Sermon 06-20-2021: “The Victory that Overcomes the World”

June 22, 2021

Scripture: 1 John 5:1-5

This won’t come as a shock to those of you who’ve been married for a while, but you and your spouse don’t have to share all the same interests or hobbies in order to have a happy and successful marriage. But… I do think it’s important for married people to support their spouse’s interests and hobbies. For example, I absolutely cannot stand jigsaw puzzles. Lisa, in the their hand, adores them. But I love purchasing these puzzles for her whenever special occasions come around… You know how you can get family photos turned into jigsaw puzzles. I like doing that, even if I don’t enjoy these puzzles.

But here’s the thing: I do enjoy solving some other kinds of puzzles—especially puzzles in the Bible… which is good because today’s scripture presents a puzzle that we need to solve in order to understand what John is saying in today’s scripture.

At the end of last week’s scripture, John talked about the absolute necessity for Christians to love their fellow Christians. This is non-negotiable. Look at verses 20 and 21 from chapter 4:

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother [by which John means brother or sister in Christ], he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

In other words, there’s a test to determine whether or not you truly love God, and this test is very practical, very straightforward, and very easy to understand: Do you love your brothers and sisters in Christ? That’s how you can know that you truly love God!

And in today’s scripture, chapter 5, verse 1, John seems to repeat himself: “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” And remember who it is that has been “born of God”? Literally, every Christian. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s people often described themselves as “born again” Christians… But that’s redundant, because if you are a Christian at all, you are “born again” or “born of God.”

So John again gives us a test: Loving our brothers and sisters in Christ is proof that we also love God.

But if that’s true, what does verse 2 mean: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”

In other words, here John seems to be giving us another test: “Loving God is proof that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

So which is it? Is our love for God proof that we love others? Or is our love for others proof that we love God?

Both those statements can’t be true!

Like I said, there’s a puzzle to solve. How do we solve it?

I think this is a rare instance—and I don’t say this very often—in which some modern translations get it wrong, or at least fail to translate the underlying Greek as faithfully as they should. In verse 1, in Greek, John does not literally say, “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” He doesn’t use the word “Father.” He literally says “the one who begets.” He’s sharing a principle that’s generally true in human families: If you love your parents, you will naturally love the other children of your parents—i.e., your brothers and sisters. This is why the old RSV and New RSV translate it like this: “every one who loves the parent loves the child.”

So that’s what John is saying: everyone who loves their parents, loves the children of their parents. And if that’s true in human families, it will also be true in God’s family. If children naturally love their brothers and sisters, then God’s children will naturally love their brothers and sisters in Christ.

And if we don’t, as John just warned us two verses earlier, then that could be a sign we haven’t been born of God… that we are not authentically Christian!

So each of us needs to take that test for ourselves.

So there’s no contradiction, and that solves that puzzle…

But the fact that we have a puzzle to solve shouldn’t surprise us. You’ve probably noticed in this sermon series so far that 1 John can, at times, be a difficult book. One commentator on 1 John compares John’s writing style to a classical music composer who repeats musical themes again and again… each time with a variation on the theme, in a different key or at a different tempo. So the way to listen to the “music” of John’s first epistle isn’t to say, “Why is he repeating himself?” Rather, we should enjoy hearing these familiar melodies presented in new ways. 

And now that we’re approaching the end of the letter, the repetition of these themes is building to a crescendo… We hear all the familiar motifs—loving God, believing in Jesus, keeping his commandments, loving fellow Christians, being born of God…

But into this familiar music, John introduces a new theme, which we haven’t heard before. Look at verse 3:

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments”—that part is familiar. But then this: “And his commandments are not burdensome.”

His commandments are not burdensome… 

Let me ask: “Is John telling the truth?” All of us, at one time or another, have surely found God’s commandments to be burdensome.” 

