These verses are at first difficult to understand. John addresses what looks to be three groups of people and commends/exhorts them for three different aspects of Christianity that are true of each. He then repeats the process while slightly altering the commendations. Why he does this at this point in the letter and who exactly he addresses are the issues that must be explored.
It appears that this text is a parenthesis. John has written some difficult truths to his readers and is about to write many more. Perhaps he chooses this point to pause and remind his audience why they are able to keep what he is commanding and why there is no excuse for failing to live up to the standards he lays out. It is as if he says, “Here is why I can say that if you know Him you will keep His commandments and that if you abide in Him you will walk in the same manner as He walked. It is also why you can love your brother.” He wants to both encourage and exhort them with the fundamentals of the faith. He does not want them to forget the rich privileges they have in Christ or that along with those privileges come responsibilities.
The converse of this is also true. If these things are NOT true of his readers – or of us – then it makes no sense to tell them to walk as Jesus walked or to keep His commandments. It is a waste of time to tell them not to love the world – as he is about to do – because that would be impossible. He wants them to know he assumes these three facts are true of them because if they are not, much of what he writes is meaningless to them.
Who exactly he addresses here is up for debate. Numerous opinions exist and no one view is definitive. What probably makes the most sense is that he really addresses two different groups in the church – fathers and young men – instead of three. In this case little children (and children) refers to all Christians (as it does in 2:1, 2:28, and other places in the book), and fathers and young men are sub-groups within children. [Two different Greek words are used for little children and children but most commentators agree the same group is referenced by both.]
If this view is accepted, the next question becomes who is meant by fathers and young men? Two choices are available: mature Christians versus new Christians OR older (in age) Christians versus younger Christians (men is not to be limited to males). In this case it may not make much difference which view is preferred as the effect on the message is minimal; however, what seems probable is that these groups as separated by age rather than maturity in the faith.
What must not be missed in the debate over who these groups represent, however, is that the truths he writes about each one are in fact true of all believers. Similar to the Beatitudes where Jesus lays out specific truths about each that are actually true of all, what John says about fathers is just as true for the young men and vice versa. He wants to emphasize certain things about each group, but he does not intend for one group to claim a characteristic that is only true of them and no one else. The letter as a whole in its explanation of the privileges of belief makes this clear.
John’s purpose in breaking out the groups at all is also up for conjecture. One possibility might be that he wants his readers to know he is writing to everyone. No one is to think he is excluded from the doctrine laid out in the letter. Also, since he refers to the group as a whole several times perhaps he wants to make sure the various sub-groups in the church know he acknowledges their existence and knows that different people are in various stages of life. He does not want them to think he is unaware of differences in knowledge and experience or think that everyone is the same “little child” as everyone else.
One other item to note. John changes verb tense when he admonishes them a second time. In the first round of three he says, “I am writing…” In the second round he changes to, “I have written…” (The NIV does not show this and uses present tense throughout). The reason for the change is unknown. Interestingly, he continues to say “I have written…” throughout the remainder of the book. Most believe this is simply a literary device and not a change in what letter he refers to.
Why does John repeat the truths? No one knows for sure, but perhaps it is simply to emphasize them. Good teaching often includes repetition for the sake of memory. John wants to make sure his readers get these truths because they are vital. And vital truths bear repeating.
Truth #1 – Your Sins are Forgiven
John tells the little children – all believers – that he writes to them because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake. What is the most basic fundamental of the faith? That we are forgiven. This is foundational for every Christian. Nothing that John writes or Jesus taught is relevant unless we first understand that through Christ we are forgiven. It is impossible to live the Christian life without assurance of forgiveness. John makes sure to remind his spiritual children of this.
This goes along perfectly with what he said at the beginning of this chapter – I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. He wants them not to sin so he encourages them that the penalty for their sin has already been paid. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins and He is our Advocate with the Father. And because of His propitiation, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We are able not to sin because sin has been conquered. You can fight because there is hope in the fight. Your sins are forgiven, so do not sin!
Note the reason why our sins are forgiven – for His name’s sake. Not because of our actions. Not because we earned it. We do not have to worry if our sins really ARE forgiven because whether or not they are does not depend on us. We are forgiven because of HIM. And there is great comfort in that. Our forgiveness does not depend on unstable and imperfect human behavior. It is accomplished in the work of Christ. This is the basis of our certainty and assurance; we are forgiven because of the perfect, the finished, the full work of the Lord Jesus Christ on our behalf. Christians know that their sins are forgiven, not because they bank loosely and vaguely upon the love of God, still less because they rest upon the hope of their own good lives and merits or their own good works. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 58.)
