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9. Overcoming Evil with Good

– Chapter 9 –

Overcoming Evil with Good

You have taken away the key of knowledge

In Luke 11:52 we see Jesus’ strong denunciation of lawyers:

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter your­selves, and you hindered those who were entering. (ESV)

Who were the lawyers whom Jesus denounced in such strong terms? They were the specialists in the Old Testament law, a law which gov­erned every facet of Jewish life, including what one may eat. It had detailed regula­t­ions on marriage, business transactions, the buying and selling of land, and even dealings between Jews and Gentiles. These lawyers were sim­ilar to modern lawyers except that they were experts in the Torah of the Hebrew Bible rather than British or American law.

Why did the Lord Jesus denounce them so strongly? It is because they had “taken away the key of knowledge.” They weren’t using the key to get in, yet were hindering those who wanted to get in.

The question of entering in, or not entering in, has a lot to do with the topic of commitment. You may be an expert in the Bible (as were the law­yers) but that doesn’t mean you have made a com­mit­ment to God. Many theolog­ians find them­selves in a similar situation today: Des­pite their head know­ledge, they have not entered into, or allowed others to enter into, a knowledge of God.

The meaning of “know”

In the Bible, the word “know” or “knowledge” doesn’t mean intell­ect­ual knowledge. Knowledge in the Bible is not mental know­ledge but exper­ie­ntial knowledge. Know­ing God is not just knowing about God but having a living relationship with Him. We are so ac­customed to taking “know” in the intellectual or cognitive sense that we often fail to see its biblical meaning.

You may know about Angela Merkel in terms of her biograph­ical de­tails — that she was born in West Germany, that she grew up in East Ger­many, that she became Chancellor of Germany — but that doesn’t mean that you know her directly and personally.

Jesus was telling the lawyer-theologians that they had the key to know­ing God, yet didn’t use it to enter into a relationship with God. More than that, they hindered others from entering into a know­ledge of God. Maybe they hindered them by setting a poor moral example for them. Maybe they didn’t know God person­ally and weren’t able to introduce others to God. Or maybe they didn’t want others to know God, for it would be embarrassing for them if the ordinary people had a living relat­ionship with God and they didn’t.

Whether you enter or don’t enter into a living relationship with God is ultimately an issue of commitment. Commit­ment is not merely an intell­ectual assent by which you say, “I believe this and accept that.” We don’t normally speak of intellectual knowledge as an “entering in,” but we do view commitment as an “entering in,” for exam­ple, entering into the com­mitment of marriage. “Entering in” has to do with action, motion, and commitment.

What is the key of knowledge?

If you have the key of knowledge yet don’t enter in, you are in the same situation as the lawyers. Having the key of knowledge places a heavy responsibility on you before God.

A key is vital because without it, you cannot open a door unless it is already open or someone opens it for you. If you insert the key and turn it, you will get in. If you don’t insert the key, or if you don’t have the key, you won’t get in.

So why didn’t the lawyers use the key if they had it? Because it in­volved a high cost. When you are entering in, there are certain things you cannot take along with you. It is harder for a rich man to enter the king­dom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It takes total transform­ation to enter the kingdom because we normally do not abandon the things we like. Yet there were certain things the lawyers didn’t want to leave behind. Likewise, most of us want to bring along our old sins and habits when we enter into commit­ment. If we are told to ab­an­don the things we don’t want to give up, we wouldn’t be so keen to go in. You may have the key yet you don’t want to leave some things behind. It is tragic when some­one knows how to enter into a living relat­ionship with God, yet refuses to make use of that know­ledge.

When you take an international flight and go through airport inspect­ion, some­times you worry if you can bring in certain goods that you have paid good money for. One time I was returning to Canada with some presents. I had a pack of the highest quality dried meat that I had bought while passing through Taiwan. At that time, I didn’t know enough about customs regulations; and on that particu­lar trip, I had to pass through Hawaii en route to Canada. And do you know what hap­pened? My heart sank when the customs officer took my beautiful bag of dried meat, the lovely present I was going to give to someone, and threw it into the gar­bage bin right in front of me! I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m not visiting the United States. Just give it back to me, and I’ll go by another way!” Of course I couldn’t do that. I learned the hard way that you can­not bring certain foods into or through the United States. The same would have happened in Canada, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Similarly, when entering the kingdom of God, we need to look at the things that are precious to us. We have spent considerable time and effort acquiring them, and feel that they are inherent­ly good. There are other things we don’t mind leaving behind because they are obviously bad and shouldn’t be brought in. That part doesn’t bother us, and we don’t make a fuss over them. In deciding whether to take the step of com­mitment, the things that are most problematic to us are the things that we feel are not inher­ently bad, so we don’t under­stand why we’re not allowed to take them along.

