Monday, April 27, 2015

Enduring These Things (John 16:1-4)


For some reason, you don’t often see it on the news or read about it in the paper. If you follow some of the international mission organizations online, however, almost daily there are fresh reports of our brothers and sisters in Christ being persecuted around the world. From state mandated opposition in some countries, to organized terror organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram, to vigilante style uprisings in local communities, Christians find themselves in the crosshairs of violent, bloody, and sometimes lethal persecution. And this is nothing unusual if you are well informed of Christian history. Since the days when Jesus walked the earth, His followers have been under attack more often than they have known freedom and peace. But the bitter reality is that the situation for most Christians in the world is getting worse instead of better. Almost 20 years ago, Chuck Colson reported that more Christians had been martyred for their faith in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined![1] At that time, Colson and others were calling on American Christians, who enjoyed almost unlimited religious freedom, to rise up and speak out about these atrocities committed elsewhere in the world. Today, this persecution is beginning to rear its ugly head even here at home as our liberties are becoming more and more restricted.

Of course, the Bible has much to say about Christians who are suffering for their faith. It is perhaps for this reason that American Christians have heretofore been unable to personally relate to or apply much of the New Testament to their lives and experiences. For example, the book of First Peter is almost entirely concerned with Christians undergoing persecution for their faith. Many American Christians find that little epistle of almost no practical value to their daily lives apart from a few salient quotes sprinkled throughout. Yet, in countries where Christians are being persecuted consistently, “First Peter is said to be the most popular book among Christians.”[2] Even in the Gospels, we find that the Lord Jesus speaks often of His own sufferings that He would endure, as well as those which His followers could expect. In this portion of His “Farewell Discourse,” He is doing just that.

Last Sunday, we looked at the final 9 verses of Chapter 15, in which Jesus told His followers to expect hatred and persecution from the world around us. He said in 15:21, “All these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” In Chapter 16, Jesus uses that exact same phrase, “these things,” six times, referring either to “these things” which Christians can expect to happen to them, or “these things” that Jesus has told us about the sufferings we can expect, and how we can endure them. But more than that, Jesus points us repeatedly to His own Word as the hope to which we can cling when it happens. Eleven times in John 16, Jesus points us back to what He has spoken, what He has told us, what He will tell us, and what He says. Three times He refers to what He has not said. Six times He refers to what the Holy Spirit will speak, guide, or disclose to us. Four times, the disciples refer to what Jesus has told, said, spoken of, and talked about. So, there are 24 references to the Word of God, revealed to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit, in the 33 verses of this Chapter.

As we move through what will probably come to be known as the most radical cultural shift in our nation’s history, and as we pray for those who experience persecution to a far more devastating degree, we need to be prepared to endure “these things.” Here in these four verses alone, Jesus speaks to us about “these things” that the world will do to Christians, and “these things” which He He has spoken. His Word is what enables us to endure “these things.”

I. We must anticipate “these things” that the world will do to us (vv2-3).

On the day that I became a Christian, I was told by others that I would experience the forgiveness of sins, the fellowship of the saints, and eternal life in heaven if I turned to Jesus in saving faith. No one ever told me that some of my friends and family would resent the decision I made, or that people would hate me for my stand on the Word of God. I suppose they didn’t really need to, because it was a period of some time before I encountered any of that. But when I shared the gospel with a young Muslim woman overseas just a few years later, she said to me, “I want to believe in Jesus, but if I do, I will lose my family and friends, my home and my job, and maybe even my life.” I confess that at that stage of my Christian life, I did not quite know how to respond to her. I have often wished I could go back and have that conversation all over with her, so that I could tell her that Christians have experienced these same things all over the world throughout history. Her situation was not unique, and certainly was no reason to turn her back to the Christ who desired to save her. Jesus had spoken into her exact circumstances here in our text and in many other places. And the words He said apply to all of us who have endured, or will one day endure, any hardship for the sake of His name.

Though we often minimize what Bonhoeffer so accurately called “the cost of discipleship,” Jesus never did. Anyone who ever heard Jesus speak could never say that He didn’t warn them about the difficulties of following Him here in this fallen world. In the Sermon on the Mount, He began by speaking of the blessings that come to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. He said that we would be blessed if people insult us and persecute us, and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of Him. And the first generation of Christians did not have to wait long to feel the weight of these words coming to bear upon them. After Jesus was put to death, those who followed Him by faith were soon to follow Him in both suffering and death. Here in our text, Jesus was preparing them for what they would experience as He told them in advance of “these things” which they must anticipate would come upon them in the world.

