Christ’s Course On Persecution
By Keith L. Sholl
About 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ sat His disciples down and gave them a crash course on persecution. These followers of Jesus were witnessing the unraveling of a dream. The One they had left everything to follow and who had promised them a kingdom and authority over the 12 tribes of Israel was now talking about going away.
Christ’s teaching on this subject is recorded in John 15:18-27. In the first 11 verses of the chapter, Jesus impresses upon the disciples the priority of their relationship to Him over anything else: "Remain in Me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me" (v. 4).
Then in verses 12-17, He stresses the importance of the Body of Christ – loving one’s Christian brothers and sisters is essential. Christ has chosen each of us. That is the relational connection of a believer to every other member of Christ’s body.
Finally, our Lord deals with another priority in the life of every believer – a commitment to the world. All three priorities are important. But this last essential is the product of the first two. If His life is not flowing through us and we are not actively loving the Body of Christ, our witness will be ineffective in the world.
After speaking of abiding in Him in order to bear fruit, Jesus informs His disciples that it will not be easy. They are headed for a collision with the world. That is why He gives them a crash course on persecution.
In Scripture, "world" can mean "the created world," which takes in all created matter. Or it can mean "the world of humanity" (John 3:16). It also can mean a society apart from God and opposed to Him.
It is this latter usage that Jesus employs when He says in 15:18: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first." The "world" here is a total system that promotes what man wants to do without any consideration for God – a source of tension for the believer. He is torn between his love for humanity and his revulsion against a world system that rejects Christ and His truth.
How does our Lord prepare His followers for life in a hostile world? What does He include in His textbook for this training course?
One with Christ
First, identification with Christ invites persecution. John 15:20 is a reminder from the Lord: "Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed My teaching, they will obey yours also.’"
The believer is persecuted because his life attracts it. When a believer truly abides in Christ and loves the Body of Christ his life invites opposition. We have a clue to this in the Beatitudes, where Jesus pronounces a blessing upon all those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Matt. 5:6). But then He talks about being persecuted for "righteousness" (v. 10). Might there be a connection?
Sometimes people believe they are being persecuted for righteousness when in reality they are displaying their own idiosyncrasies, such as a short temper or ingratitude. True persecution is what occurs when a believer is loyal to Christ, and not when he is displaying some personality quirk.
Our identification with Christ changes our value system. The world judges the rich to be blessed, not the poor in spirit; the happy-go-lucky and carefree, not those who take evil so seriously they mourn over it; the brash, not the meek; the full, not the hungry; those who mind their own business, not those who show mercy and make peace; those who attain their ends by any means, not the pure in heart who maintain their integrity; those who are secure and popular, not those who suffer persecution.
William Temple, a well-known Anglican clergyman, made the following insightful comment: "The world…would not hate angels for being angelic; but it does hate men for being Christians. It grudges them their new character; it is tormented by their peace; it is infuriated by their joy."
Second, induction into Christ’s Kingdom invites persecution. "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you" (John 15:19).
When you trusted in Christ, you changed addresses. You reside in a whole new Kingdom. Though Christians are in the world physically, we are no longer controlled by its treasures and pleasures.
The world does not like anything different. The unrelenting pressure of society is to shape and conform us to its image. When an English inventor first introduced the umbrella, he was pelted with stones and rotten vegetables. People could not accept something that was new and different no matter how beneficial it was.
The human body works this way, too. Though it can quickly heal itself, it is so made that it will reject foreign elements. When a person undergoes a heart transplant, the major obstacle to overcome is the body’s rejection of the new organ. Sensing the presence of foreign material, the body sets out to subdue and kill it. So it is with the world the moment a person receives a new spiritual heart through faith in Christ. Living in Christ’s Kingdom will keep you out of step with the world. You will feel out of place because you belong to heaven.
One young person who experienced the transforming power of Christ was met with accusations from his old friends: "Why aren’t you any fun anymore? Why aren’t you getting drunk anymore? Why aren’t you sleeping around anymore?"
He replied: "You have it all wrong. I do all those things that I want to do. I steal all the gas I want. I get drunk as many times as I want. I sleep around any time I want. The thing is, I don’t want to do those things anymore. It is my wants that have changed."
Ignorance of God
Third, Christ’s teaching on persecution centers on the world’s ignorance of God. "They will treat you this way because of My name, for they do not know the One who sent Me" (v. 21).
