by Ken Cooper
For many believers the Christian life is a life of struggle, a daily battle with opposition and evil. Salvation does not remove the believer from adversity, difficulties and opposition. Indeed conflict in a number of ways really begins at salvation (see Eph 6:12). Our adversaries are specific and identified in God’s word. We can be overcome by the world (1 Jn. 5:4), the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26) and the devil (1 Pet. 5:8-9).
Yet the Christian life is (or should be) a life of victory. Christians are frequently exhorted in the New Testament to be “overcomers”. The use of the word overcomer in relation to the believer confirms the Christian path is not an easy course. The path of the disciple is not one of taking our ease in a resigned or passive way.
The main word for overcomer in the New Testament is “nikao”. It is used of God (Rom. 3:4); of Christ (Jn. 16:33; Rev. 3:21, 5:5, 17:14); of Christ’s followers (Rom. 12:21; 1 Jn. 2:13-14, 4:4, 5:4, 5; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 3:5, 12, 21, 12:11, 15:2, 21:7); of faith (1 Jn. 5:4); of evil (Rom. 12:21); of future human potentates (Rev. 6:2, 11:7, 13:7). There are other Greek words used (see 2 Pet. 2:19-20 and Acts 19:16) which bear a similar sense. Associated words convey the idea of victory, conquering (see Rom. 8:37) and triumph.
The word overcomer really means “one who gains the victory”. It means to conquer, prevail, triumph, and overcome. It is found twice in the Gospels and twice in Paul’s epistles. However the majority of uses are in John’s writings (six times in 1 John and sixteen times in Revelation of which about half are in chapters 2 and 3).
The Lord as an Overcomer
Despite opposition, suffering, trial and apparent defeat the Lord was an overcomer. The Lord’s path on earth, despite appearances to men, was one of triumph and victory.
Jn. 16:33 and Rev. 3:21 confirm that He was an overcomer (see also Rev. 5:5, 17:14). The sphere of His overcoming was His life in this world and His victory over Satan. In His life He passed through conflict in perfection. He rose above all evil. He was never overcome. His path was the practical expression of Rom. 12:21. In Matt 4 He defeated Satan in the wilderness by the Word of God. In Lk. 11:21-2 He speaks of Himself as the “stronger” who will meet “the strong man” (Satan). He is stronger than Satan. As the true overcomer Christ is greater than all not least in His power, love, grace and mercy. Above these Christ showed His overcoming power at Calvary (see Col. 2:15). He defeated Satan at the Cross.
The Lord has trod the path of overcoming before His people are called to do so. He has shown us the path of victory. It is through the Word that He was victorious. As a consequence we are to be conquerors in the time of tribulation. As the overcomer He is the ultimate source of victory (see Rom 8:37). We triumph in and through Christ (see 2 Cor. 2:14).
Believers as Overcomers
The word overcomer does not refer to a spiritually elite group. Some have suggested that an overcomer is one of a minority of believers who are worthy to be raptured when the Lord comes. This is clearly an unsound idea which contradicts many scriptures and is to be dismissed unreservedly. When the Lord comes to the air, all believers from the day of Pentecost will be raised or taken to be “with the Lord”. Our place with Him then depends on the grace of God, not on our own merits.
There are two main alternative views to consider:
- The word refers to all born again believers. It describes what they are positionally and how they should be characterised practically (by perseverance to the end and overcoming by faith, 1 Jn. 5:5).
- The word refers to a believer who has made spiritual progress, a faithful Christian who is able to rise above circumstances and is not swamped by prevailing departure. It is suggested the word describes a person of energetic faith that surmounts difficulties. This view suggests that, because not all believers live faithfully, not all believers are overcomers.
The study of the scriptures shows us that the first view is correct.
Specific References to Overcoming in the Scriptures
The term overcomer is characteristic of John’s writings. All but three uses of the main word in the New Testament are used by John (see Lk. 11:22; Rom. 3:4; 12:21). For John overcoming appears to be synonymous with believing (see 1 Jn. 5:4-5).
This is supported when we consider that the messages to the overcomer relate to rewards for believers and the exhortations to overcomers are not warnings implying a potential loss of salvation (Jn. 10:28-9). Scripture does not separate believers into an overcoming or non overcoming class. Scripture only distinguishes between the saved and the lost. There is no intermediate class. The word overcomer therefore is a term which describes all believers in the present and past dispensations.
1 Jn. 5:4-5 makes it clear that all believers are overcomers. John describes an overcomer as a believer in Christ, someone who is “born of God”. Victory over the world is the experience of all believers in salvation. The word therefore in 1 John applies to all Christians, not just some who may be older, more mature or more faithful.
John shows that, as overcomers, believers are marked by spiritual power and are specifically to refuse evil. In addition, in the context of these epistles, they were to maintain the testimony regarding the character of Christ, because this was under attack at that time. All the believers addressed overcame the evil conditions that threatened the testimony of Christ. They enjoyed victory over the evil one. This presents a practical challenge for us today.
Although a very high standard is set for every believer, all believers are in view in 1st John when the description “overcomer” is used. Failure in the life of the believer, while a tragedy, does not negate the truth of the believer’s position.
In summary the word “overcomer” defines what a true believer is in testimony in the world and in the local assembly. The whole Christian life has the character of the overcomer. Overcoming is a characteristic of all believers (1 Jn. 2:13, 14, 4:4, 5:4, 5).
The word overcomer is used in Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26, 3:5, 12, 21, 12:11, 15:2, 21:7. Again all Christians are in view because:
- John uses the term consistently. The same word is used in his writings. The overcomers spoken of in his first epistle are the same as those described in Revelation.
- The various promises in these letters to the seven churches are tailored to the special circumstances of each church and the promises apply potentially to every believer in that church, not to a distinctive class.
- The promises are not just for a special group, but are the normal expectation for all Christians. Overcomers were not “super saints” but all true believers who should put into practice the teaching of the Risen Christ in their particular assembly.
- The existence of false professors in any company must be acknowledged and so some in the assembly may not be overcomers because they are not truly saved.
- In each of the churches addressed there was a mixture of true and false and the call to the overcomer should be seen as a call to all true believers in the light of mixed conditions.
All believers are overcomers as far as their spiritual position is concerned. After conversion all believers are encouraged to live overcoming lives. However not all are overcomers in practice. It must be recognised that not all true believers live victorious lives. Many believers experience temporary setbacks. Some turn aside completely. Some indulge in terrible sin. There are examples in scripture of such (e.g. some of the Corinthian saints). We must recognise that not all believers will or do lead overcoming lives.
All believers should strive to triumph in their faith. If the Lord was an overcomer so must we be. We must overcome as He overcame. We are to be encouraged by the example of Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit helps us to lead victorious lives (see 1 Jn. 4:4; 5:4-5). New birth brings a capacity to overcome the world. Faith is the means by which we gain the victory (1 Jn. 5:5). Faith is in the Person and work of Christ. Faith relies ultimately on God’s word. Therefore the secret of daily overcoming is practical knowledge of and obedience to God’s word.