In each of the seven letters that Jesus directed to seven first-century churches in Asia Minor, He concluded by giving promises to the “overcomers.” The question that has divided Bible students over the years is “who are they?” Two different answers are given to this question. First, is that an “overcomer” is a believer, and so, the promises given are for all believers. This is positional truth; that is, this is our position in Christ. The second answer is that the “overcomer” is a victorious Christian; that is, a believer who has lived faithfully and successfully for the Lord. They have overcome the world, the flesh and the devil. And while they are not perfect, they have persevered in their Christian lives and will be rewarded. This of often referred to as practical truth.
There has been an immense amount of discussion on the subject and those on each side of the discussion generally hold pretty firmly to their position. It should be noted that some good arguments, and some real problems, adhere to each view. Space is not available in this article to deal with all of the points made by the two sides. I will, however, give what I believe to be the best position (and you are welcome to disagree).
The word for “overcomer” is nikao. It basically has the meaning of “conquering” or “prevailing” or to “win a victory over.” It is used in a variety of ways, and is often used of God, of Christ and of Christ’s followers. So, when people in the churches are called “overcomers”, is this referring to their status as believers or to their successful lives as those who lived well for Christ? It is my position that it refers to the position of believers. In other words, all believers are overcomers. This is because it is Christ who has been the victorious One and when we place our trust in Him, we are identified with Him and that becomes our status. Now, some of you are aware that I have written a book on the rewarding of believers (“The Believers Payday”) and so, strongly believe that there will be significant differences among believers in the future kingdom. Rewarding is a serious NT subject and is frequently discussed. But I do not believe that the “overcomer” in Revelation is looking at the rewarding of victorious Christians.
There are several points that support the idea that this is positional truth, that is, an overcomer is synonymous for a believer. First, the way that the Apostle John uses the word points to all believers being in the category of “overcomers”. In 1 John 5:4-5 these verses use nikao as synonymous with saving faith.
“FOR WHATEVER IS BORN OF GOD OVERCOMES THE WORLD; AND THIS IS THE VICTORY THAT HAS OVERCOME THE WORLD—OUR FAITH. AND WHO IS THE ONE WHO OVERCOMES THE WORLD, BUT HE WHO BELIEVES THAT JESUS IS THE SON OF GOD.”
There can be little doubt here that John is teaching that the believer is an overcomer. It is our faith in Jesus, the Son of God which puts us into the category of “overcomer”. It seems highly unlikely that Jesus would use this word in Revelation in a very different way than His apostle John had used it. John certainly would not have understood an “overcomer” as anything else other than a believer in Jesus. In other words, the word is defined by John in his first epistle and it would seem imperative that John (and us) would be informed if nikao now had a very different meaning and application in the letters to the seven churches.
And there is some history to the way John heard this word as Jesus used it, which influenced the way John would have used it.
- 1 John 4:4 teaches that every believer is an overcomer because the One in us is greater than the world: one is not an overcomer because of personal success in the Christian life.
- Revelation 21:7. After giving all the wonderful benefits that come to believers when the new heavens and new earth are formed; and the blessings that come when God comes down and dwells with His people, it is said that the “overcomer” shall inherit these things. These “things” are looking at realities that all believers will experience. And notably in 21:8, the only other group mentioned are unbelievers who will have their part in the 2nd death which is the “lake of fire.” There is no third group of less faithful believers. Either you are an overcomer and receive the benefits listed, or you are an unbeliever facing the 2nd death; that is, the lake of fire. There is no other option given.
So because Jesus had been victorious (John 16:33; Rev. 5:5) and because by faith believers identify with Him, we too are overcomers. Positional truth is in view. All believers are overcomers.
The Apostle Paul appears to concur with this in Romans 8:37 where he declares that we, believers, are “super-overcomers.” And all believers are this because of the accomplishments of Jesus Christ, who is THE Overcomer.
A second line of thought has to do with the content of the promises to the overcomers in the seven letters. Some do speak clearly of positional truth. In His promise to the church at Smyrna, Jesus said that the overcomer would “not be hurt by the second death.” To those who hold to the eternal security of the believer, it is impossible for a believer to experience the second death which is described as the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14; 21:8). A believer who has lived selfishly or carnally in this life is still exempt from the “lake of fire.” The “lake of fire” was prepared with the Devil and his followers in mind (Rev. 20:10, 14, 15), not for unfaithful believers. This is clearly positional truth.
The “overcomers” at Ephesus are promised that they will eat of the “tree of life” (2:7). The “tree of life” is mentioned in Revelation 22:2 and 14, where those who have washed their robes have the right to eat of the “tree of life.” This also points to truth that is positional, applying universally to all believers.
The “overcomers” at Sardis are told that they will “not have their names erased from the Book of Life.” (Now a discussion of the content of the “book of life” cannot be dealt with here). This can be interpreted to be a promise to them of their eternal security. They are being guaranteed that their names will remain in the book of life. It is not required that this statement includes the possibility that they could have their names removed from the book of life. The point is that this is a sure thing; that they will not have their names erased, in spite of their bad behavior, just as those in Smyrna are promised they would not face the second death. The security of the believer is true for all believers, faithful and unfaithful.
Other promises are a little less clear and have been argued both ways. For example, receiving “hidden manna,” a “white stone,” and the “morning star”; having the name of God and the new Jerusalem written on them; and receiving “white garments”. It seems, however, that these promises favor positional truth.
Many years ago, Lehman Strauss observed that: “The promises made to the overcomers are a part of the great salvation provided by God’s grace for all those who have been redeemed through faith in Christ’s blood.” With this I would agree.
In some of these letters, the rewards given to faithful believers are given in general terms. Faithful believers will be rewarded by ruling with Christ. That goes along with a theme found in various New Testament passages, such as 2 Timothy 2 and Luke 19. Faithful believers will be honored by the Lord as He gives “crowns” to these believers. We can only imagine how powerful that experience will be for those believers who have persevered and lived faithfully for Christ. These letters teach that it does make a difference how believers live their lives. Unfaithful believers face the present discipline of the Lord as well as the loss of future rewarding. They do not lose their status as children of God. Faithful believers are encouraged in these letters to persevere in their faithful walk with Jesus. There are benefits that come in this life, but there are also benefits that will come in the life to come.
Although rewards are not greatly detailed, we can be sure that the rewarding of believers will far surpass anything we can imagine. It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.