Even the apostle Paul… listen to what he wrote, in Romans 7: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway… I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me.”1

Paul’s point there, and elsewhere in his letters, is that keeping God’s commandments—apart from God’s grace, apart from the Holy Spirit—is far from easy… In fact, it’s more than just difficult, too… It’s impossible

This is important to point out: Because we can sometimes hear sloppy preaching and teaching on this subject. Sometimes we’ll hear that God gave his people, Israel, the law, the Ten Commandments… that was God’s Plan A. But Plan A proved far too difficult, and God’s people couldn’t live up to the Ten Commandments. So God had to try again with Plan B: sending his Son. 

“Whew! Thank goodness he sent Jesus to be our Savior, because keeping the law is much more difficult.” 

But that’s completely wrong! Jesus wasn’t God’s Plan B! He was Plan A… But a part of God’s plan for sending his Son as Savior meant convincing the world that they needed a Savior in the first place! The Law’s main purpose is to condemn us, to show us that we can’t measure up to God’s law, to show us that we can’t fulfill the Ten Commandments, to show us that we can never be righteous apart from Christ, to show us that we need Someone who can keep God’s commandments for us, because we can’t do it ourselves! And if we can’t do it ourselves, then apart from Christ we will be condemned to hell!

And John is not for a moment denying that. Rather, John is once again going back to something he heard Jesus himself teach… back in Matthew 11:28-30:

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

So whom is Jesus inviting to come to him? Everyone who is weary and carries heavy burdens. And who is that? As far as I can tell, that includes literally everyone in the world who’s ever lived! 

Do you sometimes or often feel weary? Of course you do. Do you often carry heavy burdens? Of course you do. Do you often need rest… and refreshment? Of course you do!

Notice that Jesus talks about putting on his yoke. I don’t want to insult your intelligence, but I’m a city boy, and maybe some of y’all are city boys and girls, too: A yoke is an instrument that you put over an animal’s neck to enable them to pull a plow or a millstone, for instance, to grind flour—it was something that enabled an animal to do work. Yokes were often put over the necks of two oxen, for example, so that they would pull a plow together.

When you think about getting rest, and getting relief from heavy burdens and weariness, it might seem strange that Jesus is actually offering something to help you to do work. Isn’t the secret to finding rest removing a yoke and not doing work?

No, because Jesus understands that we already have a yoke on us—which may be heavy or light! Just living life in this world is a “yoke”—no matter who we are, or what we’re doing for a living, or how much money we’re making, or where we live… All of us are already under a yoke that will sometimes or often cause stress, or fatigue, or worry, or anxiety, or sleepless nights, or high blood pressure, or all kinds of other health problems. Surely you’ve noticed this! This is the human condition!

So when John says that God’s commandments are not burdensome, he is saying that keeping God’s commandments—while they may feel heavy and difficult—will actually feel far less burdensome than the burden that every single one of us already carries!

If you don’t believe me that everyone in the world is already under a heavy yoke, think about Bill and Melinda Gates… As you’ve probably heard, the founder of Microsoft and his wife are in the middle of an ugly, messy divorce. And it appears to be getting uglier and messier by the minute. But one of many reasons it’s ugly and messy, I’m sure, is that the courts have to figure out how to divide up a fortune estimated at 124 billion dollars… 

One-hundred-and-twenty-four billion dollars… That is, in effect, an unlimited supply of money. Even when you divide it in half, it’s still, virtually, an unlimited supply of money for both of them!

I read an article in the Washington Post last month—after the news broke about the divorce. The headline asked, “If Bill and Melinda Gates can’t make a marriage work, what hope is there for the rest of us?”2

What bothers me is the faulty premise of this headline and article. The writer assumes that if you have a virtually unlimited supply of money, as Bill and Melinda Gates do, you should be able to solve this marriage problem… or any other problem in life that comes your way… because, after all, money and material success are the greatest, most useful, most practical treasures we can pursue and possess… because money—and all the things it can buy, and all the doors it can open for you, and all the people it can influence, and all the good that it can accomplish—money should ultimately be able make you happy. So if Bill and Melinda Gates can’t be happy and satisfied with all that they currently have, who possibly can be happy and satisfied?