In the previous chapter, He said that “these things” would include hatred and persecution. Hatred and persecution of Christians has taken many forms over the last two millennia, but Jesus here specifies two forms that His first followers should anticipate. The first one He mentions is a specific manifestation of hatred – they will be made outcasts from the synagogue. As Boice has pointed out, this is a far different thing from being denied membership or being removed from membership in the average American church.[3] If one is denied or removed from membership in a typical American church, there is usually nothing standing in their way from just going to join another church if they so desire. Excommunication from the Jewish synagogue would be far more severe for any Jewish person in the first century. The fear of being cast out of the synagogue was so great that it silenced the parents of the man whom Jesus healed from congenital blindness (9:22), as well as some of the leaders who were beginning to believe in Jesus (12:42).

We may consider this threat to be quite mild, because we probably have no real desire to enter into a synagogue where Christ is not publicly proclaimed and worshiped in the first place. We may agree with Calvin, who optimistically commented, “Nothing is more desirable than to be driven out of any assembly from which Christ is banished.”[4] But most of us are not Jews, and nothing in our culture compares to what the synagogue stood for in that day. Certainly it was the spiritual center of Jewish life, the place where worship, singing praise, and reading Scripture took place. Hardly anyone owned their own copy of the Scriptures, so if a Jewish Christian wanted to sing praises to Jehovah and hear from God’s Word, the synagogue was the most likely place to do that. But, churches would be established in time, and Jewish Christians would no longer look to the synagogue as their place of worship. Still, the synagogue was the center of Jewish social life. Being outcast from it meant that one would be shunned by his friends and family, ostracized from the community, and looked upon as something worse than a Gentile pagan. A Jewish Christian who was excommunicated from the synagogue would almost certainly lose his job, or if he was self-employed, lose his customer-base. They would even be denied the right of proper burial upon their death.[5]

While we may never be able to relate to what a Jewish Christian would experience upon being outcast from the synagogue, it seems increasingly likely that Christians who stand uncompromisingly on biblical convictions, even in America, will deal with social and economic pressures that are in many ways similar. Some of you have experienced first hand how fickle the ties of earthly friendship and even the bonds of family can be when we speak up for Jesus. It seems that it only will get worse in the days to come. Christian business owners are facing legal turmoils and degradation in the public square for trying to run their business on biblical principles. It is not hard to imagine that the church will face it soon enough, internally and externally. It is a manifestation of the world’s hatred for Christ and His followers, and we must anticipate it.

Still, many Christians in other nations would consider our struggles here to be “light and momentary afflictions” (2 Cor 4:17) compared to the “fiery ordeal” (1 Pet 4:12) which has come upon them. They can relate more to the second specific example of the world’s persecution that Jesus mentions here. He says, in addition to the threat of excommunication, there is the threat of murder. When Jesus said these words, the eleven faithful apostles of the Lord were seated around Him, Judas having already left the room. According to Christian tradition, every single one of these men, with the exception of the apostle John, were indeed killed for their faith in Christ. And many more followed them, to such an extent that by the end of the second century, Tertullian could say that the blood of the martyrs had become the seed of the church. And it continues today around the world. The wholesale slaughter of Christians by ISIS in the Islamic world today can be seen carried out on YouTube, and just a few weeks ago we saw the grisly images of the massacre of the largely Christian student body at Kenya’s Garissa University by al-Shabaab. Talk to our friends from Nigeria after the service today and ask them about the atrocities committed by Boko Haram. And we have not even scratched the surface of daily breaking news. But Jesus said Christians should anticipate this very thing.

This is why the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that is so frequently proclaimed on television is completely spiritually bankrupt. These charlatans are saying that if you follow Jesus, you can expect to be happy, healthy, and wealthy all the days of your life. That is NOT what Jesus said. He said that if you follow Him, you should expect to suffer, be hated, and even killed for the sake of His name. What Jesus promised us was a suffering free existence in heaven AFTER this world has done all it can to you, not BEFORE. Martin Luther said almost 500 years ago that this sort of easy to believe gospel that carries no earthly cost is “the utterance of Satan.”[6] Don’t read it, don’t watch it, don’t listen to it. Jesus promised you something altogether different. Trust Him.  

Most alarming perhaps about what “these things” are that Jesus tells us to anticipate is why “these things” will happen. Notice that in both specific cases that Jesus mentions, the persecution springs from religious roots. He says that those who kill you will think that they are offering service to God. The Greek word indicates “an act or sacrifice of worship.” They will think they are worshipping God by sacrificing Christians. 

