“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world.”
So much hinges on this small verse at the end of a section commonly understood to depict Jesus’ followers as standing opposed to a world that “hates” them and persecutes them for simply believing in Jesus. To be hated is seen as proof of ones faith, a vindication of our rights to worship the one true God and a resisting of the world and all its vileness. So often this verse is used to go from us being hated by the world to us justifying our hate of the world.
Crucial to this is our defintion of the world. In fact, so much of this hinges on our misunderstanding of the word “world” and the word “overcome” within John’s Gospel, two words that find their source “in Christ”.
1. The World: “In the beginning” introduces us to the “Word”, the word that was “with God” and the word that was “God”. This Word is the same word that waas spoken in order to bring about God’s “good” creation in Genesis. This Word is the same Jesus that now is “in the world” which “God so loves”. The Word that is says was made “flesh”.
The proclamation goes,”He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (1:10), which echoes the earlier statment that “the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” The world “not understanding”, a world that has been plunged into darkness where the Powers of Sin and Death reign, this is where we find Jesus as the “word” made flesh, a motif that plays throughout John’s Gospel and which envelopes not just the disciples but the whole world, the entire order of the cosmos.
Here is what is important for the context of John 16- the world is in fact the whole of the created order. In Johns Gospel it reflects the cosmic vision of a world that finds itself in a state of being, caught somewhere between the lies we know and the truth that needs to be revealed. This is the reason for the three fold conviction that informs the three central truths of this passage, which states that “in a little while you won’t see me” because Jesus is going to the Father, and the reason Jesus is going to the Father is in order to send the spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. In John this is “good news”. Now note the three fold movement- sin (what is wrong with the world), righteousness (best understood with the shared word “justify” or justification, which suggests that what is wrong is being made right), judgment (victory over the spiritual Powers that rule this world). This is cosmic in scope. This is universally hopeful. This is goodness being expressed. This is what is being made right and how it is being made right.
2. Overcome: How often we encounter this passage and see it as justification of this idea that the world is against me because I am on the side of the Gospel, and how often do we make the Gospel synonymous with whatever cause it is that sets us in conflict with the world. And yet this misses completely the true force of this word that has much in common with the word “convict”, a word that also carries with it a positive conotation. The word translated “overcome” is not understood to be war like language. It is not “us versus them” language. It is not “defeating” or “vanqiushing” language. It is in fact redemptive language. It is freeing language. It is inclusive language.
It is also a word blanketed by the “I”, which invokes an image of the same Word that created this world and called it good, the same Word that came into this world in order to declare it so loved. If, as the sending of the spirit declares, Jesus is in fact God, this is not then a picture of a God who is against the world, rather it is a picture of a God who is for the world which finds itself caught between two competing identities. It is a picture of a God who is in the world desiring to bring libration from the false identity which holds us hostage and to reveal our true identity in Christ, declaring this great truth- in Jesus we can say this world is good, this world is loved, God is in this world. As the great conviction states, what is wrong is being made right because this world is no longer under the rule of the spiritual Powers which lay claim to our false idenity as prisoners, but rather we are free in Christ who has judged the world righty as the good creation. Christ has overcome, which means that Christ stands above all that is wrong, the one who is able then to declare our true identity by shining a light into the darkness and revealing the truth. The true conflict is a world under the rule of the Powers and a world under the rule of Christ, a conflict God responds to in self giving love.
How often we miss this mark in our rush to create these us versus them narratives, to declare ourselves persecuted and in necessary opposition to the world. It is in the world that we find Christ on the way to the cross, bearing the weight of our troubles as he goes ahead of us, and thus shining a light so as to make known what is true and good and right on the way. We are, then, simply asked to follow, but Christ must go first so as to model the way. As this passage suggests, these two things must go together in Christ in order to reframe our necessary conflict with what is wrong in this world that we occupy together. The true and good and right that is anchored in the verse that begins this section in John 15:16- “This is my command: Love each other”, a command that becomes clear in the self giving nature of the way of Christ which a world in darkness “hates”. This is what it means to truly stand in conflict with the “world”. If Christ is in the world and we are in Christ, to hate the world is to hate ourselves, and to hate ourselves is to hate Chirst because Christ is love. To operate in love then is to embrace our true identity by seeing the true identity of Christ who reveals to us the true identity of this world. Unfortunately the times that we live in seems to have confused this command for something else entirely. Convoys continue to protest alligning Christians with its charge to hate the world under a false premise of unity and love. Cries for freedom are expressed but in ways that seem to allign more with the allure of the tree in the garden than the way of the cross. We seem to desire the false identity rather than the truth of being in Christ, and as a result we have misplaced our conflict by placing it on this world rather than on the Powers that hold it hostage. We have rushed to tear down what we see as an oppressive Empire only to erect an oppressive Empire in its place and thus call it good, somehow believing this to set us apart from the world. And yet Christ continues to be “in the world” calling us to follow on the way, shining a light into our darkness in order to expose the lies that hold us enslaved. The real question is, are we following in the way of Christ or are we resting in the lies.