I am still wondering what was wrong with the bag of delic­ious meat. And before you toss it into the bin, at least let me have some of it right on the spot. In the matter of commitment, many people are like that. “Before I make my commitment, I will enjoy the world a bit more before it’s too late.” We have many personal reasons for not entering into commitment.

Self-centeredness versus loving God

What then is the key of knowledge? The clues are found in the words key and knowledge. Jesus doesn’t explicitly say what the key of know­ledge is, but from the word knowledge it is con­nected to something the law­yers knew very well: the teach­ing of the Bible. In fact these lawyers had a specialist knowledge of the Bible. Since this knowledge is a key, and since the Bible is the word of God, the key of knowledge opens the door for entering into a relationship with God.

The key of knowledge is loving God with one’s whole being. That is in fact the sum and essence of the whole Law, as Deuteronomy and the gospels tell us. The lawyers knew this well. They knew that the law isn’t really about fulfill­ing this or that regulation, but about loving God with one’s whole being. But did they love God totally? As we see in Jesus’ denunc­iation of the lawyers and Pharisees in Matthew 23, they were lovers of self, not lovers of God.

It is absolutely vital for us to leave behind the love of the self — the dominant controlling factor in our lives since the day we were born — and to enter into a life character­ized by love for God. How else can we taste and see that the Lord is good?

We have to pass from evil to good. What then is evil and what is good? We now see that evil, in biblical teaching, is the self-centered­ness which is so much a part of our nat­ure. We often justify our self-centered­ness by say­ing that it is necessary in life and that we need to be realistic, having our feet planted firmly on the ground and not our heads lost in the clouds. But no matter how we justify it, self-centered­ness is ultimately looking out for number one: me.

This way of thinking has been controlling us all our lives. We in­stinct­ively put ourselves and our interests above those of everyone else. Our minds have been trained to think: “My interests are more import­ant than yours. In a choice between you and me, I always choose me. It is not in my nature to be self-giving because that would put my inter­ests below those of God and His people.”

As I said, we cannot pass from evil to good by our­selves because that is not in our nature. Christianity is not a “religion” in the usual sense of the word. Every religion tells you to do good, but the problem is that we often don’t know what is the good. The gulf between good and evil is so vast that you cannot pass from evil to good except through a radical trans­formation. Your whole life has to change totally from being self-centered to being God-centered.

In the Bible, evil is not necessarily an act of murder or adult­ery. The root of evil is the love of self. The love of self expresses itself, for exam­ple, in the love of money. If you don’t love the self, you wouldn’t love money. But you love money because money can do many things for the self. The love of self is the root of all evil, for it gives rise to all other sins. Why does a person rob? He doesn’t care if the victim loses his life savings so long as “I” get the mo­ney. Why does a person slander? What does he gain from it? Nothing, unless by destroying someone’s reputa­tion, he gains some­thing for him­self.

A good act is not necessarily good

When the Bible talks about good and evil, and when Pharisees talk about good and evil, and when the world religions talk about good and evil, the meaning is not the same. We must not be misled by the simil­arity of words.

If I give money to the poor, is it a good act? Yes, according to most religions. But according to the Bible, not necessarily so. But isn’t helping the poor always good? It is not necessarily good because it may have been motiv­ated by pride, selfishness, or ulterior motives. The act may appear good but not so in God’s eyes if it is motivated by self-love. Having a good feeling from a moral deed doesn’t make it a good deed. The Bible has a deeper definition of good than we can find anywhere else.

The scribes and Pharisees knew the Law. As we saw in Deuter­ono­my 30, the Law forces us to choose between good and evil, life and death, bless­ings and a curse. The scribes and Pharisees knew that the key to life is choos­ing good and loving God with our whole being. But what did these lawyer-theologians do? They aban­doned this vital truth and took away the key, by redefining good and evil in terms of keeping or not keeping the Law! In this new definition, keeping the Law is good, not keeping the Law is evil. This is something that Jesus severely condemns.

