We Christians sometimes buy into a lie. We assume that if we're not like those hateful, judgmental people who call themselves Christians, then the world will see that we're actually pretty reasonable folks and want to follow Jesus. We believe that if Christians just cleaned up our act, then Jesus could finally captivate the hearts and minds of our neighbors.
The only problem with this view is that it has no basis in the example or teaching of Jesus. Nice Christians don't always finish first. Even though Jesus loved perfectly to the end, his closest friends and disciples abandoned him when the political and religious authorities pinned him to the cross. Peter rebounded from his shameful denial of Jesus and vowed to love Jesus by loving his people. His reward? Jesus told him to expect that he, too, would stretch out his hands in unwanted death that would nevertheless glorify God (John 21:15-19).
The apostle John did not endure such a gruesome demise. But he heard and recorded Jesus' farewell discourse, in which the Son of God told the disciples that the world would hate them just as they hated Jesus and his heavenly Father for convicting them of their sin (John 15:24).
"If you were of the world," Jesus told his disciples on the night he was betrayed, "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" (John 15:19-20).
We should not be surprised that Christians today so easily forget or overlook these bracing words from Jesus. Just days after Jesus said farewell, while they hid behind locked doors in the aftermath of the crucifixion, the disciples obviously missed the significance of their Savior's teaching: "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). They had expected triumphant, bloody insurrection, and instead he gave them a cold, empty tomb. Only in the aftermath of the resurrection, when they saw and heard and touched Jesus in the flesh, did they finally begin to understand that the way of glory passes through Golgotha.
Acting Like Jesus
When we assume the world will love us if we start acting like Jesus, then we're not actually acting like Jesus. We love to cite Jesus washing the feet of his disciples as evidence of the kind of humble compassion we should emulate. Indeed, it is. But eleven pairs of these feet washed by Jesus scattered away in fear, and one infamous pair scampered to find the chief priests and officers to arrest Jesus as he prayed.
Love for the world motivated by anything other than love for Jesus inevitably fails to offer the kind of love the world needs. Don't think that Jesus would be any more popular in our day than he was in his own hometown, even his own family. Jesus was known to speak with uncommon authority because he told the truth about bankrupt religious practice. He would do the same among us, calling out the religious and non-religious for idols we have harbored.
When our love is motivated more by approval of the world than faithfulness to Jesus, then we turn against other Christians we believe hinder our goals. Have you noticed this trend? Consider someone who fears that Jesus' teaching against greed (Matt. 6:19-21) hinders churches from reaching upwardly mobile young professionals. His enemy becomes those Christians who teach "poverty theology" and reject the goodness of creation and the necessity of amassing resources in order to advance the kingdom of God. Notice: rarely do you hear anyone openly say we should disobey Jesus' teaching. After all, Jesus told his disciples that if they would abide in his love, then they must keep his commandments (John 15:10). Rather, the person asking you to disobey Jesus instead seeks to convince you that the church won't grow and the world won't follow Jesus unless you love the world enough to rethink your biblical interpretation. Should you plug your ears to this siren song, you will be accused of being part of the reason why the world has rejected Jesus.
But as we've already seen from the example of Jesus, we could change the content or confuse the clarity of his teaching, but the condition of our hearts would still prevent us from following him. Not until Jesus breathed his Spirit on the disciples (John 20:22) so they could recall what he taught them earlier about the coming persecution (John 16:2) did they finally find the strength to obey and proclaim the good news. Apart from the Spirit it's impossible for us to resist the world as necessary. The world tempts and confuses Christians. Even the enemies who try to kill us think they offer service to God (John 16:2). The apostle Paul regarded himself zealous in his love of God until Jesus blinded him with forgiveness for his sins and grace to walk in true righteousness. When Jesus reveals himself he gives believers eyes to see our sin as futile and his teaching as good and perfect.
Love One Another
Along with sending his Spirit, Jesus gave us a key test of discipleship before he said farewell. "A new commandment I give to you: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).
We can see the problem when other Christians lose Jesus by lacking love and prayerful concern for their enemies (Matt. 5:44). But how many of us have likewise forgotten Jesus because in our pursuit of the world we have not loved fellow disciples? We're so eager to win the world's approval that we violate the most basic commandments and dare to invoke Jesus' name in our defense. Don't trust anyone who attempts to justify his anger at other Christians. And don't think you can win the world by disobeying any of Jesus' commands. Jesus' life, death, and teaching offer our only sure basis for unity among the body of Christ and effective mission in the world.
"Unity should never be attained at the cost of truth," Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor write in their new book, The Final Days of Jesus, "yet unity is essential among God's people, particularly in regard to a shared mind and purpose and mutual love in the work of fulfilling Christ's mission to the world."
In keeping with Passover custom, Jesus and his disciples would have likely sung Psalms 113-118 together before he said farewell. As Jesus prepared to drink the cup given by his Father (John 19:11) and ascend the cross, the words of Psalm 118 in particular must have offered great comfort and courage in his unique mission. We know he had cited Psalm 118:22-23 in debate with Jewish religious leaders: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes" (Psalm 118:22-23).
We must also consider the repeated refrain that begins and ends this beloved psalm: "Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!" (Psalm 118:1, 29). His covenant love endures even the worst cruelty the world can conceive. It endures the betrayal of close friends. It endures age after age, from Jesus until now and forevermore.
We, too, need these comforting, sobering words today. "It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes" (Psalm 119:8-9). We must neither seek nor expect the world's approval. And we must claim the promise of God's Word that we can find refuge in Jesus. As he empowers us to obey his commandments and love his disciples, we testify to a watching world that Jesus has come from the Father (John 17: 23) offering eternal life to all who repent and believe (John 17:3).