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Lesson 84: Witnessing To A Hostile World (John 16:1-11)

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March 1, 2015

Two unpopular themes in modern evangelical Christianity are the need to suffer for the sake of the gospel and the certainty of God’s judgment. Rather than suffering, the evangelical church is into how Christianity can help you have a successful, happy life. Of course, the Bible does give wisdom and guidance on how to live happily and it is proper to understand and apply its teaching.

But, the Bible also teaches (Acts 14:22), “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul said (2 Tim. 3:12), “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Jesus said that all His followers must take up their cross (an implement of a slow, tortuous death) in order to follow Him (Matt. 16:24).

In its extreme form, the de-emphasis on suffering has veered into the heretical teaching that it’s always God’s will for you to enjoy financial prosperity and physical health. You’re supposed to rebuke any sickness or suffering it in the name of the Lord. If it continues, you must not have enough faith.

Regarding God, we focus on His love and grace rather than on His judgment. Many go so far as to say that because God is love, no one will suffer in hell. In his popular book, Love Wins, Rob Bell argued that a loving God would not punish people in an eternal hell. While that book was rightly denounced as heretical, it resonates with many. We’d rather think of God as love than of His wrath and judgment.

So Jesus’ words in our text are not going to be popular in today’s Christian world. He continues to prepare the disciples (and us) for what we will face after He is gone. The world often will hate us, but…

Our task is to witness in the power of the Spirit to a hostile world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment.

John MacArthur shows (“The Holy Spirit Convicts the World,” on how in the upper room discourse Christ promises to counter the problems that we will encounter in this evil world: “The world hates you, but I love you. The world is your enemy, but I am your friend. The world gives you trouble and anxiety, but I give you My peace. The world will cause you sorrow, but I give you My joy. The world may kill you, but I give you eternal life. The world is under Satan’s power, but you will have the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you.”

1. To witness in a hostile world without stumbling, you must face the difficulty of the task: you will be persecuted and you may get killed (John 16:1-4).

Jesus spoke these things so that the disciples would be kept from stumbling or falling away (ESV) when they encountered the opposition of the world (John 16:1). The Greek word means to be caught in a trap and has the nuance here of being taken by surprise (John [IVP/Eerdmans], R. V. G. Tasker, p. 181). Their task (and ours) is to go to a self-seeking, pleasure-oriented world and proclaim that the Holy God is going to judge all sinners, but that He has provided the way of escape through the Savior. This message is sure to stir up derision and hostility. Just the people of Noah’s day rejected his message of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5) and the people in Sodom thought that righteous Lot must have been joking (2 Pet. 2:6-9; Gen. 19:14), so sinners today will not respond favorably to a message about sin, righteousness, and impending judgment. If you expect that everyone in this hostile world will welcome your message, you’ll be in for a rude awakening.

Sometimes we may be surprised because persecution often comes from the religious world, where you would expect a receptive audience (John 16:2): “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” Before his conversion, the apostle Paul thought that he was being faithful to his Jewish faith by imprisoning and killing Christians. After his conversion, the Jews persecuted him and other early Christians (2 Thess. 2:14-16). Centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church instituted the Inquisition to try to stop those who preached the true gospel. Religion has always been a major perpetrator of persecution. Jesus pinpoints the heart of the problem (John 16:3), “These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.”

The key to enduring persecution is to trust in the Lord Jesus. Thus in verse 4, He gives us a solid reason to trust Him: He knows the future. He knows the trials that we will face as we serve Him and He warns us in advance so that we will trust in Him. When Jesus was with the disciples, He was the lightning rod for persecution. But after He returned to the Father, they would catch the brunt of the opposition. So the Lord speaks these prophetic words so that we will be forewarned and thus forearmed. It will not be easy to be a faithful witness to Christ in this hostile world.

2. To witness to a hostile world, you must focus on the Lord’s glory, not on your own needs (John 16:5-6).

John 16:5-6: “But now I am going to Him who sent Me; and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.” My point about the Lord’s glory may not be immediately obvious, so let me explain. The disciples were not thinking about Christ’s returning to His glory with the Father and what that would mean, but rather on their own sorrow that Jesus would not be with them any longer. They were focused on their needs, not on Jesus’ glory and His kingdom purposes.

At first glance, Jesus’ words, “none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’” seem to contradict John 13:36, where Peter asked, “Lord, where are You going?” Also, in John 14:5, Thomas said, “Lord, we do not know where You are going …” But neither man was really interested in learning where Jesus was going as much as in protesting that He was leaving them. So the Lord is saying, “None of you is really interested in knowing where I am going. You’re just focused on your own sorrow over My leaving.”

