Belonging to Jesus Means the World Hates You
Topic: Persecution Passage: John 15:18–15:25
Sermon from John 15:18-25 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on November 9, 2014
International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
I’ve intentionally jumped ahead, because today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, where we join thousands of other churches to remember our brothers and sisters experiencing persecution—especially in places where the persecution moves beyond verbal ridicule to things like imprisonment and torture and death. And verses 18-25 address the persecution of Christians head-on.
When Christianity Meets a World in Love with Itself
In many ways, these verses give us a brief theology on why Christians experience persecution. They give us God’s perspective on the subject of persecution; and it’s a bit unsettling really. Jesus’ words aren’t all that easy to swallow, because Jesus sees persecution as a normal, even expected, part of the Christian life in this world.
For Jesus, persecution isn’t something we can tuck away nicely in a category reserved only for those Christians living under oppressive governments and cold-hearted leaders. It’s true that some Christians will suffer more persecution than others—even Jesus speaks to that between John and Peter (John 21:18-23)—but persecution is something every Christian should expect to encounter in the path of obedience to Christ (Acts 9:16; 14:22; 1 Thess 3:3; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 3:21-22; 5:10).
Jesus’ words force us not just to remember the persecuted church—as we must do according to Heb 13:3. They also force us to identify with the persecuted church—to live in our relative freedom as they live in their persecution; to be emboldened in our own witness by their sufferings (Phil 1:14); to pursue love even when it costs us everything, houses, lands, mothers, brothers, sisters, even life itself (Matt 10:30). Because, listen to this: persecution is what happens when authentic Christianity meets a world in love with itself instead of Jesus. That’s where Jesus’ words are going to challenge us. Verse 18,
18If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20Remember the word that I said to you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: “They hated me without a cause.”
Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about what it looks like to abide in Jesus (John 15:1-11). If you’re a Christian, your union with Jesus is like a branch abiding in a vine (15:1-6). And as we abide in Jesus, as we depend on his life, God is pleased to make us look like Jesus and bear fruit like Jesus in this world (15:4-5, 8, 16). Today we’re going to see the world doesn’t like it when that happens. In fact the world hates it when this happens. And the world will do what it can to keep that from happening. This comes out in several lessons Jesus gives the disciples.
Preparing the Disciples for Persecution
We have to remember that Jesus isn’t going to be physically present with his disciples much longer. He’s fixing to return to his Father in glory. Well, for the past three years, Jesus has been the focus of the persecution. Everybody’s beef is with Jesus. So, what do you think is going to happen when Jesus returns to the Father and sends the Spirit to empower the disciples to live just like him? Answer: the world is going to target his disciples. When he returns to his Father, he’s not taking the disciples with him (16:33; 17:11, 15). He’s leaving them in the world to carry on his mission (20:21). And the world will hate them for it. And the disciples need to know that—we need to know that. Their mission is our mission. So, Jesus prepares them—prepares us—with a few lessons for the mission related to the world’s hatred, persecution, and unbelief.
1. The World Hates Jesus & Those Belonging to Him
And the first lesson is this: the world hates Jesus and those belonging to him. Verses 18-19: “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 you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
We’ve got to remember what Jesus means by “the world.” In John’s Gospel, “the world” is the entire moral order standing in opposition against God. It’s referred to as darkness (1:5). It’s so bent inward on itself that it doesn’t even recognize its Maker, God’s Son, when he shows up in the flesh (1:9-10). The world loves its evil deeds and prefers to hide them from God’s light (3:19-20). It’s a world enslaved to sin and ruled by the devil himself (8:34, 44; 12:31; cf. 1 John 5:19). And all the rebels living in this world—which is everybody—stands beneath the wrath of God as they make their feeble attempts to thwart his plans (3:36).
In fact, John’s depiction of the world is much like that of Ps 2:1-3, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers of the earth take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed [one], saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their chords from us.’” Ever since Adam fell into sin—and with Adam, the whole human race—the world stands in opposition to its Creator. That’s what the world is, here. It’s the world in rebellion against God and his Anointed One, Jesus Christ.
