The Key to Overcoming

The Key to Overcoming

Years ago when I was working summers to help offset college expenses, I worked in a purchasing department with about a half dozen buyers and two other administrative assistants. I got to know the buyers fairly well since part of my job was to go around asking if there was any work or project I could do for them once I had finished the work the other administrative assistants had given me. One of the buyers, a man named Ron, had a huge framed photograph of his son displayed in a prominent place on a wall in his office. I was often struck by the resemblance between the boy and Ron. The way his son stood with his little arms crossed in front of his chest and the happy smirk on his face were the spitting image of his father. When I commented on the striking resemblance between father and son one day, Ron smiled at me and said, “Thank you. He’s adopted.” I never would have guessed, so strong was the resemblance between the two!

As I read through and was thinking about our morning’s passage this past week, my thoughts kept returning to the wonder that because God has chosen to adopt us as his children, there should be a family resemblance between us and him as well. Because what is crystal clear in Scripture is that even though, as I often note, all humans are made in the image of God and therefore all humans have been created by God to know and love him, not all humans do know and love him. For knowing and loving God, knowing the privilege of calling him our Father has a requirement attached: that of acknowledging that Jesus is his Son. It is only when we acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God that we can be adopted as children into his eternal family and made to be not only his children but also brothers and sisters of one another. For Scripture clearly teaches that there is no way to know God as our Father except through Jesus Christ, his Son.

As we read starting with verse 1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,…” And I want to stop here for a moment. This past week was exam week and on Monday I wrapped up another semester of teaching a Theology Survey class for Gordon-Conwell Seminary. The week before, during the last official non-exam day, I spent some time tying up loose ends and one of them was that of clarifying the name of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. In their assignments, some of my students hadn’t been careful in the way in which they referred to the second member of Trinity, saying, for example, that Jesus took on human flesh. I noticed that they were using the name “Jesus Christ” the same way they would use the name “Jane Doe.” Whether you refer to “Jane” or “Doe,” it’s the same person. But this is true of Jesus Christ only after Christ’s Incarnation. For the mystery of God taking on human flesh is that the eternal Christ—Christ being another way of saying Messiah—took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To use theological terms, Christ pre-existed Jesus but upon taking on human flesh, this eternal Christ, this eternal God, became united to human flesh forever thereafter. Therefore it’s incorrect to say that Jesus took on human flesh. But since after the Incarnation eternal God united with humanity, it’s correct to refer to God’s Son by either his name, Jesus, or his divine title, Christ.

As we saw in considering the first Palm Sunday the week before Jesus died,[1] this is similar to the mistake the crowds had made about Jesus. Though they acknowledged him as the Christ, that is, as the Messiah, they misunderstood Messiah to be a political leader, rather than who he actually was, eternal God in the flesh. And even Jesus’ inner circle of disciples didn’t quite understand this at the time though later, of course, upon speaking to him after he had risen from death, all became clear to them. Therefore as we’ve also noted before, in order to be a follower of Jesus, it isn’t enough to believe that a man named Jesus lived and died. No, in order to be a follower of Jesus, we must also believe that this Jesus was the eternal Christ, born of God.

In the second half of the verse John adds, “and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” Some years after college, when I was working not only summers but throughout the year to put myself through graduate school, I worked again as an administrative assistant, this time for a pastor. Scott had a miniature Yorkshire terrier that went everywhere with him and he told me once how important it was for his family vacations to include their dog. “Love me, love my dog!,” he said. Well, in a far more substantive way, this is what our heavenly Father is communicating here through John. If in a general way to love a parent is to love their child, how much more important it is to apply this truism to God our Father. If, as Scripture teaches, Jesus is the eternal Christ, born of God and therefore Son of God, then it’s impossible for a person to say they love God without also loving Jesus, his Son. This is why all religious roads do not lead to God for Christianity is the only religion that acknowledges, affirms, and proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. As we’ve seen him often do, John is underscoring Jesus’ own teaching that there is no other way to the heavenly Father but through him.[2] The love of God is conditioned upon loving Jesus, his Son. Or to paraphrase my former boss, our Father in heaven in essence is saying, “Love me, love my Son!”

