Life is filled with choices and every choice has consequences. In grammar school, a student who befriends an unpopular boy or girl will lose friends and be made fun of. In high school, a student who refuses to give up his or her virginity will lose dates and be laughed at. In the workplace, if you live a life of integrity you’ll be passed over for a promotion. In the senior years, if you invest your time and money in the church you’ll miss out on various memories and material possessions. In the political realm, if you’re vocal about your favorite candidate, there will be those who disagree with you. In the spiritual realm, if you follow Jesus Christ, you will be hated. That’s right: HATED! Whether you like it or not, the Bible is clear that Christians will be hated and rejected by the world.
In John 15:18-16:4, Jesus explains why the world hates Christians. Naturally, I recognize that this will not be welcomed as a “feel-good sermon.” However, it does feel good to know that Jesus warned us in advance. As you reflect on Jesus’ words, ask yourself: Have I adopted a cultural Christianity or a cross-centered Christianity? Today, Jesus will say: It’s better to be loved than liked. In other words, it’s better to experience Jesus’ unconditional and eternal love than to win a popularity contest and be liked by the world.
In 15:18 Jesus declares, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.”The particular form of the word “if” (ei) assumes something is true. Jesus is saying, “If the world hates you—and it does.” There is a certainty in Jesus’ words: “You will be hated! You can count on it!” Jesus then reminds His disciples that the world hated Him first. The NASB margin note offers a better rendering: “Or (imperative) know that.” Jesus is commanding His disciples to remember that He was hated from the time of His birth to the time of His death. Think about this: Jesus’ life began with King Herod attempting to kill Him. Jesus’ life ended in a death of sheer hatred. He was crucified at the wishes of His own people—the Jews. Thus, we must not be surprised by hatred. The word “hate” (miseo) is used seven times in the first eight verses (15:18-25). It is the dominant word in this passage. Jesus’ point is: Friendship with Me comes with a hefty price tag—the world’s hatred. Jesus wants you to be forewarned. In some circles, you will be public enemy number one.
There are three main reasons why the world hates Christians. First, we are no longer identified with the world. In 15:19 Jesus says, “If you were of the world [and you’re not], the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” Jesus insists that His disciples are no longer “of the world.” They may be “in the world,” but they are not “of the world.” Those who are “of the world” are loved by the world. But the world’s love is fleeting. You can be “loved” one moment and rejected the next. Just stop and think about all the people that the world has loved: O.J. Simpson, Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Mike Tyson, and George W. Bush. These were household names. They were popular and influential, but now they are nothing. That’s how the world’s love is; it grows cold, oh, so quickly.
The world’s love is also conditional. If you want to be “loved” by the world, you need to do what the world does. Through God’s grace and protection alone, I was able to survive these temptations relatively unscathed. But the reality is the world wants to watch Christians falter and sin. When we participate in their behavior, it makes them feel better about their sin. However, Jesus insists that He chose us out of the world for the purpose of salvation and service. It’s better to be loved than liked.
A second reason why the world rejects Christians is we are identified with Christ. In 15:20 Jesus says, “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; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” Jesus calls His disciples to “remember” (mnemoneuo) that they will follow in His sandals. As followers of Jesus, we can’t expect to have an easier time than He did (cf. 15:18). When our lives truly reflect His character and calling, we will experience either rejection or acceptance from people around us. As Paul says, we will smell either as the aroma of death or life (2 Cor 2:14-16). For most people, we will be aroma of death. Nevertheless, there will always be a remnant that loves Jesus and will love us.
It is worth pointing out that many Christians assume they are being persecuted for Christ, when in reality they are just “Christian jerks” who invite persecution by being obnoxious offensive, and argumentative. We need to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to be angry (James 1:19). We need to truly listen and not interrupt people. We need to talk less. We must especially avoid becoming belligerent with people. Many Christians are not sensitive or respectful. Hence, we bring on a lot of our own persecution. In this passage, Jesus is speaking about disciples who are persecuted for His name.
A third reason why the world rejects Christians is they are ignorant of God. In 15:21 Jesus says,“But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” The world will persecute Christians because they don’t know God. There is a huge difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Our persecutors don’t know the one true God. They persecute us on account of their hatred of Christ. Jesus is saying, “Don’t take it personally—persecution is not your fault! Persecution is ultimately directed against Me. Instead of becoming angry with unbelievers, we need to pray that we would have compassion for them. Do you realize that many unbelievers have never read the Bible? Many unbelievers don’t even own a Bible. Do you understand that many people only know the name of Jesus Christ as a curse word? Did you know that your neighbor, classmate, and coworker may never have heard a clear presentation of the gospel? The reason that they don’t know God is because they are ignorant. (I do not say this in a disparaging way.) Although the world may choose to reject Christ, we are accountable to share Christ with them.
