The Seven Churches and the Identity of the Overcomers
by Robert Vacendak
In each letter to the seven churches in Rev 2-3, Jesus makes incredible promises (at least 14) to the one who “overcomes.” Scholars identify these overcomers in various ways: (1) believers that can lose their salvation, (2) believers that prove they are professors instead of possessors, or (3) believers who can lose rewards but remain saved. First we rnust determine (1) who the overcomer is, and (2) what is required to attain the status of overcomer.
Who is the Overcomer?
Some propose that the overcomers represent all believers on the basis of 1 John 5:4-5: “…whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Daniel Wong is one of many who hold that all believers are overcomers and will be rewarded by God.1
UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPEL AND BELIEVING IT IS TRULY A SIGNIFICANT VICTORY IN AND OF ITSELF
The problem with this view is that Revelation and 1 John are two discernibly different contexts. In 1 John 5, the apostle speaks of people who through a single instance of faith in Christ become overcomers and escape the
spiritual blindness of the unsaved. Understanding the gospel and believing it is truly a significant victory in and of itself. And it is in that sense they have “overcome the world.”
The context in 1 John 5 is unquestionably centered on the theme of believing in Christ for eternal life (cf. vv 1, 5, 10-13). But to overcome (or be “victorious”) contextually in Rev 2-3, believers must do something subsequent to faith in Christ for eternal life. Almost all the letters require overcoming on the basis of works. Thus, eternal rewards appear to be what the believer receives when he overcomes, for example by partaking of the tree of life (2:7), ruling with Christ over the earth (2:26; 3:21), and receiving a reputation that everyone will know (3:1, 5). Hence this victory does not occur by faith alone as in 1 John 5. Obviously, we are talking about two different types of victory. And that leads us to our next question.
What Does God Require to Attain The Status of an Overcomer?
As seen above, overcoming spiritual blindness (cf. 2 Cor 4:3-4) comes by faith alone in Christ alone according to 1 John 5:5. This victory is won the moment a person believes. But the overcomers in Rev 2-3 (as in 21:7) are people who not only believe in Christ for eternal life but also pay a significant price as His followers. This type of overcoming is not a free gift (cf. Rom 6:23; Eph 2:8-9) nor does the acquisition of it take place in a moment but over the course of a lifetime.
Every church in Rev 2-3 was facing spiritual difficulties of some sort. Hence the promises serve to empower believers facing difficulties in order for them to become victorious through Christ. For example, Ephesus struggled because they left their first love (2:4). They needed to overcome that problem. Smyrna would be tested ten days (2:10), and to become victorious they needed to endure. Pergamos wasn’t dealing with the false teachers among them (2:14-15). So to become victorious they needed to remove or reprimand them. Every church was at war with the enemy in some way. Hence, God motivates them by promising to reward those who overcome.
Overcoming in Revelation is not a gift. It involves obedience. A believer must walk in godliness (cf. 2 Pet 1:5-11) and remain faithful to Christ until the end of life (cf. Matt 25:20-21; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26) in order to overcome according to Revelation. In our upcoming issues, we will consider each of the promises to theovercomers individually.
is the pastor of Ridge Pointe Fellowship in Dallas, TX and author of the Commentary on Revelation featured in the upcoming Grace NT Commentary to be published by GES
1 Daniel Wong, “The People of Blessing,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (April 1998): 2