That’s everybody’s beginning. We were born into this world rebels against Christ. Our conduct was conditioned by belonging to the world. That’s what it means to be “of the world.” We had linked arms with the devil’s cause to ignore God’s words and establish our own kingdom, promote the world’s agenda over Christ’s. When Jesus says the world hated him before it hated us, he’s saying that all of us once belonged to it. There was a time when the world loved us as its own. That doesn’t mean everybody got along with us. But it does mean that when it came to Jesus, we were all united in our hatred of him. And that was proven by our desires and our conduct.
Now, what do you think happens when the sovereign Lord reaches down in grace—not owing anything to us—and plucks men and women from that rebellious world order and places them in his kingdom—so that they belong to him (1 Pet 3:18); so that they become his possession (Tit 2:14); so that they are ruled by grace and not by sin (Tit 2:11-12); so that they are no longer held captive by the devil but by sovereign love (Heb 2:14; Jas 4:7); so that their conduct is transformed to look just like Jesus’ conduct (John 15:4-5, 8); so that their new-found love for holiness starts exposing and confronting the world’s evil deeds (Eph 5:11)? What do you think happens?
The world views us as nothing but a bunch of traitors. We now belong to enemy ranks, and the demonic powers and rival empire against Jesus hate this about us (Eph 6:10-22). They hate this about us because the world only loves its own (John 15:19; cf. 1 John 4:5). The world only loves the people that affirm its agenda—that affirm its idolatry and affirm its sexual immorality and affirm the way it champions self-autonomy and affirm its tolerance of evil (Rom 1:18-32). The world doesn’t like it when you say an organization like “Death with Dignity” is demonic for the way it devalues the image of God in man (Gen 1:27; Ps 8). The world doesn’t like it when we say marriage was instituted by God between a man and a woman only to reflect Christ’s love for his church (Gen 2; Eph 5:22-33).
And now, we who once affirmed its evil have been brought into another kingdom standing against its evil—which, by the way, are the only kind of people in Christ’s kingdom, namely, former rebels. And now we, former rebels, stand with Christ, not owing to anything we did but owing to everything he did for us (Eph 1:3-2:10).
Strengthened by Belonging to Christ
If we are persecuted in the path of obedience to Jesus, then we must gain strength from this reality. Persecution in the path of obedience means we’re real. He’s transferred us to his kingdom. It means that this suffering isn’t about me; it’s about Jesus and me belonging to him. Persecution means I no longer belong to the world; I belong to him and everything lovely that he is. These threats and this imprisonment and this pain and this torture and this violence against my family—it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with me. It doesn’t mean God hasn’t loved me.
If anything, it reminds me of how God loved me. He loved me in Christ who suffered for me. He chose me in him and rescued me from the world through his death. Despite all my rebellion, he still made me his own. My enemies mean for this persecution to assault my soul, but with Paul, I can wear it as a badge of belonging to Jesus.”
So when you’re friends start cutting you off their Facebook accounts because of what you explicitly stand for in Christ, rejoice in your belongingness to Jesus (Matt 5:12). When your coworkers start mocking you for doing honest work in Jesus’ name—and laughingly apologize for using foul language around you—you can rejoice in your election, God choosing you out of the corrupt world when you didn’t deserve it (Col 3:12). When you, through tears, tell your neighbor why their homosexual relationship is an offense to God and an assault against Christ and his kingdom, and they snub you and write you off as a bigoted freak out of touch with the changing times—you can stand firm in your belongingness to Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:2 with 6:9-11).
When the Communist official or the Muslim father threatens to take your life and the lives of your children, it will make complete sense to you, because now you understand it in light of the world’s hatred of Jesus and your belongingness to him (John 15:18-19). In other words, all that the world threatens to take from you cannot compete with all that you have gained in belonging to Christ, who is supremely lovely.
That certainly doesn’t make the persecution less painful (2 Cor 1:1-11), but it does provide strength to endure the persecution for Christ’s sake (Rom 8:32-38; 2 Cor 4:17). How do you leave rejoicing after you’ve been beaten and charged not to speak in the name of Jesus, like the apostles did when they left the council in Acts 5:41—rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus? You leave rejoicing when embedded deep within you is the assurance of belonging to Jesus that trumps any belonging to this world.
