I wrote a book review in January of 2016 of a book which took a different view of the three outer darkness passages in Matthew than Zane Hodges and I had done. But the book covered much more than those three passages. Among other things, the authors argued that overcoming in Revelation 2-3 is another word for believing. In my review, I rejected the idea that all believers are overcomers, though I did not deal with the argument that “he who overcomes” means “he who believes.” The reason I didn’t deal with that is that I did not see that explained in the book.
However, one of the authors responded to my review and in his response he said, “the phrase ‘he who believes’ occurs twice [in John 11:25-26] and is a significant Johannine parallel construction to ‘he who overcomes.’” I then went back to the book and I still can’t find a statement to that effect, though it might be there.
Does “he who overcomes” equal “he who believes” in Revelation 2-3? Let’s see.
The participle he who overcomes is from the verb nikaō. That word has a basic meaning of “to win in the face of obstacles” and “to overcome” (BDAG, p. 673). It never is translated in the Bible as to believe. No dictionary says it means to believe.
In John’s writings it is used in reference to the Lord Jesus overcoming the world (John 16:33; Rev 3:21), believers overcoming the devil (1 John 2:13, 14), believers overcoming false teachers (1 John 4:4), and the faith of believers overcoming the world (1 John 5:4-5).
There are seven uses of “he who overcomes” (ho nikōn, or the dative, to nikōnti) in the seven letters of Revelation 2-3 (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). That is, all the seven letters include a reference to the one who overcomes.
None of the seven say what believers are to overcome (e.g., the devil, the world, false teachers). But all seven refer to something which could happen in the future, not something which has already happened in the past. All seven letters challenge believers to become and/or to remain victorious in their works.
If “he who overcomes” means “he who believes,” then why didn’t John simply write, “He who believes”? John uses the expression “he who believes”many times in his Gospel and first epistle (John 3:18, 36; 6:35, 47; 7:38; 11:25; 14:12; 1 John 5:5, 10).
All seven of the references to “he who overcomes” are directly tied to another statement found in all seven letters, “I know your works” (Rev 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). Works, not faith, is the issue the Lord has with the seven churches.
Every one of the letters has references to good and/or bad works. And in most of the letters the Lord links future ruling with Him with works:
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).
“I will give to each one of you according to your works” (Rev 2:23).
“He who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations” (Rev 2:26).
“Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown” (Rev 3:11).
“To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev 3:21).
Notice that in Rev 3:21, the summary of all seven letters, the Lord links our overcoming with His overcoming. In what sense did the Lord Jesus Christ overcome? He is not talking about Him believing in Himself. He is talking about Him finishing the work that the Father gave Him to do (John 4:34; 5:36; 17:4; 19:30). The finished work of Christ is a major theme in John’s Gospel, first epistle, and in the book of Revelation. We are to follow the example He left us (e.g., 1 John 3:16) and become overcomers ourselves by finishing the work God has given us to do.
The first letter, to the church at Ephesus, has a call to repent and to do the works the church did previously so that they might be overcomers: “Repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent…To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life…” (Rev 2:5, 7). Compare Rev 22:14, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life.” Clearly doing His commandments is not a synonym for believing in Him.
Only overcomers, those who do His commandments, will have the right to eat of the tree of life. A comparison of Rev 2:7 and 22:14 shows that overcomers are those who do His commandments.
Free Grace people sometimes get bothered by the overcomer passages since they link ruling with Christ (plus associated rewards like hidden manna, the right to the tree of life, a special white stone, special white garments) with overcoming. However, once we recognize that only if we endure will we reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12), then we realize that the issue is not eternal destiny, but eternal reward. That is found throughout the teaching of the Lord and of His Apostles (Matt 24:45-51; 25:1-13, 14-30; Luke 19:16-26; 1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 2:12; 4:6-8; Heb 1:9; 3:14; 10:38).
For a discussion of what “he who overcomes” means in 1 John 5:4-5, see this 1995 article by me and Zane Hodges’s comments on those verses in his commentary on 1-3 John.1
1 In part Hodges writes, “Thus, the very fact of new birth is a spectacular victory accomplished by our faith. Victory over the world is, so to speak, a constituent element in whatever is born of God. It hardly needs to be said that this initial victory does not guarantee subsequent victory in Christian living. John’s point is that the victory achieved by the very fact of new birth makes obedience to God’s commands an achievable goal. His readers should not regard these commands as impossibly burdensome, but doable with God’s help (see 5:14-15 and discussion there). Neither here nor in Revelation 2 and 3 are believers regarded as automatic “overcomers” in Christian experience. The seeds of victory are found in our new birth; but, as the whole New Testament testifies, these must be nurtured until they ripen into mature, victorious Christian living” (The Epistles of John, pp. 216-17).