[Jesus said:] “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jesus makes two big promises that Christians need to hear. The latter is more popular and, at first glance, more comforting. It is the kind of promise that people put on the signature line of their emails or make into memes on Facebook or Instagram. The former is just as certain, however, and equally significant, but in a different way.
Jesus spoke these two big promises to His disciples in the Upper Room just before His death and resurrection, but they apply to all followers of Christ.
We’ll start with the first promise: “In the world you will have tribulation.”
Jesus begins by talking about the world. He said a lot about the world in the Upper Room that night: it cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:7); it does not give peace as Jesus gives (John 14:27); it hates Jesus and will therefore hate His disciples (John 15:18); Christians are not “of the world” and are chosen “out of the world” (John 15:19); the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:11); and the world will rejoice while the disciples weep and lament (John 16:20). Then comes John 16:33, where Jesus promises His disciples that in the world they will have tribulation.
The word translated “tribulation” has both a literal and a figurative meaning. In the literal sense it means physical pressure. This pressure is not the good kind. Think pressure cooker or hydraulic press. The kind of pressure you experience when life squeezes you or when circumstances beyond your control press down on you. It is when the weight of the world bears down and threatens to crush you. Christians should expect this kind of pressure from the world.
When you are not experiencing this kind of tribulation, the promise of “you will have tribulation” hardly seems comforting. It seems almost threatening—at least disconcerting. But when you are in the midst of it—when the pressure of this world is bearing down on you—it is comforting to know it has not caught God unawares. It is comforting to know God has not abandoned you. Indeed, experiencing the unpleasant fulfillment of this first promise drives us toward dependence on the second promise: “Take heart, I have overcome the world.”
This is not the first time Jesus told people to “take heart.” He said the same to the disciples during the storm at sea (Mark 6:50), to the paralytic in Capernaum (Matthew 9:2), and to the bleeding woman who touched the fringe of His garment (Matthew 9:22). Those who follow Jesus are to be “always of good courage” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) even amid extreme pressure.
On what basis? On the basis of His victory. He has overcome the world which opposes Him. Note the verb tense. “I have overcome.” When Jesus makes this promise, it is before Easter. Even before He rises from the dead, Jesus has overcome the world. His resurrection confirms His lordship of the world opposing Him. This is no small thing, for it reminds us how His victory over the ongoing pressures we face is already completed, even before we finish enduring them.
The disciples are going to need these comforting promises of Jesus. Though they confidently claim that they understand Jesus’ parting words, Jesus utters the sober prediction that they will soon abandon Him. The time is coming when their faith will undergo a severe test, a test they will fail miserably. When push comes to shove, when the going gets tough, they will all scatter, each going his own way. They will leave Jesus alone in His darkest hour. But Jesus will overcome.
In a very short time, Jesus will face and overcome tribulation greater than any of His disciples will ever face. In great fear of death, He will sweat blood on the Mount of Olives. He will be abandoned by all His disciples. He will willingly give Himself into the hands of those who will lead Him mercilessly, bound hard and cruel, from one unjust judge to another. He will be falsely accused and condemned, spit upon, scoffed at, and struck in the face with fists. He will be hit, whipped, crowned with thorns, and treated wretchedly—like a worm and not a man. He will be counted a sinner and hung up between two evildoers as a curse. He will be pierced in hand and feet with nails, and in His highest thirst He will be given vinegar and gall to drink. Finally, in great pain, He will give up His spirit.
All of this Jesus will do for you and me, so that He might redeem us poor and condemned creatures, not by any of our works, merit, or worthiness, but by His holy suffering, death, and shedding of blood. So that He might pay our debt and we might be healed by His wounds. So that He might overcome sin, death, and the world on our behalf.
Let us heed the warning: Pride goes before a fall. Those boasting about spiritual maturity stand in danger of succumbing to human pride and unbelief. And none of us are immune. The devil and the world seek to scare us or ensnare us. And our old Adam is all too often a willing ally.
