At first glance it seems like Jesus’ statement is out of place. He had just told His disciples, “This is my command: Love each other.” It seems really odd that the next words out of His mouth were, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” It may seem odd, but if we stop and think about Jesus’ life and the disciple’s future, He couldn’t have given them better counsel.
From the moment Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He breathed His first breath under the threat of death. When King Herod realized that he had been deceived by the Magi, he ordered all of the male babies, two years and younger in and around Bethlehem to be killed in hopes of squelching any prospects of a newborn king. And, at the end of Jesus’ life, we find Him nailed to a wooden cross. Beaten, back cut into ribbons, a crown of thorns on His head, and the people on the ground mocking Him at every turn until He drew His last breath. From birth to death there was a hatred of Jesus among those who rejected Him.
Between the bookends of His life, His life and death, we find the same animosity and hatred simmering just beneath the surface, written on most every page of His life. Let me give you just a sampling of what I’m talking about. Turn with me to John 5:16 and let’s read together.
16 So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. (John 5:16 NIVO)
In our Scripture for today Jesus quoted a verse from the Psalms and applied it to Himself when He said, “They hated me with no reason.” We can get an idea of what Jesus was thinking when we read John 10:31-32.
31 Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” (John 10:31-32 NIVO)
The persecution and hatred didn’t stop once Jesus drew His last breath and was laid in a borrowed tomb. There were many reasons why Jesus’ followers were persecuted in biblical times, but I want to highlight two groups of people who persecuted them. By taking a look at these two groups of people we will learn why they would not tolerate the followers of Jesus. First, the followers of Jesus were persecuted by the religious people of their day. I’ll show you the first instance in the book of Acts.
In Acts 2 we read about an amazing event we call Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples and those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish religious feast of Shavuot, or as some called it the Feast of Weeks or Harvest. In Acts 3, we can read about Peter and John going up to the temple and encountering a man who was handicapped, he had been unable to walk from birth, and was carried to the temple so he could beg for money from those going to the temple. Peter and John told him, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6 NIVO) The man got up and went into the temple courts with Peter and John, “walking, jumping, and praising God.” I would have too if I’d lived all of those years and never taken a step! There were people who witnessed the miracle take place and who were amazed and turned to Jesus. There were others there, religious leaders, who witnessed the miracle and were “greatly disturbed.” In Acts 4:1-4 we read,
1 The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. 2 They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. 3 They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. 4 But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:1-4 NIVO)
The Jewish religious leaders persecuted the followers of Jesus because they believed there was only one God and Jesus told everyone, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9 NIVO) Jesus was making it known that He and the Father were one. The Jewish religious leaders considered it blasphemy.
The Roman government also persecuted the followers of Jesus for religious reasons, but their take on the Christians was very different from the Jewish religious leaders. Whereas the Jews said there is one God, the Romans allowed people to worship any god they liked as long as they also worshipped the Romans gods. Christians refused to bow to the Roman gods. Peter, John, the Apostle Paul, and all of the other early followers of Jesus proclaimed that there was only one God and Savior and only one way of salvation through Jesus alone. In Acts 4:12, Peter stated without hesitation,
12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12 NIVO)
There was another reason why the State, the Roman Empire would turn on the followers of Jesus, and it was because they demanded their subjects declare their allegiance to Caesar above all others. The followers of Jesus allegiance was to the Kingdom of God and not the Roman Empire, their allegiance was to Jesus and not Caesar. Because the Christians refused to offer sacrifices of worship to Caesar they were looked upon with a growing suspicion that eventually turned into an all out effort to rid the Empire of all of Jesus’ followers.
The first official persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire took place under Emperor Nero in 64 A.D. A fire had destroyed much of Rome and there were rumors that Nero was to blame. Nero found a scapegoat in the followers of Jesus who were already hated by many. Nero had the followers of Jesus arrested. They were tortured, allowed to be torn apart by wild animals, covered in pitch, and used to light Nero’s gardens as they were set on fire.
Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. During his lifetime he wrote two important works, the “Annals” and the “Histories” which examine the reigns of the Roman emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, and those who reigned in the year of the four emperors. His works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus Caesar in 14 A.D. to the first Jewish-Roman War in 70 A.D. His work is important for many reasons, but the importance for us this morning is in this: Tacitus wrote about what followed after Rome burned and the rumors were spreading that Nero was responsible. He wrote,
Therefore, in order to abolish that rumor, Nero falsely accused and executed with the most exquisite punishments those people called Christians, who were infamous for their abominations. The originator of the name, Christ, was executed as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius; and though repressed, this destructive superstition erupted again, not only through Judea, which was the origin of this evil, but also through the city of Rome, to which all that is horrible and shameful floods together and is celebrated. Therefore, first those were seized who admitted their faith, and then, using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing they were additionally made into sports: they were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set aflame, and, when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle and performed a Circus game, in the habit of a charioteer mixing with the plebs or driving about the race-course. Even though they were clearly guilty and merited being made the most recent example of the consequences of crime, people began to pity these sufferers, because they were consumed not for the public good but on account of the fierceness of one man. (Tacitus, Annals)
There were times when the pressure was not as intense on the followers of Jesus, but there were other times when the pressure of persecution was so great that many, many people lost their lives. In 107 A.D. Emperor Trajan came to Antioch and forced the Christians to choose between the pagan Roman gods and death. Ignatius was a disciple of John and the third Bishop of Antioch. Ignatius refused and Emperor Trajan condemned him to death by being torn to pieces by wild beasts at Rome. They took Ignatius to Rome, guarded by soldiers, and Church history tells us that Ignatius showed no fear of being devoured by lions in the Roman Colosseum. The wild beasts left nothing of his body, except a few bones. The bones were secretly retrieved from the Colosseum and returned Antioch, until their removal to the Church of St. Clement at Rome, in 637.
I told you there were many reasons why the followers of Jesus were persecuted. I’ve only mentioned two: What they believed was exclusive and not inclusive. Jesus was the only way, not one of many ways to God. They lived in a pluralistic society that absolutely refused to accept that Jesus could have actually been telling the truth when He said,
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6 NIVO)
How similar is our day to theirs? We live in a pluralistic society that believes, in theory, that all is truth rather than truth for all. The irony is this: Those who are supposedly open-minded and embracing every possibility of religious thought are in actuality the most closed-minded in our society. How does it make sense to say that all is truth and then marginalize the followers of Jesus as some kind of religious extremists?
The second reason I set before you as a reason for the persecution of Jesus’ followers in biblical times was because they were seen as an enemy of the State, they were more committed to the Kingdom of God than they were to the Roman Empire. Nothing has changed for the followers of Jesus today. Our allegiance is to the King and His Kingdom rather than the United States of America or any country where the followers of Jesus find themselves. I think we are beginning to see the seeds planted for this same kind of scenario to unfold in the United States.
I’ve taken the time to share this information with all of us because what Jesus had to share with His disciples is so important for you and me. Let’s read our Scripture and see what we can learn.
17 This is my command: Love each other. 18 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 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. 20 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. 21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. 23 He who hates me hates my Father as well. 24 If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ (John 15:17-25 NIVO)
Jesus had been sharing with His disciples His love for them, the blessings He would bestow upon them in the gift of the Holy Spirit if they followed Him, and how important it was for them to love one another. Now His language and tone turned on a dime. Instead of privileges, Jesus spoke about persecution. It doesn’t take long in reading these verses to recognize the theme Jesus was stressing to His followers. Seven times in these verses we run into the word, “?????” (miseo) which means, “to hate, pursue with hatred, or detest.” Jesus told His disciples the world hated Him and the world would hate them as well. There are reasons for this that we need to pay close attention to this morning.
Before we do that we first need to understand what Jesus meant by “world.” Jesus isn’t speaking about the planet, but instead He is speaking about the world’s system, the world’s mindset which is set in opposition to God. We can get a better grasp of what I’m talking about by taking a look at another verse where the same word is used in the same way, is used. Turn to 1 John 2:15-16 and let’s read together.