That’s the assumption that this writer makes, whether she knows it or not…

And this assumption is absolutely ridiculous… It’s a lie… Paul McCartney, who has a fair amount of money himself, wasn’t wrong back in 1964 when he said, “I don’t care too much for money/ ’Cause money can’t buy me love.” 

And speaking of the Beatles, they weren’t entirely wrong when they said that all we need is love… The problem is, they were mostly thinking of human love and romantic love, which is what our world values above everything else. By all means, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love,” but we need the kind of love that the apostle John writes about, the love of God: First, we need to know that we are loved, and that absolutely nothing in life that we do or that happens to us can change that fact… We need to know that this love doesn’t run out the moment we die, but that it lasts forever. 

And of course this is the kind of love that we can only have when we believe in Jesus. Because God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.3 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.4 Or as John said earlier in this letter, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”5

Knowing that we possess love like this, that God loves us like this, that God is never going to stop loving us like this, it melts our hearts, doesn’t it?

I’m reading a new book by pastor John Piper—it’s his new book, called Providence. And in one chapter he’s talking about the Ten Commandments… and the first commandment in particular: “You shall have no other gods before me.” He writes, “This commandment was to be no more burdensome”—there’s that word again—than the satisfied experience of a wife who has a perfect husband.”6 In which case, why would a wife who has a perfect husband be tempted to look to anyone else to make her happy? So if we Christians find that kind of satisfaction in our relationship with God, why would we ever put any other gods before the one true God… the very idea of not wanting to please God by obeying his commandments would be unthinkable

It’s not “burdensome,” after all, to do anything, or give anything, or give up anything, for the One we truly love! That’s what John means in today’s scripture when he says that “his commandments are not burdensome.”

Which isn’t to say that if only we know the love of God through faith in Jesus Christ, suddenly, we will no longer get weary, or we will no longer have to carry burdens… or that life will no longer feel, at times, like hard work… Remember: Jesus doesn’t promise to remove our yoke. Rather, he promises to replace the heavy, burdensome yoke that all of us have to carry around with a yoke that is much lighter, much easier to bear. In fact, given that yokes in the first century were intended for two oxen, not one, it seems likely that Jesus is saying that he himself is going to be in the yoke alongside us, shouldering much of the burden alongside us. And whatever part of the burden that Jesus lets us shoulder, he’s only doing so because he knows—by his grace—we can handle it… and that it will be good for us.

In Vacation Bible School last week, the children learned the story of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abenego. You may remember the story: These three friends refuse to bow down to an idolatrous image that King Nebuchadnezzar sets up for his royal subjects to worship. These three young men refuse, and as punishment the king throws them into the fiery furnace… Except, if you know the punchline, you know that they don’t find the furnace hot; God miraculously delivers them from death.

And maybe you think, “Well, the moral of that story is that God will deliver us when we trust in him.” But not so fast! Because, yes, God did save Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego from death, but he made them go through the worst part of the fiery furnace! The worst part was being shackled and led from their prison cell by prison guard to the furnace, watching the furnace door being open, and dreading or fearing what looked like certain death in the furnace. That’s the worst part by far… Can you imagine how terrifying! They had to shoved into the furnace before finding out that God would rescue them! At that point, if God hadn’t saved them, they would have died instantly… they would hardly even feel that! 

But all the stuff leading up to that moment…? Terrifying! And God made these three faithful men go through that!

My point is, even if faithfulness to God is not burdensome, that doesn’t mean it’s supposed to be easy!

Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy life. He promises a life that is better than easy…

Let me repeat that: Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy life. He promises a life that is better than easy… a life that—no matter what the circumstances—wins the victory that overcomes the world!