2. The World Persecutes Us for Our Gospel Presence
There’s also a challenge in these words as well, but I want to bring it up after looking at Jesus’ second lesson for his disciples, namely, the world persecutes us for our gospel presence. Verse 20, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”
So, again we see a connection between what Jesus suffers and what those belonging to him suffer. He suffered persecution; therefore his servants will suffer persecution. But notice the positive addition. The end of verse 20 says, “If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”
This recalls a much bigger theme running throughout John’s Gospel, and the theme goes something like this. Jesus is sent by the Father into the rebellious world, and he delivers a message that divides people into two camps—those who reject him and those who receive him (John 1:9-13); those who refuse to believe in him and those who believe in him (6:66, 69; 8:30, 47); those who keep loving the darkness and those who run to the light (3:18-21); those who prefer the devil’s lies and those who come to love Jesus’ truth (8:44; 19:35). So Jesus enters the rebellious world and people divide around him and his message.
He’s now saying the same will be true of his disciples. Just like his Father sent him with a message into the world, Jesus will send his disciples with a message into the world (15:27; 20:21). And the world will divide around them—many will persecute them for what they say, but some will believe. The world will divide around us.
Now, the world shouldn’t divide around us because of our pompous attitudes (Jas 4:6), or our belligerent tones (Eph 4:29), or our arrogant spirits (1 Cor 4:7), or our angry blogs and emails (Col 4:6)—such things don’t belong to those who were undeservingly chosen out of the world. But the world will divide around us because of the message we carry and the Christ-like lifestyle we choose.
Being the Aroma of Christ
The apostle Paul gives a great illustration of this when he describes his own mission in the world. He says this in 2 Cor 2:14-16: “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ] everywhere.” He’s comparing his ministry to a sacrifice that’s been made; the fragrance goes up from his testimony. “For,” he says, “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance of life to life.” So the idea is that when we carry the aroma of Christ, the gospel, into the world, it has two effects: some reject it unto death while others embrace it unto life. Is Christ the aroma of your life, such that when you’re around others, they can’t help but deal with him?
Is the Lack of Persecution in America Because of Worldliness?
Here’s where the challenge comes in, especially for those of us in the comforts and freedoms of America. We have to ask ourselves this question: If persecution is what happens when authentic Christianity meets a world in love with itself instead of Jesus, why aren’t some of us experiencing persecution at all?
Now, I want to be very careful here. I’ve already said that not all Christians will experience the same degree of persecution (John 21:18-23; Acts 12:2-3). Moreover, according to God’s wise and providential plans as well as his common goodness, severer forms of persecution are restrained in some areas more than others (Prov 21:1; 1 Tim 2:2). The question is not, “Why am I not experiencing the same amount or the same kind of persecution others may be?”
I’m also not asking the question so that you leave and actively pursue persecution. We pursue love and obedience to Christ even when that love and obedience may bring persecution (1 Pet 2:20-22). But we don’t pursue persecution.
I’m also not asking the question, so that you leave feeling guilty unnecessarily for not yet experiencing persecution. Some of you are being very faithful to the Lord—you are walking in obedience, you are taking steps to follow Jesus daily—and your time of suffering just hasn’t come yet (cf. John 21:18-23; Rev 1:9; 6:11).
What I am asking is for us to consider whether the lack of persecution in our lives is because we look too much like the world. In other words, when we enter people’s lives, there’s really no reason for them to divide around us. We’re not really carrying a gospel presence into their lives. The offense of the cross is largely missing from our speech and conduct. Our love tolerates evil instead of abhorring it and calling people out of it to follow Jesus. There’s really no reason for the world to persecute us if we look and act and speak and spend just like them.
