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Our Father in heaven, we ask now that You give us grace that we may hear You and not be hearers only, but doers of the Word, that we would learn, that we would listen, that we would know the grace of Christ, and that we would be empowered to follow Him. We pray in His name. Amen.
Polycarp was born in 69 A.D. He was a disciple of John, John whose gospel we have been studying. He was a friend of Ignatius, a mentor to Irenaeus. He lived to be 86 years old, and for the second half of his life he served as the bishop of Smyrna. He was a venerable man, highly respected for his holiness, his orthodoxy. He was also one of the most famous martyrs in the early church. After his death in 155 A.D., the church at Smyrna sent out a letter, telling the story of “blessed Polycarp,” and that’s how his story has come down to us in church history.
Here’s what we read in part. Polycarp has been arrested, he has been brought into the stadium, and we read, “Now as he was entering the stadium, there came to Polycarp a voice from heaven, ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.’ And no one saw the speaker, but the voice was heard by those of our people who were there. Thereupon he was led forth and great was the uproar of them that heard Polycarp had been seized. Accordingly, he was led before the Pro-Consul, who asked him if he was the man and when he confessed, the Pro-Consul tried to persuade him, saying, ‘Have respect to your age,’ and so forth. Then he said, ‘Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say, ‘Away with the atheists.'”
Now they said that because the early Christians had no idols and so they thought you’re not, yore some philosophical sect. You must be atheists because we can’t see any of your gods.
“Then Polycarp looked with a severe countenance on the mob of lawless heathen in the stadium and waved his hand at them, looking up to heaven, and he said, ‘Away with the atheists.'” So he has a sense of humor even at the end.
“The Pro-Consul urged him, and said ‘Swear I will release thee, curse the Christ,’ and Polycarp said, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I then blaspheme the King who saved me?'”
Then a little later, the Pro-Consul said, “‘I have wild beasts. If you do not repent, I will throw you to them.’ But he said, ‘Send for them, for repentance from better to worse is not a change permitted to us, but to change from cruelty to righteousness is a noble thing.’ And then the Pro-Consul said again, ‘If you do despise the wild beasts, I will make you to be consumed by fire if you repent not.’ And Polycarp answered, ‘You threaten the fire that burns for an hour and in a little while is quenched, for you know not the fire of the judgment to come, and the fire of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Bring what you will.'”
And so the story goes on as blessed Polycarp was burnt at the stake and they sought to fasten him and he said, “You don’t need to fasten; the Spirit will keep me here and comfort me in my final moments.”
Less dramatic a story for sure, but perhaps more immediately relevant for the world that many of us may live in, is this exchange from June 2017. Perhaps you remember this story in the news. There was a nominee for Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget. His name Russell Vought, a Christian, and he was being questioned by a U.S. senator about his faith, and the senator said, “Let me get to the issue that has bothered me and bothered many other people. You wrote,” and he’s referencing a blog post that this nominee had written, “You wrote, ‘Muslims do not simply have deficient theology, they do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ His Son and they stand condemned.'” That’s what Vought wrote. The senator said, “Do you believe that this statement is Islamophobic?” He says, “Absolutely not, Senator. I’m a Christian and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith. That post, as I stated in my questionnaire to the committee, was to defend my alma mater, Wheaton College, a Christian school that has a statement of faith that includes the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation.” The senator then interrupted, continued to press the issue, sometimes even shouting, “Do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?” he asked. Vought replied, very calmly, “Thank you for probing on that question. As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs. I believe that as a Christian that’s how I should treat all individuals,” and then he’s interrupted by the senator, “You think your statement that you put into the publication, ‘They do not know God because they reject Jesus Christ, His Son, and stand condemned,’ do you think that’s respectful of other religions?” “Senator, I wrote a post based on being a Christian and attending a Christian school that has a statement of faith that speaks clearly in regard to the centrality of Jesus Christ and salvation.” At which point the senator says, “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about. I will vote no.”
You can Google it and find it. Russell Vought and watch it on your own time. It’s quite a dramatic interchange.
Now are Christians a persecuted minority in this country? No.
Do we sometimes get in our own way by acting foolishly, by speaking intemperately, obnoxiously? Sure, that happens.
But it’s also true that there are increasingly all sorts of ways in business, in politics, in education, in entertainment, in sports, where giving voice to orthodox Christian convictions will cost you something. Even in the South, even in Charlotte.
