In our day public speech about Jesus is becoming more and more costly. For instance, the state of Georgia has requested the sermons of Dr. Eric Walsh, a lay pastor and public health expert, who was fired from the Department of Public Health over (it seems) his religious beliefs. What is going on?
On the one hand, we are watching a sea change in our country. The religious liberty conferred on us by our founding fathers and established in the Bill of Rights is being taken away. On the other hand, we are witnessing in our country what Jesus said would happen to his followers: we are hated by the world, because the world hates him.
In other words, American Christians are experiencing, for the first time in generations, what other disciples have experienced for centuries—verbal and even violent opposition to the truth of God’s Word. Such enemy fire makes speaking up for Christ difficult, if not dangerous. Yet, such resistance may also be the very means by which Christians can show what it means to follow Christ—bearing witness to Christ through our own afflictions. But to bear faithful witness, we need our minds to be renewed by God’s Word.
Learning from Jesus
The Gospel of John shows Jesus in constant conversation with the Pharisees whose anger towards him ultimately nailed him to a cross. As John records, they questioned him, debated him, and sought to arrest him long before they succeeded in ending his earthly ministry. Still, as the beloved disciple records, Jesus constantly responded with wisdom, grace, and truth. While John’s goal in presenting these dialogues is to testify that Jesus is the Christ whom we should trust and obey (John 20:31), his recordings also show us how Jesus spoke to those who accused and opposed us. If we are going to continue to bear witness for Christ amidst enemy fire, we must learn what such speech looks like.
If silence is not an option for a follower of Christ, and it is not (see Matthew 10:32–33; Acts 1:8), how can we learn to wear our cross and speak on his behalf with boldness and wisdom? If the gospel is our message, what is the manner in which we proclaim it? How does Scripture teach us and Jesus model for us such engagement with the world?
Those are questions we should be asking, and one place we find an answer is in John 7.
Six Ways to Speak in a Hostile World
In John 7 we find at least six ways to help us speak boldly for Christ in an increasingly hostile culture. They require a cross, not a crown, but in the the end disciples who value fellowship with Christ more than fanfare from the world will find grace to stand as we bear witness for him in public.
1. Embrace misunderstanding.
In verse 5 John records: “For not even his brothers believed in him.” This offhand comment comes after Jesus’ brothers chided him for doing his works in secret (vv. 3–4). According to Matthew 13:55 Jesus had four brothers and not one of them believed in him (until after his death and resurrection). In at least one place (the wedding feast at Cana) Jesus’ brothers and disciples spent time together (John 2:12), but as Jesus’ ministry continued it was clear where his allegiance lay. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus saying, “Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'” (Matthew 12:46–50; par. Mark 3:31–35; Luke 8:19–21).
Undeniably, this type of speech provoked jealously and misunderstanding. As Jesus sought to create a new humanity from the ruins of Israel, his own brothers would come to misunderstand him. While they would eventually come to faith (Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19), family misunderstanding marked Jesus’ earthly ministry. The same is true for followers of Christ.
Whether family of friends, Jesus promised that following him would bring a sword into the home (Matthew 10:34–36). In a fallen world, it could not be any other way. And in the process of God’s discipleship, this familial opposition serves as a test of true discipleship: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37). Jesus words are not callous; they deeply come from a son of Israel who knew first-hand the pain of his brothers misunderstanding and mockery.
Christians must remember the misunderstanding Jesus experienced, so that we might not lose heart. We must consider similar misunderstanding a mark of true discipleship and a participation (i.e., fellowship) in Jesus sufferings (Philippians 3:9–10). This doesn’t absolve the pain, but it does steady our hands as we take hold of the disciple’s cross.
2. Expose evil, even when it is costly.
In response to his brothers, he explains his mission and the distinction between them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here” (7:6, emphasis mine) In other words, Jesus is not of this world. They are. Jesus has come into the world to bring salvation, but also to expose the darkness and defilement of the world. Therefore, he says, “The world cannot hate you [because, he implies, you are of the world], but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (7:7).
