This is a portion of my sermon preached on September 26, 2010.
Verses 4-5 say, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
The first thing we need to note is that John is continuing the same thought from the previous verses. This is not a new subject or a new line of thought. In verse 4, he refers again to those who are “born of God,” that is the people of God. He says that the people of God, being born of God, “overcome the world.”
This brings us, obviously, to the question – what does it mean to “overcome the world?” Well, John has already defined what he means by the “world” in 2:16 – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. These are the things that set themselves up in opposition to Christ and they are the things that we are tempted with. All temptation essentially comes down to those three categories. But, those who have been born of God “overcome the world”; we overcome the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. To put it another way, those who are born of God overcome all opposition to the things of God, including the temptation to disobey God’s commandments and, particularly, His command to love one another.
Let me make this more pointed. If you are a child of God, you can overcome the temptation to not love your brother, your neighbor, your spouse, your co-worker, your sibling, or whoever.
How do we overcome the world? We overcome by faith in Christ. In other words, we believe that what Christ has commanded works. We look to Him not our emotions, we look to His example not our own desires, we look to His definition of love not our own, and so on. And, when we fail to overcome the world and the temptation to disobedience, it reveals that we simply do not believe what God has said.
Now, this all sounds a bit blunt, but we know it to be true. We overcome the world by faith and we fail to overcome by lack of faith. If we believed the promises of God, we would get it all right all the time; but we don’t.
Conservative Christians often fail to overcome the world, but we do it in a way that looks an awful lot like obedience…we think. We fight our own cleverly devised “war games.” We’re not really overcoming, but we sure look like it! We’re not really at war with the world, but at least we’re wearing camouflage!
Here’s what I mean. Instead of overcoming the world by faith, love, and obedience, we can try to “overcome” by our own methods; which means we are not overcoming the world at all. Let me talk about a couple of these methods that are common and even praised among Christians.
The Bible uses so much war imagery that it’s impossible for us to act as if we aren’t at war. Christians are not peace time soldiers, we are combat soldiers. But, even that realization can cause a problem. Because so many of us have insulated ourselves – we live in a Christian bubble and our kids probably won’t meet an unsaved person until they are 35 if we have anything to do with it – we have to find enemies within the bubble. After all, we’re combat soldiers, so we are supposed to be fighting.
The end result is that the enemies we fight are not enemies at all. Some Christians are like soldiers who never leave the barracks, but they feel guilty because they know they are supposed to be firing their weapon. So, he decides that the guy in the bunk next to him looks suspicious enough and “blam!” He then pats himself on the back for “holding the line.”
Picking a fight is not the same as fighting the good fight. Warmongering among fellow believers is not the same as overcoming the world. This problem goes back a long way. The Corinthians are the worst example of it. They formed factions within the congregation, took each other to court, and couldn’t even get along during the communion meal! And, yet, as Paul says in 1st Corinthians 5, they were still proud of themselves! From the outside looking in, however, it was obvious that this was a group of Christians who had turned on each other.
Do you view other believers with suspicion? Are the battles you find yourself in with other believers? Why?
Retreat or isolation
Overcoming the world, as I said earlier, refers to overcoming the things that are in opposition to Christ and those things are both in us and “out there.” That is an important realization because some Christians have the idea that they can overcome the world by retreating from the world or isolating themselves and their families from it. The monks of the Middle Ages tried it. We have journals or diaries from some of them, confessing that they fled the cities in hopes of fleeing from temptation, only to realize that temptation was with them in the cave or monastery to which they fled.
Not only were those monks unwise, but they were also disobedient. Listen to what Jesus prayed in John 17:15-16: “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.”
Jesus prayed that we would be in the world, but not of the world; that we would be set apart (sanctified) by God’s truth in us. In other words, we are to be with the world but not just like them.
But, of course, there are ditches all along this road and the ditch that conservative Christians like to spend their time in is the ditch of retreat or isolation. This is when we decide that, though Jesus said we are to be “in” the world, His fellowship standards are too loose and He’s not strict enough for our liking. We would never come out and say this, but if we had been alive and seen Him conversing with prostitutes and drunks, we would have been horrified. Some of us would have been more upset about the tax collectors.
The problem we have here is that we are not defining “worldly” as Scripture does. The word “worldly” is not used as a blanket term to condemn whatever we don’t like and it is not to be used to give us an excuse to not fulfill the Great Commission beyond the four walls of our homes or church building.
I am in no way suggesting that we give up our families for the sake of “ministry,” as I have clarified many times. But, I am saying that Jesus came to claim the nations as His and, at some point, we have to admit that, while we say we believe that the nations will be converted, we certainly don’t act like it. We say we believe that the nations will flow to the mountain of God, as Scripture promises, but…at this rate? Do we just assume that someone else will do it? What about the poor, needy, lost, and broken in our own community? Jesus said that the sheep and goats are separated by how they love those people. Where would our church be? Where would your family be? Where would you be?
I am afraid that the tendency in churches like ours is to act as if obedience to one thing gives us permission to be disobedient in another thing. We raise our children, love them, train them, teach them, and prepare them to do the same – rightly so! And, God bless every family that is faithfully doing so! But, that doesn’t give us permission to act as if the rest of the world can go to hell without a second thought on our part, as if the Great Commission ends at our front doorstep.
Believe the promises of God
John says that those who are born of God will overcome the world, but I’m afraid we don’t really believe that. And, our lack of faith in that promise causes us to see the world only as a threat and not as a mission field, as something simply to avoid rather than the place we are to be “in.” So, what we are doing is isolating ourselves from everyone and everything in it. And, sadly, I think we do that out of unbelief. We often believe that the world is more powerful than Christ.
Parents have a difficult job of figuring out how to proper shelter and train up their children without leading them to disobedience to the Great Commission in the long run. But, we need to live in faith. If we are faithful to raise our families as Scripture tells us, we don’t need to live in paranoia that the world is going to swoop in and steal our kids. God’s promises are, after all, promises from God. They aren’t “maybes.”
In the same way, if we believe and obey the promises of God, as individual Christians, then we don’t have to live in paranoia over whether or not the world will have a bigger impact on us than we have on the world. God’s people will overcome the world.
The Church universal does not need to live in worry or paranoia either. The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, but that presupposes that the Church is attacking the world, not sitting in a huddled mass in a cave somewhere, scared to death that the “world is going to get us!” Gates are, after all, a defensive measure. The world belongs to God and the Great Commission will be accomplished, but we will be held accountable for our role in it or lack of one.
Make sure you are overcoming the world, not other believers
Whatever excuses we could make here ultimately don’t hold water. Intramural conflicts or conflicts between individual Christians ultimately have to come down to forgiveness and, if you’re not sure which one should forgive first, let me give you the answer – “you.”