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John 15:18-16:4

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In the Upper Room discourse so far, we have heard in a number of ways of the communion of each believer with the Lord Jesus Christ and, then, of their communion with one another, forming a community of love.  Now, the Lord strikes a discordant note.  Now the Lord says that this Christian community will provoke the hatred of the world.  As much love as there may be within it, those outside of it will not share this love.

v.18     In 7:7 the Lord already said that the world hated him because he testified that what the world does is evil.

v.20     We have already heard the Lord say this in 13:16.  There he applied the principle to the disciples imitating him in humble service.  If the Lord could wash their feet, they should certainly be able to wash one another’s feet.  Here he uses the same principle to make a completely different point.  The people of the world will divide around Jesus’ followers just as they did around Jesus himself.

v.25     As often in the Bible a relative contrast is put in absolute terms.  Jesus doesn’t mean that they would have been sinless if he had never come into the world.  He simply means that his coming among them – and their rejection of him in defiance of all the evidence – produced a greater sin and a greater guilt.  At several points in the Gospels, remember, the Lord says that Sodom and Gomorrah were less guilty than the Jews because the Jews had rejected a revelation of God so much more brilliantly clear than what Sodom had received.  Still, even this hatred did not jeopardize God’s plan of redemption.  The prophets had long before predicted that this would happen just as it did.  Notice the “their law.”  Their own Scriptures said they would do exactly what they did and they are still blind to it.

v.27     These two verses have seemed to many to amount to an interruption.  But they explain how this persecution will continue.  As Christians bear witness to Christ and as the Holy Spirit does through them, they will excite the world’s antipathy toward Jesus.  If Christians kept their mouths shut the hatred of the world would lie hidden.  But when they speak and especially with the authority of the Holy Spirit they provoke the world’s animosity.

16:1     The danger of falling away for fear of the retribution of the world was already very real when John wrote this gospel.

v.2       The Jews, of course, were the first persecutors of Christians.  Paul saw some Christians to their death.  As a Christian he tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:24 that five times he received 39 lashes – a Jewish punishment.  There is a sentence in a Jewish writing of this general period that reads, “whoever sheds the blood of the godless is as one who offers a sacrifice.”  [In Morris, 693n]

v.4       It will strengthen the disciples, when persecution comes, to know that the Lord told them it was coming ahead of time and told them why.

In the previous paragraph, the Lord spoke warmly of the greatness of the Christian life, the nobility of it, the blessing of it.  Those of us who were “in him” by a living faith, would live fruitful lives, bear much fruit that would last.  We would be a part of a community of brotherly love and would enjoy that wonderful sense of belonging to something wonderful, eternal, pure, and mighty.  The Holy Spirit would be given to empower us and, as a result, we would do even greater works than Jesus did himself.  And so on.

But, now, he prepares them for the fact that there is a dark side to all of this.  Simply because we are Christians and for the very reasons that he has been discussing, many people will despise us and some will actually try to do us harm.

We have had trouble relating to this promise in recent generations in the West.  Christianity has enjoyed a favored position in our culture for several centuries. But the sun seems to be setting on the Christian period of Western history.  The day may be soon coming when we will turn up this text more often than now we do.  There is evidence on many sides that we have already entered a period of more open opposition to historic Christianity and that, in turn, has almost always led, in human history, to more overt opposition, if not outright persecution.  We see it in many ways but more and more in the popular culture:  the open disdain for or the patronizing treatment of Christians and Christianity in films and on television and more and more public criticism of evangelical Christianity in the newspapers.  More and more the fashionable elite in our culture feel free to express their contempt for historic Christianity, from a polite Bill Bradley to a snarling Ted Turner.

But if active persecution is in our future as a Christian community we will hardly be the first followers of Christ who have suffered it.  From the very beginning the world has hated the church.  When the world happens to be in the church – as it was in the days of the Lord Jesus himself – it is the church herself that hates the true people of God.  So it was that, as Jesus said, the church murdered some of the prophets of the OT, it was the church that murdered the Prince of Life himself, and the church, in the form of Saul of Tarsus – really the chief henchman of the ecclesiastical Gestapo – who murdered Stephen, so far as we know the first martyr following Pentecost.

When, after Constantine in the early 4th century, the church gained political power for herself, once again the unbelieving and worldly parts of the church persecuted the faithful parts.  Our family has been reading at devotions a little work of Andrew Bonar on some of the great figures of Christian history and it is disgusting and demoralizing to read of the mistreatment that supposedly Christian bishops meted out to such great and godly souls as Athanasius and Chrysostom.

