From the Gospel of John:
These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)
If we are to take John (or the author of the Gospel of John-- Biblical scholars would dispute its authorship) at his word, Jesus said these words on the eve of his Crucifixion. Whether John meant literally that the words were said then, I do not know. I believe tradition holds that he didn't write his Gospel down until decades later. I am not sure, but I suspect that it rarely happens that I can remember even a small part of a conversation verbatim a day, or an hour, later, let alone decades. On the other hand, especially striking phrases do sometimes linger in the memory much longer, and what Jesus says in the Gospels is almost always striking. Of course that night was the most important in John's life; John, indeed, with other Christians, believed that it was perhaps the most important night in the history of the world; so he undoubtedly thought about it a great deal and might have remembered it better than an ordinary conversation. So it is not inconceivable, though it seems improbable, that John might have remembered parts of that conversation verbatim by natural means. Christians might say, too, that John had divine help. I would certainly agree, but it is not obvious that divine help would take the form of making John's record an exact transcription of the conversation that took place. It might instead have enabled him to write a version that was of most use to Christians, or that expressed one side of the Gospel message with the utmost clarity, or that telescoped many things that Jesus said over the three years of His ministry into a single night. I think a Christian should at least be inclined to think that if the words are not a literal transcription-- and they might well be-- they are if anything even truer than that, in capturing the impression made by Jesus on the men who were closest to Him and who subsequently devoted their whole lives to Him, even unto death.
"I have overcome the world." The first thing that is striking about the phrase is how mad, how megalomaniacal, the words are, under the circumstances, from a worldly, or we may say simply from a normal or commonsense point of view. From Jesus, the son of a carpenter's wife, from Nazareth, a humble man of no wealth or position, and a member of a conquered nation, in a backward province of the Roman empire, come words that would have been vainglorious even in the mouth of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. He had, admittedly, attracted a small following, even at times large followings, people impressed by his miracles of healing, of casting out demons, of making a few loaves and fish feed multitudes, as well as by His teaching, which could be, at different times and to different people, both persuasive and off-putting. He had been welcomed into Jerusalem by crowds chanting "Hosanna" and throwing palms a week before, but these crowds were so fickle that a few days later they called for Pilate to free Barabbas, whom the Gospels call a robber (John), or a rebel and murderer (Luke), rather than Jesus. Even Peter, the most enthusiastic of Jesus's disciples, denied Him three times that night.
And yet even from a secular and historical point of view, this utterance of Jesus's gained a certain vindication in the subsequent conversion of the Roman Empire, and later in the global ascendancy of Christian Europe, which indeed persists even to this day. All that both is and is not, I think, what Jesus meant when He spoke those words. It was good that Rome converted to Christianity, and that the nations of Europe, and later of the Americas, then many in Africa, and now many millions in South Korea and China, lived in the Christian faith. And the "worldly" success, the wealth and power and scientific and artistic achievements, of Europe owed much to this Christian heritage. Yet it remained "the world" in the sense that, I think, Jesus and John mean it. What exactly Jesus/John did mean by "the world" here is not easy to say. Other references to "the world" in John 16 are almost equally opaque.
