Overcoming the World

“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
—John 16:33

AS JESUS NEARED THE close of his ministry in the flesh, the Scriptures indicate how solicitous he was for the welfare of his disciples. He knew that without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit they would not be able to understand fully the meaning of the seemingly tragic events which were fast closing in around him. He endeavored to prepare their minds and hearts as fully as possible, lest they be completely stumbled and thus not be ready to enter into the privileges of the Gospel Age which were to soon open up with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He not only ministered to them directly, but prayed for them to this end.

Already the disciples had learned that being a follower of the lowly Nazarene did not bring them the good will and plaudits of the world, particularly the religious world of that day. Indeed, there were times when the multitudes flocked around their beloved Master. Too often, however, the motive turned out to be the “loaves and fishes” of material benefit which they hoped to receive from him. Few were interested to the point of being willing to make sacrifices in order to be disciples of Jesus, and often there was outright opposition manifested toward him.

Before Jesus was crucified, his disciples probably thought that in some way he would overcome this opposition and become the accepted leader and King of Israel, and ultimately of the whole world. Had not the prophet written concerning him that of the “increase of his government and peace” there would be no end? (Isa. 9:7) As yet they did not know that first it was necessary that he suffer and die for the world before the prophecies concerning his kingdom glory would be fulfilled. It was their hope to share in the Master’s glory, which they believed was near.

Jesus did not withhold from his disciples the fact of his imminent death, but somehow they felt that what he had said to them pertaining thereto must have another meaning. “My flesh, … I will give for the life of the world,” he had said. (John 6:51) He told them also that he must go to Jerusalem where he would “suffer many things,” and finally “be killed.” When hearing this, Peter said, “Be it far from thee, Lord,” indicating that he thought Jesus was wrong in estimating the strength of his enemies, or that he could be dissuaded from recklessly exposing himself to danger.—Matt. 16:21,22

However, Jesus meant exactly what he said concerning his fast approaching death, even though the disciples could not bring themselves to believe that it would actually occur. Jesus knew that they were still viewing their privileges of discipleship too largely from the standpoint of the material advantages of glory they hoped to attain from being associated with him. While they loved him, and the Messianic cause of which they were convinced he was the divinely appointed leader, they did not yet know as clearly as they understood later that there was to be suffering and death associated with that cause, as well as glory and honor. The prophets had foretold the “sufferings of Christ” as well as the “glory that should follow,” but thus far they appreciated only of the promised glory, in which they hoped to share.—I Pet. 1:11

Jesus knew this, so in the closing days of his ministry he endeavored to prepare them for what he foresaw would be their experience. “If the world hate you,” he said, “ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: … but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” “These things have I spoken unto you,” the Master continued, “that ye should not be offended. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.”—John 15:18-20; 16:1,2

There would seem to be no way of misunderstanding the meaning of statements such as these, for they were charged with impending tragedy. In addition to telling his disciples that death might be their reward for following him, he also warned, “The hour … is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” (John 16:32) Such warnings as these, coming from a reliable source, would certainly be liable to engender fear and a fretful foreboding of future disaster. Jesus explained, however, repeating the words of our opening text, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”—vs. 33

This seems to be a strange way of cheering people and of quieting their hearts. Yet, it is well to note that it was not the warning of coming persecution that was calculated to give the disciples peace and good cheer, but rather the fact that when it came they would understand its meaning and realize that they were having the privilege of suffering with him. He wanted them to know also that he overcame the world and that they too would be given strength to overcome the world if they continued to be his disciples. With this assurance of victory they could have “good cheer” despite the opposition and persecution of the world. Knowledge that they were suffering with their Master, while not lessening the pain, would nevertheless give them courage to continue on.

THE CHRISTIAN WARFARE

In the example set by Jesus’ own life and ministry, and through his teachings as well as the teachings of his apostles, it is clear that the Christian life is one of struggle against opposition. It is a warfare, as it were, in which we are engaged in deadly combat with formidable enemies, which most certainly would overpower us unless we were given divine strength to overcome them. Satan, the devil, is the chief of our enemies, and his allies are the world and our own fallen flesh. As New Creatures in Christ Jesus we are at enmity with all three of these, and this struggle will continue as long as we are in the flesh.

