By Gerald Cowan
"I have overcome the world" (John 16:33)
Jesus and the disciples, minus Judas Iscariot the betrayer, had finished the Passover meal. Judas had gone out to do his planned work of turning Jesus over to the enemies who would eventually crucify him. Jesus would have only a few hours more with them to sum up his ministry, to prepare them for his soon-coming church kingdom and the continuation of their own ministry – he would give them final instructions and a commission after his death and resurrection and before his visible ascension to heaven. Judas did not hear the “Let not your heart be troubled” encouragement (Chapter 14), the enlightenment about the relationship of the Lord to all his disciples and followers (Chapter 15), the prediction and promise of Holy Spirit empowered victory that would continue into eternity (Chapter 16), and the impassioned prayer of the Savior who was nearing the victorious end of his mission to redeem and save a people for God’s own possession (Chapter 17, compare Titus 2::11-14). We cannot know what impact this would have had on Judas and his trajectory into darkness and perdition, but we are concerned to understand and continue the impact upon the other apostles, and upon all who follow Lord Jesus today.
“These things I have spoken to you,” Jesus said, at the conclusion of his sermons to the disciples and before his great prayer. These words may also be thought to apply to all his words and works during the three years or so of discipling these chosen and soon to be Holy Spirit guided and empowered men. But in particular he refers to what he has just told them about his coming departure from them but his continuing union and communion with them and his planned return to take them to the new place he will have prepared for them, not hiding from them the various persecutions and afflictions they would endure for his sake and the many blessings of grace and glory they would enjoy. He continued his instructions for their continued occupation in his kingdom and the trouble they would have in the mission he was giving them. The prospect of winning the world for Him included both physical, social, and spiritual struggles against formidable foes: the world, the flesh, and the devil (we will notice this threesome in more depth below). Notice the summation of his stated purpose in his teaching of them: That in me you might have peace – that in spite of the tribulation you will have in the world you can be cheered and assured by knowing – I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
“That in me you might have peace.” What kind of peace? Not the kind of peace the world can give (John 14:27). In the world and from the world there will never be true and perfect peace – the peace in which there is no barrier to fellowship and no separation of one person from another or of any person from God. This peace is not primarily physical or social but spiritual. All who are truly at peace with God in Christ will necessarily be at peace with each other. It is the peace of being many different and differing members, but acknowledging and accepting each other as equal members with a proper place in one body composed of all its member parts (Ephesians 4:11-16). It is significant that he says might have (subjunctive) rather than do have or will have. Even in the church we see competitive selfishness and discord, present because so many do not accept or pursue the peace the Lord makes possible.
Now let us notice the threefold enemy to peace: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world, as currently constituted, is inimical to peace. It promotes preservation and promotion of self not promotion and preservation of the whole. It pushes for the individual good not the collective good, for personal satisfaction not community satisfaction, and for subordination of the many to the few. There is no possibility of true and lasting universal peace in such a world. Unless such worldly ideas are suppressed and disallowed in heaven there could be no perfect peace even there. We may expect it in heaven but not many expect it or pursue it in the present world. It is our loss, not a failure of the Lord to provide or fulfill a promise.
The flesh is inimical to peace. Understanding the dichotomy of flesh and spirit, though perplexing and exceedingly difficult as limned in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Chapters 7 and 8, must be clarified if we are to understand how the flesh is an enemy to the peace the Lord promises. The flesh (our carnality in contradistinction to our spirituality (Romans 7:14, 8:6-7, 1 Corinthians 3:1-4) is our humanity, not only our physical body but our human mind, desires, attitudes, disposition and inclinations. The flesh also reflects our limitations – some things are simply impossible for us, humanly speaking. James 4:3 is an insightful note: our requests to God may be denied because they are intended to satisfy human lusts and desires — not just the desires of the physical body but the thoughts and intentions of the heart/mind (Hebrews 4:12-13). The spirit is the other side of our nature, designed and intended by God to seek Him in whose image we are created, following the leading and pull of His Holy Spirit (emphasized by Paul in Romans 8-8). The cartoon with an angel perched on one shoulder of a person and a devil perched on the other is seriously awry from truth. When faced with a decision to do or not to do something – responding to temptation, testing, trial – it is not that the angel pulls one way and the devil pulls the other and we make the decision which one to follow. It is not even our “good side” and our “bad side” influencing our choice. Rather, it is the desires of our humanity that pulls one way while our spirituality pulls the other. Whichever side of our nature to which we yield determines our actions, also determines the consequences of the choice we make. What I want often prevails over what God wants and what I ought to want. The flesh which is my enemy too often wins.
The devil is inimical to peace with God and with myself because he promotes peace with the world as passive hostility to God. He paints God as our enemy, withholding from us what would please us and make us like Him (consider the devil in the serpent tempting Eve and Adam, Genesis 3:1-6). Though not always clearly articulated, the devil’s intention is to thwart God’s purposes by disconnecting people from Him. In doing so, the devil is like a roaring lion – or any other predator – seeking to devour and destroy those he can separate from God (1 Peter 5:8-9). But since the devil so often offers what our fleshly side wants he persuades us to reject God’s appeal to our spiritual side – he capitalizes on the pull of the world and the flesh to defeat us.
But do not give up, Jesus says, all is not yet lost. “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world (the flesh and the devil too). I have overcome is a prolepsis. It is the condition that would prevail after Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension to heaven. The devil may effectively be (is deferred to as) the prince and god of the present world (John 12;31, 14:30, 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4), but his head, his vitality, persuasiveness, and power have been crushed (Hebrews 2:14-18, 4:14-16).He is – he is overthrown; Christ has undone all the devil has done and is still able to do (1 John 3:8), including even the fear of death and consequences of sin in those who entrust their souls to Him. Nothing in or of the world, not even death itself, can stand against God and His Christ or His church (Matthew 16:18-19). The world and all things of the world will end (1 John 2:15-17). Satan himself will be cast into eternal hell (Revelation 20:10, 14). Jesus and his redeemed church will enjoy God’s heaven forever. That prospect should set every soul at peace, with the peace of the Lord, the prefect peace granted to those whose hearts are steadfastly set upon Him (Isaiah 26:3), the all-surpassing peace that guards our hearts and lives in Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:6-9). He is our defense from all that threatens and opposes us. We go to him, at his invitation (Matthew 11:28-30), to find rest and peace and fulfillment of our hope (Revelation 14:12-13)..
In Christ who loved us and gave himself for us we are more than conquerors of everything – the world, the flesh, and the devil. Nothing in the past, the present, or the future can overcome him or us who stand faithfully in him, nor can it separate us from him, from God or from the heaven-supplied and supported panoply given to defend and sustain us (Ephesians 6:10-17, Romans 8:35-39). In Him we do and will overcome. As overcomers in him we will sit with him in the heaven he will have prepared for us before he returns for us.
- Gerald Cowan, a longtime preacher and missionary, is retired from full-time pulpit preaching. Gerald publishes an e-mail newsletter entitled GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICAL WRITINGS. He is available for Gospel Meetings and he may be contacted at Geraldcowan1931@aol.com