Like I said, Jesus’ words force us to do more than just remember the persecuted. They force us to identify with the persecuted, to obey Jesus like the persecuted. In his book, The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken—which is not his real name; he writes under a pseudonym to protect the persecuted Christians he writes about. But in his book, after going through numerous testimonies from believers across the globe experiencing persecution, he ends up concluding like this:
Satan’s greatest desire is for the people of this planet to leave Jesus alone. Satan desires that we turn away from Jesus—or that we never find him in the first place. If Satan cannot be successful at that, he desires to keep believers quiet, to diminish or silence our witness, and to stop us from bringing others to Christ. It is that simple. Once we understand the nature of this spiritual battle and strategy of the Enemy, we see clearly the role believers have been called to play. We also see the importance of our choices regarding witness and faithfulness and obedience. At the beginning of every day, we choose. It is simply a matter of identification. Will we identify with believers in persecution—or will we identify with their persecutors? We make that choice as we decide whether we will share Jesus with others or keep [Jesus] to ourselves. We identify ourselves as believers by taking a stand with, and following the example of, those in persecution. Or we identify with their persecutors by not giving witness of Jesus to our family, our friends, and our enemies. Those who number themselves among the followers of Jesus—but don’t witness for Him—are actually siding with the Taliban, the brutal regime that rules North Korea, the secret police in communist China, and the Somalilands and Saudi Arabias of the world. Believers who do not share their faith aid and abet Satan’s ultimate goal of denying others access to Jesus. Our silence makes us accomplices…Perhaps the question should not be: “Why are others persecuted?” Perhaps the better question is: “Why are we not?” (Ripken, 310-311)
That’s a soul-searching word; and it lines up with Jesus’ words here. If the evil, rebellious world loves you as its own, it’s not going to persecute you. But if you walk with Jesus and speak of his cross, the world will persecute you. Are you having the same effect on the world that Jesus did in his earthly ministry? Is the world calling you a glutton and a drunkard as you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:34)? Is the world ridiculing you for investing in the poor of society and befriending your enemies (Luke 6:27)? Does the world feel conviction over its sin when they’re around you, or do they feel all the more justified in committing it (Eph 5:11)? Does the world find you strange, alien-like, when they look at your values and consider your way of life (1 Pet 3:15)? Are we choosing to live in all the radical ways to which love calls us (1 John 3:16)? What would your neighbors say is your highest love, your most valuable possession—would it be Jesus? Or family? Or your house? Or your truck? Or your job?
Jesus said, “[The world] hates me, because I testify that its works are evil” (John 7:7). Is there enough antithesis to the world in your Christian witness (Jas 4:4)? In your business practices? In your political decisions? In your ethical decisions? Does the way you love people look different from the way the world loves people (Matt 5:46)? Or have you isolated and insulated yourself from the world out of fear of being persecuted, fear of losing your security, fear of being forced into those uncomfortable conversations you just don’t want to have with other people?
Belonging to Jesus means we also share in persecution. And to think we shouldn’t suffer for our belonging to him is to put ourselves above him, to put our agenda of a comfortable church above his agenda of a suffering church, to put our desires for self-gratification above his desires for self-sacrifice.
Mere church-going and outward professions of faith cost us nothing; real Christianity always carries a cross—dying to selfish desires, dying to worldly comforts, dying to fear of man, dying to unbiblical notions of tolerance, to see more of Jesus made known. And that will mean we suffer: 2 Tim 3:12, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Why? The world hates Jesus and the world divides around our gospel presence just like it did around Jesus.
3. The World Does Not Know the True God
Lesson number three from Jesus: the world does not know the true God. This really gets down to the root of it all. The hatred of Christ, the persecution of Christians, is ultimately rooted in the world’s ignorance of the true God who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Read with me verse 21: “But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
“They do not know him who sent me.” They don’t know God, in other words. That’s the issue. That’s the fundamental issue. People don’t know God—even though Jews and Muslims and Hindus and others say they know God; even though they kill Christians in the name of their god or gods—they don’t really know God. And the ignorance of God runs so deep within the world that they don’t even recognize God when he shows up in the person of Jesus.
That’s what verses 22-24 are saying. God came down in the person of Jesus and he spoke words and performed works to reveal himself as God; and all the world rejected him. “If I had not come and spoken to them [that’s his words], they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did [so there’s the works], they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.” To reject God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is to reject God himself and remain guilty of unbelief.
This is how warped and depraved and blind the world is—God tells the world he’s going to show up; he then shows up; tells the world he showed up; does works to prove he showed up; and the world crucifies him. It’s very offensive to tell people that they have no access to God except through the revelation provided in Jesus Christ. That doesn’t win friends and influence people, it makes them mad. It makes them mad because you’re calling into question everything they’re about. When you call their god or gods false; you’ve just declared war on their worship, and that war may cost you your life. It’s certainly not a war we fight like the world, with all its hatred, lies, and violence; it’s a war we fight with love, truth, and self-sacrifice, just like our Master.