Descriptive of our efforts to subdue the flesh are such scriptural terms as “mortify” and “crucify.” (Col. 3:5; Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14) Speaking of himself, the Apostle Paul wrote, “I keep my body under, and bring it into subjection.” (I Cor. 9:27) The term “overcome” which appears in our theme text is used in the New Testament to describe the Christian’s victory over the Devil, over the Devil’s world, and over the principle of evil which is the foundation of the world of which Satan is the prince. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good,” writes Paul. (Rom. 12:21) John speaks of overcoming “the wicked one.” (I John 2:13,14) He also writes that he who is begotten of God “overcometh the world.”—I John 5:4

Apparently the Apostle John was greatly impressed with what the Master said about overcoming the world, for not only did he make a record of it in his Gospel (Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not), but he enlarges upon this theme in his epistles. It is interesting to note that John is the only apostle who writes specifically about overcoming the world. John also seemed to appreciate greatly the thought of divine love as it was manifested in the sending of Jesus to be man’s Redeemer—“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,” he records. (John 3:16) With reference to our privilege of joint heirship with Jesus he writes, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us.”—I John 3:1-3

It is helpful, we believe, in considering the matter of overcoming the world, to remember that there are two great opposing principles operating in the earth since man’s original sin. These are love and selfishness, or good and evil. It was probably the Apostle John’s clear vision of divine love, and what it means to God’s creatures, that helped him to discern the importance of the Master’s statement concerning the matter of overcoming the world. He evidently saw that it meant Jesus had been victorious over the evil, selfish spirit of the world.

The Creator, our Heavenly Father, is the author of the principle of love, and throughout the ages has been its sponsor. Satan is the sponsor of selfishness. These two principles have been at war with each other since the fall of man. The people of God who have been faithful to the terms of their calling have been motivated by love during this Gospel Age. They are “begotten of God”—that is, by his Spirit—while the remainder of mankind have gone through life with the principle of selfishness largely controlling them. This does not mean that all have been willfully wicked, unjust, or unkind. Man was created in the image of God, and traces of this image remain and manifest themselves in deeds of kindness on the part of many.

It is not the occasional kind deed or act of charity¬≠—however much these are to be commended—that constitutes overcoming the world and its spirit, as Jesus set us the example. Rather, it is a matter of a changed viewpoint on the objective of life, a conversion from the principle of living for self to the principle of living for God by devoting our lives to his service. “Self-preservation,” it has been said, is “nature’s great law,” and this is undoubtedly true with respect to all the lower orders of God’s creatures here on the earth, and properly so. It is only because of sin and the misrule of Satan, however, that it has been adopted by human beings as the dominating motive of life.

It has been embraced by the human race and has become so much a way of life in the world that it is considered normal and commendatory. Self-interest, broadened perhaps to include one’s family, is the principle which rules the world—this “present evil world” over which Satan is the prince. (Gal. 1:4; John 12:31) This was also true during the world before the flood. Indeed, it has been true throughout the more than four thousand years of “this world” since. There have been a few exceptions. Some, instead of drifting with the tide of selfishness which sweeps the masses along to inevitable destruction, have gone against it. These have devoted their lives unselfishly in efforts which they hope might eventually turn the tide, or at least alleviate the sufferings of those who were unable to help themselves. They will have their reward in God’s due time.

The only “cause” which actually will do away with selfishness and establish love throughout the whole earth as the motive of life is God’s plan of redemption through Christ. The only ones, therefore, who can overcome the world in the scriptural sense are those who follow faithfully in his footsteps of sacrifice. Before the First Advent of Jesus there were some who caught the spirit of the Messianic cause and gladly gave their lives for it. Paul lists a number of these in the 11th chapter of Hebrews. Moses was one of them. “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.”—Heb. 11:24-26

John wrote that the victory which overcomes the world is faith. (I John 5:4) On this basis, Moses was an overcomer. As the world views matters, it would have been in every way to Moses’ advantage to remain in Egypt and accept legal membership in Pharaoh’s family. From the standpoint of self-interest, he had everything to lose and nothing to gain by leaving and espousing the cause of his people. However, as the apostle explains, “By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.” (Heb. 11:27) Moses had faith in the promises of God and was confident that a course of life consistent with those promises would be to his best eternal interests, even though it meant the loss of practically all temporal advantage.

