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Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
With these words, Jesus announces that he is the pinnacle of love. At the cross, we have a Savior who not only died for his friends, but also for his enemies. Romans 5:8 tells us that Christ died while we were still sinners, while we were still rebels.
As Christ followers, the selfless, sacrificial love of Jesus is unequivocally something we are called to imitate:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
Christ says it in the strongest, clearest terms: His followers are to be marked by his love – even love for people who despise us.
Certainly, we need to hear this. For even the briefest interaction with our culture reveals that love is often not the reputation of Christians. So with full force, we need to hear this instruction and correction from our Savior. May we, as followers of Christ, be marked in increasing measure by love!
Yet, if you listen closely in Christendom, you’ll increasingly hear a line of thinking – either explicitly or implicitly – that goes like this: “If we, as Christians, would actually start loving as Jesus loved, the world wouldn’t have a problem with Christianity.” In other words, everyone would like Christians if we would just be more loving.
But listen to what Jesus says a little bit later in John 15:
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. (John 15:20)
Jesus tells us that people will respond to us, his servants, just as they did to him, our Master: Some will persecute us, while others will respond in faith to our proclamation of Christ, the incarnate Word.
Make sure you catch this: Jesus was the pinnacle of love. No one was and is more loving than Jesus. Yet, he was despised, mocked, spit on, and crucified. Jesus loved to the uttermost, yet he was still so hated he was hung on a tree.
Jesus warns us that no matter how well we love, we will still be persecuted.
John, who recorded these words of Jesus for us, experienced this tension first-hand. He captured Christ’s teaching on love perhaps more beautifully than anyone else in his Gospel. He also wrote one of the most stirring pleas for believers to live in love in 1 John 4.
But where did John end up? In prison. John, though he was so marked by love, experienced exactly what Jesus said: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
Why are Christ’s words in John 15:20 so important? Because if you believe you can avoid persecution:
You will lose heart.
You will be needlessly discouraged, disappointed, doubting, and despairing, thinking that somehow you’ve failed in your witness. If we are not greater than our Master, who was perfectly loving yet persecuted, then we will also face persecution – even when we are as loving as we can be!
Persecution is not, in and of itself, a sign of ministry failure. Otherwise, we’d have to say Christ’s time on earth was marked by great failure! So don’t set an expectation for yourself in ministry that Jesus didn’t even have for his own ministry. It will set you up for weariness before you ever begin to serve.
You will wander toward arrogance.
There is a subtle arrogance in believing that you can accomplish ministry without persecution, if even Jesus did not avoid it. Praise God for your rightful optimism in Christ’s power to save even the most hardened soul. But let John 15:20 guard you from a subtle arrogance that will put your trust for ministry in your capacity to love instead of in Christ.
You will grow angry with God.
When we think persecution will not and should not be our lot, we will grow angry with God as we face the inevitable trials of ministry. We will believe we are owed comfort or success because of our willingness to serve him. We need realistic expectations about the nature of ministry. Jesus’ faithfulness led him to the cross. John’s faithfulness led him to prison. Sometimes, the most faithful in ministry face the most trials.
You will tread a slippery slope.
When avoiding persecution becomes a measure of ministry success, you will inevitably have to avoid doctrines that will make people stumble. This is dangerous for the souls of your hearers, as you hide important biblical truths from them. This is dangerous for your own soul, as you create a habit of avoiding biblical truths instead of embracing them.
Simply put, there are some doctrines – like sin, God’s holiness, and Christ alone as the way of salvation – that many people still do not like, even when articulated with abounding love. Yes, love is central to the Bible’s teaching, but God’s love shines all the brighter when you see it in harmony with our sin, his love, and his justice.
Yes, let’s freely admit and confess that we, as Christians, have far too often been unloving. But we must not react by then believing that everyone will like us if we are loving enough. That’s simply not the case.
As long as we serve the all-loving Savior who was persecuted, as long as we proclaim that men and women are sinners who need a Savior, as long as we proclaim that this Jesus is the only way to be saved, some will not like us.
So yes – yes please! Let’s encourage one another to be ever more marked by the love of our Savior. But as we do, we must remember John 15:20.
Some will be persuaded by the gospel. Hallelujah!
But some will mock us and persecute us, even if we are as loving as Jesus.
For even Jesus – love incarnate – was persecuted, and we are not greater than our Master.