Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
1 John 5:5 (NASB)
I have taken a few discipleship groups or classes where we were asked to find a passage that summarizes salvation, and in every case what was cited were John 3:16 or one of maybe three sections of Paul’s writing. And again, this is fine, Paul did write about this and his writing is super helpful. But in our study of the general epistles as a body worthy of equal consideration, we cannot ignore what they have to say about salvation and redemptive history.
I’d like to try something that came to mind while I was reading and sorting and preparing this series, and that is actually to pull the nature of salvation from the letters to the seven churches, in chapters 2–3 of Revelation, and use those as a guide to the way the rest of the general epistles handle the subject. We will be exploring the “He Who Overcomes” statements. Each of these is tailored to the church that is receiving it, but taken together, they create a picture of what salvation is.
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.’
Revelation 2:7 (NASB)
The church of Ephesus comes first, and the promise they receive goes all the way to the beginning of scripture. Mankind is created and placed in the Garden of Eden, this paradise where they can live in community with God Himself, but they allow sin to enter into their lives and the world and have to be removed. Now, we tend to talk about how they had to be removed because they couldn’t remain in God’s presence, and there’s truth to that, but the passage actually describes a more specific motive: Adam and Eve needed to lose access to the Tree of Life.
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” — therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.
Genesis 3:22–23 (NASB)
Now, God was not concerned about us pulling a fast one on Him and eating from the tree when He wasn’t looking. Having access to the tree was not some threat to Him. But there was a need to separate mankind from the Tree of Life, and so God did. Now, we will explore more about the promise of life in the next section, but the point for right now is that Christ is promising through John that there will be a restoration to the perfect created order, that we will again be in the paradise of God and have access to, not only the Tree of Life, but the giver of life Himself.
Now, we see later in Revelation that this is not a return to the literal Garden of Eden. The New Jerusalem is a city, not a garden. But it does have the streams of flowing water, it does have the Tree of Life, and most importantly, it has the people of God living in the presence of God without sin. It is in this context that Hebrews, which concerns itself with a significant section on the day of rest coming for the people of God through Christ, presents the fullness of that rest being realized.
For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh [day:] “AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS”; and again in this [passage,] “THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.”
Hebrews 4:2–5 (NASB)
This rest, according to Hebrews, is found in Christ for those who will believe on Him. This is placed in contrast to the generation that wandered in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, who contended with God and failed to trust in His promises and provision. But it is in the presence of God, in true community with Him like there was in the Garden and will be again in the New Jerusalem, that the rest God promises will be fully realized. This is our first point about salvation: it is a restoration, a return to the perfect design of God and community with Him.
The Second Death
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.’
Revelation 2:11 (NASB)
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:14–15 (NASB)
Revelation paints a very vivid picture of those who remain enemies of God being cast into the lake of fire, called the second death, followed immediately by the redeemed going to dwell with God forever. The fundamental promise being made to the church of Smyrna, then, is that the saved have no fear of final separation from God and can trust in the eternal life He offers. The contrast is set forth in the narrative of Revelation, and promised here in chapter 2, but is given in a very clear and concise way by Peter. In his second letter, Peter talks about how unrighteous people and the corrupted natural order will be destroyed by fire, and then promises that those who are in Christ need not fear that because they can look beyond to the new life that awaits them.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.
2 Peter 3:11–13 (NASB)
John himself also summarizes this promise when he says, “The world is passing away, and [also] its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17 NASB). Jude focuses on the negative side of that arrangement in verses 5–7, where he points to Sodom and Gomorrah as evidence of the destruction that awaits those who are not in Christ.
This promise of eternal life shows up a few times in these two chapters of Revelation, as we’ve already seen one in access to the Tree of Life above. This, then, is our second note about salvation as the general epistles understand it: it is eternal life, and stands in stark contrast to the judgment that will fall on those who remain enemies of God.
A New Foundation
‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. 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.’
Revelation 2:17 (NASB)
At a quick stroke, the promise to the church of Pergamum seems a bit odd. What is this hidden manna, and why a stone with some name on it?
The manna is a theme that gets some development earlier in scripture, though it isn’t as strongly recurring topic. In fact, there are really only two places we need to go to get the general thrust of the story so far. The first is during the wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, when the people of Israel were in a barren place and hungry. God sustained them with provision in the form of a miraculous bread that appeared with the morning dew that they simply gathered. While there is very little discussion of the manna after that point in scripture, it certainly left a mark on the culture, because it gets cited after Jesus feeds the 5,000. He performs the miracle, He and His disciples ship out at night, and the people find them the next day and ask for more bread as a sign. A relevant part of that conversation includes:
“Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.
John 6:31–35 (NASB)
Later, they grumbled among themselves about Jesus proclaiming that He was the bread that came down from Heaven. They got Jesus’ point, even if they didn’t like it: while the manna was a very real and effective sustenance for the people of God, there is a better sustenance delivered by God in the person of Jesus Christ. The promise of hidden manna, then, is a promise that ties back to the earlier promises of eternal life, with a focus on Christ as the giver and sustainer of that life. In 1 John, the author of both the epistle and the gospel revisits this topic when he tells us, “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11–12, NASB).
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
Hebrews 2:14–15 (NASB)
Whether or not the stone is a literal stone that we will be handed is an interesting discussion to have, but for our purposes here in asking what it says about salvation, we can instead focus on what is written on the stone. And what is written on the stone is, in fact, a new identity. We are, by our natures, slaves to sin, as discussed in Hebrews. We have an identity wrapped up in our relationship to the world and to death. But in Christ, we have a new identity, a new foundation to who we are, and at the very beginning of 1 John 3 we have the promise that this new identity is that we get to become children of God.