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. (1 John 2:15-16 NIVO)
We are not to love the world’s ways–we are to love Jesus and follow His ways. What are the world’s ways? They are summed up by John. The people of the world place above all else whatever they desire. That’s a very broad generalization, but what it means is this: I call the shots for my life. Secondly, the world’s way is to crave what we don’t have… “I’m glad to have what I have, but I sure would like to have a little bit more.” Last of all, the world’s ways are to shine the spotlight on self. We don’t have to be taught to live that way, it just comes naturally to us.
John tells us not to give in to the world’s ways, but Jesus says the world will hate us. Why will the world hate the followers of Jesus? First of all, if you are a follower of Jesus, not a “church goer,” but a person who is surrendered to Jesus day-in and day-out, then those who have embraced the world’s ways will hate you because you “do not belong to the world.” Jesus said,
19 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 NIVO)
The more time we spend with Jesus, the more we will become like Jesus. The more we become like Jesus the less we will be embraced by those who live according to the world’s ways. Let’s think practically or a minute. If I follow my heart, follow my desires, they may lead me to who-knows-where and to do who-knows-what depending upon how I feel, but if I’m following Jesus I know there are some things He will never lead me into.
The second reason the world will hate us is because we do not belong to the world, but we have been chosen by Jesus out of the world. This truth can placed under the heading of the election of God’s people. For some people it is a very controversial topic to bring up. For others it is despised because it is understood by the world as arrogant or self-righteous. The reason for this is because people don’t understand God’s Word. The Bible clearly teaches that we have been chosen by God–not for a special box seat in heaven, but for service. We read just last week where Jesus spoke to His disciples and told them as much in John 15:16.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. (John 15:16 NIVO)
The Jews were called God’s Chosen People and you, if you are following Jesus are doing so only because He has chosen and called you. The teaching of election was no less hated in Jesus’ day than it is in our own. In John 6, Jesus told the people that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him to do so. Immediately following Jesus’ words we read,
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66 NIVO)
The world understands God’s choosing as a position of privilege, but we know it to be a call to come and die to ourselves so that we might serve our King and those around us.
The last reason I want to share with you this morning as to why the world will hate you if you are a follower of Jesus is because of your identification with Jesus. This differs from the first reason because in the first instance we will be hated because we reject the world’s way of doing life. Our lifestyle, the way we live, the way we interact with those around us, the way we conduct our business, the way we use our time and money should be different than the lifestyles of those who reject Jesus. We are called to live this life following Jesus, not following cultural norms and trends or what we desire in life. This last reason is rooted solely in our identification with Jesus. Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 5:11-12.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12 NIVO)
“…because of me.” That’s the key. Our identification with Jesus will draw the attention of those who cringe when the name of Jesus is spoken. The Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament, he carried the Good News far and wide throughout his life, and he ended his life by being beheaded by Emperor Nero. What’s really interesting is that before Paul became a follower of Jesus he was solely focused on eliminating all of Jesus’ followers. He was present and applauding when Stephen was killed because of his faith in Jesus. Paul on his way to Damascus to arrest the followers of Jesus when he was struck blind and led into the city. It was Jesus who got Paul’s attention by striking him blind.
Before Paul ever arrived in Damascus, the Lord went before him and chose one of His followers, a man named Ananias to go to Paul. Ananias had heard of Paul and wanted nothing to do with him. Then, in Acts 9:15-16 we read,
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 NIVO)
And suffer he did. Throughout Paul’s ministry he was run out of town, he was threatened at every turn, he was beaten, and eventually killed because of his identification with Jesus. Everything that Paul had counted as valuable before he came to know Jesus lost it’s significance and shine. His one controlling ambition, his one consuming passion was to know Jesus and make Him known to everyone, everywhere he went. Was it worth it Paul? All of the suffering? All of the trials and struggles that you could have avoided if you had only walked away? Was it worth it? Paul said,
10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:10-12 NIVO)
How about you? Are you following Jesus or are you just playing church? Do you amble in here Sunday after Sunday and leave unchanged or has Jesus totally transformed your heart and mind so that your greatest desire to know Him and share His love with others? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can tell you that there is nothing like dying to our own agendas so that we might live with His glory as our highest aim. If you have never committed yourself as a follower of Jesus won’t you do that this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 11, 2016