And so it has continued.  There was a supposedly Christian sermon preached before Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake.  It was synods of Christian ministers, begun and ended with the rites of Christian worship, that demanded the execution of John Hus and of Savanarola.  It was a supposedly Christian prince and Christian church that lusted after and finally obtained – by the worst kind of deceit – the burning of William Tyndale, one of Christ’s most able servants, for his terrible crime of translating the Bible so that Christians could read it for themselves.  The last great persecution of Christians in the English-speaking world was conducted by Anglican and Roman Catholic authorities against Presbyterians.  And reading that Covenanter history over again, as we are doing Monday nights at my mother’s, I have been reminded of how vicious and unrelenting and inhumane their treatment of those Presbyterian men and women, even boys and girls, actually was.  Hatred is the only word to describe the bitter animus that would lead supposedly Christian people to treat other professing Christians, other human beings for that matter, with such contempt and cruelty.  Robert Leighton, a contemporary, spoke of the religious zeal with which faithful, simple Christians were so mercilessly hounded and then tortured and executed as “scaling heaven with ladders fetched out of hell.”  So it was in Scotland in the 17th century and so it was in France in the 18th. Well, that is what the Jews thought they were doing.  They were serving God, they thought, when they murdered the Son of God.  They were gaining salvation for themselves by killing the one who came to bring salvation.  They were pleasing God by subjecting his beloved son to the cruelest, meanest mockery, torture, and death.    “A time is coming,” Jesus said, “when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.”

In other words, religious motives do not ameliorate the world’s hatred of Christians, it rather makes it even more bitter.  Christians have suffered some of their worst persecution from people who hated them in the name of Yahweh, or Allah, or, even, Jesus Christ.

But when the church is without political power and at the mercy of the world, as it has often been, the unchurched world will rage against her.  Such was the lot of untold numbers of Christians through the first two and half centuries after Pentecost.  Some of the apostles themselves were executed for no other reason than that they were Christians advancing the cause of Christian faith in the world.  They bore witness to Christ as Christ called them to do, and the world hated them for it and killed them for it.  And in the generations following men and women, boys and girls, in great number were hung, crucified, burned, or fed to the lions because they would not renounce their loyalty to Jesus Christ as the King of Kings.  And many more, who were not killed, were dispossessed, imprisoned, tortured, and robbed. And so it has continued and so it continues today.  Martyrs within the last few years having been added to the sacred roll from Pakistan, the Sudan, Iraq, China, India, Vietnam, and a far greater number of people all over the world have lost their liberty, their property, their ability to earn a living, even their right to raise their own children for no other reason than that they were loyal followers of Jesus Christ.  I heard the other day that in the year 1900 75% of all Christians were white and Western.  In the year 2000 75% of all Christians are non-white and non-Western.  And, for that reason, the world’s hatred of Christians has surfaced in a host of new places around the world.  But it is inevitable, Jesus said.  Wherever the gospel goes, wherever God’s people are found, the hatred of the world for the followers of Christ will be found as well.

Oh no!  This is not rhetoric on the Lord’s part.  It is an actual prediction of the church’s life in the world, a prediction that has always been true since first it was uttered.

Now, to be sure, there are reasons, one commentator calls them “sociological” reasons, for this hatred of Christians by the world.  In some ways it is not difficult to understand.  [Carson, 524]  Just think of what Christians believe and what they say.

  1. We claim that we know God, the Maker of all things and everyone, and, what is more, that those who do not believe as we do, do not know God, no matter what they claim. How do you feel about people who say that you don’t really know what you say you know, about people who are, in effect, calling you a hypocrite, dishonest with yourself, and the like.  But, that is what Christians say and must say.  They can’t help but say it because it is what the Lord and his Word teach us to believe is the true condition of men apart from faith in Christ:  they are without God, however religious they may be.  They are living in darkness, however much they may think they have the light.  True enough, some Christians say this badly, harshly, arrogantly and make things even worse, but, the fact is, even when this fact is stated as kindly and humbly as it can be, the world does not miss the point:  “you are saying that you are the only ones who know God!”
  2. What is more, we say that everyone who is not a Christian must be converted, must be changed root and branch, from the inside out, or he or she cannot go to heaven. What people are now, what they are in themselves, is offensive to God and invites his judgment not his blessing.  We say that God is angry with them because of what they are and how they think and live.  We say that they are so profoundly evil that nothing short of the incarnation, suffering and death of the Son of God could deliver them from themselves.  It should not surprise us that people find that message demeaning and think those, like us, who bring that message, proud and judgmental.
  3. But there is more. We condemn, as we must, a great many things that the world loves.  We rain on their parade.  The situation today in regard to sexual freedom, abortion, divorce, gay pride and the like is one the church faced in early days and has faced many times since.  People do not like to be told that they are bad for doing what they want to do and they do not appreciate those who tell them so.
  4. Also, Christians stick together. They form a close-knit family from which the world is excluded.  And the more they live in imitation of Jesus Christ, the more they develop the graces and virtues, the “fruit” the Lord has been talking about in chapter 15 to this point, the more alien to the world they seem.  The world loves its own and real Christians make clear in many ways that they do not belong to this world, that they could never belong to the world.