Thus, the promise delivered through the church is Pergamum is not simply some bread and a stone, but an imperishable life founded on Christ and a new identity found in Him. The redeemed can trust that our lives are grounded on the solid rock of Christ, because He is both the giver and sustainer of life as well as the author of the promises that life contains.
Glory and Power
‘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.
Revelation 2:26–28 (NASB)
The message to Thyatira is a bit more straight forward. Jesus promises authority over the nations and, as the morning star frequently represents, a position of some glory. 1 Peter 1:12 notes a similar theme, in recognizing that the saints of old looked forward to the fullness of salvation and that the nature of what we receive is so great that even angels long to see it. But while the idea of us receiving authority and glory will be revisited here, they are not widely common themes in the general epistles. When they arise, in fact, they are generally pointing beyond us. Consider, for instance, John’s words just one chapter earlier, during his greeting.
and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To Him who loves us and released us from our sins by His blood — and He has made us [to be] a kingdom, priests to His God and Father — to Him [be] the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
Revelation 1:5–6 (NASB)
Any glory or authority we may receive is second in importance to that which Christ receives. We can trust that this promise is true, that God will grant us to rule with Him and that He will glorify us in the end, but there seems to be an almost subconscious hesitance by the authors of the general epistles to let us ever think about that without immediately turning our eyes to the One who deserves all authority and all glory. This is a stark reminder that not only is Christ the means by which our salvation comes, but that salvation is ultimately for His glory and not our own. I would do us no favors in presenting it any other way.
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.
Revelation 3:5 (NASB)
The book of life, again, points to eternal life; confession of the name includes both glory and endorsement, and we can ask for no greater endorsement than that of God the Son. Instead of revisiting these concepts, though, look at the first clause in that sentence, that we will be clothed in white garments. This is a promise of purity, that we will be washed clean, that the one who overcomes (that is, the one who believes on Jesus as per our opening verse) will be sanctified and made whole. Hebrews, a book largely about salvation and redemptive history, touches on this a number of times but few as concisely as “by this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 NASB). The blood of Christ washes us clean, this is the means by which we are sanctified, and we have assurance given to the church of Sardis that this will be perfectly completed.
‘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.
Revelation 3:12 (NASB)
We have here new information on the new identity we have in Christ, that it involves being marked as one of God’s, but this talk about being a pillar in the temple ties back to the promise in the message to Ephesus. Philadelphia’s portion includes residing in the presence of God, but the temple language ties back to the apparently false form of Judaism they were dealing with. These people lived in the midst of what appears to be a false temple or synagogue, and are promised a place in the true temple of God.
The [former] priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.
Hebrews 7:23–25 (NASB)
Hebrews deals with ideas related to this quite a lot. While Philadelphia is dealing with a “synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie,” which is definitely not wording used for Judaism as a whole elsewhere in scripture and therefore probably a localized and specific group of people, Hebrews discusses at length that the entire temple system has seen its completion in Christ and that He is better than it was ever capable of being (Revelation 3:9 NASB). Given here is one example, where Jesus is noted as being superior as an eternal priest.
This, the eternal temple where Christ stands forever, always in the presence of the Father and without need for further sacrifice or washing, is the temple that the redeemed can look forward to calling home. Where Ephesus was given an emphasis on the perfection and the closeness of God to His people, Philadelphia is given a picture of life in perfect and continual communion with God.
A Greater Wealth
‘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.
Revelation 3:21 (NASB)
The church of Laodicea is a rich body. In the message to them, they have to be reminded that the wealth they have on Earth makes no dent on the poverty they have in spiritual matters, and that they are ‘lukewarm’ in their devotion to God. There is much that can be said about what it means to be lukewarm, but turning to verse 21 we see that the church is given a vision of something far greater than the riches they are relying on. After all, the throne of Christ is no small seat of power, but as Peter describes it:
Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.
1 Peter 3:21–22 (NASB)
Angels, authorities, and powers are subject to the throne of Christ. The things of this world that we seek are too small, they are as nothing compared to the vast riches we have in Christ. To the church of Laodicea, and any of a similar mindset, the desire for earthly wealth is a distraction from the fullness of what awaits those who put their hope in Christ.
Focus of Salvation
The overarching thread of salvation woven throughout the general epistles, though, is that this is all through and for Christ, and as He is better than anything we have on this world, so His salvation is greater than anything we can have through other means, and the weight of our treatment of salvation is greater than how we handle any other subject. This is why false teachers are viewed in such a harsh light: what they do with the gospel is objectively far more important than what they do with anything else. We cannot honor God or do any ultimate good if we will not handle this matter well, and we cannot handle it well if Christ is not the focus of all of it.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to [obtain] an inheritance [which is] imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1 Peter 1:3–5 (NASB)
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away [from it.] For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
Hebrews 2:1–4 (NASB)
In Christ, through the salvation He offers, we have a new and better identity, one that is pure and washed free of all sin and corruption, that includes authority and coming glory, that allows us to reside joyfully in the presence of God forever, without fear of further pain or death. This is founded on the work of Christ and grounds everything we are and everything we do. Let us look forward with joy and expectation, patiently awaiting the fullness of this great salvation, as James reminds us:
Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
James 5:7–8 (NASB)
If we are truly grounding ourselves on this promise and on patiently waiting for it, our lives will be impacted. This will be the focus of the final post in this series.
Tim McLaughlin is a ministry student and once & future church planter living in central Massachusetts with his wife, kids, and assortment of animals. This post was originally published on his theology blog, https://theworstbaptist.weebly.com.