Preaching Series: The Tie That Binds
Persecution and the Church
Text: John 15:17-16:4
Introduction: A trio of old veterans were bragging about the heroic exploits of their ancestors one afternoon down at the VFW Hall. "My great-grandfather at age 13," one declared proudly, "was a drummer boy at Shiloh." "Mine," boasted another, "went down with Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn." A third veteran said, "I’m the only soldier in my family, but if my great-grandfather was alive today he’d be the most famous man in the world." "Really! Why?" his friends wanted to know. "Cause he’d be 165 years old."
Well, that would make a person famous, wouldn’t it? Have you ever wished that you were popular? I remember those high school days when it was really all that mattered to many of us. We’d dress or act in a certain way just to gain the acceptance of others. If we were blessed with a talent, we’d show it off and gladly receive the accolades that came with it. If we weren’t a part of the "in" crowd, however, the truth is that most of us secretly longed to be. I see that most of us made it through those challenging years somewhat unscathed, but the desire to be popular remains. You don’t agree? Ask yourself these questions: (1) If you’ve ever been up for an award, did you tell people that it didn’t matter whether or not you won, but secretly hope they would call your name as the honoree? (2) When you’ve attended a social event have you ever wished that you were the person everyone wanted to be with? (3) Or wouldn’t it be great sometime to find out that someone was bragging that he or she was YOUR friend? Come on, admit it! (4) Just once wouldn’t you like to be the man who hits the game winning home run or the woman who records the smash hit single?
We could go on and on, but you get the point. Right or wrong, there is a part of us that would like to be "on top." We’d like to feel the appreciation and admiration of our peers. It’s vital that we admit this fact before we can appreciate what Jesus is saying in our text this morning. Our Savior addresses the issue of popularity and acceptance with words we all need to hear. He understands our craving for love and acceptance, yet knows that we won’t find it in the applause of men. As a matter of fact, Jesus warns us that it is much more likely that persecution, not popularity, will be the net result of our presence in the world. Let’s consider what our Lord has to say about this important subject matter this morning.
I. Don’t be surprised by persecution (See John 15:17-25). Christians must expect persecution from this world that hates us (See John 15:18). That’s strong language but it’s not mine. It is our Lord who is speaking these words here in the Gospel of John (for another verse with similar meaning see 1 John 3:13). Our need for love and acceptance will not, therefore, be met by the unbelieving world, but through the body of Christ (See John 15:17). Jesus provides at least two reasons for the negative attitude of the world toward Christians.
A. Resentment (See John 15:19) - If believers belonged to the world, there would be no problem! However, Jesus said, "You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." He reminds the disciples, and all believers that we are called to live a different kind of life (See Matthew 5:6, 8, 10) for a completely different purpose ("His good purpose" -- See Philippians 2:13). Application: When Christians walk in the light we expose the dark deeds of men. This makes for quite a bit of discomfort and resentment (See John 3:19-20).
B. Ignorance (See John 15:21, 25) - "They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me." Later Jesus quotes Psalm 35:19, "They have hated me without reason." The world does not understand God (See Romans 1:28; 1 Corinthians 2:14)). As a result, it has no means by which it can properly evaluate the messenger He sent. Application: In word and deed Jesus came to reveal God’s plan and purpose in redeeming mankind. The unbelieving world’s rejection of Christ and His teaching leaves them with no excuse for their sin, not even the one that will be most common at the final judgment, "I didn’t know!" Illustration: Ignorance is not always bliss. A Denver woman told her pastor of a recent experience that she felt was indicative of the times in which we live. She was in a jewelry store looking for a necklace and said to the clerk, "I’d like a gold cross." The man behind the counter looked over the stock in the display case and said, "Do you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?"
