“When the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.”
That’s a quote from Jesus I see repeated a lot, particularly by Christians who feel they are hated for speaking harsh truths. It becomes something of a rallying cry for Christians to urge one another on. I see it mostly from Christians who have made some hateful comments about one group of people or another, and who fall back on this phrase as their defense when people react strongly.
“When the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.” Like that’s a litmus test. If I share what I think is the truth about Jesus, and people hate me, I must be doing it right.
But before we get too attached to that phrase, let’s examine who it was that actually hated Jesus.
Herod hated Jesus when Jesus was a baby. Not because Jesus was speaking harsh truths. He wasn’t. He was a baby. Herod hated Jesus because Herod was a Jew in a place of power, and he knew from the beginning that Jesus was coming to change all of that.
The Pharisees hated Jesus. But not because Jesus was speaking out against sin. That was what they were doing. They hated Jesus because, as the religious elite of the day, they were the ones with the power, with the greatest understanding of the law. They were the ones who had the most to lose by Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Torah.
The Romans killed Jesus, but there’s no indication they hated him. Even the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, found no fault with him. He didn’t hate Jesus. He just cared more about his control over the region of Judea than he did about Jesus.
Do you notice a theme? The people who hated Jesus were the ones with something to lose by what Jesus taught. The ones who hated Jesus were the ones with power. The ones who hated Jesus were the ones with influence. The ones who hate Jesus are the ones who are threatened by his message of reversal, justice, and hope for the least of these.
This even extends beyond the Gospels. In the book of Acts, most of the people love the apostles. They come to them for healing. They come to hear them speak. They take their handkerchiefs as souvenirs and use them to help heal relatives and friends. The people who hate them are the religious leaders. It’s the religious leaders that turn the other people against them. Not because they’re condemning Gentile sins, but because they’re not playing by the rules the religious leaders have set in place.
Even in the rare instances that the Greeks rise up against the apostles, it’s always because the apostles have done something to disrupt the structures of power and wealth. It’s not because they speak out against a particular sin. It’s not because the way of Jesus is disagreeable to most people who have ever lived. It’s not because being a Christian is inherently detestable to non-Christians. It’s because following Jesus means giving up your power and serving those who don’t have it. And people who have power and money don’t like that.
In the Bible, what makes people angry isn’t Jesus’ stance on sin. It’s Jesus’ rejection of the status quo. It’s Jesus’ calling to give yourself up and become a servant. So when we say “The world hated Jesus first” as a justification for our vitriol, perhaps we should take a step back and really examine what that means.
People with power hated Jesus. People without power loved him.
People with money hated Jesus. People with no money loved him.
People who were pious in the Law hated Jesus. People who recognized their failures loved him.
Being hated by the world isn’t the goal. Being hated by the world isn’t a badge of honor to wear proudly. Being hated by the world is something worth introspection – Ask the question – Am I being hated because I champion the poor and oppressed, or am I being hated by those who have traditionally been oppressed.
I’m not saying Christians don’t need to stand up against sin. They do. In their own lives, and in the life of the church, the Church needs to stand against sin. But the Church isn’t against the world. We’re not in a quest to be hated. It’s not us versus them. It should be us serving them. The Church should be an advocate for the world, not a crusader against it. The Church should seek to restore the world, not condemn it. The Church should seek to upset the status quo with love and grace and mercy, not confirm it with moralistic dogma. It’s true that when the world hates Christians, that it hated Jesus first. But it’s also true that the reason the world hated Jesus was because he made life better for the oppressed at the expense of the powerful. Nowadays, most people I see using that phrase are the ones who are trying to improve the lives of the powerful at the expense of the oppressed.
So who rallies around you? When you say, “Well the world hates me because I’m like Jesus.” Stop and see who it is that’s hating you. Stop and see who it is that’s reacting against you.
If it’s the powerful who hate you, you might be like Jesus. If it’s the religious leaders, you might be like Jesus. If it’s those who will lose status and power because of what you teach, you might be like Jesus.
But if it’s the weak who hate you. If it’s the poor. If it’s the powerless, the helpless, the sick. the traditionally oppressed, or those without influence in the world. Well then maybe Jesus isn’t who you should be comparing yourself too.