on the surface, if it does not agree with the revealed truth of God, then it is antagonistic towards God. In fact, Paul says in Romans that they hate God. Romans 1:21, “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” Paul follows by giving a list of characteristics of the ungodly, in which he lists in vs 30 that they are “haters of God.” That is the root of their antagonism towards Christians.
Now Jesus is speaking specifically of the Jews of His generation, and He says that they are inexcusable because they had heard his words and saw his works. What that means is that when someone is exposed to the truth and still rejects it his condemnation is double. They rejected his words and thus manifested their hatred of His Father. They ignored his works, the works predicted of the Messiah, and so compounded their condemnation. But, Jesus says it was all a fulfillment of prophecy. God knew it would happen. They fulfilled the prophetical word of David in Psalms 69 that said, “They hated me without a cause.”
Notice vs. 24, Jesus said, “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” Now I want to explain that verse, because it can be misunderstood. It is not saying that some people don’t have sin because they have not seen the works of Christ. The word translated sin there literally means “guilt.” There is a special guilt for those that physically witnessed Christ’s works on Earth and still rejected Him. Guilt is specific to a specific sin, is it not? I am not guilty of murder because I haven’t murdered someone. I am guilty of sin in a generic sense. But I am not guilty of that specific sin. And that is what Jesus is referring to. He is speaking of the specific sin of rejecting Him as the Messiah by the leaders of the Jews. They have a greater condemnation. And I believe the Bible teaches that there are degrees of hell. For to whom much is given, much shall be required. (Luke 12:48)
Thus I believe that those of this generation that reject the truth of God’s word are subject to a greater judgment, because they have the full revealed truth of God in scripture. Our modern society has unequaled access to the scriptures which so many people in the past could never have imagined. We have had more exposure to the truth through preaching and teaching than ever possible in past history. And so Jesus is stressing the principle that there will be a special judgment which correlates to one’s exposure to the truth and yet still reject it.
In the last section, Jesus tells the disciples and by extension tells us what our response is to be to the hatred of the world. It is not an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had this to say about how to respond to your enemies.
Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So in light of that teaching, what Christ is saying to the disciples is that they are to return love for hate. The kindness of God leads to repentance. We are to return a blessing for cursing. And we do that by being a witness to the truth. “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about Me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning. I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them.” (John 15:26 – 16:4)
There are four important things to consider here: First, by what means should we respond? “The Spirit is coming,” Jesus promises. For us, of course, He has already come. For these men when he comes, Jesus says, “He will testify about Me.” As you consider the words and the works of Christ, the Spirit of God will bear witness to you of it’s truth and that truth will give you boldness and power. And as you speak the truth of God, the Spirit of Truth will work through it to bring about conviction and repentance in their hearts.
And in his next point He says, “You also are witnesses because you have been with Me from the beginning.” Clearly he is referring to the apostles here, but it also applies to us. How do you witness? You tell someone about what has happened to you, that is all. You testify to what God has done for you, what He means to you, how He has given you a new life. The testimony of a transformed life is the most effective effective witness. And our testimony to a hostile world is evidence of our love for our enemies. That we care enough about them to warn them of their rejection of God, and the impending judgment to come.
We cannot say we love our families, or love our neighbors, or that we love our enemies, if we are silent on the most important issue of their lives. If I had discovered a cure for cancer, and kept it to myself, I would be the opposite of a loving person. My refusal to share the antidote with people who are dying from cancer would show me to be a heartless, hateful person. So it is with our salvation. We must share it with those who are dying without it. Love for our fellow man compels us to share the good news of the gospel.
But the consequence of that love means your witness will result in increased persecution. “They will cast you out of the synagogues. They will kill you and think they are offering service to God.” This was especially true of the first century Christians. Being cast out of the synagogue was specific to the Jews. But the world’s persecution can effect modern Christians in much the same way. Because the synagogue was the center of Jewish culture. It was the center of community. And today it is possible that persecution can sometimes mean being excommunicated or exiled from community. Being a Christian can make you a social outcast. It can separate you from family. It can cause divisions in a man’s own household.
And the final point Jesus makes is: “But these things I have spoken to you so that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them.” You are forewarned. Do not be surprised when the world hates you. Again, Peter continues that idea in 1 Peter 4:12: “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which is coming upon you.” Persecution is part of the process, it is what Jesus said would happen. Let us forget once and for all of this idea of living comfortably in this world, being liked by everybody and having no problems and no hardships. But rather understand as Paul told Timothy that “They that live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution,” (2 Timothy 3:12). There is a war going on, but victory is certain.” The way we win this war is to change our enemies into friends. And we do that by telling the truth in love. We love the world enough to tell them the truth, and when they know the truth, the truth will make them free. That’s how we win. Not by retaliation. But through our witness, we testify to the truth of God. And through our witness, we prove our love for our enemies. Even as Christ suffered and died on the cross as evidence of His love for the world, even while they were hating Him, so as His disciples we must suffer the hatred of the world for the sake of winning them to Christ. That is love. And that is what we are commanded to do.