What Is Winning?
Multi-billion-dollar corporation Nike built its brand by paying athletes to endorse their product. Michael Jordan became the first famous athlete—or at least the first I can remember—with his own shoe. “Jordans” became both sports equipment and status symbol, to the extent that a decade after his retirement kids are still buying “his” shoe. Of course, Nike wasn’t the only one to use Jordan, as the famous “be like Mike” ads for Gatorade debuted in 1991. Why did everyone want to “be like Mike”? Why did they want to wear the shoes he wore? Why did they want to drink the sports drink he drank? Quite simply, because Jordan was a winner: a six-time NBA champion, five-time NBA MVP, 14-time All-Star. No one cares what shoes the kid on the bench is wearing, or if he is even wearing any shoes (my likelihood of making it on the court during my high school career was so low I would often take my shoes off—but I digress). And so, the world tells us that we will be winners if we wear shoes like Michael Jordan or drink what Michael Jordan drinks. It tells us we will be beautiful if we wear the makeup the models and actresses wear. It tells us our life will be idyllic if we decorate our homes like Johanna Gaines. Is that really what winning looks like? Should we really allow ourselves to be defined by basketball skills that will decline, beauty that will fade, and a house decorated in a fashion that one day will be out of style? The very fact that kids rush to buy the newest Jordans, and that houses are routinely re-decorated shows that being a winner today, doesn’t guarantee being one tomorrow, at least not according to the world’s standards.
John has a word for us here, as he writes to a group of Christians who are battling the world on one hand, while with the other wrestling with the realities of the incarnation. He wants his audience to realize is that it is only when we place our trust in Jesus that we achieve victory, that we become winners.
For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that has overcome the world except the one who believe that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:4-5 ESV)
The root word for overcome and victory is the Greek word nike. Yes, it’s the same Nike that serves as the name of the billion-dollar shoe company. The gospel tells us that winning has nothing to do with how we play a game, or what we look like, or what our house looks like. In fact, victory has nothing to do what we do, or who we are, and everything to do with who Jesus is, and what Jesus does.
This begs the question, what does winning look like? It is clearly important to John as three times in three successive sentences John repeats the phrase “overcome the world.” Victory, winning, overcoming the world means living (or dying) in it without succumbing to its lure, without being governed by it, without accepting its standards. Whenever I think of someone dying for their convictions, I think of American patriot Nathan Hale. Standing on the gallows, his life about to be ended just as it was reaching its pinnacle, Hale defiantly declares, “My only regret is that I have but one life to live for my country.” Even impending death could not cause him to abandon his principles or renounce his allegiance. Even more importantly, I think of Jesus. Standing beneath the shadow of the cross, knowing the death he is about to die, the suffering he is about to endure, Jesus says:
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
It is striking that John in his letter says that we have overcome the world. Perhaps he is thinking of the completed victory of Jesus—“I have overcome the world”—which repeats itself in the life of the Christian. John’s point is that victory is found in staying the course, and despite what comes, finding peace in the one who could confidently proclaim, “I have overcome the world.” It comes in remembering that he proclaims this even before the cross.
Those who have conquered the world have risen above it so that it no longer taints or influences, much less determines, them. Jesus was no king, at least not by earthly standards—no palace, no throne, no army. Even so, the world’s understanding of Jesus in no way determines the truth about who Jesus is. As pastors and preachers, are we regularly reminding our communities what winning looks like? In a world that so badly wants to “be like Mike,” are we proclaiming that victory really comes in being like Jesus?