There were two brothers from a small town in Oklahoma whom I used to know. They were brilliant, both top notch academics even at a young age. They both applied for college early and pursued blossoming careers. Each of them received complete scholarships to attend any university of their choice. One of the brothers followed his interests into aerospace engineering. After finishing that program, he continued on toward a doctorate degree. Brilliant as he was, it was still incredibly difficult. He pressed on toward the goal. After achieving an impressive array of degrees, he has had a range of interesting jobs. The last I heard, he is teaching at a large university. He exemplifies the word success. No matter the academic challenge placed before him, he overcame it with sheer determination.
The second brother had a very different story altogether. He too was a genius. I don't use that word poetically; I mean literally. He operated at genius level, which is usually considered somewhere above 140 IQ. This brother also had a full-ride scholarship and had a strong start in his studies. Research programs at various universities pursued him. He produced some impressive work in the first couple of years of his studies, but somewhere along the way, he ran into some personal problems. Even though he had a full ride scholarship, the emotional intensity of academia was piling up. His difficulties caught up to him, the pressure grew too much, and he was not able to finish his degree. Now he's back in the same small Oklahoma town where he grew up. His life is probably pleasant enough, but he is not enjoying the same quality of success as his brother. Though both brothers had a scholarship, one fought and overcame, while the other was overcome. In this chapter, we will look at what it means to be an overcomer.
The apostles, especially John, often used the term, "overcome." In his writings, John quotes Jesus as saying things like, "to the one who overcomes I will give…", “To him who overcomes I will grant to him…,” and “He who overcomes shall inherit….” In fact, John uses the term almost 20 times. The rewards for being an overcomer are astounding. However, before we find out what an overcomer will get, we need to discover what an overcomer is. So, what does it mean to overcome?
Synonyms for “overcome” include victory, triumph, prevail, conquer, succeed, win, and others. One who overcomes could be described as a winner, champion, conquerer, victor, medalist, and many other positive things. The word overcome is derived from a Greek word that almost everyone in the world would recognize. Have you heard of the sports brand Nike? Nike (νίκη ) means victory and is the same root word from which overcome is derived. Nike was also the name for the Greek god of victory.
In a nutshell, victory is what it means to overcome. That’s why I like to think of the ones who overcome as the Christian winners. For many, it’s hard to imagine that the heavenly system might be set up so that there are Christian winners and losers. Maybe this is new to you but don’t fret if this feels a little surprising. We will flesh it out as we go. Let’s start with this simple question, “What makes someone an overcomer?”
There is a minimum requirement that all contestants must meet before the competition really begins. Like preliminary screenings for Olympic athletes, a foundation must first be laid. John gives us that minimum requirement:
Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
The first requirement is that someone is a believer. No one who is unsaved could be called an overcomer either in the salvation or discipleship sense. All believers experience victory over death. Due to the work of Christ, the believer will live forever. So every believer has experienced an initial victory.
Though all believers have overcome death at their new birth, each has an opportunity to also overcome in the way they live. Each believer is made capable to conquer but not guaranteed victory in Christian living. It hardly needs to be said that this initial victory does not guarantee subsequent victory in Christian living. Although the original victory of salvation is a substantial win gained for the believer, there is an expectation that the victory spread to the active parts of a believers life. Paul added to this idea when he wrote simply:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These words remind me of my brother-in-law. He became a believer when he was eleven years old. He was wealthy, had a beautiful wife, and a lovely 8-month-old daughter. Somewhere along the way, he began to give up on living as God instructs. It was in little things at first. He would drink a bit too much. He would be mean to his wife. He would go absent for days. As the pressures of life swelled, he allowed depression and evil thoughts to win the victory over his mind. On Easter day he put a gun to his head and allowed himself to be overcome by evil. He ended his life with an act of self-murder. He could have kept fighting, but he refused. My brother-in-law was with the Lord the moment he pulled that trigger, but I guarantee there is regret and loss of potential reward for what he did. He did not overcome evil with good but instead allowed himself to be overcome by evil.
That is an extreme example. Thank God that not everyone's experience will end in suicide. However, many believers experience what Paul calls being "overcome by evil." All overcomers are believers, but now we will see that not all believers will be overcomers. Our faith in Christ has opened the door by bringing the victory of salvation. However, that does not guarantee victory in our daily life. Paul instructs that believers should fight to overcome daily. Faith in Christ has given us eternal salvation. Everyone who is saved has the chance to overcome. However, there are believers who will be overcome by evil. That's why we say, all overcomers are believers, but not all believers will be overcomers.
How do we conquer evil? We don't fight fire with fire, and we don't fight evil with evil. We fight evil with good. Responding to evil acts with good works is an obvious mark of an overcomer. The successful disciple will show this kind of self-control in a range of situations from being annoyed to being persecuted. There is never a shortage of opportunities to demonstrate your Christian will to overcome.
Paul offers not three but two options. Either a believer will be overcome by evil, or will overcome evil with good. There is no middle ground. There are no neutral Christians. You can't be Switzerland. There is no fence on which to sit. Sin will have the victory over us, or we will have the victory over sin. We will either be one of the overcomers, or we will be one of the overcome.
Is there an example of an overcomer from which we may draw inspiration? There sure is. Jesus defined himself as an overcomer when He said:
“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Do you remember the WWJD bracelets? For those of you who don't remember the craze, WWJD stands for "What Would Jesus Do?" Although it's a bit cliche, it's a pretty good question. Some form of this is a great way to keep on track as an overcomer. Ask yourself what Jesus would do in the situation you are in currently. If you don't know, then seek an answer in scripture. Imitating His actions is one of the best ways to ensure you are on the path of successful discipleship. Knowing what Jesus did and following that example is what an overcomer does.
Paul carries this idea to the next level with his words to the Roman church. He gives this moving charge toward the middle of his letter. He says:
For your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Yet, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
Paul gives us this powerful example of what it means to be an overcomer. When he says “more than conquerors” he uses a hybrid idea that slams two similarly strong words together. The meaning here could be rendered “prevail completely.” We not only experience the victory won for us at the moment of our salvation but we are capable of prevailing even in the midst of incredible suffering. It's not a half victory or even an early victory that is taken over by a later defeat. It's a complete victory in both salvation and discipleship. He specifies that we are able to completely overcome things like being persecuted and killed. He doesn't mean that we should run away to escape our own death. Instead, if God calls us to be martyrs, we have the power needed to face it with triumph.
Do all Christians face martyrdom with honor and poise? No, many have shrunk from it. Do all believers behave admirably in the midst of persecution? Obviously not. Do all believers prevail in suffering? Nope. However, Paul reminds us that we are capable of conquering in all of these. How? We conquer by the things mentioned above, but also by remembering the indelible promise of Christ. Paul follows this declaration of victory by an expression of his eternal security. It was his assurance of salvation that gave him the foundation for conquering all things. Notice what he said directly after the previous verse:
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is what allowed Paul to be confident that he could overcome. If you have believed in Jesus, no matter what, you will always live in the love of Jesus Christ. Knowing this impossibly empowering truth, we are given the strength to be more than conquerors. Whether you use that strength is up to you. Whether you live in victory or in defeat is entirely your choice.
To sum up, an overcomer is one who is not only saved but lives out their faith boldly. They talk about their Lord even when it could cost them their job, their reputation, and their lives. The overcomer is a successful disciple who not only has free eternal life but also fights to be obedient for the remainder of their mortal life. An overcomer is one who abides in God's word and fights the temptations of the wicked one. An overcomer is one who triumphs over evil acts with good deeds.