READ : John 16:33
Listen to these words of Jesus about victory. I’m reading from the Gospel of John, chapter 16, verse 33:
I have told you all this so that in me you may find peace. In the world you will have suffering, but take heart, I have conquered the world (rsv).
THE SOBERING PROPHECY
Did you hear that? “In the world you will have suffering.” In one sense, that’s true for everyone, isn’t it? “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). My wife and I spoke recently at a retreat outside Denver, Colorado. A number of men and women there unburdened themselves to us about the anguish in their lives. A couple’s beloved son died recently of bone cancer at 24. Another couple’s daughter has become so alienated from her family that she has changed her name and has had no communication with them for years. The son of another has become addicted to drugs. He has broken into their home on more than one occasion and stolen their belongings to support his habit. A mother confides to us that she has multiple sclerosis and that her son suffers from schizophrenia. There were only about 45 persons in the group that weekend, but the accumulated pain and heartbreak seemed overwhelming.
When I was a young pastor, a friend with long experience in the ministry quoted to me an old Dutch proverb. I can’t repeat it in the original language, but it said this in English: “In every house there’s a cross. In every heart there’s a smart.” Isn’t it so, friends? None of us get very far in life without passing through deep waters. Very few, at least among those who take the risk of loving someone, escape heartbreak of some sort. In the world you will have suffering.
But Jesus was doing more here than stating the obvious, uttering a weary platitude about human experience. He was speaking to His followers about a special kind of tribulation that would be theirs. It would come to them, this special kind of suffering, because they belonged to Him.
It’s important to understand what Jesus means here by the term the world. Often in the Scriptures, world means simply “Planet Earth,” the sun-circling sphere on which all of us live. “The earth is the Lord’s,” says the psalmist, “and all the fulness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).
Sometimes Jesus means by “the world” the people in it. Remember the most loved of all Bible verses: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)? Jesus is saying that God feels that way about the people, all the people, on the earth.
But in the passage we read today and in several others, Jesus means by “the world” a structure, a system, a mind-set, opposed to God. He tells His followers that “the world” will hate them even as it has hated Him. In this sense, Satan, God’s enemy, is the “ruler of the world.” The apostle John further teaches that “the world” is characterized by “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). “The whole world,” He says, “lies in the power of the evil one.” It does not “know God.” It is “passing away.” Although they are called to love persons, Christians are not to give their hearts to “the world,” not to love the world in this negative sense of the term.
When Jesus says, “In the world you will have suffering,” He is warning His followers that the world will treat them as it has treated Him. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not” (John 1:10). Although He was the maker of all, when the Lord of glory came in the person of Jesus into the midst of this world system, it hated Him, rejected Him, condemned Him to die. There seems to be unalterable opposition between the light of heaven and the darkness of this present world. The darkness seeks with cunning and hatred to extinguish the light.
Jesus says to His followers, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world [that is, if you belonged to the world], the world would love its own, but you do not belong to the world now that I have chosen you out of the world, and for that reason, the world hates you.” The logic is clear: a servant is not greater than His master. If they persecuted Me, says Jesus, they will also persecute you. Why? Because Jesus’ followers are identified with Him. He is the vine; they are the branches. They are joined to Him in a living bond. They are members of His body, the church. As He is, so are they in this world. They are treated accordingly. Whatever hostility and anger there is in this world against God will in some way be directed also against His people. Hear how Paul puts it, “All who will live godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). The attitude of this world’s system toward Jesus Christ and His people hasn’t changed. In the world, He says, you will have suffering.
THE THRILLING CLAIM
But that somewhat daunting prediction of Jesus forms the dark background for a thrilling claim. “I,” Jesus says, “have conquered the world.” I was asking myself the other day, “Did any military leader ever make that claim, `I have conquered the world’? Was Julius Caesar saying that in the famous words, Veni, Vidi, Vici, `I came, I saw, I conquered'”? No, he was talking about a much more modest tract of earth then. Did Alexander the Great say it? No, he aspired to be worshiped as a god and had dreams of world domination, but he never made the claim, as far as we know, that he had achieved it. Did Napoleon say it when he was about to bring all Europe to its knees? Or did Hitler boast this when he seemed on the verge of winning World War II? No, none of those. Perhaps there have been leaders, ancient and modern, who boasted that they would win universal dominion, just as heavyweight boxing champions sometimes claim they can vanquish anyone alive. But not one, as far as I know, has ever publicly announced that he has succeeded. But Jesus says it, “I have conquered the world.”
