Are You an Overcomer?

This biblical teaching about the Overcomers is given a significant place in the book of Revelation, and especially in Jesus' seven letters to the seven churches in chapters 2-3.  Unfortunately it has been largely ignored by Christians, since it has been rendered inconsequential by inadequate interpretation of its meaning and therefore of its application for followers of Jesus. Please take the time to thoughtfully consider where you stand with regard to the answers to the first three questions.  If you are one who has dismissed any notion of a biblical teaching on rewards, I beg you to re-consider. Understanding, embracing, and following the Bible's teachings on rewards for faithfulness will grant you a new purpose and zeal for godly living, and well as the opportunity to hear Jesus say, "Well done" to you when you stand before him some day.  (If you are interested in giving some serious thought to the subject of rewards, I invite you to listen to the five podcasts found here.)

Who are the Overcomers in the Book of Revelation?

1) (Wesleyan / Arminian position) True believers are overcomers so long as they maintain an obedient faith; however believers are not guaranteed to persevere, but rather every true believer must persevere in order to fully realize the promises made to the overcomer. 

2) (Reformed / Calvinist position) All true Christians are overcomers, and as such, they will necessarily and inevitably overcome. 

3) (Partaker / Free Grace position) Overcomers are faithful Christians, in contrast to those Christians who are not faithful. 

What are the ramifications of each position?

1) If you don't overcome you don't go to heaven.  Overcoming is equivalent to being faithful to the end of life.  If a Christian doesn't retain his faith, he will lose his salvation along with all of the promises for the overcomers.  Your salvation and the promises for the overcomers are, in some indispensable part, dependent upon you.

2) If you don't overcome you are not a Christian, for every Christian will, without exception, overcome.  Overcoming is equivalent to being faithful to the end of life.  Every genuine Christian will necessarily retain his faith, for his faith is the gracious and irrevocable gift of God.  Your salvation and the promises for the overcomers are dependent entirely upon the grace of God.  If you have been sovereignly chosen by God you will believe, you will be saved, and you will overcome.  Period.

3) If you don't overcome you are still going to heaven, but you will forfeit the promises for the overcomers.  Your eternal salvation is a gracious gift of God; the promises for the overcomers are given to those who earn them.  Eternal life is a gift; promises for overcomers are rewards.  The overcomer is the individual Christian who enjoys special benefits in the millennial kingdom (and eternity?) for refusing to give up his faith in spite of persecution during life on earth.

What are the problems with each position?

1) Eternal life is, in some sense, a reward for faithfulness.  It is a gift of grace from God, but it is a gift that can be lost through unfaithfulness.  Those who hold to this position believe that nothing in heaven or earth can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus1, except you.  They cannot tell you how much unfaithfulness will result in the forfeiture of the gift, only that it may happen.  If you lose eternal life you also, of course, lose the promises for the overcomers.  

2) Since every genuine believer will, without exception, receive the promises, what is the point of the promises to be made?  These promises are contained in letters to churches; to believers in Christ Jesus.  These letters contain commendations for obedience, warnings for disobedience, and promises for persevering, victorious faith.  The commendations and the warnings apply to specific people in the churches, not to every believer.  What, in the context, would lead us to conclude that the promises apply to every Christian?  In this view the rewards in heaven are not rewards at all; they are simply gifts.  The promises to overcomers are nothing more than gifts given to those who have won the heavenly lottery.  

A command that everyone keeps is superfluous, and a reward that everyone receives for a virtue that everyone has is nonsense. (J. William Fuller)

3) The most frequent criticism of this view is that heaven will be populated with the "Have's" and the "Have Not's".  Most of the promises of rewards for Christians are spoken of in the context of the kingdom.  Clearly Jesus taught about the qualifications for being great in the kingdom, as well as the possibility of being least in the kingdom.  When Jesus was asked by James and John if they could sit on his right and left in the kingdom, he didn't tell them, "That's not the way it will be," but rather said that those positions would be awarded by his Father.  The Bible teaches that some Christians will receive joy, honor, and rewards, while others will receive shame, sorrow, and loss at the judgment seat of Christ.  If you can recognize New Testament teaching about rewards in God's kingdom, as well as the reality of roles in the kingdom being awarded to those who earn them in this life, then this position is not problematic for you.

