The Power to Overcome
Charles Spurgeon, describing the Epistles of John, writes that they "are perfumed with love". Yet, Spurgeon concedes, that when we reach chapter 5, we "hear a sound of war". Though John speaks again of love, and again, of our status as God's children, John also alerts us of our need to "overcome the world"(v.4).
What it means for the Christian to "overcome the world" will be our focus for this morning. It will be our focus for this morning, but I pray that it might become your focus every morning.
When we talk about "overcoming the world" we are talking about a great many things. At the root of what it means, however, we must remember the apostle Paul's instruction to us, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood"(Eph. 6:12). What we must understand is that our battle against the world is fundamentally a battle against, as Paul says, "the schemes of the devil"(Eph. 6:11).
Now what, exactly are the "schemes of the devil"? Let me simplify that question: 'What is the devil's primary goal?' You can begin to read in Genesis, or you can jump ahead to the Book of Revelation, the devil's goal is the same: to keep people from worshipping God.
In order to keep people from worshipping God, the devil does not need to be explicitly evil in his approach with us. Though we can find explicit temptations that relate to sex, violence, and to the abuse of power, the truth is that most of us are distracted from worshipping God by very ordinary means.
For example, probably all of us watch TV, but some of us watch so much of it that we consequently spend little time reading our Bible or praying. We are distracted from worship sometimes by our hobbies--be it knitting, gardening, or playing baseball. And what I would argue is the greatest distraction from worshipping God is our good works.
It is true that good works done for the glory of God is indeed worship--but this is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the plethora of good works we do as a replacement for worship. This might entail teaching Sunday school, playing the organ, serving on a church committee, helping with a church dinner, or even preaching.
When we do good works for self-centred reasons--to impress others, to appease our guilty conscience, etc.--rather than for God-centred reasons, we have ceased to worship. It is a sign that something is terribly wrong when we have ceased to worship. Something is terribly wrong when a Christian is overcome by the world.
The good news is that we are not left without hope. We have been given the ability to overcome. John reminds us, "greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world"(4:4).
But how does this all work? How does the presence of Christ help me to overcome the world? It is important that we keep in mind all that John has taught us so far. It is important to keep in mind all that John has taught because it relates to our ability to overcome the world.
In chapter 3, John's focus was on obedience to God--what John describes as "practicing righteousness"(3:7). In the opening verses of chapter 4, John's focus is on correct beliefs. And, for the rest of chapter 4, John's emphasis is on loving one another.
In the first 2 verses of chapter 5, we see these 3 evidences of faith woven together, "1Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. 2By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments."
Notice what is common to the three evidences of faith. John links all three of these things to being "born of God". This is our starting point. Unless we have been born of God, we will be incapable of believing in Christ. Unless we have been born of God, we will be incapable of loving one another as we should. Unless we have been born of God, we will be incapable of observing the commandments of God.
And so it logically follows that, unless we are born of God, we will be incapable of overcoming the world.
You are free to despise the present day connotations of the phrase "born again Christian", but I implore you not to despise the reality of being "born again". Becoming born of God, in the spiritual sense, is the basis for accomplishing everything that God calls us to do.
That being said, I must say a word about this new birth. Much of what you hear about becoming "born again" is often tied to praying a certain prayer, signing a sort of commitment card, or walking a church aisle at the invitation of a minister. Do these things constitute what it means to be "born again"? The biblical answer is "No", and the reason is simple: we do not cause new birth, God does.
Think, first of all, of what it means to be born (physically) in the first place. How many of you here had a choice as to whether you would enter this world? Our physical birth is not something we are capable of choosing and neither is our spiritual birth.
Hearing this, some may ask, "But how will I know if I am born of God?! If my being born again is not the result of any prayer, card signing, or aisle walking, how can I know for sure if I am a Christian?!".
Let me give you John's answer: Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ; whoever loves God and his neighbour, whoever obeys the commands of God is born of God. But let me remind you that, belief, love, and obedience is the evidence of new birth--not the condition for it.
Biblical commentators point out that the combination of the present and perfect tense of the Greek in verses 1 and 2 demonstrates unequivocally that believing is the consequence of new birth. Believing in Christ is not the cause of new birth--it is the product of new birth(Stott, The Letters of John, 175).
Now how does all of this factor in when we consider the task of overcoming the world? It factors in by reminding us that overcoming the world is not our work--it is God's work.
Have a look at verse 3, "3For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome."
At first glance, it appears that overcoming the world is indeed our work--for we are told to "keep His commandments". And if we believe that overcoming the world is fundamentally our work you may want to challenge John's statement that "(God's) commandments are not burdensome". Is John saying that God's commandments are easy to follow? No, John is not saying this. The Greek word here can also be translated as "weighty". John can say that God's commandments are not weighty because he recognizes that we are not expected to bear the entire weight alone. Keeping the commandments does not depend solely on us. According to Paul, in 1Corinthians 10:13, we carry only that which we are able to bear and God carries the rest.
If it wasn't for God's help, His commandments would indeed be intolerably burdensome. But our new birth changes everything, "4For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith. 5Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?"
John assures us here that we are capable of overcoming the world. He assures us that we are capable of discerning the schemes of the devil. We are capable of standing firm against every kind of temptation.
The basis of our ability to overcome the world is our new birth, but we must say a word about the means to overcome the world. The means of victory, the means of overcoming the world is explicitly stated for us in verse 4: it is "our faith".
What does this mean--"our faith"? Does overcoming depend on God or does it depend on our faith? In answering this we must remember where faith comes from. Faith is not something we can generate by our intellect or by mental determination. Faith, we heard read from Ephesians 2:8, is "not of yourselves, it is the gift of God".
If faith is a gift, does this mean that we sit back, do nothing, and wait for it? No, that is not what we should do. While John points to the key to overcoming the world--our faith--the apostle Paul directs us back a few more steps. In Romans 10:17, Paul writes, "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ". Not even hearing alone is enough to gain faith. Our hearing must be empowered by "the word of Christ".
Our new birth makes it possible to overcome the world and all of its temptations, but our victory--on a practical level--is not automatic. Believing rightly, loving unconditionally, and obeying joyfully comes from "the word of Christ". Overcoming the world requires our humble submission to the teaching of Scripture.
Do you find the temptation to sin, strong? Do you find the commandments of God to be burdensome? Do you struggle you struggle to know the will of God in the face of so many alternatives? Do you find your faith lacking?
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If we are to overcome, if we are to be everything that God intends us to be than we must give ourselves to the reading and applying of God's Word.
We must read God's Word because the power to overcome comes from God. Amen.