Charlie Sheen isn’t the only one who is winning: more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)

More than conquerors

Often I have heard people try to encourage me as I endure the storms that inevitably come my way in life. They’ll say with fist high in the air, “We are more than conquerors!” This phrase has never encouraged me because it begs the question: “if I am more than a conqueror, what else am I besides a conqueror?” The phrase originates from Romans 8:37. “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” Clearly Paul is talking about the power and victory we have through Jesus in this passage. Rather than tell us what “more” we are in Christ, Paul continues listing everything that we conquer through the power of God in the next verse. Maybe Paul is not telling us what we are other than conquerors but how we conquer. Let me explain.

The phrase “more than conquerors” is a translation of the Greek word hypernikaō. The prefix Hyper is usually translated “over” or “greatly.” nikaō is the verb form of the Greek word Νίκη. If that word looks familiar, the shoe company Nike gets its name from the Greek goddess of victory Νίκη.  Νίκη means “victory” and the verb means “to conquer.” Literally, then, the two Greek words in this compound word mean “to over or greatly conquer.”

While “more than conquerors” is not wrong, it is less precise. The NASB version has a better, more literal translation. “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” The New Living Translation gives a good paraphrase of this verse as well. “No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.” And Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon renders the phrase, “We are winning a most glorious victory” (p.841).

Charlie Sheen, with all his quirks and idiosyncrasies, might just understand this type of “winning” more than most of us. According to this verse, we are winning even if it looks like we are losing badly. If we could look at the big picture, we would see that our victory over addiction or financial debt or pornography or our temper is inevitable. If Charlie Sheen puts his faith in God, he will indeed emerge victorious through the power of Christ.

We don’t merely win, however. According to Romans 8:37, we overwhelmingly conquer. What does that mean? In basketball terms, it would be like winning the game by 100 points. In football terms, it would be what happens to the Detroit Lions every Sunday. It is total dominance where the result is never in doubt. Just like some sports, the battle may last what feels like forever, but in the end, we will win easily. For instance, say the Green Bay Packers score five touchdowns in the first fifteen minutes of a game. Even though no one would doubt that they will eventually win, the game will not end until the full sixty minutes has been played. Similarly we might battle with something for years and think that it will never end, but if we persevere, we will be overwhelmingly conquer anything through the power of Jesus who loved us.

So what exactly do we overwhelmingly conquer? Paul gives one list before and one after this verse to give us an idea. Verse 35 lists the things that try to separate us from the love of Christ but will not prevail including trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and the sword. Experiencing any of those things might seem like punishment or give us the impression that God does not love us, but if we put our faith in God and trust that He does love us, we will overcome these things in the end. In verses 38-39 Paul continues his list, stating “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

One last thing: notice that this verse says He “loved us” – in the past tense. Paul is not saying that Jesus stopped loving us, but he is referring back to the events which most displayed His love and gave us the victory: His death and resurrection. Every sin was overwhelmingly conquered through His death and even death and Hell were overwhelmingly conquered through His resurrection. Earlier in the chapter Paul says, “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11) That means that if we are struggling with anything, we should give control over to the Holy Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead, and He will help us achieve overwhelming victory over anything. Whatever you need help with, God is powerful enough to help you overcome it if you place your complete trust in Him. Then we will be truly winning.

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Good Friday, Better Sunday

Lift Jesus higher, 
Lift Jesus higher.
Lift Him up for the world to see.
He said “If I be lifted up from the Earth.
I will draw all men unto Me.”

This is a song I used to sing in youth group. Perhaps you sang it loud and proud as little children cried and covered their ears. The chorus is a paraphrase from John 12:32. Whoever wrote this song forgot to keep reading so I will quote the next verse as well. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die).” John 12:32-33 John gives a parenthetical explanation because it could easily be confused, just as the crowd is confused in verse 34. So what is the confusion?