It can happen almost anywhere. It can happen at your school. Someone says, “You don’t really believe that stuff about sex and gender, do you?” Or someone at the office says, “You’re willing to conduct this anti-bigotry training, aren’t you?” Or someone in the academy says, “Of course we can count on you to sign our petition, right?”
The Oscars are tonight. One of the great television events that I never watch, but you can be assured there will be at some point some sort of political speech, and if you are a passionate follower of Jesus Christ, who believes in traditional biblical Christianity, you will likely face from a hostile world now, or certainly in the future, and if you are younger than me you can be assured of facing it sometime in your life, great pressure to deny Christ, to deny His Word, and Jesus does not want you to face that temptation unprepared. It’s one of the reasons the Holy Spirit inspired this passage. Yes, immediately for the disciples but now 2000 years later for people like you.
Follow along as I read from John chapter 15, verse 18 through chapter 16, verse 4.
“‘If the world hates you,'” Jesus says, “‘Know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of My name, because they do not know Him who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both Me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.'”
“‘But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.'”
“‘I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor Me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.'”
I want you to look at verse 1 of chapter 16: “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.”
Now let me put the necessary guardrails around this statement. You cannot lose your salvation, you cannot become unjustified. True believers who put faith in Christ already are in possession of eternal life. And yet, as we saw last week with the vine and the branches, it is possible to be externally connected to Jesus and not really be spiritually in Jesus. It is possible to be a part of the visible church and not be a part of the invisible Church.
And we could tell stories, sadly, from our own friends and family, even some who grew up among us in this church, who are no longer walking with the Lord Jesus.
Jesus understands that the elect will persevere, and yet there are some who will have a visible connection to God’s people and they will fall away.
And one of the reasons that happens is because we give in to the world. This is actually where those of us, most of here who are a part of the majority, racially, ethnically in this country, have a lot to learn from those brothers and sisters who have been in the minority, because minority brothers and sisters have always had to navigate two worlds in this country. They’ve had to feel as if I’m not quite sure I entirely fit in in majority space, especially the black church in this country has had to endure suffering for its whole existence, and the rest of the church is catching up, to understand what it looks like to live if not as an ethnic minority, for many of us, then as a cognitive minority, that you as a Christian will think differently, believe differently, act differently.
If the statistics are right, and I pray that they’re wrong, some of you in this room will fall away from Jesus. Some of you have already started to wander away from Jesus in your heart, and you come, mom and dad make you come, and if you’re honest with yourself, you started checking out years ago. You know, people talk about you go off to college and that’s where you lose young people and they don’t follow Jesus anymore. Well, there’s plenty of studies that say you know, you actually start losing them around the end of middle school/beginning of high school. Now they may still go on some retreats and some lock-ins and show up at youth group and Sunday school, but they’ve already started to check out.
Jesus speaks to these disciples and to these disciples so that that will not happen to you. He knows that there will be temptations. You will get tired of being called a bigot. You will get tired of being passed over for a promotion. Tired of being thought strange at your university. Of seeming to be the only one at work who, who thinks like you do, who, who is racking your brain in another training to think, “Can I really go along with this? Does everyone else just think this is okay?”
And so it happens that people cave, they give in, and Jesus wants you to be prepared so that you do not make that choice.
I want you to see three things in this passage. What will happen if you follow Jesus, why it will happen, and what to do when it does happen?
Now to be fair, this is a word Jesus is giving to the apostles, and so we don’t have a promise that everything here happens to us. We will not be put out of synagogues, we’re not in synagogues. Most of the apostles would be killed; this is likely not to be the fate for most of us. And yet, 2 Timothy tells us that everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. So this word to the disciples has relevance for us.
I want you to notice then, first of all, what Jesus says will happen, what will happen. He says very plainly, “You will be hated.”
Verse 18: “If the world hates you, know it hated Me before it hated you.”
Verse 24: “If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both Me and My Father.”
Not everyone is going to hate you. We’re not looking for a pity party. Don’t leave this, this service and think, “Yeah, that’s, everyone’s against me.” No, we don’t want to romanticize martyrdom. But you need to know this is a real possibility for every Christian in this room.
1 John 3:13: “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.” Don’t be surprised.
And too many of us go out into the world and when people hate us or hate what we believe, we’re just dumbfounded. “What? That’s not what I signed up for being a Christian. I thought that being a Christian meant I get to go to heaven and my family’s going to like me and things go well with me, and now you’re telling me people are going to hate me?”
Well, they hated Jesus. And you love Jesus. And you want to be like Jesus, don’t you? And you value everything Jesus, and you believe everything Jesus taught…. Why would you think that they hate Jesus and they’re going to love you?
