When I entered evangelical circles for the first time, I was assaulted with an entirely new vocabulary and culture. Language like “born again,” “believer,” “the Word,” “walk with God,” “worldly,” and “the world” and cultural references about “purity,” “holiness,” and “youth group”—this world was alien to me. I had grown up Roman Catholic and had been baptized into a very different context and language. “Worldliness” meant about as much to me as “Nacimiento” would have meant to my new Evangelical friends. Through the years, I have kept this experience in mind as I read the Bible realizing that Christians have strange language—whether they are low church Evangelicals attending a “Bible-Church” or High Church Anglicans who glory in the “Paschal mystery”—because the Bible itself comes from the foreign worlds of the Ancient Near East and the underside of the Greco-Roman Empire that testifies to the mystery of God become man for us and our salvation.
In the Gospel of John, “world” appears on almost every page. In using “world,” John refers to creation generally, creation as affected by sin, the political powers of the day, or some combination of these. Generally speaking, the world is the place, the people, and the order of reality that God came to redeem through the work of Jesus Christ—this is what John meant in that famous verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Here I want to focus on how John’s language of world takes on a darker shade, the world as affected by sin, and from John we learn three basic ideas about how Jesus related to the world as the sinful order reflected in the social and political powers that rejected him.
1. The world rejected Jesus.
In John 19 Pontius Pilate delivered Jesus to the Roman guards to be flogged. In keeping with the custom of making crucifixions as public humiliation and as possible, the guards decided to have some fun. They made a crown of thorns and placed it on his head. They dressed him in a purple robe, the color of royalty, and the proceeded to mock him saying, “Hail King of the Jews” as they “struck him with their hands” (John 19:3). The scourging followed after that.
While Jesus was receiving the beating of his life, the kind of beating that might kill the victim before crucifixion could even happen, Pilate went before the crowds: “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him” (John 19:4). John records Pilate being torn. He didn’t want to crucify Jesus. He was fine with the beating, but when Pilate presented Jesus before the crowds, Jesus’ fate was sealed. When the guards brought Jesus out before the crowds, the humiliation transferred from Jesus to the people. The mockery was clear. Jesus stood before them, a bloodied, humiliated, defeated king.
A display of Roman supremacy was sufficient to satisfy Pilate but not the people. The chief priests cried out “Crucify him, crucify him!” (John 19:6). Pilate responded saying, “I find no guilt in him” (John 19:6). But the people insisted. Pilate tried to release him, but the people insist that Jesus be crucified and that if Pilate did not do the deed than he was opposing the will of the emperor. The presentation of Jesus as their king, the mockery was too much for the people to accept, leading them to commit the ultimate act of betrayal. In response to Pilate's presentation of Jesus as their king, the crowds shouted: “We have no king but Caesar.”
As Jesus stood before the crowds, mocked as the king of the Jews, it was clear that the Roman authorities had rejected him. The people rejected him. The religious leaders rejected him. None of this should surprise us, John’s entire Gospel, and the entire Bible builds to this point. Everything we know about human nature should confirm our suspicions that the world would reject Jesus, and if you remember the book of Samuel when the people wanted a king, they wanted Saul, not God and not David. They were impressed by Saul’s height and good looks. But Saul was not the man that God chose. Caesar is not the man that God chose.
2. The world misunderstood Jesus
That Jesus was misunderstood was perfectly natural. Jesus was exactly the kind of king we are naturally predisposed to reject. Our tendency is to want charismatic leaders who make us proud because of their power and ability to command attention, and probably the biggest disappointment the people faced with Jesus is that they knew he could perform according to their liking. He had taught with authority before. He had worked miracles. He had demonstrated having power over the wind and seas. Yet, at his trial Jesus showed none of these characteristics.
As Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate and the crowds, the prophet Isaiah’s words rang true:
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Is. 53:2-3)
The king stood before them, but they could only see shame. The savior of the world was preparing to take his throne upon the cross, but they could only see an instrument of death. The glory of God was made manifest. As John wrote, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Blinded by sin, the people could not see the glory. They could only see the blood. They could see the mockery. They could only see the humiliation of God who came in the very place of sinners, to die for them, and if it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit, we would be in the exact same position.
The Apostle Paul tells us, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). This is why the cross of Jesus Christ will always seem silly to rational-minded people. Without the Spirit of God, without the word of God, we would not be able to discern what God was doing amidst the mockery of Jesus.
Because God has revealed it to his apostles and prophets, we can know that Jesus was undergoing the just punishment for sin, that he was making atonement for the sins of the world. It’s only through Scripture that we learn that through faith in Christ his death counts as our own. It is only through the testimony of eyewitnesses that we know that Jesus rose and that his resurrection ensures that all who trust in him will also rise, and it is only through the work of the Holy Spirit, enlightening our minds and making our hearts willing that we would receive the truth.
3. The world did not defeat Jesus.
Jesus knew that the world would reject him, that people would fail to understand him, that his own people would not receive him, but Jesus wasn’t worried about that. Before his trial and crucifixion in what theologians call the upper-room discourse which extends from John 13 through John 16, Jesus sought to prepare his disciples for his death and resurrection. He left them with words of comfort and assurance:
Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:32–33)
The challenge of the cross is to see it as God’s victory and not defeat. This requires faith. This requires hearing what God has said about this event through his prophets and apostles. To take things only as they appear would lead us astray. We need to hear what God has said. This is why Paul wrote, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). It’s not that hearing has the magical power to convert. It’s that the only way you or I can know and understand what God was doing through Jesus’ suffering and death is if God himself revealed it, and he has, in the message of the gospel that is recorded for us in Holy Scripture.
To simply see the event would not be enough to understand it. Jesus's death looked like a tragic failure. He appeared humiliated and defeated. He was despised and rejected. His situation gave the impression that he was completely alone, God-forsaken. But Jesus knew otherwise: “I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” He knew that they would all share in the same fate he did. Their ministry as apostles would appear a failure. They would each die a martyr’s death, and this is why Jesus assured them” In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” These same words should give us all great confidence and hope because they are the words that God has given us to assure us that he has overcome, sin and death through the work of Jesus Christ.