JESUS, THE GREAT EXAMPLE

In Jesus we have our greatest and most comprehensive pattern of love as a way of life. He not only gave us an example, but enjoined love upon his followers, saying, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) This viewpoint was not understood nor appreciated by the people of Jesus’ day, and not until Pentecost did his own disciples grasp its real import. When the rich young ruler was told to sell all he had and show love by giving to the poor, he went away sorrowful. In following the law of self-preservation, he had accumulated those goods as a protection against a “rainy day.” He was not prepared to abandon the idea that someday he would need his wealth.—Matt. 19:16-22

Even the disciples were perplexed at this advice to the rich young man, which seemed to reflect so reckless an abandoning of all self-interest. Commenting on the incident, Jesus explained to his disciples that it would be “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Then they asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus did not answer this question directly, observing merely, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” Peter, wishing to get to the core of a philosophy so different from anything to which they were accustomed, asked, “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?”—vss. 23-27

The import of Peter’s question is obvious. “We have forsaken all,” he said. In other words, he was reminding the Master that as his disciples they had complied with the conditions of discipleship he sought to impose upon the rich young ruler. Their “all” was probably not as much as his “all,” but the principle was the same. Having made this sacrifice, they naturally wanted to know what they could expect to get out of it. This was the point of Peter’s question. It reveals that as yet he had not caught the real spirit of discipleship. To him it was still more or less of a business proposition, one which he hoped would net him greater returns, at least in honor and prestige, than his fishing business. Instead of being a humble fisherman, he had hopes of a prominent position in Messiah’s kingdom, to be a ruler, a prince, a great one among men.

When Jesus announced to his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem and that he expected to be arrested there and put to death, Peter admonished, “Be it far from thee, Lord.” (Matt. 16:22) Jesus’ reply to this well-meant advice was to the point. He said, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” (vs. 23) Peter was attempting to persuade the Master that he should permit self-interest to influence him and not go to Jerusalem, where he knew his enemies had set a trap for his arrest. In doing this, Peter was espousing the cause of Satan, who always encourages men to consider self first.

Those of the world and its spirit—over which Satan is the prince—naturally think of self first. It is openly and avowedly their way of life, and has been since the days of Eden, but it is not God’s way. It is the way of men in Satan’s world. Now Jesus was introducing a new way, the way of love. In God’s world, “wherein dwelleth righteousness,” it is the only way which will be permitted to continue, but is now the way merely of Jesus’ disciples, introduced by him at his First Advent.—II Pet. 3:13

Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 16:24,25) Peter advised Jesus to save his life, but the Master explained to him that those who endeavor to save their lives shall lose them, and those who lose their lives in sacrifice shall save them. It is doubtful if the disciples understood the depth of this remark at that time, but it was simply one method by which Jesus explained the difference between the way of selfishness—self-interest—and the way of love that is manifested by a self-sacrificing attention to the needs of others.

Jesus was even then losing his life sacrificially for others—the whole world of mankind. Later, to the women at his empty tomb, the commission was given to go and tell the disciples that he had been raised from the dead. In that commission, special mention was made of Peter—“Go … tell his disciples, and Peter.” (Mark 16:7) When Jesus explained to Peter that those who lose their lives in the divinely directed service of God shall save them, Peter probably comprehended little of what it meant. However, now it would seem that Jesus was driving the lesson home to Peter’s mind and heart by calling his special attention to the fact of the resurrection. “Tell Peter, yes, tell him that my life has been saved. He wanted me to save it by selfishly avoiding the privilege of sacrifice. Like men of the world, he considered it foolish that in an emergency I should think of anyone but myself. He thought I should protect myself, but when you tell him that I have been raised from the dead, he will realize that my life has been saved. It has been saved in God’s way, not by following the worldly principle of self first.”

OVERCOMING THE WORLD

To overcome the world, therefore, means that in living up to the terms of our consecration we stand up against the principle of selfishness with which we are surrounded on every hand, and continue to lay down our lives unselfishly in the service of God, the truth, and the brethren. Jesus said, “I have chosen you out of the world,” so we are to remain separate from it, and not permit ourselves to be influenced by its self-interest viewpoint. (John 15:19) We cannot reform the world nor change any of its institutions to that of the sacrifice of self—the denying of self. Thus, the test upon us is to continue to be separate from the world, abandoning the self-first point of view, and endeavoring to lose our lives in the cause of divine love.