It began with persecution at the hands of Jewish religious leaders. The book of Acts records multiple incidents of this, and we even see the dramatic conversion of one of the staunchest persecutors: Saul of Tarsus, who became better known as the Apostle Paul. Paul dished it out and he took it. He says in Philippians 3 that it was his zeal for his Hebrew faith that led him to persecute the church. In 2 Corinthians 11, he confesses that his zeal for Christ had earned him persecution at the hands of the Jews. “Five times,” he says, “I received from the Jews 39 lashes.” That was a specifically prescribed punishment to be meted out by synagogue authorities.[7] An ancient Jewish midrash had said, “Whoever sheds the blood of the godless is as one who offers a sacrifice.”[8] By the time John’s Gospel was written, there was even a commonly used prayer in synagogue services that called on God to curse “the Nazarenes (as Jewish Christians were commonly called) and heretics.”[9]

In time, the Romans added their heavy hand to religiously motivated Christian persecution. Because the Roman Emperor was to be considered “Lord and God” by all citizens of the Empire, the confession of Christians that “Jesus is Lord” became a crime of treason and blasphemy, punishable by death. In time, as a result of the unholy union of church and state in Rome, even the Catholic Church began to put genuine followers of Christ to death. It is estimated that more than fifty million people whom the Catholic Church considered to be heretics, many of whom were Bible-believing Christians, were put to death between the birth of the papacy in 606 AD and the mid-nineteenth century.[10]

Today, throughout the world, violence against Christianity is carried out in the name of Allah, the names of any number of Hindu deities, the name of atheistic secularism (which is as much or more of a religion as any other), and so on. Jesus says that ultimately, all these come down to a common denominator: “These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.” Those who claim to act in the name of their deity demonstrate their profound ignorance of the one and only true and living God. No matter how sincere they may be (and believe me, the most sincerely religious people in the world are often those who persecute the followers of Christ), they do not know God! Sincerity of faith has nothing to do at all with correctness of faith.[11] They may be sincere, but they are sincerely deluded if they do not know Christ. Jesus says repeatedly throughout the Gospels that to reject Him is to reject God. You may think, “That is an awfully narrow-minded and judgmental thing to say.” Friends, I didn’t say it! Jesus did! And He not only speaks the truth, He is the truth (John 14:6). Now, it would be tempting to view the lost world which does not know God as an enemy, but these people are not our enemies. Satan is our enemy, and these people are his slaves and hostages. We have been called and commissioned by Jesus for a rescue mission to set them free. The weapons of our mission are not physical or carnal, they are spiritual. Our weapons are prayer, the Gospel, the Word of God, and our testimony. It may be the case, however, that our testimony will be sealed with our blood. They will think that they are offering a service and sacrifice of worship to God, and ironically, they act better than they know. Their deed is not received by God as a worshipful offering, but the life of that believer which they have snuffed out is. In the name of their gods, they invite the world to come and kill with them. Jesus Christ invites us to come and die with Him. He tells us that we must anticipate these things that the world will do to us.

But then He says also that …

 II. We must remember “these things” that the Lord has said to us (vv 1, 4).

A few years ago, around this time of year (tax season), my accountant called me and said, “I have good news and I have bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” Has anyone ever said that to you? Who in their right mind ever wants to hear bad news? Your friend may call you today and say, “How was church today? What was the sermon about?” You might say, “Oh, the pastor talked about how people will hate us and kill us.” Wait, what? That’s not why you came to church. You want to hear “good news”! The word “Gospel” means “good news,” and here we are just talking about bad news! Well, hold on to your hats, folks, because there is good news. But first there is worse news.

Jesus tells us that when these things happen, we must remember His Word. We must remember His Word because there is something worse than being hated, persecuted, ostracized, and killed for our faith. In verse 1, He says, “These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling.” The word used here for “stumbling” is a Greek word from which we get the English word “scandal.” It is used only one other time in John’s Gospel – in Chapter 6 – and there, the word has to do with abandoning one’s faith in Christ. Jesus says, “I am telling you in advance that the world will do these things to you so that when it happens you will not abandon your faith in Me!” Abandoning your faith in Him under the pressures of persecution would be far worse than dying for your faith in Him. We call it “apostasy,” the tragic condition of false or counterfeit faith in Christ.