Sadly, many Christians tend to verbally chastise unbelievers for godless living and then look the other way when believers are guilty of godless living. This is completely backwards. Unbelievers are not held to the same standard that Christians are. Unbelievers are supposed to sin; it’s a part of their job description! If I was an unbeliever, I would be sinning to my absolute heart’s content. I would be a world-class sinner. I would live for myself. But I would certainly hope that someone would love me enough to share the good news of Christ with me. While I would most likely rebel against the message, it would be helpful to know that someone cared enough to share it with me. May we seek to be more tolerant of unbelievers and ratchet our expectations for professing believers. The world doesn’t want the church to judge them; the world wants the church to judge their own. Gandhi once observed, “I might be persuaded to become a Christian … if I ever met one.” Gandhi was impressed with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and he wanted to see evidence of a Christian living out Jesus’ teachings. May our lives showcase Christ.
Having mentioned the world’s ignorance about God, Jesus spends the next four verses explaining why the world doesn’t know God. In 15:22-23 Jesus argues that the world is guilty because they have rejected His words. Jesus puts it like this: “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.” Jesus isn’t saying that men and women would have been innocent if He had not come or spoken to them. The world was already sinful and rebellious before He appeared in the manger at Bethlehem. Christ’s coming highlighted sin in human hearts; He pointed it out so people had less grounds to claim ignorance. Therefore, to reject Christ and His words brings greater condemnation. Ever since the Fall, the world has been sinning against Light, but never had the world sinned against so much Light! The world is robbed of its excuses when it confronts Christ.
In 15:24 Jesus argues that the world is guilty because they have rejected His works. Jesus says,“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.” Jesus performed all kinds of miracles. He healed the sick, He cast out demons, He fed thousands, He calmed the sea, and He raised the dead. Yet, the world rejected His works. In some cases, the world even attributed Jesus’ works to Satan (cf. Matt 12:24). No matter what Jesus said or did, the world chose to ignore Him and rebel against Him. Sadly, even the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have not persuaded most people that Jesus is God. Consequently, the world stands condemned for the rejection of Jesus (John 3:18, 36; Rom 1:18-3:20).
In 15:25 Jesus argues that the world is guilty because they have rejected the Old Testament. Jesus says, “But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘THEY HATED ME WITHOUT A CAUSE.’” The ultimate reason for the world’s rejection of Jesus and His revelation of the Father is found in the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus quotes from Ps 35:19 or 69:4. The latter is the more likely source for the quoted words, since it is cited elsewhere in John’s gospel (2:17 and 19:29) in contexts associated with Jesus’ suffering and death. Furthermore, Ps 69 was widely regarded as messianic. Jesus is saying: The world has rejected the Old Testament and My very words and works. This has resulted in their rejection of God.
Jesus’ words could prove to be overwhelming, so He brings up the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” In the midst of the world’s hatred and rejection, the Spirit provides comfort, encouragement, and strength. Jesus teaches the disciples that they still have a responsibility to provide a witness to the love and truth found in Christ alone. Although it is important to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44), it is also critical to proclaim Christ as well. Christians need to exhibit both life and lips. After all, our lives are not godly enough to persuade anyone that we are different from Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and moral people. This is why a verbal witness is so critical. As we work for the State and teach in public schools, we must find creative ways to proclaim Christ. This can be as simple as hosting an off-campus Bible study or inviting students or coworkers into your home. If you want to share Christ, there are always ways to do so.
In 16:1-4, Jesus discusses the topic of persecution. However, these verses don’t refer to worldly people in general, but to hostile religious leaders. In other words, the biggest enemies of Christians are not atheists, agnostics, humanists, or liberals. Those who are seeking to persecute and kill Christians are religious zealots and leaders. In 16:1, Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling.” “These things” refer to Jesus’ words in 15:18-27. The only other instance of the verb “stumble” in John’s gospel is 6:61 where it includes the idea of no longer following Jesus. It appears to have the same sense in this context. Jesus did not want His disciples to stumble (skandalizo) in their discipleship after His departure because the events that would follow took them completely by surprise. Jesus’ point is that, apart from His warning, their faith would be shattered and they would give up in defeat. Remember, they were still going to be scattered that very night (cf. Luke 22:31). While they may have stumbled initially, the Book of Acts demonstrates that the disciples did not fall away; instead, they became emboldened to preach Christ.
Jesus informs His disciples of the consequences of persecution in 16:2-3: “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.” Those who will expel Jesus’ disciples from the synagogue are referred to in 15:21-25. Being put out of the synagogue means more than merely lacking a place to worship. It means the loss of the entire circle of friends who attend the synagogue. It is a social persecution. But, even death will be the lot for some of these men. In fact, we know what did happen to them. Ten of the eleven were killed for their faith. Paul was murdered by Nero; Peter, according to tradition, was crucified upside down; and James was beheaded. These deaths were performed by leaders who claimed to be doing God a favor. All except John, it appears, died martyrs’ deaths. John, the writer of this gospel, died in exile for his faith. These verses were fulfilled in the days of the early church when the Jews believed they were on God’s side, though they put Christ to death and persecuted the disciples. However, these verses also seem to have an extended relevance to today. Throughout the world, Christians are being persecuted and martyred by zealous Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. The reason that religious folks persecute and kill Christians is because they don’t know God. Their religious motives do not spring from devotion to the one true God, but to their religion.
