“Haters gonna hate” is a colloquial saying that long predates the popular Taylor Swift song. It expresses the truth that most have come to realize through experience—people who don’t like you are going to find reasons to not like you. We see it in politics, with presidents criticized by the opposing party regardless of the position they take. We see it in sports, with one athlete simultaneously labeled overrated by one group and the GOAT (“greatest of all time”) by another. Interestingly, we also find it in the Gospel of John, specifically as part of Jesus’s teaching concerning the world.
As we have worked through the Gospel of John in our Wednesday night Bible studies, “the world” has been a frequent theme. In fact, the word is used around 60 times in John’s Gospel. Exploring what the Gospel has to say about the world has caused me to rethink how I view the world, what I expect from the world, and what I should see as my purpose in the world.
1. The world didn’t receive Jesus, so I shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t embrace me as Jesus’s follower.
Right out the gate, in the prologue, the Gospel speaks to the fact that Jesus was not warmly received by the world:
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. (John 1:9-10 ESV)
This is the source of much Christian anxiety. How could the world not know the very one who made it? Not only does the world not know Jesus, the Word become flesh, but Jesus says that the world actually hates him, and if it hates him, it will hate us too. If the world persecuted Jesus, it will persecute us as well:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, 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. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:18-20)
There is not much encouragement there, at least not at first glance. But it is no small comfort to know that the hatred of the world was something Jesus anticipated. In other words, the world’s hatred is not due to our failures or ineffectiveness. The world hates us, because that is exactly what it has always done to Jesus and his followers. Is it frustrating? Of course! But rather than getting mad at the world for being the world, Jesus offers us an alternative.
2. God, through his Son Jesus, loved the very world that refused to receive him.
Here is where we sometimes go off the rails as Jesus’s followers. We allow the world’s rejection to create an adversarial relationship, leading us to view the world as our enemy. Don’t get me wrong; the world is very much against Jesus and his followers. However, that doesn’t mean that we should be against the world. On the contrary, we should be for the world. Is it not interesting that in the same Gospel where we read that the world did not receive Jesus, and where Jesus tells us that the world indeed hates him, we also find that most famous of verses:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
Loving the world doesn’t mean we advocate for the world’s agenda; it means we offer the world what it truly needs rather than what it wants. It means that we lift up Jesus Christ, and allow the love that was manifested on Calvary’s cross to draw people to God. So much of our witness has been damaged because rather than loving a world that hates us, we have decided to hate the world in return. We would do well to remember that Jesus hung on the cross for a world that refused to receive him, and even hated him. He hung on the cross for the very world that put him on the cross.
3. Jesus’s goal was not to change the world, but to draw people out of the world.
On his final night on earth, Jesus prayed fervently for his disciples. In fact, he pointedly said that he was not praying for the world, but for his followers:
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. (John 17:9)
If God loved the world, and is for the world, why didn’t Jesus pray for the world? I think that, in his prayer, Jesus was praying for the world by praying for his followers. He knows that the world is against him, and he knows that the world will always be against him. So, the only way to help the world is by praying for those he will send into the world. I come to this conclusion because later in his prayer, he expressly says that he is not asking for us to be taken out of the world, but that he is sending us, who are not of this world, into the world.
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:14-19)
The picture Jesus is painting is not one of two armies lined up against one another, slugging it out on the field of battle. It is a picture of a rescue operation, of first-responders running into a burning building to bring those trapped inside out to safety. Sure, it would be safer for the fire fighters to stand aside and watch the whole building burn, but that’s not what fire fighters do. It would be easier for God to just take us out of the world that seems at times to be burning down around us, but that isn’t what followers of Jesus do. Fire fighters don the gear designed to keep them as safe as possible, and then head into danger for the sake of others. As Jesus’s people, we head into the world for the sake of others, for the sake of a world that we know hates us. We head into the world sanctified by the truth, the beneficiaries of Jesus’s self-consecration.
As Christians, our relationship with the world is never going to be easy. But, there is comfort in knowing that if the world rejects us, it does so because it sees something of Jesus in us. There is inspiration in our call to love the world that hates us, just as Jesus hung on the cross for the world that put him there. And finally, there is a sense of purpose in understanding that our mission is not to change the world, but to lead people out of the world by magnifying Jesus. And when it all seems like too much, when the temptation to give in becomes almost overwhelming, remember what Jesus told his disciples on the eve of their greatest challenge:
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.