In fact, if everyone loves you, loves everything you stand for in a fallen world, then you might want to stop and think if you’re being faithful to the suffering servant, to the One who was utterly reviled.
You know, it used to be in earlier generations, that if people disagreed with Christianity in this country, they would think you were benighted. You know, you just, silly people believe in the supernatural, believe in miracles, just sort of dupes. Unintelligent. But now, it’s not that they think you are benighted, they will think you are bigoted. Not just, well, you’re anti-science, but anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-Muslim.
Now listen, our job as Christians is to out-love people. Out-love people. Not to walk out of these doors and say, “Well, they’re going to hate us and so we can hate them back.” No, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to not get worked up with all of the foment and the furor, to out-love people. That’s our job.
But our job is not to prevent people from hating us. That may not be possible. Jesus is not trying to make us nervous or suspicious, but realistic. Does anyone hate anything you stand for? Anything you believe in? Because they hated an awful lot about Jesus.
You will be hated. You see verse 20: You will be persecuted. A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they’ll persecute you.
Now for the apostles, it meant two things, you seen in chapter 16, verse 2: They’re going to put out of the synagogue.
Now we’re not in the synagogue, but we can pretty easily make a connection to our life. They’re going to put you out of polite society. They’re going to say that tweet, that Facebook post, that, that means you can’t have anything to do with the rest of polite, enlightened society. Or even worse, out of your club, your group, your team, your school, kicked off your campus. Who knows what will happen.
They were put out of the synagogue and then the second half of the verse, some of them will kill you.
Now to be sure we do not want to pretend that the persecution we experience in America is like they face in other parts of the world. Let’s not pretend that it is. And yet, we should understand that this word “persecution” is a broad word, it has a wide semantic range. It can refer in the New Testament to physical violence and assault and death, but it also can refer to opposition of any kind.
In Matthew 5:10, Jesus promises those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake will be blessed, but then remember what He say in the Sermon on the Mount, in verse 11: Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.
Those are three overlapping categories: Persecution, revile you, utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.
So persecution can be very broad. We’re not saying that we’re in danger, yet, or being thrown into prison, or being put to death, but being reviled? Of people saying all sorts of things falsely against you?
Jesus goes on in Matthew 5, verse 12 to say: For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Now Jesus does not mean every single prophet who went before had been killed, but He uses the word “persecution” broadly to mean they hated the message of the prophets, they reviled them, they spoke against them, they did not believe their word, they slandered them.
So persecution can mean anything from being put to death, Matthew 10:21, to being hated for My name’s sake, Matthew 10:22.
All that to say, don’t think that persecution is something that only befalls a few Christians and that it’s for our missionaries on the other side of the world. Yes, there are uniquenesses here to John 15 and 16. Martyrdom is a special category, and yet all of us, everywhere, if we are truly following Christ with a radical, passionate, unflinching devotion, you’ll have opposition.
Maybe it’ll be a fine. Maybe it’ll be shame from your family. Maybe your ministry will be kicked off a college campus. Maybe there will be a law against sharing our faith in our lifetime. Maybe it’ll be an unjust trial. Maybe it will be public shame. Maybe it will be trial by Twitter. Or worse.
But if we faithfully follow Jesus in this world, we will at some point face opposition.
Now did they agree with Jesus in everything? No. Will they agree with you, Christian, in everything? No. They tried to drive Jesus off a cliff. They wanted to stone Him. They wanted to trap Him and trick Him. They plotted for ways to kill Him. Eventually they crucified Him. That’s the Master; we’re the servants. And why do we go into the world and think, “Well, I’ll probably get a lot better than Jesus” when Jesus says like master, like servant, like Father, like Son. They hate the Son because they hate the Father. They hate you because they hated Me. That’s what will happen.
Why will it happen? Why will it happen, that’s our second point. We’ll look at verse 19. Very simply, because you’re not of the world.
If you’re a Christian here in this room, that is true of you. You are not of the world. And I hope that reality demonstrates itself in what you’re listening to you on your phone, what you’re watching on Netflix, what you’re doing on YouTube, the sort of books you’re reading, the sort of jokes you’re laughing at, the sort of way you speak to each other.
You see verse 19: If you were of the world, the world would love you. But because you’re not of the world, I chose you out of the world, the world hates you. So, this is not pats on our back, this is not a sermon, “look at us, we’re great, we’re… ” No, no, no. We were in the world, the only reason if we’re not in the world is because Jesus chose us to come out of the world because God’s gracious choice plucked us out of that predicament.