Then John goes on to explain in verse 2, “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.” Now did you catch what John did here? He moved from requiring that we love Jesus, the Son of God, to requiring that we love the children of God, plural. John understands well, he’s internalized the teaching he received from Jesus—namely, that to believe Jesus is the Christ and follow and love him means that we are united with him and with each other.[3] Therefore to love each other is to love Jesus himself. However we treat one another, is how we’re treating Jesus. So, John teaches, the way we know we love God’s Son—or, since it comes down to the same thing—the way we know we love God’s children—is “by loving God and carrying out his commands.” God’s commands have been given us that we might know what loving behavior towards him and others looks like in practice. John underscores this point in the first half of verse 3, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.” Again, and as we also noted last week, John is saying nothing more here than what he heard Jesus himself say: “If you love me, keep my commands.”[4]

Now at first blush, this may rub us the wrong way. What does love have to do with obedience? How can Jesus say that if we love him we will do what he commands? Shouldn’t the initiative to love come from within us rather than externally? Isn’t genuine love voluntary rather than coerced? In other words, we often associate commanding with submitting to those in power. And those in power aren’t necessarily people we love. So, for example,

Soldiers do what those in authority command regardless of whether they like, much less love their commanders;

Students do what their teachers command regardless of whether they love their teachers;

Employees do what their employers command regardless of whether they love their bosses;

People stopped for speeding do what the police officer commands regardless of whether they love him or her;

All of these are examples of authority figures who expect our obedience. Love for them is optional; obedience is not.

Yet the kind of obedience being spoken of by John is different. The kind of commanding Jesus expects of those who love him is more akin to that found in familial relationships than in societal obligations. This love is more like children doing something in order to please their parents. So, for example, if a child cleans up their room after being asked to do so by their parent, that’s a good thing. But if that same child cleans up their room without being asked, knowing that doing so will make their parents happy, that’s a great thing. That’s obedience that is motivated by love. We love to please those whom we love and this is part of what’s being encouraged here in our relationship with God.

And notice how John qualifies keeping God’s commands. After declaring, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands,” at the end of verse 3 he adds, “And his commands are not burdensome,”—and I’ll again pause there. Whereas the commands of a military officer—or teacher—or employer—or police officer may be burdensome, God’s commands are not. God’s commands are not difficult to carry out because of the love that motivates them. This motivating love goes in both directions: Coming from God, everything he asks us to do is ultimately for our good; coming from us, our love for God should trust him—and his goodness—and his greatness— and his kindness such that doing what he has disclosed to us in Scripture should be a joy. For a burden is “a duty or misfortune that causes hardship, anxiety, or grief.” But John tells us that expressing our love for God, that is, keeping his commands is not burdensome. Keeping the commands of someone who loves us and whom we love in return shouldn’t be burdensome. Whether between parent and child, brother and sister—and I mean this broadly as brother and sister in the Lord, friend and friend, or husband and wife, if love exists between the two parties, then being at the command of such a one should flow naturally from that bond of love.

And while all of this is true, John provides a different reason regarding God’s commands. John says that God’s “commands are not burdensome for [or because[5]] everyone born of God overcomes the world.” Now, again, I want to pause. What in the world does it mean that God’s commands are not burdensome because all believers in and followers of Jesus “overcome the world”?

Don’t believers suffer hardship?

Don’t we get sick?

Don’t we deal with death?

Don’t we lose jobs?

Don’t we struggle with money?

Don’t we worry about the future?

I know I do. So it can’t be that overcoming the world means that believers are spared the effects of the Fall for we certainly are not. Rather the reason that everyone who loves God is able to overcome the world;

is able to deal with whatever life hands us;

is able to prevail in this life is because those who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ; who obey what Jesus Christ commands is able to do so by means of his presence in our lives and the presence of the family he gives us. At different times in my life—when I was dealing with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis—or the death of my father—or cancer—or the death of my mother—or not receiving tenure and finding myself without a means of supporting myself, I’ve been exquisitely aware of our gracious Lord’s sustenance, often through the love of my church family. Without this love, without being able to turn to our gracious and great Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in prayer and adoration and the brothers and sisters he has given us in each other, I don’t know how I would have gotten through these painful times and the depression that occasionally accompanied them. Yet I can testify this morning that the presence and love and sustenance of God and the presence and love and sustenance of his children is what conquering, is what overcoming the world looks like in practice.

Notice what John goes on to say in verse 5: “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” He is the key to overcoming. It make sense, doesn’t it, that believing Jesus is God’s Son would be the means of his followers also conquering the world? Since God in Christ made and sustains this world, it makes sense that turning to him and being united in him is the means of our overcoming this world as well. As John states in the opening verses of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”[6] And so, too, Paul teaches, “15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”[7] So God in Christ not only made the world and all that is in it, but he created the world for himself and he also sustains the world he has made. So if we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we are able to overcome the world not by our own strength but by him who made us and everything around us. For he has given us himself—and his written Word—and his Holy Spirit—and each other that we might prevail during this, our earthly sojourn, the short part of our eternal life.