So what exactly are these rewards?

• To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. (2:7)

The Tree of Life is only spoken of in the books of Genesis, Proverbs, and Revelation.  Moved by compassion, God prohibited mankind from accessing the tree after he sinned, "Lest he eat and live forever."  So there, in the Garden, until the flood occurred - for some fifteen hundred years - the Tree of Life flourished, being guarded by an angel of God.  Noah and his sons had several hundred years to pass on the knowledge of the Tree of Life to many succeeding generations, so that many cultures, all over the globe, have in their traditions a tree of life.

In the Proverbs it is spoken of as some of the best experiences of godly living, of walking in fellowship with God: the happy state of the wise, the positive product of a righteous life, the joy that accompanies desire fulfilled, and the blessing that comes from edifying words.  

It is used four times in the book of Revelation: once in chapter two; three times in the last chapter.  One of these references simply describes the tree in the eternal city: its location, its plenteous fruit, and its beneficial leaves.  The other three references indicate that the privilege of eating the fruit of the tree is conditional.  This privilege is given to those who overcome and to those who wash their robes, while it is taken away from anyone who takes away from the words of this prophetic book.

In the last chapter of Revelation, where the Tree of Life is mentioned three times, there is a clear distinction made between the the free gift of life and the rewards that will be given to the faithful.  Clearly this is a conditional privilege that is distinct from the free gift  of salvation.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost. (Revelation 22:17)

Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. (Revelation 22:12)

But what does it mean to eat from the Tree of Life?  It seems that this is another way of talking about the privilege of close fellowship with the Lord that is offered to all who are faithful.  Jesus offers Laodicea - the lukewarm church - the privilege of having him come in and sit down and dine with them, if they will only come to the door and let him in.  The high point of the church's wedding with Christ is a supper with him, for those who have prepared themselves.

So the privilege of eating from the eternal Tree of Life, which bears a different kind of fruit every month forever, is the blessing of a more intimate fellowship with Christ throughout eternity.  Surely this is worth enduring whatever adversity may come in order to demonstrate victorious faith.

This view fits well with the rest of the message to the church in Ephesus.  Christ identifies himself as the one who is walking among the churches, indicating the closeness of fellowship he is pursuing.  This church once had a deep, intimate love relationship with God, that they had allowed to grow cold.  This promise to the overcomers, is a promise of an eternal, deep, and intimate love relationship with Christ if they will only walk victoriously by faith.

• He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. (2:11)

Twice, in chapters 20 and 21 of Revelation, the second death is identified as the lake of fire.  One naturally asks: "How could this be conditional?  By the free gift of God, every Christian receives deliverance from the lake of fire!"  

Again, by looking at he context of the letter one can begin to discern what is being indicated.  This is the suffering church; this is the church that is being urged to be faithful unto death.  We're talking about martyrdom here!  Who needs more encouragement than these believers?

The part of interpreting this statement that is a little more difficult is understanding the figurative language that Jesus uses here.  He employs a familiar scriptural figure of speech called litotes, in which a positive statement is made by negating its opposite.  Here are a couple of examples:

When Paul spoke of the rebellious wilderness generation, he said that "God was not pleased with most of them" (1 Corinthians 10:5), but he meant that God was extremely displeased with all of them but two.  When Luke says the the believers were "not a little comforted" (Acts 20:12) at the restoration of Eutychus, he means that they were exceedingly comforted.

As Jesus is telling the believers of this church that they need to be faithful unto death, he reminds them that though the first death may hurt briefly, the second death will not hurt at all.  It's like telling a pregnant mother, "Yes childbirth will hurt for a while, but when your holding that newborn baby in your arms it won't make any difference."  