D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 533) explains this by telling of a little boy who is disappointed that his father is suddenly called away for an emergency meeting when the boy and his dad had planned to go fishing. The boy says, “Aw, Dad, where are you going?” But he really isn’t interested in where his dad is going, as much as he is focused on his own disappointment. So, although the disciples have asked about where Jesus was going, they were really just self-absorbed in their own loss at His leaving them. They didn’t have the big picture of the Lord’s returning to the right hand of the Father and of His sending the Holy Spirit to empower them for the task of the great commission.

The application for us is, to be effective witnesses in this hostile world, we need to take our focus off of our feelings and needs and focus rather on the Lord’s glory through the spreading of the gospel to all peoples. Even if we are persecuted, His glory should be our aim. But we can’t accomplish that task in our own strength. Thus the Lord adds …

3. To witness to a hostile world, you must join the Holy Spirit in His witness concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11).

Jesus makes a claim that would have startled the disciples (John 16:7): “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” We often think, “Oh, how wonderful it would have been to have been on earth with Jesus.” That’s true, but Jesus says that we have it better because we have the Helper, the Holy Spirit, with us. He lives within us to comfort us, encourage us, and empower us to bear witness for Christ. As we saw in John 15:26-27, the Spirit bears witness, but He does it through us. Here, Christ sends the Spirit to us and when He comes, He will convict the world through our witness.

This verse indicates a major change in the ministry of the Holy Spirit to and through believers. We saw this in John 7:37-38, where Jesus promised that rivers of living water would flow from the innermost being of those who believe in Him. John (7:39) explained, “But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” Jesus also told the disciples (John 14:16-17), “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.”

That change occurred on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the church. As the risen Lord made clear, a major role for the Spirit is to empower us to bear witness of Christ (Acts 1:8), “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” In our text, we first need to understand what Jesus means by the word “convict”; then He breaks the witness of the Holy Spirit through us into three parts:

A. The Holy Spirit will convict the world.

The Spirit obviously does not convict every person in the world. Even to this day, many have never even heard of Christ and so are not convicted of their sin. Rather, “world” refers to unbelievers in general, both Jewish and Gentile. It means everyone without distinction, not everyone without exception.

The Greek word translated “convict” means to expose or to convince. It’s a legal term used when an attorney presents his case in such a clear light that the truth of his client’s position becomes obvious. Dr. Ryrie explains (The Ryrie Study Bible [Moody Press], NASB, p. 1632), “To convict means to set forth the truth of the Gospel in such a clear light that men are able to accept or reject it intelligently; i.e., to convince men of the truthfulness of the Gospel.” R. C. Trench (Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 13) states, “It is so to rebuke another, with such effectual wielding of the victorious arms of the truth, as to bring him, if not always to a confession, yet at least to a conviction, of his sin.”

The word is used in the sense of “expose” in John 3:20: “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Jesus used the word in the sense of “convict” when He challenged His Jewish critics (John 8:46), “Which one of you convicts Me of sin?” One function of God’s Word is that it is profitable for “reproof” (2 Tim. 3:16; a noun derived from this verb). In this regard, a major role for the pastor is that he is to preach the word so as to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2). Elders are to be able to “exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

Although the word is not used, we see an example of conviction when Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and his hearers were “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). His message exposed their sin of rejecting Christ and it convinced them that they were wrong. But such conviction is not always effectual in the sense of bringing a person to saving faith. In other words, it is necessary for salvation, but not sufficient: All who are saved have been convicted of their sin, but not all who have been convicted are saved. Salvation requires the Father’s drawing the sinner to Christ (John 6:44) and the Spirit’s imparting new life to the convicted sinner (John 3:5-8). A truly saved person is marked by genuine repentance for sin.

It seems to me that conviction of sin is often missing in our evangelistic methods today. We’re quick to get people to pray to receive Christ even when there is no indication that they are under conviction for their sin. I realize that a sense of conviction deepens after we’re saved. As we’ve seen, that’s the role of God’s Word. I am far more convicted about my past sins now than I was when I came to Christ. And, through God’s Word, I am aware now of sins in my life that I formerly would not even have noticed. But to trust in Christ for salvation there must be some sense that I am guilty before God and that I need a Savior. Without that conviction of sin, conversion will be for superficial reasons.

We see an example of shallow conviction when Samuel confronted King Saul with disobeying the Lord because he did not kill all of the Amalekite sheep and oxen as God had commanded. Under the pretext of saving them for sacrifice, Saul at first proclaimed (1 Sam. 15:13), “I have carried out the command of the Lord.” When Samuel further confronted him with his disobedience, Saul still insisted that he had obeyed, but he blamed the people for bringing back some of the sheep and oxen. When Samuel persisted with his charge, Saul finally reluctantly admitted that he had sinned, but then he wanted Samuel to return with him so that he might be honored before the people. His “repentance” was superficial.

By way of contrast, when the prophet Nathan confronted David (who was a true believer) of his sin with Bathsheba, David responded (2 Sam. 12:13), “I have sinned against the Lord.” He didn’t dodge his sin or make excuses for it. So, when the Holy Spirit convicts sinners, they can respond negatively; or in an outwardly positive, but superficial way; or through genuine repentance.

