When something is repeated in Scripture, you had better stand up and take notice. The idea of overcoming is one of them. John especially uses this quite often in his gospel, his epistles, and in the book of Revelation. Here I wish to focus on how this idea is dealt with in the final book of the Bible.
Around a dozen times we find this term used in this book. And eight of those times we find the phrase ‘him who overcomes’. The eight verses on overcomers as found in the NKJV are these:
Rev 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.
Rev 2:11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.
Rev 2:17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it.
Rev 2:26 And he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—
Rev 3:5 He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
Rev 3:12 He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name.
Rev 3:21 To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.
Rev 21:7 He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.
The first seven of course line up with the seven churches, and offer promises to those who are victorious, or overcome. The final promise in Rev. 21:7 acts as a summary of all the preceding promises. This is such an important theme in this book. As Andreas Kostenberger notes:
The promises to the ones who overcome function as an overarching theme for the entire book and embody the main rhetorical theme of Revelation. The book as a whole represents a massive prophetic-apocalyptic exhortation to believers designed to motivate them to overcome, endure, remain faithful, witness, and not compromise. The book motivates this overcoming endurance through visions of the future, God’s kingdom, heaven, eternal reward, and life in God’s new creation – and their opposite, eternal punishment. God’s message to the church rings out loud and clear. You must overcome! Do not grow weary in your obedience and witness! Do not compromise with sin, lust, and idolatry of your surrounding culture! Overcome!
We are commanded to overcome, but we have great promises about our union with Christ, the great overcomer. Grant Osborne comments:
Our victory is a participation in his victory. It is crucial to realise that in the seven letters the victory is a promise held out to all of them, even the weak churches of Sardis (3:5) and Laodicea (3:21). Yet it must be achieved through perseverance. . . . To be an “overcomer” in the eschatological war demands a day-by-day walk with God and dependence on his strength. In this sense there is also warning, as seen in the contrast between the “overcomer” and the “cowardly” in 21:7, 8.
John Newton discusses 21:7, 8 saying:
The message is very clear: only fervent and committed disciples of Jesus will make it through the trials encountered by the church. The literary structure of Revelation sends the same message to the seven churches. It seems that the reference to the Song of Solomon is no accident because the storyline of Revelation resembles that of a romance. This is clearest at the end: the story ends with a wedding between the lamb and the Holy City (19:9; 21:2, 9). The bride stands for the faithful overcoming believers since they alone have the right to enter the city (22:14), a message with significant Old Testament foundations (read Hosea, Jeremiah 2-3 and Isaiah 5:1-7, for example). The bride is contrasted with the prostitute, whose love affair with the beast ends in disaster (Rev. 17) and from whom true believers must dissociate (18:4).
In Rev. 12:11 we get a clue about how this overcoming takes place: “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” Paige Patterson remarks:
Even the word “overcome” (nikao) is instructive, derived from the name of the Greek goddess of victory – Nike. Of course, subsequently this name has been appropriated as the name of a missile in the United States arsenal as well as a name brand of athletic footwear. That same word nikos occurs as the first syllable in the word Nicolaitan (see v. 6). In any event, if one wishes to conquer, he does so on the basis of the blood of the Lamb and the word of his testimony.
Or as James Hamilton has put it:
In 5:5, 6 Jesus is heralded as the conquering one. He conquers as the Lamb, standing as though slain. This points to Jesus conquering by faithfully doing what God called him to do. His conquest enables us to conquer, and in Revelation the saints conquer in the same way that Jesus conquered, through faithfulness even unto death. This is exactly what we see in 12:11.
These are tremendous promises but they are of course tremendous warnings. That is often the way we find things presented in Scripture. God has so much for us as his people, but there are so many commands insisting that we appropriate this and not waste our opportunities.
Of course as anyone with a modicum of theological nous will realise, an article like this simply raises more questions than it answers. Obvious big-ticket theological issues arise here, such as whether the believer is eternally secure, or can lose his salvation, and how we are to understand such things as the perseverance of the saints, etc.
That is a massive discussion indeed and one that I cannot here enter into. It would require a number of articles to even properly introduce the subject. Suffice it to say – as I so often do – that there are plenty of warnings found in Scripture, and we need to take these warnings very seriously indeed.
The warnings we have discussed here are just some of them. And as is so often the case, we do have the indicative/imperative in play here. That is, we have plenty of indicatives about being overcomers in Christ (because we are in Christ, who is victorious, we are too), coupled with imperatives about making sure we do in fact overcome (work out this positional victory in the here and now, and make sure it becomes a reality).
That is always how the Christian life is presented in the New Testament. Because God has done such and such for us, we are to live it out in our daily walk. As Herman Ridderbos put it, “Because God works and has worked, therefore man must and can work.”
So we have here great promises of conquering, overcoming and being victorious. But they are also expressed in the form of warnings. God will always do his part, but let us all make sure that we do our part.