This message is especially for those who are threatened with the loss of life for their faith in Christ.  The crown of life you receive for faithfulness unto death will make the suffering of martyrdom seem like nothing.  It is not saying that any Christians will be hurt at all by the second death, but rather that for those who suffer and die for their faith, there will be great reward if they remain faithful.

• To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it. (2:17)

Hidden manna is found nowhere else in the scriptures.  Jesus told his contemporaries that if they received him, the bread of life come down from heaven, that they would never hunger again, like their fathers who ate manna in the wilderness.  Jesus also said that certain truths were hidden from some and revealed to others.  It is a privilege to be on the receiving end of truth that is only revealed to a few.

Paul says, in his letter to the Colossians that "in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."  It seems likely that this again is an indication that, in the kingdom, overcomers will be rewarded with a closer, more intimate relationship with Christ, in which they will be granted knowledge that is not given to everyone.  

What is the white stone with the new name?  In the Greek athletic games, the winner received a certificate of victory which was a small tablet of white stone in which the name of the victor was inscribed by an expert carver.  Can you imagine the honor of receiving from Jesus, on judgment day, such an emblem of honor, engraved with a name that is only understood by you and Jesus?!

This letter is addressed to those who "hold fast my name".  Here is Jesus saying that if you are willing to suffer for my name - even to death - I will honor you with a name of my choice, that is a secret just between you and me.  And this is not just Charles instead of William; it is a name that reflects Jesus' knowledge and approbation of the faithful life you've lived.  It's Jesus saying: "I have watched you and know the way you've lived, and here is a name that captures who you are to me."

What a declaration of intimacy between God and man!  What a motivation for faithful living in the midst of opposition!

• He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, TO HIM I WILL GIVE AUTHORITY OVER THE NATIONS; AND HE SHALL RULE THEM WITH A ROD OF IRON, AS THE VESSELS OF THE POTTER ARE BROKEN TO PIECES, as I also have received authority from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. (2:26-28)

An overcomer is a victor, and in these letters from Jesus, it is the one who remains faithful to the Lord in the face of all of the enemy's efforts to tempt him to love the world more than God.  And this clearly does not mean merely to win a few skirmishes; it means being victorious in life.  Faithfulness always involves being true to the end.  This does not refer to one who just runs a few sprints, but rather to one who completes the marathon, and does his best in the effort.

To this kind of believer Jesus promises a position of authority alongside him in the kingdom.  And it's not just an honorary position; it's a position of power.  Just as Jesus received authority from his Father after he won the victory on the cross, in a similar manner, Jesus will share his power with his faithful soldiers.  

This is the consistent message of the scriptures: those who suffer with him will reign with him.  Those who are victorious to the end will be granted the privilege of reigning alongside Jesus.  So it's never too late: finish strong!

Perhaps a person might be thinking: "I'm really not into a power trip; I don't need that kind of thing to be happy.  I'm satisfied to just be a follower."  Reigning with Jesus is not about amassing power to yourself; it's about being close to Jesus.  It will be a job that Jesus gives you to do, and that you will communicate about with him.  He will give you tasks, you will report to him, you will seek his counsel, he will work through you.  You will employ his power and authority, not your own.

Jesus is spoken of in scripture as the morning star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16).  The morning star is the one that shines brightest just before the dawn breaks.  The appearing of the morning star gives hope that the dawn is near.  This likely refers to an intimate sense of the presence of Christ that is given to those who are suffering when the night is about to end.  Perhaps this is the vision Stephen experienced as he was about to enter the presence of his Savior.

Perhaps this is what Paul was experiencing as he penned these words: 

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

• He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (3:5)

Angels and the transfigured Christ appeared in white robes.  Saints who are given white robes to wear are those who have earned the privilege of wearing them.  The verse before this one says: "But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy."  Clearly these are people who have earned the right to be clothed in white.  So the overcomers are promised that they also will thus be clothed in white.  