“Let’s be real,” someone objects, “I can’t see that Jesus ever conquered anything. He never owned any property. He commanded no fighting men. His most loyal followers deserted Him and ran away in His hour of need. His teaching and claims were rejected. The multitudes clamored for His death, and He was publicly executed in the most painful, humiliating way possible. When you look at His life and how it turned out, total defeat seems a more accurate description than victory.”
What makes the claim all the more mysterious is the fact that Jesus made it with clear-eyed knowledge that He was about to be arrested and put to death. Obviously, He had something in mind quite different from what we normally understand by these words, “conquering the world.” To conquer the world in ordinary speech means to defeat all opposing forces, to gain control over the world’s power structures and to exercise authority over all its peoples. But remember that when Jesus speaks about the world here, He’s talking about that sum total of human society with all its drives and powers, its civilization and culture, those who operate in disregard of God, and in opposition to God. The world is a kind of power structure which denies and defies God’s lordship over all of life.
It’s this vast world system, this prevailing spirit of the age, which Jesus claims to have conquered. The decisive battle had been fought and won. The world had tried to intimidate Him with its sneers, its taunts, its threats. It was about to put Him on trial, to condemn and kill Him. It was out to thwart and destroy His divine mission on earth. Earlier, the world had tried another tactic, seeking to beguile Him with its allurements. It had promised Him dominion, fame, security, satisfaction, if only He would turn from God’s appointed path. But neither the world’s threats nor its blandishments had moved Jesus. He had remained faithful to God in the midst of all these pressures. He had resisted to the very end. In that sense, He had conquered. He did not capitulate to the power of evil. He never gave in. He overcame the world.
THE WELCOME CHARGE
Now, after the prophecy and the claim comes this welcome charge: “Be of good cheer. . . . Take heart.” At the time Jesus spoke these words, the disciples didn’t see much reason for encouragement. Jesus, their Lord and Master, would soon be torn away from them in death. They would prove false to Him in the process, fearing and running away. Jesus might have overcome the world, but its pressures seemed to be far too much for them. They would be cowed by the world’s bluster and enticed by its promises of safety and security. They didn’t feel at this time in the least bit like conquerors.
But Jesus wants them to know that His victory means hope for them. Unlike most of history’s leaders, Jesus does not conquer for Himself alone. His is not a triumph of personal ambition, a colossal ego trip. His victory was won for His people. He accomplished it, but they share in it. Though they have tribulation and suffering in this world, He says, they have peace in Him. Jesus will soon ascend to the Father and will send His Spirit to live in their hearts. They will still be joined to Him by invisible bonds, as branches are joined to the vine. His life, His strength, His victory will be communicated to them. Though in themselves they remain wayward and weak, He will enable them to be faithful.
That’s why the apostle John can say things like this: “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.” Again, “Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4-5). “Faith is the victory,” as we sing. When we trust in Jesus, crucified and risen for us, as our one Savior and Lord, His victory becomes ours. We don’t have to be intimidated or duped by this present evil world. We don’t need to be conformed to its pattern, squeezed into its mold. We can be God’s people instead, loving Him first and best, doing His will here and now, seeking His kingdom.
But remember, it’s only because we are united to Jesus, empowered by His Spirit, that we can do this. I heard recently that a minister had told his flock that Jesus no longer has the power to save, heal and transform. According to this preacher, the Lord has passed on this power to His followers. They have it now. Let’s give that minister the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was wanting to emphasize that God’s power is really present in the lives of His people. But it’s surely not because Jesus has relinquished it. No one ever receives the Lord’s power and victory so as to become independent of Him. He remains the mighty Lord, the mighty conqueror, accomplishing His purposes through His people. He’s the vine; we are the branches. We can truthfully say as believers that we have overcome the world, but the only thing that keeps that claim from being ludicrous is the perfect victory of Jesus in which we have come to share.
Remember, friends, this doesn’t mean that the sufferings that come to other people in the world won’t visit Christians as well. These friends of mine at the retreat were all believers. The victory of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean that we will be delivered from inconvenience, difficulty, sorrow and pain any more than Jesus was. In some ways, as we’ve seen, we’re more acutely vulnerable than others. It’s still a hard road ahead. “In the world, you will have suffering,” Jesus says, “but in me you may find peace.” Whatever sorrows and trials come, if we belong to Jesus Christ and rely on Him, those trials can never rob us of our true personhood, never steal our hearts away from God. What a joy it is to know that! “Be of good cheer,” He says, “I have conquered the world.”
Prayer: Thank You for this, Lord, that we through faith have become more than conquerors through Him that loved us. In the name of Jesus. Amen.