John 16:1 “All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. 2 They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. 3 They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. 4 I have told you this, so that when their time comes you will remember that I warned you about them. I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me.
Jesus seems fully aware that life for the Christian after his departure will not be easy. And so he has told them ‘all this’– referring back to at least John 15:18-27– so that they will be strengthened to remain true. And now, furthermore, not only will they be hated by ‘the world’– perhaps assumed to be the gentile world, or more likely, the created order in rebellion against God– they will also be opposed by the Jewish world. They will be excommunicated from the synagogue, that place which was at the heart of Jewish national identity and religion, throughout the known world (v2). Indeed, those zealous Jews opposing the Christians will believe themselves to be offering service to God as they persecute Christians.
Saul of Tarsus was one such persecutor, actively seeking to destroy the early church and lock up the Christians. When Stephen was being stoned for his Christian faith, Saul was nearby giving his approval (Acts 7:54-58). Later, after his conversion, the same man said,
“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. (Acts 26:9-10)
The early church in the wider Roman Empire also experienced persecution at the hands of Jewish zealots. This is evident in Jesus’ words to the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia (see Rev 2:8-10; 3:8-10).
And so before his departure Jesus prepares his disciples for opposition, even from within the Jewish family. He prepares them so that they will not ‘fall away’ (v1). The word Jesus uses literally means ‘to stumble’; to be so shocked and outraged that they fall into sin and perhaps no longer follow him. The opposition that Christians face always has this as its ultimate aim. Satan aims for nothing less that to destroy Christian faith, and thereby the Christian person.
Standing firm in the face of opposition and persecution is no easy thing. And this challenging experience is to be expected, says Jesus. And yet it is never done alone. God the Holy Spirit is always present with the Christian for their comfort, strength and encouragement (Jn 14:25-27; 15:26-27; 16:7-11). The church– brothers and sisters in the Christian family– is universal. Those who suffer for Christ have a family both seen and unseen who are for them, with them, and urging them on to faithfulness. Having briefly recounted the suffering of many Old Testament saints, the writer to the Hebrews encourages the persecuted New Testament church with these words:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [whose names have just been recounted in Hebrews 11], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Heb. 12:1-3).
Lord God, please protect and comfort your people throughout the world who are persecuted for their trust in you. Grant them encouragement, faithfulness and courage to testify to you, even in very difficult circumstances. Do not let them be tested beyond their ability to stand, and graciously bring them relief and peace. I ask this so that Jesus might be glorified in them and through them, Amen.