In John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian sets out from his home in the City of Destruction to travel to the Celestial City. Seeking deliverance from the burden that he is carrying, he is encouraged by Evangelist to find the Wicket Gate. On his way, however, he encounters Mr Worldly Wiseman, who diverts him from the narrow path by promising him deliverance through the Law with the help of Mr Legality in the town of Morality.
The conflicting visions presented by Evangelist and Mr Worldly Wiseman echo the stark difference that Jesus presents to his disciples in this passage from John’s Gospel between following the way of Christ, which leads to the cross, and following the way of the world, which regards the cross as foolishness.
Jesus’s caution to his disciples comes in the section of John’s Gospel known as the Upper Room Discourses or the Farewell Discourses. After washing his disciples’ feet and predicting both his death and Peter’s denial, Jesus offers words of comfort to his disciples, teaches them about his relationship with God the Father, promises the sending of the Holy Spirit, and prays for them. In the midst of these heartening words, Jesus offers a rather stark warning about how the world will receive those who follow him. In John’s Gospel, ‘the world’ is a complex, multivalent term, but the conflict between Jesus and the world has been apparent from the prologue (John 1:10). The truth of Jesus’s prediction will become all too apparent to the disciples, for he will shortly suffer mocking, beating, and death by worldly powers.
Jesus’s warning to his disciples echoes other texts within the New Testament, including James’s warning that those who befriend the world become enemies of God (James 4:4) and John’s caution not to love the things of the world (1 John 2:15). At the same time, these warnings should be understood alongside other uses of the term ‘world’ that include the affirmation that Jesus’s entire mission, which is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection, is motivated by God’s love for the world (John 3:16–17).
It is not the case, then, that God hates the world. Indeed, God loves the world, which was created by God and through Christ (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), so much so that God the Son took on flesh to enter that same world in order to redeem it (John 1:18). However, it is the case that the world often regards the death of Christ upon the cross as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23), rejects the truth of his resurrection (Acts 17:32; 1 Corinthians 15:12), and hates those who follow him (1 John 3:13).
The artists and works selected for this passage point to the conflict between the world and those who follow Jesus Christ. In a sense, Il Sodoma’s depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian represents the suffering of all Christians who have been persecuted by the world because of their faith. This was particularly true in the lives of early Christians, who did not expect that the relationship between Christians and the world would ever be anything but one of rejection, hatred, and suffering.
Of course, those circumstances changed dramatically with the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent legalization of the faith, to the point that for long periods of its history, Christianity became the dominant religion within many cultures, expressed its power in ways antithetical to the gospel, and even aligned itself with the state.
However, that does not mean that the world now embraces the radical call of discipleship to Christ, for the cross is still a stumbling block, and persecution remains a reality for many Christians around the globe.
In that regard, Thomas Cole’s allegorical rendering of the lives of the two young pilgrims helpfully demonstrates the ongoing tension that exists between following the way of the cross (Matthew 16:24) or the way of the world. As Cole makes clear, there will be difficulty, even suffering, in following Christ.
Yet, thankfully, that is no reason to despair. Christ’s words of caution are followed by his promise of the Holy Spirit, who will guide the disciples into truth and through whom Christ will be present with them. Sadao Watanabe’s depiction of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost points to the fact that those who follow Christ are not abandoned by him. Rather, in their ongoing struggle to follow Jesus through this world, Christians are guided, supported, and enabled by the Holy Spirit, who grants them a faith that is confirmed through the power of Pentecost.
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. 22If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23He who hates me hates my Father also. 24If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25It is to fulfil the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’ 26But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; 27and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.