It’s no secret that it’s not easy to be a Christian these days. Millions of Christians across the world are experiencing persecution. Thousands are martyred each year. While we need not meet in secret, and none of us here has yet shed his or her blood due to tribulation, the time of being in the majority—if not in numbers, at least in cultural and political influence—is past. We are living in what some call a post-Christian era. Politicians used to at least give lip-service to Christians and Christianity; now some openly mock us or chastise us. A few of them go so far as to insist that they are the true Christians, and that we who hold to biblical teachings regarding the sanctity of marriage and human life are unloving and teaching falsely. For most of us, we are in completely new territory.
What are Christians to do, scattered throughout a pagan world that seems to thrive on hatred, violence, and oppression? What are Christians to do when we feel we are a minority, out of place, out of step, out of time? With the world falling apart all around us, what are scattered Christians to do?
Two common responses of Christians to the world’s attacks is withdrawal or compromise. Both are toxic because both acts reject the vocation and intellectual inheritance handed down to us. The act of withdrawal contracts Christianity leading to apathy or elitism, whereas compromise reinterprets Christian doctrine according to the ways of thinking currently in vogue. Withdrawal and compromise are inconsistent with biblical Christian living. Withdrawal denies that the Christian life is to be lived out in our vocations, lived out in the world, not of the world, nor separated from it. Compromise ultimately denies Christ and Him crucified for a world of sinners.
Dr. Peter J. Scaer had this to say about that in an online essay entitled “Double Down”:
For years, the American church has been in decline, and for a good number of reasons. My own best guess is that prosperity isn’t good for the soul. The more we have, the less God is needed. Or so we think. And so, what have we done? Well, we seek to make the Church more like the world that surrounds us. The Church becomes less a sanctuary, more a motivational center. The hymns are replaced with praise songs, not so much light, but flimsy. Fellow Lutherans have a hard time finding a decent church, one that has reverence, one that uses the liturgy, and sings hymns that fortify.
And still we wonder, what should we do? I would say, enough with the retreating, and the self-doubt. Enough we trying to be what we are not. What should we do? Double down. Double down on Lutheranism. Double down on our confession. Double down on hymnody and liturgy. As the world grows darker, the Church must be salt and light. Salt that loses its saltiness is good for nothing. And the greater the darkness, the greater the light that still shines.
And if the world is hell bent on spreading lies, let’s be heaven bent on speaking the truth, even and especially when it’s under assault. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” says our Lord. And as often as we do, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. So it is, we are memory keepers. We hold sacred the Scriptures that uphold us. One thing is expected of a steward, and that is faithfulness. And he who is faithful to the end will be saved. No gimmicks, no rebranding, no euphemisms, or treating the truth as if a distasteful vegetable that needs to be hidden under a fatty and sugary sauce.
So, dust off those hymnals, those catechisms and Bibles, and together, let’s double down on the faith of our fathers, the one thing needful.
What should the Church do in the face of declining interest and increasing opposition? Not new strategies or promotions, but more of what she’s done for centuries—the basics of faithful Word and Sacrament ministry.
Let’s be making disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded us (Matthew 28:19-20).
Let’s live in the benefits of our Baptism, which works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Let’s put to death the Old Adam in us by daily contrition and repentance, that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Let’s live in the new life of the Spirit, loving the Lord our God with all our heart and all of our strength and with all of mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving one another as Christ has loved us.
Let’s be confessing our sins, and receiving absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
Let’s be receiving Christ’s true body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith.
Let’s be singing joyfully and heartily the liturgy and treasury of hymns—old and new—that we have received from our fathers in the faith.
Let’s have no fear of those who may harm us, nor be troubled, but in our hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us; yet doing it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when we are slandered, those who revile our good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (1 Peter 3:14-16).
Let’s turn to the heavenly Father in prayer, trusting that He hears our petitions and will grant our requests according to His gracious will, for our benefit, and eternal good.
Dear Christian brothers and sisters: In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; Christ has overcome the world. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.