1 John 5:1-5: 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. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. 4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
In the writings of John in the NT the “world” can be the object of God’s saving love (Jn. 3:16-17), the arena into which Christ’s disciples are sent to do ministry (Jn. 17:14-19), or a source of temptation to and dangerous opponent of God’s people (1 Jn. 2:15-17; 5:19). In this passage from 1 John 5 “the world” is that which must be “overcome.” What does it mean to “overcome the world?”
Three of 1 John’s most important themes for “discipleship that overcomes” are present in this text. The first theme is belief: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God… 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?” Faith is key to overcoming the temptations and oppositions of the world because of who it is that we believe in. We believe in Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God – the one who was from the beginning and the one who became flesh and blood to live among us (1 Jn. 1:1-4). We believe that Jesus Christ is the Righteous One who gave himself as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world and who represents us before the Father in heaven (2:1-2, 4:9-10). So, we can overcome this sinful world by trusting in Jesus who overcame all human sin through his own incarnation, death, and resurrection. Overcoming temptation and opposition is not about our strength. Rather, it is about the strength of Jesus Christ working in us and changing us. Faith connects us to Christ’s transforming power.
The second and third themes are love and obedience: “… 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.” In these verses we see how deeply love and obedience are interconnected in the Christian life. Love must be both for God and for God’s children. We cannot have one without the other (4:19-21). Love is the key to overcoming the temptation and opposition of the world because love is how God has redeemed the world (3:16, 4:10). The world did its worst to Jesus, and Jesus did not retaliate. Instead, in suffering love, Jesus absorbed the world’s worst. He died at the hands of his own people. Then, he overcame death through his resurrection. Therefore, as Christians we can never turn to violence, manipulation, or politics as means of ‘overcoming’ the world. Instead, “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (2:6) and that is the way of love (2:7-14). Obedience is deeply related to love, for it is through obedience to God’s commands that we demonstrate both our love for God (‘this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments’) and our love for God’s children (‘by this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments’). Obedience is necessary to overcoming the temptation and opposition of the world, because obedience is the opposite of sin. Sin is what tears people apart from God and each other. But obeying God’s commands leads to the flourishing of our relationship with God and our relationships with each other because God’s commands are for our good. As our Heavenly Father he knows what is best for us, and His commands are intended to help us live as he created us to live. When we obey God’s commands to worship him alone (Exod. 20:3-6); to never misuse but always honor his holy name (Exod. 20:7); and to not allow work to dominate our lives but to consistently set aside time for rest and worship (Exod. 20:8-11) then we are cultivating a loyal and loving relationship with Him. When we obey God’s commands to love our neighbor, and when we realize that love does no harm to its neighbor, then we will treat our neighbor with honor and kindness, and we will not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet (Exod. 20:12-17; Romans 13:8-10).
The world persists in unbelief, hate, and disobedience. The world is ever tempting us to return to these ways, or it is threatening to punish us for abandoning these ways. But we can take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world (Jn. 16:29-33)! Discipleship that overcomes clings to the victorious Jesus through faith, walks in the ways of Jesus through love, and demonstrates love to God and others through obedience.
Take time now to seek God. This brief prayer can help you get started. “Heavenly Father, thank you that Jesus Christ is the Righteous One who has overcome the world! Through your Holy Spirit, strengthen me in the ways of faith, love, and obedience that by your promise I may overcome the world as well. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”