Some of you may remember ABC’s Wide World of Sports. A Saturday afternoon TV staple hosted by Jim McKay that ran from 1961 until 1998. The show was a compilation of various sporting events from earlier in the week. To this day I can still hear Jim McKay’s opening promise of “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as a ski jumper completely misses the ramp. I always felt bad for that guy having his failure replayed week after week. The Bible also talks about victory and defeat.
The apostle John wrote, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” Now, to be honest I plucked that gem from its setting. The statement is true but to understand it and to avoid taking to unintended extremes we must put it back in its setting. The larger context is, of course, the entire letter of First John. John’s primary concern is that his readers would love God and love one another. It’s a foundation he returns to often in this short letter. Let’s look at the immediate context.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For 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 John 5:1–5, ESV)
So often we get off track by looking at how much we believe instead of concentrating on the foundations of faith. John bookends this passage with “believes.” Anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, has been born of God and the overcomers are those that believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That is the faith which overcomes the world.
Faith in who Jesus is and what He’s done is the foundation stone for overcoming. John further demonstrates the effects of this kind of faith. Those born of God by believing in Jesus will love the others that have also been born of God. We know we love God and his children when we follow God’s commandments which John describes as “not burdensome.” We must be careful here not to add commandments. John could be referencing the Law of Moses or the Ten Commandments. Probably though, given John’s foundation, he is referring to Jesus’ statement – “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”” (John 13:34–35, ESV) The commandments are not burdensome if we love God with our whole being and love others as we do ourselves.
What does it mean to overcome or defeat the world? Victory does mean that someone or something has been defeated. We know what that looks like in war and in sports with winners and losers. But also consider the victory of a mountain climber as they summit the peak. Victory over the world is not defined by fame, fortune, power, or success. The victory of our faith is completely different.
Every time love wins over hate, forgiveness over offense, unity over division, obedience over sin, humility over pride, serving others wins over taking from others, Godly choices over peer pressure, sacrifice over self-centeredness – all because we believe in Jesus – then the world is defeated. It may not look like victory. The newspapers and cable news may not notice. It may never go viral on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter. So what. The world’s victories are a hollow and fleeting promise. The victory of our faith in Jesus is eternal. Let me put it this way, God’s greatest victory is a blood-soaked cross and an empty tomb. Our victories in Christ are in the same mold of sacrifice and total reliance on the power, grace, and love of God.