Overcoming

Triumph — do you know the feeling? That fist-pumping sense of personal accomplishment, of beating the odds, conquering challenges, and breaking through barriers? For a moment, you’re on top of the world, feeling fully alive.

You may be thinking, Yeah, I wish.

Even those of us who know the feeling of triumph don’t experience it often. Indeed, chances are that such moments have been in much shorter supply during these long months of pandemic and functional house arrest. We’ve had to settle for the epic accomplishment of passing yet another level of Candy Crush Saga

Woo. Hoo.

But I’m reminded here of Jesus’ final words to his disciples before he prayed for them and then marched boldly toward his death:  

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!

John 16:32-33, NRSV

“I have conquered.” Or as some translations have it, “I have overcome.” Not, “I will conquer.” Not “I may conquer.” But “conquered,” as in, “I’ve already accomplished this. It’s done.”

Done?

That evening, he’d already given the Twelve all kinds of bad news. I’m leaving. One of you will betray me. One of you will deny me. The world hates you. After I’m gone, they’re going to persecute you. You’re going to be kicked out of synagogues. People will try to kill you —  and succeed.

And then he tells them to cheer up and asks what’s for dessert.

Sort of.

I have to admit: if I had been sitting at that table, I would have been thinking, So, wait — if you’ve already overcome the world, then why are we still going to have such a rough time of it? If you’ve conquered, and we’re your loyal followers, shouldn’t we be conquerors too?

Surely, the most immediate part of the conquest Jesus was referring to was the cross and resurrection. But that hadn’t happened yet. So how could Jesus speak of it as an accomplished fact? You can bet that none of the disciples saw their master’s final hours as any kind of conquest. And they themselves were far from feeling like they had overcome anything. Rather, they themselves had been overcome, beaten down: by the conniving of the Jerusalem leadership, by the fickleness of the Passover crowd, by the politicking of Pilate, by their own hopelessness and fear.

Yet, there it is. Jesus went to the cross, already triumphant before the first nail was driven, before the stone sealed the tomb, before the first light of dawn broke on Easter morning.

How? It’s not logical. And weren’t we all taught not to take the future for granted? You know, don’t count your chickens and all that.

It’s just not done. Unless, of course, you happen to be the one who created chickens in the first place.

This is the essence of Christian hope: taking hold today of God’s future as certain and sure, the theological terra firma on which we stand even when the present seems grim. God is sovereign over the future and is faithful to his promises. The promise of resurrection. The promise that death will not have the last word.

The verb “conquer” is rare in the gospels — but it’s used fifteen times in the book of Revelation alone. For example, many of us are probably familiar with Revelation 3:20 — “Listen! I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” We use the verse to encourage people to “invite Jesus into their hearts” and enjoy his fellowship.

But do you know what the next verse says? “To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself have conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). Read it again, and let it sink in. 

“Just as.” It’s like the old double analogy problems on college entrance exams. “Red is to blue as green is to”… what? Red is the opposite of blue, and green is the opposite of yellow, so “yellow” is the correct answer.

Similarly, Jesus is saying that the relationship we have to him parallels the relationship he has to the Father. Just as Jesus conquers and sits with the Father on his throne, so too we conquer and sit with Jesus on his throne.

Again, let that sink in. Mind. Blown.

Paul said it this way: through all manner of distress, tribulation, and persecution, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37). Not “we will be conquerors.” Not “could possibly be, if we try really, really hard.” But “are” — we are conquerors, and then some, because we are in Christ and the Spirit of Christ is in us.

Jesus didn’t promise us a pain-free life. Indeed, he promised us trouble. But he seemed to think that we could have peace in him, because he has conquered the world. In him, we are conquerors too. 

Do you believe that? Then be who you already are.

We can’t deny the trouble. But we can overcome it.

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