But Jesus is right. If you’re of the world, the world recognizes you as its own. The world sees its reflection in you. The world sees its values, its priorities, its assumptions in you. But if it doesn’t, don’t expect to be loved by the world. Be prepared, at times, to stand alone. There’s a good biography of J.C. Ryle with that title. Are you prepared, as you go in the world, to receive the world’s applause, or prepared to stand alone?
I think some of us, we’re raising our young people to think you just go, you just dream it, you just grab the world by the horns, you just be the best you you can be, you’re amazing, you’re awesome, the world’s gonna stand up and take notice, and just clap for you all the way to glory. Not gonna happen. Are you prepared to be applauded, is that what you think? Or are we prepared at times to stand alone? The only one in your cohort, the only one in your team, the only one in your office, the only one in your class, the only one on your floor…
If you’re of the world, the world will love you. And to the degree that you’re walking outside of the world, the world’s not going to look kindly upon you.
My wife hates it when I use her in an illustration, so let me do this briefly. [laughter] It does reflect well on her, which she doesn’t like either. But she studied abroad for a year in England, part of her Christian school, and lived in a house and where all ostensibly a house full of Christians, and the drinking age is lower in the U.K. than it is here, so even though they weren’t 21 they could legally drink. And so on some occasions, many of those other housemates would go off and come back inebriated or even just what they had purchased there in the house would drink themselves drunk, my wife not participating in that, and on one occasion as one of her friends stumbled in drunk, throwing up, and my wife much sweeter than I would have been, said, “Can I help you? Can I help you get to your room? Can I help clean that up?” And in a moment of humility and grace, you would have thought maybe a sense of undeserving, but instead the response was to lash out, to snap back, who are you, you think you’re better than me, get out, I don’t need your help.
In the midst of darkness, there was no interest in seeing someone have any light.
And so Jesus tells us, the world’s gonna love its own, and if you’re not in the world, the world’s not gonna love you.
They didn’t know Jesus. That’s ultimately the reason. You see the progression? Verse 22, 23, 24. Now when Jesus says that they wouldn’t have been guilty of sin if He hadn’t come, He doesn’t mean that they were perfect people until He comes, rather He means that by His arrival, His ministry, His teaching, Jesus brought to light their preference for darkness, their allegiance to the father of lies, their rebellion. He exposed their rejection of God, and their hatred serves to fulfill what was written in the law, verse 25.
Earlier we read verse 21: All these things they will do to you on account of My name. The disciples will not be responsible for the opposition they receive; it will be because of Jesus.
Listen, again, as I said, yes, sometimes we are our own worst enemies, and we’re obnoxious, and we’re not excusing any of that. But listen; sometimes we cannot out-nice our way so that people like us. Sometimes Christians think if someone doesn’t like what we stand for, if someone doesn’t like us, then it must be that we weren’t wise, we weren’t winsome, if we just do enough with the poor, if we’re just sort of keep it under wraps, if we just are kind enough to people, they will love us. Jesus says don’t count on it.
Of course we want to be winsome; of course we want to be wise. We don’t want to put up other stumbling blocks. But listen, there was no way to avoid the scandal of the cross in the 1st century, and there will be no way to avoid many of the scandals of the Gospel in the 21st century.
And notice Jesus doesn’t even question their sincerity. Chapter 16, verse 2: There will come a time when whoever kills you will think, think he is offering a service to God. There will be people who will hate you, who will disenfranchise you, who will oppose you, and they will be absolutely convinced in their conscience they are on the right side of history.
Jesus says, “Look, these Jews putting you out of the synagogue, they think you’re blaspheming. They are doing what they think is right before God.”
Was not Saul the prime example of this? Saul, to be Paul, who persecuted the Church with a great zeal for God? He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. He was absolutely sincere, but sincerity is not the measure of truth.
D.A. Carson points out that the reason that the reason for the world’s hatred is first of all theological, not sociological. We tend to think well, it’s because there’s an in group or an out group, or there are socio-economic factors and dynamics, and while all of that could play a part, we see here the first reason is theological. They do not belong to Jesus.
And you might think that as they sincerely offer up their opposition of you to God that it would make them more gracious, but it’s just the opposite. When people are sincere in their beliefs, most passionate, they can be most intolerant.