Most of the misunderstanding centers on the word translated “lifted up.” Often it refers to someone being exalted “in honor, fame, position, power, fortune, etc.” (Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 1979, p.851), but, as John mentions in verse 33, it can also refer to one being lifted up on the cross to be executed. Since John distinguished which meaning he meant, there should be no more confusion, right? Not exactly. John is being purposely ambiguous. In other words, when he uses this term, he means both meanings at the same time. “The double-meaning of ‘lifting up’ is obvious. They lift Jesus up by crucifying him; but it is precisely through his crucifixion that he is lifted up to his heavenly glory as the Son of Man. At the very moment when they think that they are passing judgment on him he becomes their judge.” (R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 1971, p. 350)

The crowd had many misunderstandings about Jesus at this time in His ministry. They wondered if He was the Messiah, but understood the Messiah to be a conquering king who would deliver them from the oppressive Romans. As Jesus alluded to His death (particularly in verses 8 and 24), the crowd started to doubt whether He was that king whom they had hailed with palm branches in verse 13. The crowd was so confused that they not only questioned what “lifted up” meant, but they finally questioned who and what “the Son of Man” meant (Jesus referred to Himself ten times before this scene so it was about time!). In a nutshell, the crowd had difficulty understanding how the Messiah and the Son of Man could be the same person, as is evident in verse 34. “We have heard from the Law that the Christ will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?” In other words, the Jews understood that the Messiah (that’s what “Christ” means) would come to reign forever on the throne of David, which implies that He would never die. And yet Jesus said He must “be lifted up.” Since they knew “lifted up” meant that He would not “remain forever,” it is easy to see why the Jews in the crowd were so confused. Since being lifted up is not one of the first things one might think of when describing crucifixions, the crowd’s confusion seems only natural. If only they could see the double meaning in the Jesus’ words.

Before we condemn the crowd for being blind and hard-hearted, let’s go back to the lyrics of the aforementioned song. Do you see an error? Look at the context. By quoting John 12:32, we are essentially saying we should crucify Jesus again so that He “will draw all men unto” Him. It is not our exaltation of Jesus that draws anyone to God; it is the death of Jesus and God’s exaltation of Him for His obedience which draws all people to Him. (Philippians 2:6-11) I am not saying we should not give honor to Jesus; I am simply giving credit to whom credit is due. If Jesus had not humbled Himself and took on our sins upon that cross, no amount of our exaltations and honor would draw anyone to God and we would still be dead in our sins. As we approach Good Friday, may we reflect on the humility of Jesus and his sacrifice (rather than our deeds) as He was lifted up upon the cross to draw all people to a relationship with God.

God’s return policy: “His Word will not return void”

“His Word will not return void” 

If I had nickel for every time I heard this phrase, I would have at least ten dollars. (Guess I should ask for more than a nickel.) Here’s my two cents on this topic.

This phrase is a paraphrase of Isaiah 55:10-11. “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

When God refers to “My word,” he is talking about His creative and purposeful utterance that brings about what He desires. Look at Genesis 1. He did not need to draw up a blueprint and form committees and hire workers to create the Earth; He needed only to say a few words and it was done. He said, “Let there be light” and “there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) Humans are complete opposites in that respect. If we want light, we must open up the blinds or flick on a light switch or open the car door because we still haven’t figured out which button to push to get the interior light to come back on when the timer shuts it off; we have to do something. God merely has to say a word, and it is accomplished.

In the same way, when God speaks to us, He does not need to pinky swear because when He speaks, it happens. It may not happen instantaneously like when light was created, but things have already been set in motion to accomplish exactly as He said He would do. The very definition of faith includes “the evidence of things unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1) The word translated “things” can also be translated “deeds” or “events.” In other words, faith is trusting in God that what He says, He will do and if it has not happened yet, then the preceding events that must occur in order for His word to be fulfilled have already been set into motion though we may not see them just yet.