II. Don’t be silenced by persecution (See John 15:26-27). Christians must continue to witness in this hating world by the power of the Holy Spirit. When the disciples learned that Jesus was leaving them, they were very concerned. Jesus explained that it was to their advantage that He would go away (See John 16:7). He explained that the coming Counselor, the promised Spirit of Truth, would participate with them in testifying about Christ. This is, in fact, exactly what happened (See Acts 5:32; 6:10). The more intense the opposition became the bolder the disciples were in proclaiming the good news. Consider the example of Paul. He was converted, received the Holy Spirit and immediately began to preach in the synagogues. When the Jews conspired to kill him in Damascus, he simply moved on down the road to Jerusalem and resumed his witness with great boldness (See Acts 9:17, 20, 23, 28). Application: As persecution intensifies, and our witness for Christ takes us into uncharted and dangerous territory, this (boldness) will become all the more necessary for us as well. Should we succumb to the pressures applied by the world to silence us, we will only have to look as far as our own faith to see where the failure lies. Illustration: During China’s Boxer Rebellion of 1900, insurgents captured a mission station, blocked all the gates but one, and in front of that gate placed a cross flat on the ground. Then the word was passed to the one hundred people inside that any who trampled the cross underfoot would be permitted their freedom and life. Any refusing to do so would be shot. Terribly frightened, the first seven students stepped on the cross and were permitted to go free. The eighth student, a young girl, refused to do so. Kneeling beside the cross in prayer for strength, she arose and moved carefully around it, and went out to face the firing squad. Emboldened by her example every one of the remaining ninety-two students follower her to the firing squad.
III. Don’t be sidetracked by persecution (See John 16:1-4). The word translated "led astray" in your NIV is the Greek term "skandalizo." It means "a stumbling block (See Romans 9:33)." Just as the cross tripped up the Jews who could not conceive of a crucified Messiah, so intense persecution can cause us to stumble in our walks with Christ as cruel and crude violence is directed at us. Here are three points to consider:
A. Terrible persecution is inevitable. "They will put you out of the synagogue (See John 9:20-23); in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God (See Acts 7:57-58)." A good book that you may want to read on the subject is Foxes Book of Martyrs. It contains well-documented accounts of believers who were burned at the stake, while many others suffered terrible physical torture not because they were evil, but solely because they were Christians (Compare to Hebrews 11:35-38). Persecution has been going on for centuries.
B. Some of the worst persecution will be done in the name of God. This will happen even though God remains unknown to the persecutors. When Protestant Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake, a sermon was preached prior to his execution. How much of current persecution of believers is done by religious extremists in the name of their god?
C. Jesus warns his disciples so that they will stand. As long as Jesus was present with His disciples, He attracted most if not all of the persecution. As He prepared to leave the twelve, our Lord prepares them for what lies ahead. They will become the front line that draws the hottest fire. That role has been passed from generation to generation to those who are willing to live for Christ and, when called of God, to die for him.
Conclusion: These verses taken by themselves can prove to be very disheartening. That’s why we must not forget the previous words of our Lord in John 15 about intimacy with him, living fruitful Christian lives and the love of God. To know Christ is to have eternal life and this is worth everything. Words about persecution are not meant to foster a defeatest attitude, but to strengthen our spiritual resolve and holy courage. Consider the story of Randy Alcorn, pastor and author of the book "Heaven." In 1990 he was serving a large church, making a good salary. After opening his home to a pregnant teenager, who eventually came to Christ and had her baby, Randy participated in a peaceful, non-violent protest of an abortion clinic. He was arrested and sent to jail. The clinic won a court judgment against he and his group. Randy told the judge that he would pay any fine, but he could not hand money over to people who destroyed human life. The judge informed him that they would garnish 1/4th of his wages until his fine was paid. To prevent this from happening, Randy was forced to resign his position and take a job making no more than minimum wage. Doesn’t seem fair does it? Randy isn’t complaining. As a matter of fact, he has seen God’s hand all over this situation. MAY WE BE ABLE TO SAY THE SAME THING IF AND WHEN PERSECUTION COMES TO US!