In chapters six and seven of Revelation we are again told that martyrs from the tribulation, an innumerable multitude of them, will be clothed in white, because they have "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."  This is clearly not a reference to the gift of salvation, but of a honor bestowed upon those that proved themselves faithful through great suffering.

We have understood that everyone who believes in Jesus has his or her name written in the book of life.2 Are there some Christians whose names will be erased from the book?  Those who hold to the Arminian theology certainly believe that this reality is being taught here.  But if this is a reward to those who are faithful through suffering, then are we left to assume that those who don't suffer for their faith, or that those whose faith falters under persecution are not going to heaven?  Is this teaching that one must produce good works in order to go to heaven?

In the Greek and Roman cities of this time, their were lists of citizen maintained.  One's name was removed because of death or because of some criminal act his citizenship was revoked.  Similarly, in ancient Israel, their was a legal register kept.  When Moses, in an emotional outburst (Exodus 32:32), said to God, "If you will not forgive Israel for their sin, then blot my name out of your book," he was talking about his death, not the forfeiture of his eternal destiny.  But in Revelation, as we noted, the book of life seems to refer to those whose names were written before the foundation of the world.  

Some have suggested that the word "name" (Gk, onoma) could be translated "reputation" here, as it is in the first verse of this letter to the church in Sardis.  This, then, would mean that the reputation earned by faithful believers would never be removed from them.  They would carry the blessing of a godly reputation with them throughout  eternity.  This interpretation fits well with the remainder of Jesus' promise, to "confess his name before my Father and before his angels."  

An alternative would be to understand this to be another use of litotes, the figure of speech that makes a positive statement by negating its opposite.  In this case Jesus' statement would be understood thus: even though your name may be erased from the book of life in your city - having died for your faith - it will in no way (emphatic negative in the Greek) be blotted out of my book of life.  This would be a strong word of encouragement to the persecuted Christian.

To have one's name confessed by Jesus before his Father and his angels is an incredible honor indeed.  To have Jesus single you out, and say, "Father, here is Charlie; let me recount to you what he has done for your name."  And then after he has rehearsed the godly life lived by this one, he will say: "Well done, Charlie, you have been a faithful servant; enter now into the joy of your Lord reserved for his faithful ones.  Angels, give him the welcome that he has earned."  

This is exactly what Jesus said when he was here on earth.  To those identified as his followers and friends he said:

And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God. (Luke 12:8-9)

Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32-33)

Having one's name confessed, or acknowledged, before the Father and his angels should not be construed as equivalent with being declared saved.  Rather it refers to the public testimony by the Son of God to the faithful life of obedient Christians.  Conversely, not having one's name acknowledged is to forfeit the Master's "Well done."

• He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and 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 My new name. (3:12)

A pillar in the temple of God; this sounds like an eternal occupation.  This is an incredible promise of a permanent position in the presence of God.  As John describes the New Jerusalem, he declares: "I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple." (Revelation 21:22)  To be a pillar in this temple is worth any sacrifice we may be asked to make on this earth.  The psalmist understood the value of this honor when he said: "A day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside. I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness." (Psalm 84:10) 

What does it mean to have these three names written upon one?  We have been called upon, as believers in Jesus Christ to bear his name.  It is an honor to carry the name of Jesus.  However, in this world, there is, at times, a costly price to pay for identifying oneself with the name of Jesus.  Some Christians are ashamed of this name, and even deny that they belong to Jesus.  But for those that are faithful to carry the name throughout this life, even at great personal cost, there is a prize awaiting them.

Jesus will give to the faithful the three-fold honor of bearing the name of his God, the name of the new city of God, and the new name of the Savior.  To have permanently inscribed upon oneself these names is to be guaranteed a share of the eternal honor that is associated with these names.  