Jesus concludes in 16:4 by saying, “But these things I have spoken to you, so that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them. These things I did not say to you at the beginning, because I was with you.” The way Jesus states this verse makes clear that future persecution is a certainty, not merely a possibility. Jesus spoke these words to prepare His disciples for inevitable persecution. Rather than destroy their faith (cf. 16:1), persecutions had the potential of deepening the disciples’ trust, if they remembered Jesus’ prediction. Over the course of His earthly ministry, persecution intensified. By the time Jesus died and raised, persecution was at an all-time high. This type of persecution has continued in many parts of the world today. Undoubtedly, intense persecution will come to the United States, most likely in my lifetime, certainly within my children’s lifetime. We must remember the words of Jesus and guard ourselves from growing spiritually soft. If we don’t strengthen ourselves, we will be swept under the tidal wave of persecution. So be bold, be strong, and trust Christ. It’s better to be loved than liked.
So how can we counter the hatred and persecution of this world order? How do we prepare ourselves to stand strong for Christ in the days to come? The following three principles will help us apply this passage to our lives.
- Reflect the love of Christ.We must learn to love the world when we are hated and persecuted. We must continually avoid the temptation to fight back and be combative, harsh, and vindictive. When we behave in this manner, we lose our witness. We must recognize that Jesus’ love is the only proper response to hate and persecution. Only He can soften hearts and cause our enemies to be receptive to Him. A man was working a crossword puzzle and asked, “What is a four letter word for a strong emotional reaction toward a difficult person?” Someone standing nearby said, “The answer is hate.” A lady interrupted and said, “No, the answer is love!” Everyone is working that same crossword puzzle, but the way you answer is up to you. When you and I display the supernatural love of Christ, God is glorified, and we may even have the privilege of influencing our enemies for Christ.
It is also important to express love for our fellow believers. One of the reasons that Jesus exhorts believers to love one another is because we will need each other’s strength to combat the world system. Unbelieving neighbors, coworkers, classmates, family, and friends will turn against us on account of our faith in Christ. When this happens, we will need the strength and security of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to “spur one another on to love and good works” (Heb 10:24 NET). This will enable us to persevere in our Christian fruitfulness.
- Read about the persecuted church.One of the ways to cultivate Christian perseverance and boldness is to read about our courageous brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. Take an opportunity this week to read through the websites of Voice of the Martyrs (http://www.persecution.com/persecution.com) or Open Doors USA (http://www.opendoorsusa.org/www.opendoorsusa.org). Commit to pray for a persecuted country (e.g., North Korea, Sudan, China, India). Ask the Lord to give you holy boldness to follow in the examples of these brothers and sisters. As you read about the lives of these modern day heroes of the faith, you will grow stronger and stronger in your faith.
- Revel in persecution. It’s been said, “Prosperity has often been fatal to Christianity, but persecution never.” Instead of dreading persecution, learn to revel in it. In Luke 6:22Jesus says, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.” Jesus promises those who suffer for Him both temporal and eternal rewards. Consequently, it makes sense to pay the price in this life and experience Christ’s pleasure and joy in the life to come.
A soldier goes to Ranger School in the Army in order to become a member of the Army’s elite corps of shock troops who spearhead the attack on the battlefields. To be able to meet the rigors of combat the soldier is put through intense training that pushes him to the very limits of his strength and will. When he comes out of those weeks of suffering and stress he is a different person. He is a Ranger. None of the process is pleasant or easy. But all of it is necessary. The same is true for believers. We are God’s shock troops in a hostile world. To serve in His army we must have strength of character which cannot be gained by reading books. It must be learned by living it. Thus, persecution and suffering have been proven historically to be blessings from God. It has been through this that faith has often grown stronger and more souls have been won to the Lord as Christians have responded with the boldness of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness all the way to death.
Centuries ago, a wealthy, young Christian was in love and engaged to be married. He had everything going for him. But he lived in the Roman Empire and the emperor had declared Christianity to be an illegal religion. Saying, “Caesar is Lord,” like everyone else, would have made him politically correct, but he would not say it. Instead, he said, “Jesus is Lord.” He was, by virtue of his faith in Jesus, guilty of treason. As the story goes, this young man was arrested in a crackdown against Christians. While awaiting execution in the arena, he wrote love letters to his fiancée. They were beautiful, passionate letters assuring her of his great love for her. But the two were never married, for in A.D. 269, the young man was put to death for being a Christian. His name was Valentine, and the day of his execution was February 14. Valentine’s Day is not about chocolates, hearts, roses, and jewelry; it’s about a man of God laying down his life for Christ. St. Valentine understood: It’s better to be loved than liked.