Overcoming the world has far more serious implications than merely to refrain from participating in some of its pleasures. The spirit of the world is largely the result of Satan’s influence, and we cannot take part in its arrangements, nor should we be influenced by its viewpoint. The world has its pleasures, and even these are, for the most part, selfishly inspired. Hence, they should be shunned by those who are endeavoring to overcome the world. Let us not think, however, that we are faithful overcomers simply because we stay away from the world’s pleasures.

As followers of the Master, we are being prepared to share with him in the rulership of God’s new world, hence we are being trained in the principles of love. Under the influence of love we are losing our lives in sacrifice. This does not mean that we have no joy in life, for if we are living up to our privileges, the joy of the Lord will be ours. If we have not learned to appreciate the way of love and sacrifice sufficiently to find in it, and in the promises of God associated with it, a fully satisfying portion which more than compensates for all the trifling joys of this world, we should examine our hearts to find out what is wrong. If we have to go to the world and its pleasures to find “diversion” while we lay down our lives for God, we might seriously question whether or not we are as victorious as we should be in overcoming the world.

“In the world ye shall have tribulation,” said the Master, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” The tribulation we have in the world will be in proportion to the degree that our course in life runs counter to its spirit. “If ye were of the world,” Jesus explained, “the world would love his own.” (John 15:19) If the world does not find anything in us, or in our way of life that is contrary to its own, then we may well question the course we have been taking or the degree of our overcoming.

However, if we are overcoming the world, we are bound, at some point, and in some way, to feel its opposition—“In the world ye shall have tribulation.” Nevertheless, we can be of “good cheer,” not because we rejoice in trouble, but because of this evidence of divine approval. Having faith in God’s promises, even as we are now losing our lives, giving up everything which the world considers valuable, will surely enable us to find this joy of spirit. By “patient continuance in well doing,” we will gladly continue to seek for “glory and honour and immortality, eternal life.”—Rom. 2:7

THE BREAD AND THE CUP

During those closing days of the Master’s earthly ministry he taught his disciples many things concerning his impending death and its meaning to him, to them, and to the world. One of these lessons was in the “upper room” where he inaugurated the Memorial Supper. “This is my body, which is broken for you,” he said concerning the bread. (I Cor. 11:24) “This is my blood, … shed for many,” he explained with respect to the cup. (Matt. 26:28) He invited his disciples gathered together with him to partake of these symbolic emblems. Doing so signified that they not only were to benefit individually from that which they represented, but also that they would now share in a common fellowship as a result. This latter point was afterward emphasized by Paul when he wrote about our “participation” of the body and blood of Christ as pictured by the bread and the cup.—I Cor. 10:16,17, Emphatic Diaglott

A rich blessing awaits the Lord’s people each year as they commemorate the death of Jesus, and there are many vitally important and practical lessons we can get from our meditations on the Memorial bread and cup. For the moment, let us think of them as providing, through Jesus our Passover lamb, the means by which we have the privilege of following his example of overcoming the world. They represent sacrifice—the breaking of Jesus’ body and the shedding of his blood through his adherence to the principle of love. It was love which resulted in his sacrifice of everything that the world might live. Because of his perfect obedience in having his body “broken” and his blood “shed” for us, we have the privilege of being “planted together in the likeness of his death,” and of following his example of faithfulness, that we might “be also in the likeness of his resurrection.”—Rom. 6:5

The world of Jesus’ day hated him, and finally put him to death. We should expect no better treatment from the world today. Jesus explained that the servant cannot expect to be above his Master. (Matt. 10:24) The reason the world hated Jesus was that his way of life was contrary to theirs. By his example of sacrifice he condemned their way of selfishness, and by his teachings he exposed their popular errors while teaching unpopular truths himself. Thus he was hated.

Now we hear his call, “Follow me.” (Matt. 4:19) To follow Jesus means much more than merely to admire him. To follow him faithfully means that our experiences in the world will be similar to his. However, “be of good cheer,” he said, “I have overcome the world.” We too can overcome the world if, like him, we keep before us the great objective of the divine will and confidently rely on the Heavenly Father’s promised “grace to help in time of need.”—Heb. 4:16

As we partake of the Memorial emblems this year, let us rejoice more than ever in what they mean as symbols of divine grace toward us. Being appropriated by us, they have then provided us the privilege of dying with Jesus by denying ourselves and laying down our lives in doing God’s will. If we are faithful in this we will be true overcomers, and can apply to ourselves the promise of the Master, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”—Rev. 3:21