Again, Carson says Christians have often discovered that the most dangerous oppression comes not from careless pagans, but from zealous adherents to religious faith and from other ideologues. It’s not the people who say, “Oh, yeah, I’m not really worked up about it,” it’s the people who have absolute ideological certainty and must stamp out any opposition. That’s why it happens.
So what do we do when it does happen? Finally. What do we do?
Well, Jesus says we bear witness. And not only do we bear witness, but once bears witness before us and through us. Verse 26: The Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness. And you also will bear witness.
So remember just a few minutes ago I said you need to be prepared to stand alone? And that’s true in an earthly sense, but I need to re-work what I said: You will never have to stand alone in an ultimate sense. Jesus, together with the Father, sends the Holy Spirit to be your helper, to bear witness. The Holy Spirit will be with you to strengthen you, to help you. He will vindicate you in the hearts of those who have the Spirit. Jesus will never fail to have a witness on earth because He has sent His Spirit to testify. And so as we are filled with the Spirit, we will bear witness.
Now when you hear “witness,” don’t just think of formal evangelistic opportunities. Okay, I gotta go and witness to people. I have to get into awkward conversations that have nothing to do with what we are talking about… So, speaking of the wind, did you know that the Holy Spirit, the word in Greek is also wind? Let me tell you about the Bible…. Really natural transition there. [laughter] Speaking of tornadoes, there’s a tornado of God’s wrath coming, so that [laughter]
Now, the Lord uses all of that, but don’t hear “bear witness” as forced evangelistic conversation. Hear it more organically talking about Jesus. It’s not hard to talk about your husband, your wife, boyfriend, girlfriend… You love them, you’re excited about them, they do stuff that makes you proud and happy. It’s not hard to talk about your kids, your grandkids. It’s not hard to talk about your, your sports team. I know there’s more of a scandal with Christ than with those things, but you talk about the things you love. Talk about Jesus. You’re writing posts on Facebook or putting things on Instagram, write something about Jesus. You write letters to people… People still do that, stamps, envelopes. You’re on the phone, somebody’s going to ask your weekend. You say, “Well, it’s kind of crazy. I go to this church and we had some damage but we met in this other church and it was so great to see the love.” Now that can happen. Do you talk about Jesus? Bear witness to Jesus?
That’s what you do when the world hates you. You don’t hide. What you learned in Sunday school will serve you well: Hide it under a bushel? Yeah, that’s where… You know, when you’re teaching that in Sunday school, you kinda get annoyed with the kids that “No!” they yell it as loud as they can when they sing the song, but they’re on to something. That is spiritually true. Hide it under a bushel? No! I want you to think of the 5-year-old boy who says that every time with the top of his lungs. You don’t hide it under a bushel, you bear witness to Christ.
And you remember, verse 4: I have said these things to you that when the hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. Remember.
See, He says when it comes, part of the grace in that moment is that you’ll remember, ah, that’s right, Jesus, Jesus told me, Jesus warned me, Jesus prepared me.
You know, like when you went out and you tried to figure out how to do laundry for the first time on your own and you realized mom was right – don’t put reds in with the whites [sound effect], you get a lot of pinks. And dad was right – pay off your credit card each month. Your parents were right – oh, the credit score, that is going to matter, isn’t it?
We can’t avoid suffering. We can’t avoid opposition. But we make it worse when we think it is something strange or unusual. Momma said there’d be days like this.
Well, Jesus said there’s going to be days like this. Get ready.
Here’s what I want to say as we close. We need, we need a reorienting, brothers and sisters. Our greatest danger is not persecution – it’s apostasy. You need to be more afraid of that. Our greatest danger is not imprisonment or even death – our greater danger is falling away. We don’t want a church full of people who fear circumstances they cannot control more than they fear the God who controls everything. And don’t raise your children thinking the worst thing that they can do is to get a bad grade or fail to find a good job, or the worst thing that could ever happen to them as a human being is to get cancer or some other misfortune… Raise your kids to know that there will be opposition, there will be suffering, but the same thing happened to our Master, and His Spirit will be with you.
Verse 1: I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.
Don’t be afraid, don’t be surprised, don’t cave in, and don’t give up on Jesus.
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, we ask for Your grace that we would stay with You as You stay with us, in whatever suffering You bring to us. For some, it will be garden variety suffering, and it still hurts, sleepless nights, death of a grandparent. Others will have more exquisite pain, to be a widow or a widower long before they thought it possible, to bury a child, to see a parent suffer. To face opposition, persecution, for there is faith. Strengthen us, O Lord, by Your spirit and Your Word, that we would walk with You as You hold us fast. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.