What is shocking about that statement is that "they" refers not to primitive idol worshipers but to the religious world of the Jews. Jesus elsewhere indicated that had the Jews known the Father, they would have recognized His Son (8:19,55).
Saul of Tarsus became enemy number one for the early Church. His whole life had been dedicated to wiping out the Christians of his generation. But after his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ, he said, "Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief" (1 Tim. 1:13).
Saul thought he was doing God a favor by pursuing Christians; he was attempting to please God. That is why his claim to ignorance is valid, since his actions were not based on an outright rejection of God but on a sincere motive to be loyal to Him.
But the thinking of people who reject God outrightly must be labeled "willful ignorance," because God may be known through conscience and nature (Rom. 1:20). Without a personal knowledge of Christ, we cannot conceive of a God who is all-compassionate, all-loving, all-holy and all-wise. So non-Christians spew forth blasphemy and destruction against God’s people.
In verses 22-24 of John 15, our Lord reveals another reason why Christians will be persecuted – the deceitful heart of man. Jesus makes it clear that the world has seen His miraculous works and heard His majestic words but still refuses to admit the truth. All the evidence has been presented, but the compelling verdict to be declared is not forthcoming. The heart of man is not honest enough to receive and act upon it.
We have an illustration of this principle at work in the hearts of the Pharisees in chapter 9. They had to admit that Jesus had healed the man born blind. But they would not admit that the Miracle Worker was God in human flesh.
Jesus told them that they were the ones who were blind. And because they admitted that they had seen a miracle, this made their sin of rejection even worse. They were not sinning in ignorance; rather, they were sinning in the light of truth.
Persecution of Christians occurs because people refuse to believe the truth. Their deeds are evil, so they refuse to come to the light and honestly face their sins. It is far easier for such people to vent their guilt on Christians by deriding them and fighting them.
A Right Reaction
What should the Christian’s response be to persecution? Hide from the world? Retaliate? Return evil for evil?
Clearly, these are unacceptable responses. In the words of Jesus, the true response is to witness. "When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, He will testify about Me. And you also must testify, for you have been with Me from the beginning" (15:26-27).
Have you allowed the pressure and intimidation of the world to silence your witness? Have you allowed Satan to confine your testimony to the four walls of the church building?
Jesus teaches us that persecution should challenge us to witness. We are to share Christ lovingly to a hostile world in the power of the Holy Spirit. The world is not to be left in its state of rebellion. It is to be penetrated by living epistles, "known and read by everybody" (2 Cor. 3:2), who authenticate the Gospel, living righteously by faith. We ought to move into the world, not retire from it. We ought to live in the world and bear witness to the truth even if it is rejected.
In verse 20 of John 15, Jesus indicates that though many people will reject the truth, some will believe: "If they obeyed My teaching, they will obey yours also." Be sure that in your witness the Holy Spirit is working. He goes before you to break down barriers, open hearts, remove spiritual blindness and give understanding. Then, He works in you to declare to the world that God has come to man in the Person of Jesus Christ to give God’s quality of life to all who believe.
The story is told of a family who moved into a new neighborhood. The child was a shy boy. One day he came home from school all excited about making valentine cards for his classmates. He wanted everyone to know that he loved them. His mother, though, was concerned for him. Every day she saw him walking home alone while other children talked and laughed together.
For two weeks the boy worked on the valentines; he could hardly wait for Valentine’s Day to arrive. When the day came, his mother, thinking it would be rough for him at school, prepared his favorite after-school snack as a way of relieving the hurt she thought he would be feeling. She waited by the window that afternoon. Soon she saw her son coming down the sidewalk, walking faster than usual. She thought to herself, Bless his heart, he’s ready to break into tears.
As he came through the door, his mother noticed that his hands were empty: he had not received a single valentine card. She immediately sat him down to some warm cookies and milk. But then she noticed that his face was all aglow. Spilling from his heart were the words, "Not one. Not a single one! I didn’t forget one person. They all know I love them."
This story should remind us of Christ’s response to the world’s hatred. On the cross, He declared His love for all of humanity by dying as its substitute.
May our response reflect this same love. May we move in the world free from its hatred by the power of Jesus’ love. May we live in the world emboldened in our witness by the help of the Holy Spirit.
– From Alliance Life, the official publication of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, August 28, 1991. Used with permission. Keith L. Sholl is pastor of the First Alliance Church in Toledo, Ohio.