1 John 2:12-14 | But I Digress…

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image by coba

If there’s one thing any self-respecting preacher should be good at, it’s the ability to digress. I’m sure you’ve heard a few diversions from the pew. One minute the speaker’s following the inner-logic of the message, the next minute he’s off on some tangent.

John does that exact thing in these verses. One minute he’s locked in debate against the false teachers who had infiltrated his community, the next minute he’s encouraging his congregation to remember the benefits of following Christ.

In the hands of a wise pastor, there’s nothing wrong with a good digression.

. . .

Let’s start by examining the structure of these verses. John wrote two rhythmic sets of three statements that read like poetry. Here’s the first set (my sloppy summary):

  1. I am writing to you, children: your sins are forgiven
  2. I am writing to you, fathers: you know Jesus who is from the beginning
  3. I am writing to you, young people: you have conquered Evil

The second set is very similar:

  1. I am writing to you, children: you know the Father
  2. I am writing to you, fathers: you know Jesus who is from the beginning
  3. I am writing to you, young people: you are strong and God’s word abides in you (and you have conquered the evil one)

The word that joins the addressee with the statement is hoti, which can be translated as either because or that. The NIV and NRSV use because, but as Kruse points out, that makes a little more contextual sense. John is not writing to these people because of the reasons he lists—he’s writing to encourage them to remember the benefits of following Christ.

. . .

The next thing we need to do is identify the people John’s talking to. Commentators don’t seem to agree on this, so I’ll give you the options, and then share what I believe is the best interpretation. There’s two questions to answer:

  1. Who are the children, fathers, and young people?
  2. Do the words indicate spiritual maturity or physical age?

Here’s some answers:

  1. Stott: there are three distinct groups of people here, listed according to their spiritual maturity.
  2. Bultmann & Kruse: children refers to the church in general, while fathers and young people refer to two physical age groups.

I agree with Bultmann & Kruse on one. First, John used two different words for children here (one in each set of three statements): teknia and paidia. Elsewhere in this letter, John used each of those words to refer to his church in general. It’s logical to assume he means the same thing here. Incidentally, Luther and Calvin took this view. Second, the two remaining groups likely refer to physical age (not spiritual acumen) because the words patēres (fathers) and neaniskoi (young people) are only used elsewhere in scripture to refer to physical age.

Now that we understand the structure and the references in the poem, let’s draw some applications.

. . .

To the children (all believers):

  • Your sins are forgiven because of his name
  • You know the Father

John is summarizing here what he explained in a few verses ago: Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (2:2, NRSV). This truth is the foundation of our new life. We know God the Father, because our sins are forgiven by Jesus.

To the fathers (older people):

  • You know Jesus, who is from the beginning (repeated twice)

John offered his senior’s group a little reminder: Jesus is the one who is from the beginning. He is the ultimate senior citizen, and you know him!

To the young people:

  • You have conquered the evil one (repeated twice)
  • You are strong
  • God’s word abides in you

This is the most exciting section for me (not just because I think it’s the category I best fall into)! The emphasis here is that the young people have conquered the evil one. Two things strike me as important.

First, conquered is in the perfect tense. John didn’t say that you will conquer or that you are conquering. He said that you have conquered the evil one. How often do people get caught up in modern spiritual warfare trends, trying to shout down the devil, when our victory is a matter of fact, not lung power!

Second, the word one from evil one isn’t there in the Greek text. Instead, the word evil is substantive. Have you ever heard someone described by their attribute? Here comes stinky, or Hey beautiful! That’s the case here. Satan is wholly characterized by his chief attribute: evil. And we have conquered him.

The reason our victory is a matter of fact is because God’s word abides in us, which makes us strong. Samson had long hair, Popeye had spinach, and we have God’s word.

An encouraging digression, indeed.

< 1 John 2:9-11 | Love Ain’t Blind

1 John 2:15-17 | Mixed Messages >

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