Being Patient with a World in Ignorance of God
We also don’t grow impatient in the process. Knowing the world’s ignorance of God is this severe should also give us great patience with the world—especially since we were once in the same ignorance. If they demonstrate barbaric attitudes toward us, it is because they have no knowledge of God’s love in Christ. If they seek to kill us for our testimony, it is because they have not yet experienced the forgiveness of sins. If they arrogantly mock us and ridicule us before others, it is because they do not yet know the humility of our God.
And so as we go to the world, we show the world the same patience God showed us when we were ignorant of him. We show the world the same patience Jesus showed his enemies on the cross when they were ignorant of him. And the hope is that through our patient preaching and our patient suffering and our patient dying, people have their eyes opened to Jesus and come out of their ignorance.
4. The World’s Hatred Is Not Outside God’s Control
One more lesson from Jesus: the world’s hatred is not outside God’s control. We see this most clearly in the cross of Christ. Verse 25: “But,” Jesus says, “the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” That’s a quotation from Ps 69:4, which also happens to be a Psalm of David regularly applied to Jesus throughout the New Testament (Matt 27:34, 48; Luke 23:36; John 2:17; 19:29).
And basically, Jesus is saying that David’s own sufferings as Israel’s king anticipated Jesus’ sufferings as Israel’s king. It’s just that Jesus’ sufferings would be far superior. If it could be said of David—a faithful but still sinful king—that he was hated for no just reason; then how much more could it be said of Jesus—the faithful and sinless King—that he was hated for no just reason.
Jesus was hated and went to the cross not because of sins he committed. He went to the cross because of sins we committed. He suffered unjustly at the hands of hateful men, so that we could be forgiven and delivered from the enslaving powers of sin, death, and the devil—a deliverance David could never give the world.
What we see through this connection between Ps 69:4 and Jesus’ own unjust persecution is that none of it was outside God’s control. He orchestrated everything, so that sinners like us would obtain life through his sacrificial death.
The same can be said of our persecution. None of it is outside God’s control; but he orchestrates it for the purpose of bringing others life—not in the sense that our dying brings them life; but in the sense that our dying points them to Jesus’ dying, which brings them life. The sufferings are all orchestrated; they’re part of God’s divine plan to win the world, not through a prosperous church but through a persecuted church. Even Paul pulls from the Psalms to speak to our own persecution—“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered’ (Rom 8:36). That’s what the path of obedience inevitably means in a world that hates Jesus: sheep to be slaughtered. That’s what we signed up for when we gave Jesus our lives.
But if this is the way the Bible teaches us to understand the hatred of Jesus and his followers, then we should never conclude that the persecution of Christians means evil is winning. Jesus’ own sufferings and his cross stand as a testimony that such a conclusion is wrong. In the same way God was sovereign over every evil climaxing in the death of Jesus, he is sovereign over every evil that will come to us from a hateful world.
And if we identify with Christ’s sufferings, that also means we will share in Christ’s victory. Jesus didn’t come, suffer, and die to stay dead. He came to suffer, die, and rise again from the dead victorious over evil. The reason we can die in the path of obedience is that Jesus’ death not only took away death’s sting—so that we no longer have to fear it—he also took away death’s power by taking his life up again—so that we can hope in resurrection glory when we take up our cross too.
That means we should pray that our persecuted brothers and sisters will continue hoping in God’s sovereign plan. In the same way God remained faithful to his Son through all his sufferings, he will remain faithful to those united to his Son through all their sufferings. Our prayer can go up to God on behalf of Christians in persecution, just as it went up from the early church in Acts 4 and just as it goes up from the martyrs beneath the heavenly throne in Rev 6. We pray that our sovereign Lord will grant them strength to continue speaking the word with all boldness, and that they might trust him to bring about justice in the end.
I had planned to close with a story from our persecuted brothers and sisters. But M. Foster approached me last week and asked if she might share about some persecution happening much closer to home. So, before we pray for the persecuted as a church, I’m going to ask her to come share with you. And as she’s sharing, keep in mind what we’ve covered today—persecution is what happens when authentic Christianity meets a world in love with itself instead of Jesus. And then remember these brothers and sisters suffering persecution, and then consider what in their lives is Christ-like that you might identify with more deeply and imitate more faithfully.
More in The Gospel According to John
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