B. The Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning sin.

Jesus says (John 16:9), “concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me.” When the Spirit exposes your sin, you can run from the light (John 3:20), like a cockroach, trying to escape. Or, you can come to Christ, the Light, to save you. If you truly believe in Him, you will begin a lifetime of acknowledging or confessing your sin when the Spirit convicts you through God’s Word.

Jesus identifies the root of all sins when He says “because they do not believe in Me.” It is striking that the world generally would not view unbelief in Jesus Christ as a sin at all. If you asked people on the streets to give you a list of what they thought were sins, you’d probably hear, “Murder, child abuse, lying, and (perhaps!) adultery.” But I doubt if you’d hear, “Not believing in Jesus.” Yet Jesus names it as the sin that the Spirit will convict the world of. That’s because if you truly believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord, you will not be committing those other sins. They stem from unbelief in Christ. And, those other sins ultimately are not the issue between the sinner and God. The issue is, they have rejected His Son, whose death is the only remedy for our sin problem.

If a man went overboard in the middle of the ocean, it wouldn’t matter if he was a good swimmer or whether he couldn’t swim at all. It would only be a matter of time until he drowned, because no one is good enough to swim thousands of miles to shore. But if a rescuer threw him a life preserver, the issue is no longer whether he can swim or not, but will he grab the life preserver? If he says, “I’m a good swimmer; I don’t need a life preserver,” he will drown. Or, the fact that he can’t swim doesn’t matter. The only issue is whether he will grab the life preserver.

Jesus Christ is the life preserver that God has provided for the world. Self-righteous people may object that they don’t need a Savior; they’re good enough to save themselves. But, they will perish if they do not believe in Christ. Notorious sinners may think that they’re not worthy to be saved, which is true. No one is. But the same life preserver is offered to them as to the self-righteous. Rejecting Jesus Christ will damn either type of sinner equally. Or, believing in Christ will save either one. It is the issue! If you do not believe in Jesus Christ, you will perish.

C. The Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning righteousness.

John 16:10: “and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me.” Jesus Himself is the standard for righteousness. He never sinned and He always obeyed God. He is the only one who could die in the place of sinners, because He had no sin of His own. When the Father resurrected Jesus from the dead, He put His stamp of approval on Christ’s death. Jesus could not have returned to sit at the right hand of the Holy God if there had been even the slightest taint of sin in Him.

Also, the Bible is clear that God now imputes the very righteousness of Christ to every sinner who trusts in Him. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Romans 4:5 states, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” At the moment any sinner trusts in Christ, his sin is charged to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is put on him.

So the message that we are to proclaim to the world is that they are never good enough to qualify for heaven. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). But, God has provided a means by which we can be covered with the perfect righteousness of His Son, namely, by believing in Him. But our message has one other vital element:

D. The Holy Spirit will convict the world concerning judgment.

John 16:11: “and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.” Where sin and righteousness meet, judgment follows. Satan is the ruler of this world and he was judged at the cross (John 12:31). Here Jesus speaks of it as done, even though it would take place the following day. At the cross, Satan’s doom was sealed. He still roams about, carrying out his evil schemes. But the sentence has been passed, both for him and for his subjects. John 3:18 states, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

This means that our witness to unbelievers must include sin, righteousness, and judgment, along with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, as the only remedy for our helpless condition. It’s always intrigued me that when Paul witnessed to the Roman governor, Felix, he didn’t say, “Felix, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life! He offers you an abundant life. He can help your marriage. He will give you peace and joy.” Rather, Paul spoke to him about faith in Christ Jesus, along with righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24:24-25). In other words, he spoke to him about sin (“self-control,” or his lack thereof), righteousness, and judgment, along with faith in Christ.


So to be effective witnesses for Christ, we need to recognize that many people will not like our message and therefore they may not like us. If we are faithful, we may suffer persecution or even death. Given that unpleasant prospect, what should motivate us to bear witness? The Lord’s glory: He is now risen from the dead, at the right hand of the Father, returning soon to judge the world in righteousness. He has entrusted to us the message of salvation through the cross. But we can’t compromise the message by hiding the reality of judgment if people do not repent. Don’t be judgmental, but do tell the truth about God’s coming judgment. Our task is to witness in the power of the Spirit to a hostile world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment.

Application Questions

  1. How can a “people-pleaser” learn to become a God-pleaser when it comes to witnessing?
  2. Discuss: Have we preached the gospel if we tell how Christ can solve your problems, but do not mention sin, righteousness, and judgment?
  3. Why is conviction of sin necessary, but not sufficient, for salvation?
  4. Can you find a single example in the Bible where a witness uses God’s love in the message? What are the implications of this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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