In every era, there is a strange attraction to befriending the world. This may come in the form of acquiring material things or through embracing secular views. Both of these, James says, make us adulterers: friendship with the world is enmity with God (4:4). In our day, the people of faith are especially tempted to dull our swords and silence our tongues with regards to sexual immorality. (See the recent accommodation of Jen Hatmaker). Some self-justify, “If we only present a positive message, maybe the world will like us. If we can avoid opposition, we will be better able to deliver a positive message about Jesus. If I go out of my way to speak and show how accepting I am of sinners, than the world will know and understand that I’m not like those judgmental Christians. I’m different. I’m loving.”
The trouble with this line of thought is not so much in what it affirms (we should seek to love others in tangible ways); the trouble is in what it denies. It denies the calling Christians have to expose sin and unrighteousness. Consider the sin-spotting ministry of John the Baptist, who Jesus praised as the greatest man born of a woman (Matthew 11:11); or the Apostle Paul, who warned Felix about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25).
It is fundamentally unChristian to speak of love without outlining the horrors of sin. Even as Jesus ate with sinners, he never pulled back from calling them to repent. His kingdom message was one of repentance (Matthew 4:17); he dined with tax collectors and sinners after Matthew had repented of his tax collecting (9:9), and when he ate with them he did not take interest in their sins he called sinners to obedience, just like Matthew (9:13). Moreover, in John’s Gospel we have two instances of Jesus warning people to sin no more (5:14; 8:11), and in John 7:7, he says explicitly that he testifies about the evil of the world.
It is impossible to follow Christ and not point out the wickedness of the world. Sure, Christians would be better treated by the world if we stopped speaking about sin, but such refusal to call sin denies Christ himself. The gospel is a message of good news for sinners. Leave off that last part and the good news becomes something else entirely. Therefore, we must be willing to expose evil with the light of God’s Word and then suffer the consequences. Jesus did and so must we.
3. Argue authority more than morality.
In a recent discussion about transgenderism with a man who has transitioned to a woman, it dawned on me that the debate over sex, sexuality, gender, and God will always be futile so long as we disagree on authority. In other words, our biggest debate was not morality but authority. We could not begin a conversation about former, so long as we disagreed over authority—who (or Who) has the right to pronounce good and evil.
This conversation highlights the same point in Jesus words, “The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood” (v. 18). Long before our gender debates sparked questions of authority (see Vaughn Roberts helpful discussion on this point), Jesus observed the same. And he identifies that a fundamental problem between the Pharisees and himself relates to authority. They put confidence in their own authority, what some have called ‘subjectivism.’ Ironically, they appealed to the tradition of the elders (see Mark 7:5, 9), but Jesus unearths a greater problem: they trusted in themselves (cf. Luke 18:9). Thus, they could not see the glory of God standing in front of them because they were so enamored with their own glory—the glory that comes from pretending to be God (i.e., to live by one’s own authority).
Jesus calls out their false authority and we must do the same. As Francis Schaeffer modeled in his apologetic ministry, we cannot bring the good news until the unbeliever despairs of their inconsistent and nihilistic worldview. In other words, we must aim at the faultiness and foolishness of another’s authority, when that authority is in anything other than God and his Word. If we are going to make any progress in our discussions, we must argue for the inadmissibility of any authority. Our world is littered with false authorities and our discussions must turn on this point. Morality is downstream from authority and so we must do the hard work of contesting another’s authority.
4. Judge . . . with right judgment.
Naturally, debate over authority brings us back to God and his Word. Our sole authority is what God has revealed in Scripture. Without that revealed word we have no moral bearing to judge another. In our culture, the refusal to make judgments stems in part from a weak authority. When authority is rooted in self-autonomy it makes sense that one feels incapable of ‘judging’ another. To do so would be sheer hubris. But change the authority from man to God, as we ought to do and now there is a transcendent authority whose moral will is revealed in Scripture.
Accordingly, those who submit to his authority receive his word and are called then to “judge with right judgment.” In fact, this is exactly what Jesus says in verse 24: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” It is striking that Jesus words command judgment; “judge” is an imperative. In other words, the Jesus of Protestant Liberalism (and now progressive evangelicals) is nothing like the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus in Scripture affirms all of the Law (Matthew 5:17–20) and commands his followers to judge.
