Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian in Germany when Hitler began his ascendancy to power. Early on in his ministry, he began calling the church to recognize that the claims of Nazism were incompatible with the gospel message. Over the years he ministered in the Lutheran church and later the confessing church of Germany, he experienced the hatred and persecution of the world: governmental, denominational and even friends. He was misunderstood, reviled, considered a radical, deemed unfit for ministry, his ministries were shut down, ignored and even vilified. But repeatedly, he wrote in his journals messages that echoed the words of John 15:20 “No servant is greater than his master, if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…” These words helped him make sense of his experience in the world.How could Bonhoeffer and other persecuted believers live life and find meaning while maintaining great hope and a wonderfully peaceful attitude? I believe it all came down to their understanding of the gospel. Amidst the persecution and death Bonhoeffer and those like him witnessed and experienced, each understood that he had been chosen out of the world and that this call of God came with a cost, the cost of being treated like Christ in the world.
These martyrs of the church understood that the gospel was not simply a get out of hell card that one carried around in their pocket, waiting to play it at a convenient time. On the contrary they understood that the gospel message as Jesus proclaimed it always involved two things: 1) Repent and believe the good news, 2) Come and follow me. Before one is able to believe the good news of Jesus’ atoning death, one must recognize their sin and turn from it. Part of repentance is agreeing with God’s proclamation that sin is abhorrent and therefore not only is God angry at it, but also I, as a repentant person, am also angry at it and want nothing to do with it, which leads us to the second part of discipleship: the come and follow me.
Jesus wanted people to learn to walk in the ways of righteousness. Jesus’ ministry was about making disciples who would replicate his life and teaching in the world. Jesus’ ministry was about making men and women, boys and girls who were fit for the Father’s kingdom, not fit for the world’s filth. When he called the 12, he didn’t say, “Believe I died for you and all will be well.” No he said, Mark 10:29 “I tell you the truth…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”
That half-truthed gospel has left out some very important parts that affect the way people perceive the gospel message and cause them to misunderstand the life to which salvation is calling them. The life of the Christian is a life of turning from the world towards the heavenly Kingdom. The life of the Christian is about gain and loss; it is about hardship in this world and hope in the next. The life of the Christian is a life of loving those who hate you and serving those you love. It is about recognizing “You are not your own, You were bought at a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20) and therefore being able to say, Gal. 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
A person who has only ever heard the mantra “accept Jesus and your sins will be forgiven, nothing more is needed to be saved” will have a hard time understanding John’s words, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…” (John 15:18). These words won’t make any sense, because there is nothing in their acceptance of Christ that has prepared them for or even hinted at a life of discipleship and difficulty. But the one who has heard the full call of the gospel ‘repent and believe; come and follow me’ will instantly understand the words of the 4th evangelist: “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…” (John 15:20).
Now that we have clarified the gospel as involving following Jesus along repenting and believing, we find in John 15 that Jesus is instructing his disciples about what to expect from the world if they are following him. They should expect hatred and rejection. Hatred is a strong word to use, but Jesus is saying the world will reject his followers. The world will loathe and revile and show contempt for those who follow Christ. Believers will be persecuted. The word persecuted is the same word used of being pursued by hostile armies or hostile forces. Whenever Israel is routed in battle, they are “persecuted” or pursued by the invaders. David cries out, Psa. 7:1 O Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me.
The goal of persecution is to run a people out of existence, just as the goal of pursuing the enemy is to rid the land of their presence. Jesus is telling his disciples, “If the world tries to run you out of existence and get rid of you, don’t be surprised! It’s part of following me.” It is good for us to dwell on this reality, because these are some of the last words Jesus had for his disciples. He wanted them to remember and keep these words in their minds given the upcoming events they were going to experience. If you recall, we are in the Lenten season and our study has been through the final hours of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples before he is arrested and crucified. Jesus is giving them a paradigm to understand the upcoming crucifixion and the subsequent hardships they are going to face.
We know from the Book of Acts that the disciples are going to be thrown in jail, beaten with the rod, some are going to be killed and others are going to flee, simply because they proclaim Jesus as the Christ and insist on following his example. The Jews are going to put you out of the synagogue (John 16:2), in another place Jesus counsels them that brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. All men will hate you because of me…when you are persecuted in one place, flee to another…(Matt 10:21-23).
Have you ever really thought about why the world hates believers? Why are there so many forces arrayed together trying to make discipleship seem irrelevant? Why are so many people convinced that those who follow Jesus wholeheartedly are radical and dangerous and extremist? Why does the world spend so much time trying to prove that God’s laws are irrelevant, and that following them is anti-social?
The answer really is quite simple people do it, the world does it because it hates Christ, …and doesn’t know the Father (John 15:18, 21). When they hate you, remember they hated me first. Their hatred is a natural extension of their rejection of me. Their rejection is simply continuing to be played out in this world. When they rejected God and his word, they simultaneously rejected his prophets, his Son and his disciples. John 7:7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil. When we experience hatred, it is really the hatred of Christ we are seeing in the world. When the world rejects us, it is really God’s teaching about holiness they are rejecting as 1Th. 4:8 Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.
The world hates disciples of Christ because our lifestyle and our love of God draw the sin of the world out and makes it plain. Our obedience to Christ, our following of his commands, our lifestyle of love is opposed to all the world values and holds dear: selfishness, hedonism, power, etc. are confronted in discipleship. When we love an enemy, pray for those who persecute us and help those who don’t deserve it, we are the incarnation of Christ in a world of evil and evil hates to be brought into the light. So all that is evil will try to squelch and hide the believer and when that doesn’t work, then all that is evil will rise up in order to rid the world of what is righteous and good. Bonhoeffer understood this truth along with countless other martyrs in history, that’s is why they were killed, but it’s also why they had peace about it.
The world hates us because we follow in the footsteps of our Lord and King. The world hates us because we are not of this world Phil. 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ. The world hates us because we Acts 10:42 testify that [Jesus Christ] is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. Persecution must come to those who love Jesus because it came to Jesus himself.
But there is good news even in this passage of difficult teaching about being a follower of Christ and it is two-fold. First, every disciple of Jesus at one time belonged to the world and hated God. Every single disciple has been called out of that world. Every believer was at one time just like the Apostle Paul before his conversion. Listen to Paul’s story as he tells it to Agrippa, Acts 26:14 “[I] fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ ¶ “‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
The very thing that Saul experienced (transition from darkness to light), he was being sent out to proclaim and preach. Christ has chosen every believer, like Saul, out of the world. We are therefore never without hope that those who are hostile to Christ and his body can be saved, for we have experienced that salvation. And so we pray. We pray for the world, we pray for its reception of the gospel. We pray for its eyes to be opened and its heart to be receptive to the holiness of God and the Love of the Father. That is our first hope – damnation is not a given for any individual, as far as we are concerned, until they have died rejecting our Lord.
The second piece of good news we have as disciples is this: We are not alone. As Christ’s persecuted body, we have the Counselor, the Holy Spirit who
1) Bears witness in our souls that we belong to God, not the world; Rom. 8:15-17 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
2) Recalls to our minds all the things Christ taught – John 14:26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
3) Recalls the truth to our mind – John 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
4) Will give us words to speak during tribulation – Mark 13:11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
As we conclude today, remember the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the men who stood trial and died at the end of the Third Reich, for each proclaimed in their own way, “if the world hates me, keep in mind that if hated Christ first” (John 15:18). But they also understood a far greater truth that undergirds all of Jesus teaching on persecution and discipleship: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” 1Cor. 15:54.