1 John 5:4-5 | Overcoming the World

Praise Crowd

I’m going to risk sounding like a grumpy old curmudgeon. [1]

A lot of popular worship music just irritates me. I’m an insider to this movement—I’ve led worship most Sundays for almost two decades now, so I’ve had plenty of experience with worship music. Lest you think I’m an unredeemable killjoy, let me admit that there are many theologically grounded well written praise and worship songs in the world. It’s the biblically naive songs that drive me crazy.

This is How We Overcome is one of those songs. If you’re an evangelical Christian, you’ve probably sang it. Songwriting powerhouse Reuben Morgan published this celebratory song (also known as “Morning Into Dancing”) in 1998 and it became a staple in celebration services. Singers cry out, “Your light broke through my night,” and “you have turned my sorrow into joy.” The bridge drives the message home ad infinitum: “This is how we overcome!” According to the song, Christians overcome by confessing that God makes them happy. You can listen to it by clicking here if you’d like.

Here’s my beef. Look up all the uses of “overcome” in the New Testament (or just click here) and read through the passages. All the talk about “morning into dancing” (which is a good biblical message in context—read Psalm 30) has nothing to do with overcoming. Overcoming is much more ominous in tone.

John repeats the phrase, “overcome(s) the world” three times in three consecutive sentences. It’s worth looking into what he’s really talking about.

The World

The direct object of the verb “overcome” is “the world.” We know that God loved it (John 3:16), yet back in 1 John 2:15 we’re told explicitly not to love the world. Clearly the word “world” refers to more than one thing. In one sense, God created the world and called it “good.” Despite the corrupting influence of sin, Jesus still loved this world enough to give his life to see all creation reconciled to himself.

The “world” John is referring to here—that which we are not to love, that which we have overcome—is “worldly attitudes and values that are opposed to God” (Kruse 172). Just as the term “flesh” in scripture can refer to the skin on my body or human nature turned away from God, “world” can be viewed in a positive or negative light.

How, then, have we overcome the world? How do we continue to overcome?

This Is How We Overcome

In John’s gospel, he records chapters worth of teaching and prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples before he was betrayed in the garden. Among that teaching is a challenging yet comforting word:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33 ESV)

The first thing we learn about overcoming is that it’s something Jesus did first. We get to overcome only because we are found in Christ, in the Overcomer himself! This is why John lists faith and rebirth as prerequisites for overcoming. We share in the victory of another. We are because Christ was and is.

This overcoming that we share in is one of the key concepts in Revelation. The seven churches are given promises to those who will overcome (Revelation 2-3). Those seven churches refer figuratively to the whole church—these promises our for us. Those who overcome (or “conquer” in some translations):

  1. will eat from the tree of life (Ephesus)
  2. will not be hurt by second death (Smyrna)
  3. will receive hidden manna and a white stone with a new name (Pergamum)
  4. will receive authority over nations and the morning star (Thyatira)
  5. will receive white garments, an entry in the book of life, and confession before the Father (Sardis)
  6. will become a pillar in God’s temple and receive a new name (Philadelphia)
  7. will sit with Jesus on his throne (Laodicea)

Let that sink in for a moment. Those are some incredible promises for those who overcome the world. Fortunately John the Revelator makes it glaringly clear how to overcome—how to receive these promises:

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11 ESV)

The saints conquered the world because they held on to their testimony—their confession that Jesus died for them—until the point of their own death. Overcoming is less about celebration and more about endurance. Less dancing, more persevering.

To bring it back to 1 John 5, I find it beautiful the way the saint’s twofold overcoming in Revelation lines up with the tenses of the verb “overcome” in our text. In 1 John 5:4b, the verb “overcome” is an aorist participle. That typically refers to a completed action. Overcoming the world is something that Jesus has definitively accomplished. In the next verse, however, the verb is a present participle referring to an ongoing process. We overcome daily (by the word of our testimony) as we cling to the Overcomer (the blood of the lamb).

This is how we overcome!

< 1 John 5:1-3 | Jesus Is the Christ

1 John 5:6-8 | Spirit, Water, Blood >

1. Who knows? Maybe I am one. Are curmudgeons necessarily self-aware of their own curmudgeonyness? Is that even a word?

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4 Responses to 1 John 5:4-5 | Overcoming the World

  1. Richard Peele November 18, 2015 at 8:06 am #

    Hi Pastor Stephen,
    Haven’t been in touch for awhile but today’s topic touches a nerve so to speak. As worship leaders ourselves my wife Anne and I take issue with a great many contemporary worship songs. Not only are the lyrics seemingly bereft of anything that resembles Biblical theology but most of them are man-centred rather than God centred. The line that really drives me crazy and is prevalent in too many contemporary worship songs is this one “I am Yours and You are mine.” Are you serious? This kind of banal greeting card sentiment demeans the majesty of Christ to that of those odious plastic figures on springs you mount on your dashboard. I refuse to sing it and usually change the lyric to something like “I am Yours and You are God!” Anyway I appreciate your insight into the subject. It is grieving to me (and no doubt to God) to hear His people singing such rubbish in a worship service without a clue in the world what it is they’re singing.
    Just to encourage you, I visit your site every morning because you bless me, teach me and make me laugh (I love Sherlock Holmes by the way and have the entirety of Sir Arthur’s works in my own library not to mention the DVD’s of the BBC production with my favorite Holmes Jeremy Brett). I also very much enjoy listening to the sermons, it makes me wish I lived in Bracebridge! Take care and continue to proclaim the Message with the wonderful gifts our Lord has given to you. Please greet your dear wife and sister for us (this is beginning to sound like a Pauline epistle) and I hope if you’re ever in the Hamilton area you won’t hesitate to look us up. Meanwhile I continue to read your site with great interest.
    Richard Peele

  2. Stephen Barkley November 18, 2015 at 9:57 am #

    Hi Richard,

    It’s good to hear from you! I’m glad something I wrote caused you to think and reflect.

    You’re right, “I am Yours and You are mine” sounds a bit trite—I imagine the writer was trying to express intimacy with God in modern vernacular. The truth is actually deeper! Christ is in us and we are in Christ.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Richard.

  3. Alaine McGill November 18, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    Thank-you so much for your comments about perseverance and overcoming Steve! I really appreciated our conversation about this and came home feeling encouraged. I love words and their meanings. One of my favourites is ‘en / courage / ment’. We can literally strengthen each other by building up the courage that is within us. Thanks! Alaine

  4. Stephen Barkley November 18, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Hi Alaine,

    Thanks for commenting. I’ve had this idea on my mind for a while—that overcoming = endurance. It’s not as glamorous as celebration, but it seems to be what God expects of his church.

    en / courage / ment is a good one, too—I might have to use that myself!

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