Now you are good Southern Baptists, and you rightly believe that once a person is saved by faith in Jesus Christ, they can never lose their salvation. This is taught plainly throughout the New Testament, and we dare not deny it. But the New Testament also plainly and frequently warns us that not all who profess to be believers in Jesus genuinely are. The evidence of our faith is the perseverance of our faith throughout the course of our lives. If one who previously claimed to be a Christian, we would not say that they “lost” their salvation, but we would certainly question if they ever had it. Jesus said in Matthew 10:22, “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who had endured to the end who will be saved.” As Luther said, “Faith is vain where it does not continue steadfast to the end.”[12] The late Adrian Rogers said it this way, “Faith that fizzles at the finish had a flaw from the first.”[13]

In John 6, when Jesus preached the hard truths of His Gospel, the Bible says, “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” Jesus said to Peter, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” And Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Indeed. If we were to turn away from Him, we would turn away from our only promise of hope and rest! But those who do not have a sincere and genuine faith in Christ consider the cost of suffering with Him too high to pay. Throughout the centuries, many have fled the faith when the flames of suffering were fanned in their direction. In the second century, when Pliny the Younger was seeking out Christians in the Roman Empire, he wrote to the Emperor Trajan that he had found some who admitted “that they had been Christians, but they had ceased to be so many years ago, some as much as twenty years ago.”[14] And it continues to happen to the present day. Friends, Jesus is here pointing us to His very own Word, so that when the world turns its murderous hatred toward us, we will remember that He told us it would be this way. If we genuinely have saving faith in Christ, then we will respond to whatever sufferings must be faced in His name as William Tyndale did. During the sixteenth century, when he was persecuted and threatened with death because of his efforts to make the Bible available in the English language, Tyndale said with calm confidence, “I never expected anything else.”[15] If we are scandalized by the threat of suffering for Christ, to the point of abandoning our faith in Him, then it may well be said of us what John said of those who had already abandoned Christ by the end of the first century: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 Jn 2:19). To hear the Lord Jesus say, when the days of our lives have reached their end, “I never knew you; Depart from Me,” is a fate far worse than to be hated, persecuted, or even killed for our faith in Him.

So there is this “worse” news – the news that the persecution may become so intense that it would drive us away from Christ, thus proving that we never really knew Him in the first place. But thank God there is also good news. These same fiery trials that test our faith also have the capability to strengthen and further anchor us in our faith in Christ. In verse 4, Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, so that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them.” We must remember that the things we must endure in this fallen world are not beyond His knowledge or control. He could prevent them; He could intervene; but if He does not, it is only because His glory will shine more brightly through our sufferings than through our ease. The lost culture of America has not yet had the opportunity to see the beauty of Christ because we have had no price to pay for following Him. But as our liberties evaporate and our road grows more difficult, American Christians have the opportunity to join our voices with a mighty chorus of faithful saints and martyrs to say, “Do to me what you will, Jesus is worth it.” And then they will see that He is beautifully glorious and that our strong faith in Him is sincere and secure. 

It may appear that we live in a time when all of the power belongs to the enemies of the cross. Jesus called it “their hour” in verse 4. But friends, we must remember that “their hour” was inaugurated by “His hour,” the appointed time at which, in the Father’s sovereign plan, He suffered and died to redeem us from our sins and rose again to reconcile us forever to God. But in what appears to be “their hour” of power and victory over the cause of Christ, they are participating in what will ultimately be their great demise. We must remember what Jesus said, and remember that when it seemed as though He was suffering utter defeat, He was actually securing ultimate victory over the world, and we have become participants in His victory by our faith in Him. Theirs may be the hour, but His is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever, Amen.

The sufferings which threaten to snuff out our faith actually serve to strengthen our faith as we remember what He has said. None of this has come upon Him unaware, and it should not take us by surprise either. Because we serve the all-knowing, all-powerful, death-proof King, we can endure all “these things,” because we rest secure, anchored in the promises of His word.

The Heidelburg Catechism, written in the middle of the sixteenth century, asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Is it that you have a life of ease and luxury here in this world? By no means. The answer given in the Catechism says that our one comfort both in life and death is “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, delivered me from all the power of the devil, and preserves me so much that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head.”

[1] Chuck Colson, “Forword,” in Nina Shea, In the Lion’s Den (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), ix.
[2] Scot McNight, 1 Peter (NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 35.
[3] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 4:1202-3.
[4] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 370.
[5] Boice, ibid.
[6] Martin Luther, “Sunday After Christ’s Ascension. (Exaudi).” in Complete Sermons of Martin Luther (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 2.1.249.
[7] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 531.
[8] Numbers Rabbah 21:3, cited in Robert Mounce, “John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (rev. ed.; Vol. 10; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 584.
[9] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel & Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.215.
[10] John Dowling, History of Romanism (New York: Edward Walker, 1845), 8:541. Cited in John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 12-21 (Chicago: Moody, 2008), 188.
[11] Mounce, 584.
[12] Luther, 2.1.246.
[13] I have no source for this quote other than personal recollections of hearing Rogers make this statement on more than one occasion.
[14] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (vol. 2; Daily Study Bible; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 189.
[15] Barclay, 189. 

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