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me. But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do. Arise, let us go from here. (John 14:30-31)
If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15: 18-19)
And when He [the Helper; the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin... (John 16: 8)
I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go to the Father. (John 16:28)
I suppose the last seems straightforward: Jesus is prophesying His own death, and when the soul leaves the body it is no longer in this world. But when Jesus tells his disciples "the world will hate you," He cannot mean the world quite in the merely physical sense, for the disciples are part of the world in that sense and will not hate themselves. "The world" means society, perhaps; or the Roman Empire; or the Jewish nation with its sinews of religious identity; or, somehow, all of them in one. It is a system with its own ineffable logic, yet it has a "ruler," a reference to Satan. There is in Christianity, I think, something that is rather the opposite of Adam Smith's notion of the "invisible hand." Adam Smith thinks that the invisible hand of the market will coordinate individuals' self-interested efforts in the service of the common good, in a limited sense, and he hits on a profound truth. But there is, I think, an even more profound truth, that there is something in this world, in the self-organizing logic of human society, and also in a man's own will, that thwarts and corrupts all that is good in us. Rome was made great by justice, courage, tolerance, and love of freedom in the great days of the republic; yet it was also a slave society. According to The Holy Apostles, a book on the lives of the apostles published by the Holy Apostles Convent in Buena Vista, CO, John himself became a slave in a bath-house for a time, after being shipwrecked, but willingly, as penance for a sin:
When the lands of the earth were divided among the apostles, John was downcast when he chose the last lot, that of Asia Minor, and uttered three sighs. With tears, he fell prostrate on the ground and made reverence to all the apostles. Peter then took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: "We all have thee as a father, and they patient endurance for our support. Why has thou troubled us with this thine action and confused our hearts?'"John answered, weeping and groaning bitterly, "I have sinned, brethren; for this hour I have seen that grave perils lie before me in the sea; for, just as the lot of Asia fell to me, I received it with great heaviness, failing to call to mind our Lord Who said: '... there shall not a hair of your head perish.' For not one hair is lost without God's permission. I beseech ye, therefore, beloved brethren, pray on my behalf before the Lord, that He forgive me this sin!"
After a shipwreck, John and a companion, Prochorus, were employed in a bath-house, and later meekly submitted to be made slaves by deceit:
Now Romana [the bath-house owner] had a friend who was a lawyer and, seeking his legal opinion, she told him a lie: 'My parents reposed, leaving me two slaves who, after many years, ran away from my house. Therefore, I destroyed the certificates of their purchase. Now they have returned to my house and acknowledge themselves to be my slaves. Is it possible to draw up duplicate papers of ownership?' The attorney replied: 'If they admit now, before three trustworthy witnesses, that they were once thy slaves, it is possible to make new papers.' Through the Holy Spirit, this entire scheme was revealed to John, and he said to [Prochorus]: 'Prochorus, my child, Romana seeks for us to make a written acknowledgment that we are her slaves, and she went to see a lawyer about the matter. He has agreed to whatever she hath chosen to tell him. Now she is looking for three witnesses who will certify that we are her slaves. Therefore, let no sadness enter thine heart, but rather rejoice; for by this will our Lord Jesus Christ quickly reveal everything to this woman, as to who we are.' Just then Romana entered the bath-house and, grasping John by the arm, she began to rain blows down upon him, and said: 'Wicked servant, runaway! When thy mistress entereth, thou must greet her and do reverence! Mayhaps thou didst imagine thou wast a freeman? Know this: thou art Romana's slave!' And, once again, she slapped him to scare him, and said, 'Thou are not my servant, runaway!' And John said: 'But thou hast said otherwise, that we are thy servants. I am John the fireman, and this is Prochorus the water man.' Romana again asked: 'Whose servants are you, O wicked ones?' John answered: 'Whomever thou desirest to say.' She replied: 'That ye are mine.' John then said: 'Written down or not, we admit that we are thy servants.' Then she quickly said: 'I want it in writing before three witnesses.' John told her: 'Do not tarry; let us take care of the matter today.' She then took us before the temple of Artemis and, in the presence of three witnesses, she wrote out our papers of sale. Then we [John and Prochorus] returned to our work.
I don't know where this story comes from or how reliable it is, but the thought of the Apostle John, 'the disciple Jesus loved,' who leaned his head on Jesus's breast at the last supper ("Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved," John 13:23), the first man (but there were women before) to see the graveclothes of the Resurrected Lord, reduced to this, to what, as far as the world was concerned, would be a lifetime of toil in a Roman bath-house, submitting to beatings and humiliations at the hands of a petty cheat of a tradeswoman, is one of the saddest scenes I can imagine. Of course, John seems not to have been discouraged by it, according to the story. Yet if John had indeed been a slave, it might explain the anti-Roman and anti-wordly flavor of John's writings. John had seen the world as it looks from the very bottom. "The meek shall inherit the earth" and "blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4-5) are sublime. Yet the broken-hearted might find still greater comfort in the transcendental simplicity of the Gospel of John's "I have overcome the world."