THE SPECTER OF PERSECUTION
by Bob Wheeler
As Jesus comes to the end of His discourse He has elicited a response of faith from His disciples. “Now we are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should question You. By this we believe that You came forth from God” (John 16:30; NKJV). But Jesus responded by making a disturbing comment: “Do you now believe? Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me” (vv. 31,32).
They had been faithful disciples. They had known Him, and had grown to love Him. And they understood what He was saying; they responded in faith.
Or did they? What does it mean to believe in Christ? They certainly thought that they believed. But Jesus predicted, and subsequent events bore out His prediction, that when the hour of trial would come they would desert Him. Confronted with a contingent of armed guards and soldiers, “Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled” (Matt. 26:56; cf. Mk. 14:50). What a sober warning against over-confidence!
But then Jesus added, “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” There may be times when friends will betray us, when even our best friends will desert us. And yet our hope does not ultimately rest on man, but on God Himself. The question is, is our faith in God so strong that when everyone else deserts the cause we will remain faithful to Him?
Jesus then goes on to make an observation about His disciples’ position in the world in general: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (v. 33). “In the world,” He says, “you will have tribulation.” He was about to be arrested and crucified. That is what the world thinks about Christ. And if we remain faithful to Christ, if we try to live lives that are pleasing to Him and be faithful witnesses to His truth, we will “have tribulation.” Hardship, difficulty and even outright persecution are sure to follow. Let no one deceive us. Jesus did not promise His followers lives of ease and comfort. His path led Him to the cross; and if we follow Him we may find ourselves facing persecutions as well.
But Jesus says, “be of good cheer,” or, as it might be translated, “take courage” (NASV) or “take heart” (NIV, ESV); and then He explains: “I have overcome the world.” Christ’s death and resurrection was the decisive turning point in history. The war is still going on. There are battles yet to be won. But the final victory is guaranteed.
The opposition we face is very real. The human heart, in its natural condition, is at enmity with God. Human society may present an outward appearance of decency and good order. But underneath is a latent hostility towards God, a refusal to submit to His law, and resentment of His authority. The Christian gospel, clearly and faithfully proclaimed, exposes all of that; and that is why it meets with natural resistance. And it often happens, in this normal, ordinary course of things, that people will pressure us to make ethical compromises, often for the sake of corporate profits. There are short term consequences to pay for remaining faithful to Christ.
But where will it all end? In the short run human recklessness leads to eventual ruin. And in the final end we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ in the great and terrible day of reckoning.
In the final analysis we have no choice. Satan is doomed to destruction. There is no point in following him no matter what the short-term consequences.
Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.” One might wonder how we could have peace if what we are to expect in the world is tribulation. The purpose of the whole discourse was to prepare the disciples for what lie immediately ahead. And in the discourse Jesus repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping His commandments, of prayer, and of the work of the Holy Spirit. We can have peace, an inward peace, but only to the extent that we have a meaningful relationship with Christ Himself. It is peace “in Me.” It is only as we commune with Him, consciously seek to obey His commandments and are filled with His Spirit that we can experience that inward peace in the midst of outward difficulties.
Difficult days may lie ahead. The surrounding culture is rapidly changing in a non-Christian and even anti-Christian direction. It is no longer respectable to be a practicing, Bible-believing Christian with conservative views of morality. Will we be able to meet the challenge? Not if we are content with a merely formal, institutionalized form of church life. We need to develop a deeper relationship with Christ Himself – to love Him, commune with Him and serve Him faithfully. Then, in Him, we may have peace.