Often I have heard people use the phrase “His word will not return void” in other contexts rather than in reference to a promise of God. After a long afternoon passing out tracts or talking to an unsaved loved one or preaching a sermon to a sleepy congregation, many reach for encouragement by stating matter-of-factly, “His word will not return void.” I don’t mean to discourage such good deeds, but these actions often go unrewarded. There is no promise in the Bible that every tract we pass out or every sermon we preach (behind or without a pulpit) win souls. Thousands of tracts end up in the garbage, yet many sanitation workers remain unsaved. Hundreds of people fall asleep during sermons every Sunday, yet none of them benefit subconsciously somehow or through osmosis though the Bible lies open under their heads as a makeshift pillow. When the sower spread his seed (identified as the “word of God” in verse eleven) in the parable in Luke 8:1-15, at least ¾ of the seed proved unproductive. That doesn’t mean 75% of our words will fall on deaf ears, but it does prove my original argument: when we speak (even if we are quoting Scripture), it takes incredible effort to accomplish our goals and even then there is no guarantee that we will eventually succeed. When God speaks, it will happen.

Though your friend remains unsaved, be encouraged that if God told you that your friend will become a Christian, it will happen and things have already been set in motion to accomplish this. If your congregation refers to your sermons as “nap time,” be encouraged that any given week God might choose to use you as His microphone to speak His word of life to those in desperate need of it. His words are not void after ninety days or even ninety years. If God said, believe it. It is even more dependable than a Jonny B guarantee.

The Gospel According to Jon

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god. 

Whoever translated The New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witnesses either do not know or are not telling) was not incorrect. The phrase can be translated “the word was a god.” Aside from causing huge theological problems, there are basic Greek grammar difficulties created by rendering it this way.

John leaves out a one-letter word (ὁ) that usually comes before the Greek word for god (θεὸς). Now think back to your elementary school days. Other than learning that girls were better targets for spit balls because they had more surface area with their crazy 80s big hair, you might have learned something slightly more useful for today. Remember the term “definite article” in English class? In English, “the” is used as a definite article to indicate a specific noun and is distinguished from an indefinite article, such as “a” or “an”, which is used for general nouns. For example, if I say I am going to the store, I am referring to one particular store like the Walmart on the corner. If I say I am going to a store, then it could be any store in general.

In Greek, the definite article has more purposes than English. For example, a definite article prior to a noun makes it a proper noun in Greek. So if the definite article ὁ is placed before θεὸς, it means “God”; if the definite article is left out, it can be translated “a god.”

There is yet another purpose for definite articles, however. In English, the word order is always subject-verb-direct object; not so in Greek! The most important word in the sentence is usually first in Greek, regardless of whether it is a noun, adjective, adverb, or even a verb. The phrase in question is θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος so “God” is the most important word in this phrase. When a sentence has two potential subjects, the definite article goes before the subject noun but not the predicate noun. In the above phrase, the definite article ὁ precedes λόγος, indicating that the “Word” is the subject and “God” is the predicate.

Why is this important? Because if we switch the nouns, a very different meaning emerges. In The Gospel According to St. John, C.K. Barrett explains, “The absence of the article indicates that the Word is God, but is not the only being of whom this is true.” If there was a definite article before God instead of the Word, “it would have been implied that no divine being existed outside the second person of the Trinity” (Barrett 156). In other words, if John said “God was the Word” instead of “the Word was God,” then it leaves no room for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit; only the Word would be God. So it is crucial to determine which of the nouns (God or Word) is the subject; luckily the definite article makes this clear.

Since Greek grammar rules prohibit the use of the definite article before θεὸς, the only other way to determine whether θεὸς should be translated “God” or “a god” is context. “God” is preceded by a definite article in the preceding phrase “the Word was with God” in the verse one and in the following phrase “He was with God in the beginning” in verse two. Did John switch from God to a god and then back to God? Of course not. So the proper translation is “the Word was God.”

This is not intended to be a thorough discussion of John 1:1. There are many commentaries that devote substantial space to this verse, but this blog is intended to help whet your appetite concerning the book of John. Once you see that Jesus is the Word and the Word is God and that John wrote his gospel to help us understand these two concepts, then the Word comes alive in our minds and in our hearts. We will never be gods, but when God sent His Word into this world, He made the first move to beginning a new relationship with us. The next move is yours.