Truth #2 – You Know God
The second truth is true of both children and fathers. Fathers know Him who has been from the beginning. Children know the Father. All believers know God and know the Savior and can call God Father. This is part of abiding in Him and abiding in the light that John discussed in the first eleven verses of this chapter. We KNOW God and we KNOW the Savior. His Spirit indwells us and enables us to become more like Him. We abide in Him and He in us and we know Him more and more through the Spirit’s work. We know Him as a child uniquely knows his father. And we know He knows us because He created us and He numbers the very hairs of our head (Matt 10:30).
As we know Him more we love Him more. As we love Him more we obey Him more. Remember that John said when we keep His word His love is perfected in us (2:5). As we mature in our walk we increasingly obey as our love grows out of our knowledge of Him. Love perfected is a picture of a maturing believer. Knowing leads to obedience.
Interesting, is it not, that John chooses to emphasize knowing God when he directs his comments to his older readers? Does it not make sense that the longer we walk with God the more we know Him? Is it not a great privilege of age that one can enjoy the fruits of a long communion with God that is much less attainable for the young? Also, does not age – hopefully – have a way of winnowing out what is less important in life and leaving what is truly worthwhile – knowing and enjoying God? As mentioned above, these truths are not limited to the group John connects them to, but that does not mean they are not more naturally associated with one group than another.
Truth #3 – You Have Overcome the Evil One
Lastly, John tells the young men that they have overcome the evil one. Note the verb tense. He does not say they ARE overcoming the evil one or that they WILL overcome the evil one. He says they HAVE overcome the evil one. This is similar to the first truth regarding forgiveness of sin. Christ conquered sin. We are in Christ. Therefore we are no longer under the power of sin. We are no longer slaves to sin. We HAVE overcome the evil one because Christ’s work on the cross enabled us to have victory over sin as soon as we believed.
Are we completely free from sin? Absolutely not. Remember that John just said, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). But we do not HAVE to sin. The one in the darkness does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes (2:11). He is enslaved and cannot choose not to sin. But we abide in the light. And if we abide in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1:7). We can put on the full armor of God, and stand firm against the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11). We can resist the devil and he will flee from us (James 4:7).
John clarifies this third truth when he repeats it at the end of verse 14. He says of the young, “…you are strong, and the word of God abides in you.” What typifies those who overcome the evil one? They are strong. How are they strong? The word of God abides in them (abides – John loves this word – the word of God abides in them – ongoing and growing, totally incorporated into their lives – it lives in them – they are drenched in the word and their character is molded by it). The word is what provides the strength. Are they strong in and of themselves? No – they are strong because of the word of God. How did Jesus respond to the three temptations of the devil? He quoted scripture to refute each one (Matt 4:1-11). The word of God is our strength against the evil one.
How is it our strength? The word is what tells us about sin. The word is what tells us about salvation and Christ’s work. The word is God’s will revealed to us. The Spirit works through the word to teach us about the Father and make us more like Him. As we become more like Him – abiding in Him and His word abiding in us – we become stronger against the evil one. The word is the Sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6) – the weapon in our arsenal to ward off the slings and arrows of the evil one.
John’s truth for the young men (for all believers) is that you do not have to sin because you have overcome the evil one. While it appears that the war is raging, in actuality your side has already won. You are strong in Christ and in His word – do not act as if you are enslaved to something you are not. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin (Rom 6:5-7).
So what do we do when faced with the temptations and rewards of this world? What do we do when we are discouraged about our walk with the Father and it seems like He sets an impossible standard? What do we do when the Enemy condemns us and tells us we have no hope and that we will never measure up so just throw in the towel and live for ourselves? We remember John’s parenthesis. Our sins are forgiven. We know God as our Father. We have overcome the evil one. We do not have to sin and we do not have to lose hope and we do not have to carry the burdens of our past. Our sins are forgiven. We know God. We have overcome the evil one. We have no excuse for not walking in the light as He is in the light. We have no excuse for not walking in the same manner as He walked. We have no excuse for not loving our brother. We have no excuse for not keeping His commandments. Our sins are forgiven. We know God. We have overcome the evil one.
These truths are not only for the giants of the faith. They are for all of us who walk in the light. They are personal. WE are the little children and the fathers and the young men. WE can claim what John says for ourselves.
Our sins are forgiven. We know God. We have overcome the evil one.