Overcoming the World

Text: 1 John 5:4-10

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4 English Standard Version) With these words, St. John helps us to understand what he means in our Epistle reading this week. He wrote these words to faithful Christians scattered throughout what was then called Asia Minor, but what we now know as Turkey. They were in distress because, as the decades since our Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension went on, more and more false teachers were appearing – including many who had started out as Christians. Instead of living faithfully in the freedom of the Gospel, they had succumbed to the devil’s lies, returned to his kingdom, and sought to take all other Christians with them. “Little children, you are from God,” St. John encouraged his hearers, “and have overcome them.”

He continued in our text today, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:4-5) Just last week in the Hymn of the Day, we sang that it was a strange and dreadful strife – when death contended with life – but the victory remained with our Lord. In our time, the Son of God took on our same human flesh, He endured the temptations and assaults of the devil, and through His resurrection, won the victory over the devil and his kingdom. This victory – over sin, death, and the devil – He shares with us by His grace, through faith.

I.

Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world,” so says St. John. Now, when the Scriptures speak about the world, they speak about it in two different ways. In Lutheranism – and this has come up a lot in recent issues of the Lutheran Witness – we sometimes use the language of the “two kingdoms,” the kingdom of the left and the kingdom of the right. That’s kind of how St. John is speaking. Sometimes when the Scriptures speak about the world, they speak about it as God’s kingdom. They mean God’s kingdom of grace, of which we are now a part. In this kingdom, God rules by grace and the forgiveness of sins. Here we are restored to a right relationship with Him, with each other, and even with creation itself. At present, however, this is not something that we always see with our eyes. For example, we look around now and see empty spaces and pews. Although we are this morning worshipping with saints around the world and the choirs of heaven, it’s sometimes hard to picture. This is because God’s kingdom has not yet fully come.

Instead, what we see now is the kingdom we were born into by nature – which is the second way the Scriptures speak of the world – the fallen world, the kingdom of the devil. This is the world that St. John speaks of. In this fallen world, the devil and his minions play the part of lord. They sin and lead into sin. The devil holds captive many worldly authorities, the majority of the world’s population, and he even held us captive once. He still does when we refuse to listen to God’s Word and honor it with our lives, instead giving into temptation and its fruits. In this kingdom there is nothing but sin, death, and the hell that awaits to receive us in the end. This is the “world,” that Christ overcame and which – through faith – we have overcome, too.

II.

We’ll hear these words again next month, but this is what our Lord said Himself: “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) Jesus said those words to comfort His disciples only hours before His betrayal. He said that because He knew exactly what would happen. He knew that it was for us that He took on flesh. He emptied Himself of His glory – for a time – so that He might suffer for us the temptations and assaults of the devil. It says in Hebrews, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (4:15)

It also says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (2:14-15) This is what Jesus announced to the disciples and to Thomas, by showing His hands and side. He was the same Jesus they knew and followed; He did die, but now He lives again. By His death, Jesus atoned for all human sin and by His resurrection, He broke death’s iron bars. He shattered the devil’s kingdom. He took away the strong man’s armor and is now dividing the spoil. St. John encouraged his hearers to not be afraid of false teachers, or death, or the devil himself, for Christ has won the victory. And, through faith, we share in the victory.

III.

This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood.” (v. 6) Here St. John speaks both about Jesus’ ministry and how He now comes to us. Jesus’ public ministry began with His baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. It was there that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and the Father spoke, confirming that Jesus is His Son and His chosen one. The same Jesus is the one who shed His blood for us on the cross and, as Thomas testified, who is now risen from the dead. Through the water and the blood, He who is both God and man conquered the devil and his kingdom for us. That victory, He shares with us now through water and blood.

In the water of Holy Baptism, Jesus pours out on us the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through the Word in that water to create faith and join us to Christ’s resurrection. In Baptism, Christ makes His resurrection our resurrection and bestows on us His victory over death and the grave. Through Baptism, we become members of His kingdom and, although the war is won, some fighting remains – since we remain in the flesh. To strengthen us in this fight, Christ comes to us by His blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. Through His body and blood, He bestows on us the forgiveness He won for us on the cross, and strengthens us for the fight – until His victory is made complete on the Last Day.

St. John, therefore, encourages us today: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Through Christ’s resurrection, the devil and his kingdom are defeated. By faith, Christ makes His victory our own. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

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