We could go on and on.  My point is simply that it is not hard to see why the world would not love true Christianity.  In fact, in a certain way, these factors would alienate many people from any absolutist religion or philosophy of life.  Islam, for example, can have the same effect on people in its exclusivity and its condemnation of non-Muslim ways of life.

But, and this is the important point, the Lord is not talking about sociological reasons for the enmity of the world toward true believers.  There may be sociological effects, such as we described, but the hatred he is taking about goes deeper than that, it is more visceral, more fundamental and more inevitable.  It is a theological hatred.  It is a hatred of God, it is a desire to eradicate God, and all vestiges of the true God.  The world does not hate Christians, does not hate us, first and foremost for what we are and do.  They hate us because of our association with Jesus Christ, because, with the uncanny power of the unreborn nature, they can smell Christ on us.  That is why the Lord Jesus, in v. 21, says that the world will hate Christians “because of my name.”  It is our association with Jesus that is the real problem, the lasting problem, the obstacle that cannot be surmounted, that will always separate us from the world and the world from us.  So long as we are with Jesus we will incur the world’s hatred and the more closely we are identified with him – by our words and our deeds – the more of that hatred of Jesus will fall upon us.  That is the Lord’s great point here.

See what he says here.  They hated me, he says, even though they had no cause.  Surely, I said some hard things to them, but I also gave them evidence enough that what I was saying was true and that I was willing to receive them if only they would repent of their ways.  But, it is more even than that.  “He who hates me,” Jesus went on to say, “hates my father as well.”  There is an animus toward God himself that animates the human heart in sin.  Paul will later tell us this straight out in Rom. 8:7:  “the sinful mind is hostile to God.”  There is a native, natural, deep-seated rebellion against God in the heart of man.  It expresses itself in a thousand ways, both religious and irreligious, in both what would be regarded as “good deeds” and in what everyone would acknowledge was corrupt behavior.  At every turn it is a refusal to submit to God.  It is an effort to construct a world without the living God, the God of the Bible, without a God as the Bible reveals God to be. That is what human religion is:  it is man’s elaborate effort to substitute a god of his own making and his own liking for the living and true God whom he fears and whom he hates.  The people of this world will not acknowledge Christ’s Lordship, his right to rule their lives; they will not admit, honestly and sincerely, how much badness there is in them and how wrong they have been to take God’s good gifts and corrupt them so.

And there is the root of the problem.  They love themselves rather than and instead of God.  And they hate him for showing them up for what they are.  They hate him for revealing the truth about themselves.  That is the Lord’s point in vv. 22-23.  To see God and the works of God, honestly and to face God and his works honestly, is to come face to face with one’s own badness and corruption and ingratitude and unbelief.  But man, in love with himself as passionately as he is, cannot abide this; he will not.  And if, to avoid having to face the truth about himself, man must kill the Prince of Life, well, then, so be it.

This goes much deeper than simply not liking people who point out your faults or who tell you that you must be born again.  A recent study of American religious experience reported that most people in the United States who are not Christians have been “witnessed to” by a Christian.  Some Christian has spoken to them about Christ and salvation.  And, we are told, for most of these people, it was a negative experience.  But it was a negative experience, fundamentally, not because the Christian did a poor job of communicating the faith.  It was a negative experience because that message is anathema to the world and because getting close to Christians is, in some visceral way, for an unbeliever like getting close to Jesus Christ.  And the world hates Jesus Christ.  So, there is this anti-God and anti-Christ spirit controlling the heart, the mind, and the life of non-Christian people.  They would not admit this, of course.  But it is so and many people who were once unbelievers and are now Christians are quick to admit that before they were brought to faith in Christ they really were haters of God, though they never saw themselves as such at the time.

And this is what we must understand about the hatred of the world for us.  It is really a hatred of God and Christ that is falling on us vicariously.  We are standing in for Jesus and their hatred of him is falling on us because we are associated with him.  The response of people to us, for good or for ill, as Jesus says in v. 20, depends, finally, not on who we are but who Jesus is in their view.

