The gospel does not only help me to overcome, it makes me an overcomer. If overcoming faith is real, then the overcoming life will be a reality.
The apostle John more than any other New Testament writer expands on the theme of overcoming, particularly overcoming the world. Paul speaks of the believer overcoming in the judgement (Romans 3:4). He encourages us not to be overcome with evil but to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Peter, although he used a different word speaks more generally of being “entangled and overcome” by the “defilements of the world” (2 Peter 2:20). It is John however, who develops the theme most extensively.
John lays the foundation for this theme, with the words of our Lord. “Be of good cheer” Jesus said, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). John returns to this fact often to stress that the believer overcomes, only in Christ (Revelation 5:5, 6:2, 17:14), and that in the end, the saints will overcome, “by the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 12:11, 15:2).
John expands this theme, not only as an encouragement for the saints, but also to stir the church up to self-examination. Every Church to which John wrote in the Revelation had a promise attached for those who were overcomers (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 3:5, 12, 21). Most of the churches had rebuke worthy issues—two did not (Smyrna and Philadelphia). The apostle, however, writes to individuals within the Church who will overcome, assuming there were those who would not.
In his first epistle, John fleshed out the theme on a practical level. He identified the enemies over which we are to overcome. First, the clearly defined arch-enemy, “the wicked one” (2:13). Second, the attacks of the devil through “the spirit of antichrist” (4:4). Finally, and more undefined and insidious, “the world” (5:4).
The first two enemies of the faith are relatively easy to identify. It is this third category that poses more of a difficulty. Part of the problem has to do with a proper definition of “the world.” Partly also to do with John’s use of the idea “overcoming.” John establishes two separate ideas of overcoming (but linked). The first is in the past as an accomplished fact, those who have overcome. The other is in the present as a continuous reality; those who are overcoming.
John says, Vs. 4; “whosoever is born of God does overcome (present tense) the world.” He then backs up a little and states how this is so; because “faith is the victory that has overcome (Aorist) the world.” Then, in Vs. 5, he puts these two statements in the form of a question and says, I paraphrase,“who is he that is overcoming, but he that has overcome by faith in Christ, in believing that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Who are the Overcomers?
The overcomers are those, first of all, who have overcome, those who have believed that Jesus is the Son of God. They are those who have “overcome the wicked one” (2:13). This is the foundation on which the overcoming life is built. The “wicked one” (poneros) is an active and vicious enemy, the devil, who is ready to snatch away the good seed of the Word that is sown in the heart (Matthew 13:19). He is overcome by the shield of faith (Ephesians 6:16) and the believer enters into Christ’s victory (John 16:33; Revelation 5:5, 6:2, 17:14).
The point that John is making here, is that all who are “born of God” (3:9, 4:7, 5:1) are by definition, overcomers. He emphasizes this with the use of the collective pronoun “everyone.” It is not for a few spiritual elite Christians, it is anyone and all who are born of God. In other words, the gospel does not only help me to overcome, it makes me an overcomer. If overcoming faith is real, then the overcoming life will be a reality.
The emphasis is on the power of the regenerate life rather than the person regenerated. Salvation is a living power, the presence and power of divine life (I John 4:16) that makes men and women overcomers.
Secondly, the overcomers are those whose lives are characterized by overcoming. John has established the fact that overcoming is first of all a work of God, we are “born of God.” But there is an aspect of overcoming that he must not ignore; how it is worked out in the life.
Here John stresses the personal element of faith, it is “our faith” (Vs. 4) by which we overcome. We are called, by the exercise of faith, to make Christ’s victory a reality in our lives, to “work out” this salvation in our lives, as Paul put it (Philippians 2:12). Overcoming then, will be a characteristic of the life. Interesting, isn’t it, how John formulated the promise to the seven churches. The overcomer’s promise is not for those hoping somehow to overcome in the end, but for those whose lives are marked by overcoming. This is clear in the letter to Thyatira; “and he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end…”(2:26 emphasis added).
What are we Overcoming?
John identifies “the world” as that which we must overcome. But what does John mean by the term “world”? What is “worldliness” in John’s mind and what does victory look like? The Scripture uses the word “world” in three major ways: the created world (John 17:24), the populated world (Romans 1:8), and the present evil world-system (1 John 5:19 cf.2 Corinthians 4:3; John 12:31, 14:30).
In general terms it is the present evil system that John has in mind. But in the context John points out that overcoming is the ability to obey the commands of God; obedience to God’s commands is the goal (Vs. 3).
Worldliness, then, is anything in this present temporal and tangible environment that hinders or interrupts a joyful obedience to the commands of God. To overcome the world, then, is to enjoy the liberty of the gospel; unhindered by the grip and guilt of the past, the fears of tomorrow, or the adverse circumstances of the present, the believer is enabled to walk in obedience to God. It is the ability to “run with patience” the race set before us, in the will of God.
How Do we Overcome?
We overcome by faith in Christ. Faith, in this context is a firm and living realization in the fact that the Jesus of history is the Christ of eternity (i.e. the anointed one of God cf. Vs. 1). Faith that there is a larger context to Jesus than his ministry on earth, He is God incarnate. The faith that overcomes the world is not a blind faith but an eye-opening faith. Through Christ, it sees the devil as a defeated enemy, the world as “altogether vanity” and my circumstances as opportunities to serve the living God.
Faith looks up through the mists of time to the surpassing glory of the God of heaven, it always lifts us up out of this world and sets our mind on eternal realities. This is the faith that overcomes.