Yet again John is saying nothing other than what he heard Jesus himself teach. When he was telling his inner circle of disciples about his impending death and resurrection and the persecution that they themselves would undergo because of him, Jesus promised to send them the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would guide them into all the truth. After telling them about all the trials that would occur, Jesus reiterated, “32 A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone.[8] Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. 33 I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”[9] What a strange way of comforting Jesus had! He foretold not only his own impending death but how his disciples would be scattered and abandon him prior to his crucifixion. And he did so why? So that they might have peace in him who has overcome the world. Because despite their rejecting him—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that because Jesus knew that they and all people were going to reject him, before the creation of the world[10] Christ determined to die and rise that in him and in him alone we might have a means of receiving God’s forgiveness and peace. As Paul later noted, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[11] This forgiveness and union we’re able to have in Christ is the means of our taking heart. Jesus Christ is the means of our conquering the world because he conquered it first. He conquered sin and its resultant death; he conquered Satan and all evil; and one day, when the fullness of those who will respond to Christ’s offer of salvation is complete, he will, for all time, destroy all evil and suffering and fully bring about his peace, his shalom, making things as he ever intended them to be.

Now about Jesus, the Son of God, John goes on to state in verse 6, “This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ.” Commentators aren’t in agreement about what “water and blood” refer to here but there are two predominant interpretations. One is that “water and blood” refers to Jesus’ death on the cross in that, as John records in his Gospel, after he died, “…one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”[12] So we see the water and blood bearing witness to his full humanity upon dying. And John also makes a point of noting this particular scar on Jesus’ post-resurrection body bearing witness to his being God. For when he appeared to his disciples he “20 …showed them his hands and side.”[13] Since Thomas wasn’t present initially, after they told him about it, he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”[14] A week later, Jesus again appeared to his disciples with Thomas present and he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”[15] The point is that given how significant this wound in Jesus’ side was for John, testifying both to Jesus’ genuine death and later resurrection, referring to Jesus Christ as “the one who came by water and blood” may be a way of highlighting both his death and resurrection as, and I’m quoting here, “The blood and water that flowed from Jesus after His death attested to the reality of His death; the wound in Jesus’ side later confirmed the reality of His bodily resurrection.”[16] And it is God’s Spirit who testifies to and enables us to accept the truth about who Jesus Christ is. So the three witnesses that are in agreement mentioned in verse 8 are the Holy Spirit pointing to the truth about the water and blood from Jesus’ side that were there when he died and rose again from death.

A second interpretation suggests that “water” is a reference to Jesus’ baptism[17] which marked the beginning of his earthly ministry and “blood” refers to his death on the cross. So water and blood are like bookends delineating the time of Jesus Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection. By this understanding the Spirit’s testimony occurred at Jesus’ baptism when he descended as a dove and he continues to confirm that Jesus is indeed the divine Messiah, the Son of God who died on the cross. And, again, it is the Spirit who enables us to come to a saving faith and knowledge concerning the truth of who Jesus Christ is. Therefore the three witnesses that are in agreement here would be that Jesus Christ’s baptism and death are used by the Holy Spirit to testify to the truth of who he is.

But we mustn’t lose the forest in considering these trees for either way what rings out in this passage is that the key to overcoming is to be found in none other than Jesus Christ. Therefore

If we believe that Christ is born of God, then we will be adopted by God to be his children;

If we have been adopted as children of God, then others who look upon our lives should see a family resemblance in the way that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ and treat others generally;

If we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, if we love Jesus himself, this should result in others wanting to know about him;

If our testimony is true—if we bear witness to our heavenly Father’s love for us; how by it we aren’t spared trials and suffering but are sustained by him—and his Word—and his people in the midst of those trials, then we can join with the Holy Spirit in testifying to the truth that Jesus is the Christ, born of God and therefore Son of God. We can testify to the truth that Jesus has overcome the world by his life, death, and resurrection and in doing his commands, which are not burdensome, we, too, have conquered the world through him.

Let us pray.


[1] Jesus, the King for Times Like These—and All Eternity, Sermon preached on March 25, 2018, Mark 11:1–11.

[2] John 14:6–7: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

[3] See, for example, John 17:20–23: 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.; Romans 6:3–5: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

[4] John 4:15.

[5] Greek ὅτι.

[6] John 1:1–3.

[7] Colossians 1:15–17. See also 1 Corinthians 8:6: yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.; Hebrews 1:1–3: 1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

[8] As Mark records, this was indeed what occurred after Jesus was arrested: Mark 14:50: Then everyone deserted him and fled.

[9] John 16:32–33. See earlier in John 16 for other details noted.

[10] Ephesian 1:4: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

[11] Romans 5:6–8.

[12] John 19:34.

[13] John 20:20.

[14] John 20:25.

[15] John 20:27.

[16] Reformation ESV Study Bible.

[17] John 1:32–34: 32 Then John [the Baptist] gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” Accounts of Jesus’ baptism may be found in Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11, Luke 3:21–22.

Leave a Reply