There’s a Christian writer and apologist whom I know—at least I know him a teensy bit… His name is Clay Jones. I’m Facebook friends with him. I read one of his books a few years ago, called Why Does God Allow Evil? In the book, he describes an episode in his life many years ago during which he thought he was literally dying. He went to the hospital. The diagnosis was grim: The doctor told him the tests came back, and he had some rare, untreatable, inoperable form of cancer. He was dying.

And then he described what happened next… something that amazed me. He said that he and his wife, upon receiving the diagnosis, immediately went to hospital chapel, got on their knees—not even to pray for a healing miracle—but they got on their knees to thank God and to praise God… even in the wake of what should have been the most devastating news they could possibly hear!

I frankly did not understand this behavior when I read this part of the book! Why were they doing this? 

Well, since I was a Facebook friend, I reached out to him on Facebook Messenger and asked him about that episode from the book. Here’s what he wrote back to me:

When I got cancer I realized that there was a huge audience watching me—The Creator of the Universe and His angels—and I knew that I was honoring Him through that. Also, I could tell that worldliness was lessened [within me] and I was thankful that [God] had taught me the endurance to hang in there when things were tough. All of that made me feel loved. The beginning verses of Romans 5 are true—I was able to rejoice in my suffering because I knew that God was working His character in me.

As it turns out, the cancer—though serious—wasn’t the inoperable kind the doctors originally thought it was. So Dr. Jones is still with us today. But his point is not to say that, because of his faith, God healed him—although I’m sure God did. His point is to say that through faith he was able to do what John says in verses 4 and 5 we can also do: He and his wife were able to “win the victory that overcomes the world.”

The world tells us, after all, that death is the worst thing that can happen to us—in fact anything less than a long life of at least 102 years, at the end of which you die peacefully in your sleep, is always, always, always a tragedy. The world tells us that pain and suffering and illness and disasters are always only an occasion for despair, for complaining, for grumbling, for feeling sorry for yourself, for feeling like a victim, for feeling like the world owes you something. The world tries to convince us that this life is all there is, so you better hold on tight to it, you better hold on tight to your possessions, you better hold on tight to the people you love, you better look out for number one because no one else is looking out for you… and most of all, you need to fear death. Because like I said, death, the world says, is the worst thing!

Never mind what Jesus said: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”7

No… My point is, Dr. Jones had the faith to say no to the world, and its harmful, deceitful, despairing, depressing message… He had the faith to overcome the world. He won a victory over the world in that moment when he received that terrible diagnosis!

Paul writes about this same idea, famously, in Romans chapter 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.8

When we are “more than conquerors”—when we win a victory that “overcomes the world”—it’s not that we won’t at times face things like tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword as part of our faithfulness to Christ—Paul writes from firsthand experience about facing all these things during his Christian life… Pain and suffering will be a necessary part of the “yoke” that Jesus puts around our necks… but through faith in Christ, and through the Holy Spirit that our Father gives us when we first believe, these things don’t crush us… At least they don’t have to… and God gives us the “victory that overcomes the world.”

This reminds me of another story that the kids learned about in VBS last week… Because of their faithfulness to Christ, Paul and Silas were in jail in Philippi… singing hymns and praising God and worshiping and praying… even while they were suffering this terrible setback in their lives and ministries… You have to be really happy to want to sing! You have to be experiencing a tremendous amount of joy, regardless of your circumstances, in order to sing like that! And was all before God sent the earthquake… before the jail doors were miraculously opened! Even this jail didn’t have the power to rob Paul and Silas of the joy they had in the Lord! That’s the victory that overcomes the world!

Don’t you want that? It’s available! [“Whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life… heed the warning]

  1.  Romans 7:15, 18b-19, 22-23 NLT
  2. Lisa Bonos, “If Bill and Melinda Gates can’t make a marriage work, what hope is there for the rest of us?”, 4 May 2021. Accessed 17 June 2021.
  3. Romans 5:8 ESV
  4. John 3:16 ESV
  5. 1 John 3:1 ESV
  6. John Piper, Providence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 122.
  7. Matthew 10:28 ESV
  8. Romans 8:35-37 ESV

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