With this definition, when someone does a good act, he is good, for goodness has been defined as acts of good. This has led many to believe that you only need to keep the Law to be saved. If the Law tells you not to work on the Sabbath, you don’t work on the Sabbath. If the Law tells you not to eat pork, you don’t eat pork. If you don’t eat pork or work on the Sabbath, you are good. But it doesn’t take a deep think­er to see that refraining from eating pork doesn’t prove that one is good. Good is not the sum total of good deeds.

In the Bible, good is defined not by what you do but what you are. That is the essence of the key of knowledge! What you are depends on whether you love God with all your heart and whether He is the center of your life. If you are good, everything you do will be good. A good tree produces good fruit but a bad tree produces bad fruit (Mt.7:17-18; Lk. 6:43-44). When you break open a seemingly good fruit from a bad tree, you may find worms inside. Doing good deeds doesn’t prove that you are good. In God’s sight, our good deeds are not good unless they stem from a good nature.

Here we see conflicting definitions of good. The scribes and lawy­ers equate good with good deeds, and define good deeds in terms of doing the Law. The Lord Jesus rejects this teaching because it means that one can do good deeds without being committed to good or to God who is the source and essence of good.

When I was a non-Christian, I did many good deeds and every­one thought I was a nice guy. If a poor guy got bullied, I would beat up the bully. It made me feel good to rescue the weak and down­trodden, but my good deeds only catered to my pride and ego. At that time, I didn’t know that good is not the sum total of good deeds.

The words may be the same but the substance is different. When you talk to people about being a Christian, they would often say, “But every religion tells you to do good.” Even Satan will tell you to do good for he disguises himself as an angel of light (2Cor.11:14). Would an angel of light, even if he is an imposter, tell you to do evil? Satan will tell you to do good because it will make you feel good, or feel that you are moral by your own power, and this could lead to your down­fall.

Grasp the vital difference: Good, when taught in the wrong way, can destroy you by catering to your pride. Some of the most difficult people to reach with the gospel are the moral people who feel that they are good and don’t need the gospel. Religion is the worst enemy of spirituality.

Whereas religion is mere morality, spirituality has to do with our relat­ion­ship with God. What we are promoting is not mere morality but a relat­ionship with a God who is good and transforms us from evil to good. All this is achieved by God’s work, which is why salvation is by grace. Baptism is not about joining a religion or even the Christian religion, but proclaim­ing that we have died to the self-centered life so that God alone is now the center of our lives.

The power to “overcome” evil

We have looked at the motivation of commit­ment, and this takes us back to Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” Because theology can be abstract, I am using the language of good and evil to make things easy to grasp. If you understand the biblical meaning of good and evil — a theme that spans the Bible from Genesis to Revelation — you will have come a long way towards under­standing the deep things of the Bible. In Romans 12:21 we see Paul’s skill in presenting profound truths in simple language.

Let us look at the word “overcome” in Romans 12:21 (“over­come evil with good”). If we grasp this word, we will under­stand the deep things of theology. I touched on this topic when I pointed out that the Bible speaks of a dualism between good and evil — between God and Satan — but it is not an absolute dualism. That is because God is always in control.

In living the Christian life, it is crucial for us to know that God is always in control. Because His power is overwhelmingly superior to Satan’s, good will always be able to overcome evil. I stress “be able to” because good doesn’t necessarily overcome evil in real life even though it is able to. That is be­cause you and I might not be working on the side of good. If you cooper­ate with evil, evil will triumph over good in your life.

But Satan will never triumph over God because God’s plan can never be defeated. The Bible speaks of God’s predeter­mined plan of salva­tion, which is the essence of predestination. Biblical predestinat­ion is differ­ent from Calvinistic predestina­tion but I won’t dis­cuss it at this time. Biblical predestin­ation is possible because good is always more powerful than evil, for God is more powerful than the evil one. Satan can never frus­trate God’s predes­tined plan. Predestination is God’s plan for the world, for mankind, for you and me, and no power of evil can ever defeat it.

“Nike” and life

God’s overwhelming power is seen in the tiny word “over­come”. It is not a tiny word in English but it is tiny in Greek: nikē has only four letters. I would like you to focus on nikē, not because I own any shares in the Nike sports company (I don’t own any), but because this Greek word means triumph, victory, and overcoming.