Of course, judgment can be misused, but judgment is a character of God passed on to the people made in his image. We are to judge “with right judgment”; we must judge with eyes cleared from our own log-like prejudices (Matthew 7:1–5). But make no mistake, we are called to interpret the world with discernment and render judgment as necessary. Going one step further, Paul says that the followers of Christ will one day “judge angels” (1 Corinthians 6:3), so how much more appropriate to judge matters in the church. Once again, Jesus models for us a way of thinking and speaking that challenges the ways of the world. Culture teaches us to keep our mouths shut regarding sin and judgment, but Jesus calls us to make right judgments according to the Word of God.
5. Learn the Word of God.
The basis of judgment is not man’s own authority, but God’s. And the epistemic source of that knowledge is the Word of God. If God never spoke, his people would have no access to understand or apply the authority he possesses. (Neither would there be a people of God if he hadn’t spoken). But because he has spoken, his people are under his rule to respond in praise and prayer and to communicate his message to the world. To ignore this command is to ignore his Word and abort our mission. But this also raises the stakes of knowing his Word.
In Jesus conversation with the Pharisees, he is constantly interacting with the Bible and referencing its message. For instance, in verse 16 Jesus says, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” Astounding! Even Jesus, Son of God Incarnate, submitted himself to Scripture. He did not teach on his own human authority; as the sinless son of God he taught what his Father sent him. If Jesus, how much more his people. Most of the judgmentalism that has scarred Christianity in the world comes from the fact that Christians were not submitting themselves to Scripture but adding to it. Accordingly, from all that has been said, submission to Scripture is a necessary prerequisite.
Again this is how Jesus adjudicated the matter about healing on the Sabbath. In John 7, the debate turned on this ostensible infraction of the law. The Pharisees accused him doing work on the Sabbath. Yet, Jesus observed how Moses (an authority they might recognize) gave the command to circumcise on the Sabbath (vv. 22–24). And if a foreskine must be circumcised on that day, how much more a whole body be healed. In short, Jesus did more than quote a proof text; he reasoned from the whole of Scripture, relating Law and Gospel, circumcision and Sabbath. We must do the same, and thus we must learn the Word of God and be ready to give an answer from it, not our own experience or opinion.
6. Speak of Jesus.
Finally, in all our speech we must speak first and speak most about Jesus. The Gospels identify and the person and work of Christ; the Apostles in Acts bear witness to Christ and his resurrection; and repeatedly Scripture speaks of how the Spirit testifies to Christ. In short, Christians are those who live like Christ and bear witness to Christ.
The call to speak in public brings with it the unique temptation to speak about things other than Christ, to focus on immorality and the need for policy and political change. We can be overly condemning or passively accepting. As we speak out, there are dozens of rabbit trails to chase. So we must be resolute in keeping Christ at the center. This is the calling of all Christians, to bear witness to our hope in Christ, according to the Word of Christ, empowered by the Spirit of Christ.
Of course, some Christians will speak about politics, economics, educations, etc. But these issues are best covered by those with the vocational aptitude and training to do so. In a world where social media invites us to give our opinions on everything, we would do well—i.e., we would walk in humility—if we limited our protests and polemics to those issues we know well. Our information age tempts us to believe we must talk about everything, and that we have sufficient knowledge about everything, but as Jesus said of Mary, “There is only one thing needful” (Luke 10:42). And HE is that needful thing.
Therefore, as we walk through this fallen world, let us remember that we do not need to speak to every issue, but all believers must speak of one Individual—the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. Let us press into knowing him so that we might be ready to give an answer for the hope we have in him. Indeed, in a hostile world he must be companion and our conversation.
Let Us Speak Up About Christ
One day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. On that day all hostility against Jesus will be no more. But until that day, we who follow Christ will be rejected like Christ. For that reason we must learn from Christ the right way to speak. Such knowledge only comes through feeding on Scripture, praying in the Spirit, communing with God’s people, and trusting that God will give you the words you need in the hour you need them.
May God’s Spirit give us power to speak of Christ’s grace and the gospel’s truth to everyone, even those who come at us with anger and accusation.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds