By Doug Redford
“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” (John 16:33).
Just hours after Jesus spoke these uplifting words of hope to his disciples, he himself was arrested, severely beaten, and “uplifted” on a Roman cross. One cannot help but wonder: did any of the disciples recall these words as the events leading up to Calvary unfolded? How could they “take heart” when the very heart of their faith had been taken from them? As Jesus’ body hung lifeless from the cross, it seemed obvious that he was the one who had been overcome—not the overcomer.
Looking deeper at this particular teaching of Jesus, we can begin to grasp the fullness of his message.
A World of Difference
The word world carries different meanings within Scripture. This is clear from a study of the apostle John’s writings. We are familiar with John 3:16 and its declaration of God’s love for the world. But the same writer commanded Christians in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.” World can describe the people who populate the world, and Jesus died for every single one of them. Our love for them should mirror the Father’s love and should motivate our evangelism.
But world can also designate something else: the badly broken, sin-cursed realm of thought and lifestyle that reflects the influence of the prince of darkness, Satan. Such a realm poses an intense and daily threat to followers of Jesus, which is why John issued the warning that he did in 1 John 2:15. Consider for a moment how much the world of the twenty-first century offers us to love that John’s first-century world did not. Along with the seductive way in which sinful choices are presented to us, the world can be hard not to love.
However, what Jesus alluded to in John 16:33 was the trouble that accompanies life in this world: “In this world you will have trouble.” Anyone could make that kind of appraisal. But only Jesus could say what is found both before and after that statement—first is the promise of peace to his followers, and then comes the assurance that he has overcome the world.
The Promise of Peace
Ask yourself this question: What is it about life in this world that tends to make me feel overcome or overwhelmed? The answer will vary from person to person. Most of us could suggest several responses. True, our lives are enriched by the many good things that the world has to offer. The temptations of the twenty-first century world are somewhat offset by the conveniences of our time. The world may not always be a place of trouble. It may even at times be wonderful, as the renowned jazz artist Louis Armstrong used to tell us.
But our lives also face the harsh reality voiced by Job: “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1). Conveniences such as the Internet give us the opportunity to read of tragedies and disasters as they are unfolding. Continuous news coverage on certain television channels does the same. That along with the personal experiences of trouble and brokenness can leave us feeling overcome by the world.
What is the key to becoming an overcomer? In John 16:33 Jesus presented a contrast with the phrases in me and in the world. In me, he said, there is peace; in the world there is trouble. Those phrases represent two different realms or perspectives or approaches to life. We have to live in the world with all of its heartache, but we can choose to live in another world, that is, in Christ. If we do so, we are promised peace—a peace unlike anything this broken world is able to offer. Jesus had made this clear earlier in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Such a promise is in keeping with a kingdom that is “not of this world” (18:36). While the world may bring trouble, our hearts do not need to be troubled.
The basis for the peace of which Jesus speaks is seen in his words just prior to John 16:33. He told his disciples, “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. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (v. 32). Peace comes with the awareness that even though the present world may appear out of control, God remains in control. He does not abandon his people. Jesus was about to demonstrate that truth when his own hour would come (17:1) and he would be tried and crucified.
That beatings and crucifixion appeared at the time to make Jesus’ claim to have overcome the world laughable. But those same events illustrate exactly what overcoming the world means: recognizing that the world’s trouble and brokenness are only part (and not the most important part) of a bigger picture that transcends this world. The kingdom “not of this world” took the most reprehensible act of humanity (the crucifixion of God’s Son) and brought about humanity’s deliverance from a broken world. That is the kingdom to which followers of Jesus belong, and his is the peace that sustains all followers in this world of so much pain. The world did not give this peace to us; the world cannot take it from us. This is part of what makes this peace something that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
The Outlook of Overcomers
The first-century followers of Jesus soon learned what it meant to “overcome the world.” Though initially they enjoyed “the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:47), eventually persecution of believers intensified. When it did so, it actually resulted in further spreading of the gospel (8:4).
Perhaps no one came to appreciate the message of overcoming the world more than John, the only Gospel writer to record Jesus’ words about overcoming. Overcoming later becomes a theme in his first epistle (1 John 2:13, 14; 4:1-14; 5:3-5). The same theme resonates throughout the book of Revelation. Each of the messages of Jesus to the seven churches in the province of Asia concludes with a special promise of blessing “to the one who is victorious” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). The Greek word rendered “victorious” in these seven verses is the same one rendered “overcome” in John 16:33.
The infamous beast in Revelation is pictured as overpowering the faithful for a limited amount of time (11:7; 13:7), but in the end God’s people reign triumphant as overcomers for eternity. The opposition “will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers” (Revelation 17:14; cf. 12:11; 21:7).
While Peter did not use the term “overcome” in either his first or second epistle, he did address the suffering that persecuted Christians were undergoing. He underscored how these conditions, though they comprise a “fiery ordeal” (1 Peter 4:12), may provide opportunities to bear a testimony for Christ. He told the believers, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (3:15). Overcomers can generate questions from those who see the brokenness and turmoil in their own lives but do not have the resources that they see manifested in the lives of overcomers.
The troubles of the twenty-first century world may be very different in certain respects from those of the first century (depending on one’s culture and surroundings). The challenge to followers of Jesus, the citizens of the kingdom not of this world, is to stay on top of the world as overcomers. When living in the world brings the trouble and sorrow that Jesus said it would, those who have chosen to live in Christ can speak with the most clarity and offer a peace and a perspective that the world is powerless to provide.
Professor David Calhoun once observed regarding the early Christians, “They out-lived, out-thought, and out-died the pagans.” In a word, they were overcomers. Let us take heart in our time and be the same.
Doug Redford is a freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.