We can understand nikē from two angles: God overcom­ing the evil one by His goodness, and our over­coming evil with good by God’s power. These are the two sides of the coin though the latter involves our cooperation and co-working with God.

Salvation is achieved when God overcomes evil with His good­ness. We were formerly under the power of the evil one, but God has set us free by His power and opened for us a way to enter into His life and goodness. This is salvation in a nut­shell. The New Testa­ment speaks of God’s good­ness on several levels. Paul says:

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19, NIV)

This passage may seem difficult but it boils down to this: good­ness is obed­ience whereas evil is disobedience. Goodness stems not from a good act but from a good person. Ultimately the con­trast is not be­tween an act of obed­ience and an act of disobedience but between a good person and a bad person. Jesus is the good person whose act of obed­ience overcomes an act of disobedience by a bad person, namely Adam who was self-cen­tered and wanted to be equal with God. Adam did not commit sins such as stealing or murder but he sinned by dis­obeying God out of his self-centeredness.

The goodness in Christ overcomes the evil in Adam. Good is so much more powerful than evil that there is no balance between the two powers. Romans 5 says that God’s goodness is “much more” than a match for evil. In the whole chapter, the powerful phrase “much more” occurs sev­eral times, for example: “Since we have now been just­ified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom.5:9)

Three metaphors of overcoming

The Bible has several metaphors for good overcoming evil. The good of God overcomes the evil of Satan on several levels. In all these meta­phors, nikē brings out the aspect of overpowering. If you defeat your adversary in a court of law, or in athletic com­petition, or in military combat, the Bible would describe that as nikē (overcoming), which is the word used in Romans 12:21.

The most powerful example of nikē is the resurrection, by which life overcomes death. Death and evil are the two sides of a coin, as are life and good. When we say that good overcomes evil, we are saying that life overcomes death. That is resurrection! Baptism signi­fies life over­coming death, and the new life in Christ overcoming the old self. Paul combines these metaphors in his letter to the Colossians:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncir­cum­cision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. (Colossians 2:13, ESV)

This is a metaphor yet more than a metaphor, for Paul is talking about life overcoming death. You were dead in your trans­gressions when you were controlled by the flesh, which is self-centered by nature. But this death has been overcome in Christ by the power of the resur­rect­ion at baptism.

The first metaphor, then, is that of life overcoming death. The second metaphor is seen in the next verse: “… by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col.2:14, ESV)

This is a legal metaphor. When you are living in sin, there is a legal claim on you, just as a creditor who lends you money has a legal claim on you over your debt. The Bible depicts sin as debt; com­pare “forgive us our debts” (Mt.6:12) and “forgive us our sins” (Lk.11:4).

At the cross Jesus overcame evil, broke the bondage that kept us in debt, and set the captives free. Your debt which kept you in the grip and power of the evil one, has been overcome by the cross of Jesus Christ, who canceled the debt by his goodness and mercy.

In the Old Testament, “atonement” comes from a Hebrew word which means to cover. The sin of disobedience is covered by an act of righteous­ness, not in the sense of its being hidden but in the sense of its being cancelled. When we say that a debt is covered by a payment, we mean exactly that. We don’t mean that the debt is hidden from sight.

The third metaphor is seen in yet the next verse, Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triu­m­phing over them in him.” This is a war metaphor because “disarmed” has to do with weapons. This is nikē in war. Whereas the previous metaphor has to do with overcoming an adversary in a court of law (the cross of Christ can­cels our debt and gives us legal victory), now God has won the war against evil by defeating the hostile powers that kept us in bondage.

Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 11 all have an interest­ing story of a strong man, Satan, who is overpowered by someone even stronger. In Lk.11:22, “overpowered” (nikaō) is the verb form of nikē. God’s work in Christ defeats a most formidable enemy, Satan, and gives us victory over the power of evil.

God’s unfathomable goodness

It is one thing to understand these things intellectually but another to experience them. Have you experienced the transit­ion from death to life? Have your legal bonds been broken by God’s power? Have you been set free from Satan by entering into a commitment that has God as the center of your life? In all this, we see God’s commitment to us in His setting us free. His wonderful goodness to us never fails to boggle my mind:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom.8:32)

Why is it so hard for us to commit to God when He is so good to us? If God did not spare His only Son but gave him up for you and me, will He not together with Christ “gracious­ly” give us all things? Will God hold back anything that is good for you?

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt.7:11, ESV)

Parents think they are giving good things to their child­ren when in fact these things may be ruining them. But God doesn’t make that kind of mistake because He knows what is good for us. We don’t always know what is good for others, and we sometimes mess up peo­ple’s lives with our good intentions. But will God withhold from us anything that is truly good for us? If you have trouble committing to a God who is willing to give His Son for your sake, you will have trou­ble commit­ting to any­one in the world.

Paul speaks with triumphant confidence in God’s love in Christ: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:35) No one can separ­ate us from Christ’s love and his com­mitment to us except we our­selves. Yet so many Christians are living in spiritual pov­erty. God with­holds spir­itual riches from those who refuse to commit, or else they will never arrive at commit­ment. That would be the greatest disas­ter of all, for it would mean that God confirms them in their destruction.

More than conquerors

God has overcome evil and He calls us to overcome evil with His good (Rom.12:21). All good comes from God, hence it is only by His good that we overcome evil. Romans 12:21 sums up the essence of the Christian life. Paul is a master teacher, yet most of his readers don’t understand what he teaches. The Christian life is about victory. It is a marvelous life, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by looking at most Christians today, who are crawling on hands and knees.

I once saw on television a runner trying to finish an Olympic marathon. I don’t know if you have seen that terrible inci­dent. When you com­pete in a marathon, you must pace yourself ac­cording to your stami­na so that you can make it to the end. But this runner pressed him­self too hard in the beginning, so he staggered in the last lap and collapsed less than 100 yards from the finish line. He got back on his feet and staggered for another 10 or 15 feet before collapsing again. The specta­tors were shout­ing, “You’re almost there!” He got back up on his feet and staggered back and forth like a drunk­ard, falling again and again. No one could assist him because that would dis­qualify him. The spectators could only watch this poor man from their seats. Mill­ions more around the world were watch­ing this wrenching struggle. In the end, he didn’t make it, falling short of the finish line by a few yards. He got up one last time and col­lapsed. He just couldn’t make it.

I wonder how many Christians are struggling like that. Your heart goes out to them for this is not the Christian life. Romans 8:37 says “we are more than conquerors” or “we overwhelm­ingly conquer”. It is good to conquer, but Paul says we are to overwhelm­ingly conquer.

Some time ago, a church in Hong Kong was offering some­thing called “S.T.” I asked what it stood for and was told that it stood for Survival Training. I asked why it was called Survival Training and they said, “Because it is important to survive spiritually.” I agree it is important to survive spiritually, but if I read my Bible correctly, the Christian life is not about survival but about overwhelming victory! Is it because we lack the confidence to win that we talk of survival?

If you aim for a C in an exam, you might get a D. It may be better to aim for an A and get a B. My point is that if you aim only for survival, you might not even survive. I don’t want to criticize the term Survival Train­ing. I do recognize that it is important to survive, but we have to go beyond that, for when we commit to our all-conquering God, we aim for victory, not just survival.

The word nikē (victory, overcoming) occurs frequently in Revelat­ion, the last book of the Bible, in a way that stands in stark contrast to the runner who started the marathon beauti­fully but collapsed in the final and most critical lap in which most runners go flat out. To use the lang­uage of driving, the people in the book of Revelation open up the throttle, pressing their feet to the floorboard.

Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be like that? I am afraid that the last lap is where many Christians will fail. But how does the Bible con­clude? With a flat-out run in the last lap! In the New Testament, the word nikē occurs most often in Revelation. In this final book of the Bible, the verb form of nikē (nikaō, to overcome, Rom.12:21) occurs 16 times in the Greek text of Revelation, which is more than in the rest of the New Testament combined. That is how the Christian life ought to be lived, from strength to strength, and victory to victory!

God has given us the power not just to survive but to run the last lap. Live the Christian life such that even if you’re going full speed now, when you reach the last lap, you leave the best for last! Paul’s life is trium­phant all the way. Did he ever say, “I am close to the finish line, so please drag me through the final few yards.”? His last words in the Bible are:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteous­ness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day. (2Tim.4:7-8, ESV)

You can see the joy beaming in Paul’s face. Can you finish the race like that? Only with faith and total commitment can you live a victor­ious and dynamic life that overcomes.

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