It is this fact that explains why Christians through the ages have considered persecution a badge of honor – however horrible, something to be grateful for at the deepest level. It is sharing in Christ’s sufferings.  It is life’s greatest opportunity to demonstrate one’s love for and loyalty to Jesus Christ.  And so, when Rutherford was torn from his pastorate at Anwoth and exiled to Aberdeen, he wrote in a letter to a friend of “the honour that I have prayed for these sixteen years.”   And when Bunyan endured the calumny and false accusations of the enemies of the gospel, he said,  “I bind these lies and slanders to me as an ornament.” [Grace Abounding, 306-317]

The rest of the NT will confirm what Jesus teaches us here.  As Paul will put it, “Anyone who aspires to live a godly life in this world will suffer persecution.”  It is a certainty.  God will determine the measure, but the world’s hatred of Christ absolutely guarantees its hatred of Christ’s followers and that hatred will express itself, it is so visceral and so powerful a hatred that it must express itself in some fashion.

James will remind us of this same fact but in the reverse.  Anyone who seeks the friendship of the world – that is the friendship of the world as the unbelieving and God-hating humanity that it is – is no friend of God.  As James, the Lord’s brother, would later sternly put it, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?  Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”  [4:4]

There is a very great danger, to which Christians have always been exposed and are today to an eminent degree.  I mean that they imagine that somehow they can be both loyal to God and on the world’s good side.  They think that somehow they have found a way to be a faithful Christian and still have the world well-disposed toward them.  Somehow they can surmount the world’s opposition and make even the unbeliever a friend of the Christian church and the Christian faith.

People who think this way like to talk on and on about the church’s failures.  The reason the world hasn’t believed, they say, is that the church has been too negative, too judgmental, too harsh, too unloving, ungracious; she concentrated too much on sin, or, in presenting the gospel she failed to use the techniques that would have been effective to reach the world..  (That is surely Hollywood’s view of why the church has failed to win the society.)

Now, to be sure, there is often truth in these charges, sometimes a great deal of truth.  We all know Christians and churches, that seem to take the hatred of the world for granted and, therefore, have written off the world.  We know why they don’t reach people, why they don’t ever draw people out of the world to faith in Christ.  For all that the Lord said here about the hatred of the world, he said just as clearly, “you must testify.”  The fact of the world’s hatred did not mean that the Christian church was not to be reaching out to the world in every way, loving her enemy, seeking to win her.  But some Christians and churches simply don’t.  But we also know many Christians and churches who are branded by the world but still make a thoughtful, zealous and loving effort to reach the world.  What is more important, we have all observed ourselves, failing to adorn the gospel in all these ways and others.  We have been tactless or ill-prepared and incoherent in our witness to unbelievers.  Or, we have undermined our words with our example.  Or, we have simply been uninterested in the dying world around us.  Shame on us.  As Chrysostom said long ago, “There is nothing chillier than a Christian who is not trying to save others.”  [Act. Hom. 20.4] One doesn’t want the world hating us for the wrong reasons, to be sure.  Jesus said of himself, “They hated me without cause.”  And if we are his faithful disciples, that should be true of us as well.   We want it to be said of us as well:  they hated us without cause.  The world’s hatred of us was without cause, it was for no other reason than that we were loyal to the life and teaching, to the glory and the salvation of Jesus Christ.

But, let us never imagine that we can have Christ’s love and the world’s at one and the same time.  He told us that because they hated him they would hate us as well.

“The inexperienced Christian supposes that the hatred of the world against him is a reproach.  He thinks that he is to blame for it.  He imagines that if only he were kinder, more gentle, more humble, more Christ-like, the enmity of unbelievers would be overcome.  This is a great mistake.  The truth is, the more Christ-like we are the more shall we be antagonized and shunned.  The most conclusive proof of this is found in the treatment which our…Saviour received when He was in the world. …  If…the purest love which was ever manifested on earth, if goodness incarnate was hated by men in general, if the brighter His love shone, the fiercer was the enmity which it met with in response, then how can we expect to be admired and esteemed by the world?  Surely none will entertain the horrible thought than any of us [could do better than] the Son of God.” [A. W. Pink, John, ad loc.]

No, they will hate us because they hated Him.  They hated him without cause because he told them the truth, because he bore witness to them that what they were and did was evil, because they feared him as the holy one of  God.  And the more we live in him and the more we are like him, the more they will, they must hate us too.  How kind of the Lord Jesus to prepare us for this!  How right that we should never attempt to shift from ourselves what falls to us because of Him.