Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
April 24, 2022
1 John 5:4: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”
John the beloved Disciple begins our Epistle selection for the day with a strong statement of victory and achievement. It is fitting that he should say so in this blessed season of Easter, for this is the time of Christ’s exultation over death, despair and perdition.
In bold and stirring words, John says we who believe in the Son of God can overcome the world. In fact, in Christ, we the church through faith have overcome the world. Yet, for many of us, it may be a gradual realization of our victory. In my own case, I have heard all my life of the Christian victory over death. As a child, I simply accepted it, not really grasping its implications. As a teenager, during my first flush of conversion, I took it to heart more seriously. At an EYC meeting at our church in Hendersonville, TN, we were reading the First Letter of John. Chapter Four, where it says, “(1 John 4:18-20) 18 “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. 19 We love him, because he first loved us. 20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
This was, I believe, my first experience of a tangible touch of the Holy Ghost. Did I break out into tongues? No. I did not. I did, however, have a wave of emotion that I had never had before. Even at the tender age of 15, I knew it was not of this world. It was the touch of God.
This led to an interesting period of my life where I sought to “be led of the Spirit” in all things that I sought to do. I didn’t want to do this halfway. Perhaps this is good and praiseworthy, but it can lead to some spiritual schizophrenia. For example, I even sought the Spirit in what outfits I should wear for school! This went on until I got a bit more mature understanding of what being led by the Spirit meant. Although I will never criticize anyone for their level of guidance sought from the Holy Ghost, I did come to realize that in some things it is OK to trust our own judgement.
There is one area in which all of us need and should crave the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction. It is a recurring theme in St. John’s letters, especially in the first one. Simply put, it is this: we should love one another. We, as Christians, should love one another. We should prove to the World that we are Christians by our love. This has always been difficult. Watching some historical Biblical dramas recently, I pondered just how brutal the ancient world really was. It was simple: might made right, period. “Flexibility” was not a frequently used word. Rules were rules, not made to be broken. Peoples were conquered, populations enslaved, and the victors were enriched by it.
How massively Christianity changed this outlook! Into the brutal, unyielding Roman occupation of Palestine came Jesus Christ. He didn’t subjugate; he salved the hurts of mankind by healing many. He did not seek to enslave, but rather to set free those held by Satanic bondage. He didn’t hate or hurl epithets at his adversaries, but spoke words of love, combined with acts of mercy. Yes, no doubt mercy existed in the ancient world, but it was few and far between the common acts of violence and rigid applications of justice prescribed by the authorities.
Certainly, there were some humane conditions codified into law that benefitted those fortunate enough to be Roman citizens. For example, St. Paul himself was given the citizen’s right to a quick death by beheading, rather than linger on a cross praying for death or being used as a plaything for lions in the Colliseum at Rome.
Jesus changed things. He demonstrated, in his own body, the love that all of us should give to one another. How? To a pagan, Christ’s death was senseless. Perhaps it had value to show how one good man would die for many, recalling the High Priest Annas’ statement that it was better for one man to die rather than the entire nation. Other than that, its value to the unredeemed is limited.
Yet, to us, and to all who accept Christ’s death as a personal ransom for their individual souls, His love for us cannot be numbered or measured. As bizarre as it sounds to the unredeemed ear, that limitless love was demonstrated by a bloody, painful sacrifice. Only Christ could pay the bill for the debt that we, mankind, accumulated. This is love at its fullest.
We Christians cannot let it stop there, however. Our job is to demonstrate Christ’s love to us by loving each other and the world. First, we love one another and expend ourselves for each other. Then, as difficult as it is, we love the world through Christ. We do not love the World by accepting and sanctioning its sinfulness, no. Instead, we pray for it and for ourselves to be converted into sons and daughters of God. In this sense, we will overcome the world.
What? On the surface it seems that any overcoming or conversion is unlikely when one surveys the state of the world around us. Consider all those who are persecuted for the faith. Although we are still free in this country from persecution, in many places it is not so. In China, in the Middle East, and in parts of Africa, persecution is real and active. There are people, even today, who are suffering and dying for their faith in Christ.
One might be tempted to look upon these martyrs and say, “Convert and overcome the World? Rather the world has overcome them…” This would be the obvious conclusion to our survey. It would also be patently wrong.
As faithful disciples, those suffering for the faith, through faith will be glorified like their Master. They will experience the glorious overcoming of the world, just as Christ did. They may be cast down for a while, as was Christ, but their glory will forever outshine the malignancy of evil. They will overcome the world through faith.
When we see the hardships of the Church in the World, we ponder St. Paul’s words in First Cor. 1:26: (1 Corinthians 1:26): For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.”
St. Paul was referring to the origins of the early Church. It grew, not from an endorsement from the rich and powerful, but rather despite indifference from them. This changed into an active persecution of Christianity by the time of the Emperor Diocletian. Again, how can it be that we Christians overcome the world, especially when we consider what our Lord Himself said in Luke 16:8: “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”
John answers this when he says, “5 And who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? In accepting this, many Christians have “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” We honor the Earth and our earthly existence as good and holy things, but they are not ultimate. Earthly life should not hold complete sway over us. We note its glitter and illusions, yet we are above them.
The Apostle John reinforces our faith that Christ is the One that Overcame as he presents Christ’s “credentials.” That is, there are witnesses to Christ’s existence, His glory and his Victory.
First, there is the Spirit of God, who bears witness to Christ constantly in our hearts, through our worship and reception of the Blessed Sacrament, and through our reading of the Word of God. All this comes through grace by the Holy Spirit. He is truth.
Continuing, John tells us: “7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Only in the Gospel and writings of John is Christ constantly referred to as “the Word”. The most familiar reference being in John 1:1, where we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Divine Son of God in the Glory that he had before the Worlds, certainly bears witness to his human nature, as well as his divine nature. We know that the Father bore witness to His Son directly, first at his Baptism, when God the Father spoke: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Father spoke again at the Transfiguration, when Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, becoming glistening white. He said, (Luke ) “And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.” The Holy Ghost also witnessed directly to Jesus at His Baptism, descending bodily upon Him in the form of a dove.
The importance of this Scripture cannot be understated: it is proof text for the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Just as these three bear witness to Christ, they witness to us about the nature of God. He is One God in Three Persons, not three Gods, three Fathers, three Sons or three Spirits. These three Persons bear witness to Christ.
John echoes this, as he says, “And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one”. Thus, we have a wonderful parallel of witness, both in heaven and on earth to Christ.
The witness of men is important, but the witness of God is greater. When we see the Scriptures through new, spiritual eyes and see the overwhelming evidence for the work of Jesus Christ, we receive the witness in ourselves. Thus, we have witness that Jesus Christ is Lord. To God’s eternal glory, we can only confess that Jesus is Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit. If we have the grace to confess this, it is well with us. We are beginning to overcome the world.
The record God has given us is quite simple: it is the sum of the Gospel: “And this is the record that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 2 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
We give thanks to God that He has seen fit to call us into the fellowship of His Son… We give thanks that we, through Christ, have overcome the World. AMEN
7 “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”