Regarding the new name of Jesus, the apostle Paul says that because Jesus humbled himself all the way to death on a cross:

God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

If every knee will bow at the mention of this new name of Jesus, what will be the honor given to the one who has this name written upon him?  For everyone who endures suffering for the sake of the name of Jesus, there is surely glory to follow.  Sorrow may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning!

• He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. (3:21)

"As" is a powerful word when it is used to compare man with God.  Jesus overcame by faithfully fulfilling the purpose for which the Father sent him.  We also overcome by faithfully fulfilling the purpose for which God created us.  Jesus received the authority to sit beside and rule with his Father by virtue of his sacrificial service.  We also will receive authority to sit and rule with Jesus by virtue of our sacrificial service.

For those who believe that every Christian will have the honor of reigning with Christ, they need to understand what the meaning of "as" is.  The only reason that God highly exalted Jesus and gave him a name above every name, and that every knee will bow, is because Jesus faithfully accomplished all the work the Father gave him to do.  The only reason any believer will be able to share the throne of Christ is because he or she has faithfully accomplished all that God has given him or her to do.

In case you think this is an unrealistic requirement for rule - that no human could ever achieve it - consider again the testimony of the apostle Paul: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith."  Remember this: again and again the scriptures remind us that finishing strong - being faithful to the end - is most important.

Don't say, as some have, "I've put in my time of service, now it's my turn to be served."  Nor ever say, "I'm old, and there's nothing for me to do."  Every day is a gift from God - another opportunity to serve the Lord.  If there was nothing for you to do, God would not have left you here.

• He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. (21:7)

Chapter 21 of Revelation begins with the description of the magnificent new Jerusalem.  After being given this vision of the holy city, Jesus tells John, "He who overcomes will inherit these things."  To inherit means to be given ownership.  An inheritance in the scripture almost always indicates an honor that is earned by faithfulness rather than something that is given merely because someone has died.  In fact to inherit the kingdom, or in this case, the New Jerusalem, is equivalent to ruling in it.

Isn't it true for all believers that God is our God and that we are his sons?  This is not meant to infer that non-overcomers do not have a Father-son relationship with God, but rather that there will be a special closeness between the overcomer and God.  The longer we live, the more wisdom tells us that relationships are what life is all about.  Why else would Jesus say that the most important commandments are to love God and love our neighbors?

The same is true in heaven.  The best opportunity for fellowship with God is given to those who have made a relationship with him their most important pursuit in life.  The crown of life, Paul says is for all those who have "loved his appearing."  The reward he declares, is for those who love him so much they can hardly wait to see him and be with him.  


In every reference to the overcomer in Revelation he is one who is a victor in battle.

And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. (Revelation 12:11)

It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. (Revelation 13:7)

And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God. (Revelation 15:2) 

These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.” (Revelation 17:14)

The central theme of the entire book is to exhort the saints to persevere and to be victorious.

If all saints must persevere and be victorious in order to gain entrance into heaven, then eternal life is a reward and salvation is attained by works.  

If all saints necessarily persevere and are victorious, the exhortations and promises of rewards are pointless.  An exhortation to do something that everyone does anyway to obtain a reward which all will receive anyway is absurd. (Joseph C. Dillow)

The promises made to overcomers, when understood properly, are so attractive that every believer ought to dispense with any and every other pursuit in life, and pursue this one thing with every fiber of his being.  The problem for most Christians is that they don't understand the promises, and if they do understand them, they are so infatuated with this world that they are making no investment in the world to come.

Let's resolve to be among those believers, however few they may be, who are determined to take steps every day that bring them into an increasingly closer love relationship with God.  In this way, there is only one thing that will really matter: pleasing God and preparing to be with him.  When opposition comes, we will be prepared for it, and by God's grace, be victorious over it.

1 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

2 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. (Revelation 13:8)

The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will wonder when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come. (Revelation 17:8)

And nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into [the city], but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:27)

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