To stand with Christ is to stand against a hateful world. That means we will experience persecution; but we will never do so alone. Other believers will join us, and the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit will enable us to be a powerful witness to the unbelieving world.
Bill Watterson, an American cartoonist and author of a popular comic strip for many years, once said, “Things are never quite as scary [in life] when you’ve got a best friend.” Well, for the eleven disciples in the upper room with Jesus—who has just announced they are His friends—that is a statement that is about to be put to the test.
Our Wisdom Journey through the Gospels chronologically now brings us back to John chapter 15, where Jesus makes this rather frightening prediction:
“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.” (verses 18-19)
Jesus is saying, “Listen, there is going to be a penalty for being My friend; the world is going to hate you, revile you, ridicule you, desert you, ignore you—exactly as they have done to Me.” Beloved, we are presenting a false advertisement when we try to sell Jesus to the masses as a cure-all for every trial and problem.
You give Jesus your life, and He just might double your problems. What the Lord says here flies in the face of today’s prosperity gospel, which promises health and wealth and good times. The truth is, if Jesus Christ is your friend, you might lose your job instead of keeping it. You might lose your friends instead of gaining new ones.
In verse 20 Jesus explains why this is inevitable:
“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.”
In verse 24 Jesus says, “They have seen [My works] and hated both me and my Father.” And in verse 25 He says, “They hated me without a cause.” The implication is that they will do the same to the Lord’s followers—without cause.
The Lord delivers a realistic view but also adds the encouraging remark that they will not be alone:
“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness.” (verses 26-27)
The Lord’s followers will not be alone, but that is not going to remove the threat of persecution from a world that hates Christ. In fact, the word here for “witness” is the Greek work martureō, from which we get the word martyr. Being faithful to Christ may lead to martyrdom. In fact, most of these disciples will die a martyr’s death—boiled in oil, crucified, speared to death.
Keep in mind that the apostle John is writing his Gospel account when the church was beginning to face the constant threat of persecution. In fact, hatred of Christianity had been brewing for a long time. This was a day when many gods were worshiped, along with Caesar. It was required to offer a pinch of incense annually and call Caesar “Lord,” but the Christians would not do that. They would call no one Lord but Jesus. As a result, they were considered traitorous, dangerous, disloyal. They were misunderstood as insurrectionists because they claimed another king who would one day rule the world. They were even said to be cannibals because their world misunderstood the symbolism of communion.
When a great fire devastated Rome in AD 64, the Roman emperor Nero was widely suspected of starting it in order to begin some new building programs. But to remove suspicion, Nero accused the Christians of starting the fire and, with that, began a violent persecution of believers.
Here in John 15, Jesus is saying to His disciples and to us, “You want to follow Me? I am not offering you a health, wealth, and prosperity plan. I am offering you a rugged cross on earth—but a crown of gold in heaven.”
The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy and said, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Listen, if you conform to the world, you will get along. But when you begin to shine as a light in this dark world, you will soon discover you are not only out of step but you are out of place! In a very real sense, believers are the conscience of the world, reminding them of their sin and need for the Savior—and the world does not want to hear it.
That is the point of John 15:21-22:
“But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If 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.”
Jesus is not talking here about sin in general, because whether He came to earth or not, people would still be sinners. Jesus is referring to the sin of rejecting the gospel.
Have you ever lived with the guilt of sin and a conscience that just would not be quiet? That is what the world is living with and is reminded of when you show up at work and when you bow your head in the cafeteria before eating your lunch. You remind them of their sin and their rejection of the gospel.
And the world is going to respond with hatred and resentment. You might not be tortured and put to death, but you might be ostracized or ignored or passed over for a promotion.
Let me tell you, the simmering hatred for Jesus Christ comes to the surface whenever the church or a Christian shines brightly in the world. It might cost you a great deal. But just remember, 100 years from now you will have lost nothing but gained everything.
There are three practical lessons we can learn from Jesus’ teaching about hatred and persecution here in John 15.
First, we should remember that while hatred is unfounded and unjustified, it should be expected. Jesus says, “If they persecuted me [and they have], they will also persecute you” (verse 20). And for the past 2,000 years, the church has suffered around the globe at different times and in different ways.
Second, we should remember that the world’s hatred is evidence we are fulfilling our mission. So do not run from that job, that family member, that neighbor—keep shining the light of the gospel. If you are attacked and persecuted, you are simply on the Enemy’s radar for promoting and advancing the gospel of Christ.
Third, we should remember the world’s hatred for us must be countered by our love for each other. This entire section we have just studied follows the Lord’s commandment in verse 12 for His disciples to love one another. The world system will never love us; so, let’s make sure we love one another. That will be a powerful testimony to an unbelieving world.
I read recently about Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in Major League baseball. He joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but it was not an easy beginning for this young man. Prejudiced crowds jeered and threatened him. During a game in Cincinnati, the jeers were especially harsh. As the Dodgers took the field in the first inning and the crowd began to jeer, a teammate of Robinson’s stopped where Jackie was, near first base. He threw his arm around Jackie’s shoulders and stood there beside him. The jeering did not entirely stop, but now it was shared, not by one lonely player, but by two good friends.
Jesus is telling us here that the world is going to heckle, jeer, and persecute His followers and even kill them. Encouragement will come as we throw our arms around one another’s shoulders and share the weight and suffering—and stay the course.