“Remember the word that I said unto you, ‘A servant is not greater than his lord.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).
Whenever you see a passage of Scripture providing great comfort and encouragement, look out; someone is going through trial, suffering, or persecution, or will be doing so shortly. And so it is for Jesus and His disciples.
Most of the last “half” of John’s Gospel is dedicated to Jesus’ final discourse with the eleven disciples: the discourse covers John 13:31-17:26, with the last supper before it (John 13:1-30) and His betrayal, trial, death, and resurrection covered over the last four chapters (John 18:1-21:25). This discourse has no real parallel in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; its prominent place and detail exist for a reason. These are the final words Jesus will speak to His disciples before His death and resurrection. This is His final chance to speak a word of encouragement and exhortation to them, and He took full advantage of the opportunity.
Jesus explained the reason for His departure and assured and comforted the disciples with the promise of the Comforter and the ability to ask of God (John 13:31-15:17). This comfort and assurance would prove necessary, for within a matter of hours the disciples would see Jesus led away in betrayal; He would be humiliated in a show trial; He would endure derision, scourging, and crucifixion, the most agonizing form of execution imaginable (John 18:1-19:30). The disciples would be scattered and left to sort out just what happened.
Such is what would happen to their Lord; and, as Jesus had told them, a servant is not greater than his lord (John 15:20; cf. John 13:16). Such was not intended to be a news flash; the disciples were perfectly aware that servants are not greater than their lord. Jesus did not speak of hierarchies; He spoke of associations and connections. The disciples of Jesus should not expect to receive better treatment than Jesus. And they would see how their people and the world would treat Jesus, and that would give plenty of room for concern and fear at a time when Jesus would no longer be with them.
And so Jesus gave them warning in advance. Those who would persecute Jesus would persecute His disciples as well (John 15:20), and it would come to pass. The disciples would be hauled before the same Sanhedrin which condemned Jesus (Acts 5:17-42); many would suffer humiliation, violence, and ultimately death from Jewish and Gentile authorities alike (e.g. Acts 7:54-60, 12:1-5). This was not exactly the fate they would have thought they signed up for when beginning to follow Jesus as the Christ; they were more likely expecting prime seats and power in Jesus’ new government. Yet Jesus was not the Christ they, or the Israelites, were really expecting; nevertheless, He was the Christ sent from God, and the Messiah Israel, and the whole world, truly needed.
The Apostles would be first in line to proclaim what God had accomplished in Jesus, and those who did or would have listened to Jesus would listen to them (John 15:20). After Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, His Kingdom movement numbered around 120 (cf. Acts 1:15); at this point, no one would consider this mission to be much of a success. Yet, within days, 120 would become over 3,000; within a few years, tens of thousands of Israelites had come to believe the Gospel of Jesus proclaimed by the Apostles and submitted to the doctrines taught by the Apostles (cf. Acts 2:41-9:31). The Gospel would then be proclaimed, and believed upon, by people of the nations around the Roman world, ultimately overcoming the mighty Roman Empire. The preaching of the Apostles set off a movement which would turn the world upside down, but a servant is not greater than his lord. All of it was only made possible because Jesus is Lord and Christ (Matthew 28:18-20).
Christians today did not follow Jesus as He lived in Galilee and Judea, yet we have put our confidence and our hope in Jesus as our Lord (Acts 2:36). If Jesus is our Lord, and we are His servants, then we also are not greater than our Lord. Powerful forces conspired to marginalize Jesus, and failing that, humiliated and killed Him. If they did so to Jesus, they will do the same to us. Through tribulation Christians enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22); if we are truly godly in Christ Jesus, we will encounter persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We must always be prepared to endure persecution for confessing the name of Jesus and embodying His life and truth. We must also be prepared to embody Jesus in that persecution: not in immaturity wondering how it could be, lash out in anger or fear, or put our hope and confidence in some kind of strongman to wrestle back some cultural supremacy, but to absorb the humiliation, suffering, and pain without responding in kind, entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator and doing good, just as our Lord did (1 Peter 2:18-25, 4:19). We can only hope to be glorified like Jesus if we have suffered like Jesus; the way to Zion is through Calvary, and we have no reason to believe God will build us a bypass around Calvary to get to Zion.
While we must always be prepared to endure persecution, we cannot treat everyone with whom we come into contact as if they are going to be a persecutor. Not everything called persecution is actually persecution; not all disagreement and resistance is automatically persecution. Some will persecute; others will hear. How can those who would hear listen if we have assumed they would be persecutors and treated them accordingly? Jesus knew what the persecutors would do to Him, and yet He still preached and served among the Israelites, seeking to save whoever would come to Him (cf. Luke 19:10). Those who would follow Him must embody the same attitude: persecutors may come. Yet others would hear, if only someone would tell them.
Jesus worked not only to assure and comfort His disciples in His final discourse, but also to prepare them for their commission as Apostles. We are not the Apostles, but we have been commissioned to bear witness to the testimony of the Apostles regarding Jesus (2 Timothy 2:2). Those who would persecute Jesus and the Apostles will most likely persecute us, and we must be prepared for that. Yet those who would keep Jesus’ word, and the word of the Apostles, will most likely hear us and keep the word of God which is proclaimed to them. May we seek to embody faithfulness to Jesus whether before those who would persecute us or those who would obey Jesus, bear witness to Jesus, and obtain the victory in Jesus!
Ethan R. Longhenry