12 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one
I write to you, children, because you know the Father.
14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. (1 John 2:12-14)
In our last three lessons, covering 1 John 1:5-2:11, you may have picked up on the fact that John’s humility does not equate to weakness of conviction. He has already dropped some uncompromising truth in our laps and your head may be throbbing by now if you wonder if you are passing the tests of faith. Yes, the tests are for the purpose of bringing assurance to true believers, and though they are offered with the apostle’s tender concern for his readers, they may still have knocked the wind out of those who question their faith. (“Do I really love the brethren? I don’t know!”) Our passage this week gives us a pause as John transitions from his challenging exhortations to gentle words of affirmation and consolation.
Much of 1:5-2:11 is written in the third person, giving hypothetical examples of the beliefs and behavior of those who do and do not believe (“if we say,” “whoever keeps”). John now switches to the second person, speaking directly to his readers, emphasizing their own experience of their faith as evidence that they are indeed in Christ. Note the confidence in each “because,” (which might also be translated, “that” with equal conviction). “John is laying emphasis on the assured standing into which every Christian has come, whatever his stage of spiritual development.”
Our first question as we read through our passage is: who is John addressing? The three groups he names in 12-14 are (little) children, fathers, and young men. So, the question becomes: are these different age groups in the sense of differing stages of life, or spiritual maturity, or is John emphasizing different characteristics which all Christians share? Let’s take a closer look.
What characteristics does he ascribe to each group? He writes to the children because their sins are forgiven for his (Jesus’) sake and because they know the Father. He writes to the fathers because they know him who is from the beginning. He writes to the young men because they have overcome the evil one, are strong, and the word of God abides in them.
Elsewhere in this very epistle, John attributes these characteristics to believers—including himself! “We” are those whose sins are forgiven when we confess to our faithful and just God, those who know him, who have knowledge, who abide in the Son and in the Father because what we heard from the beginning abides in us, who are beloved children of God, and we are those who overcome the world because of our faith in he who is greater in us than he who is in the world (1:9; 2:3-5, 20, 24; 3:1; 4:4; 5:4).
These characteristics/exhortations are found throughout the New Testament. To know God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ is to have eternal life (John 17:1-3); forgiveness of sins and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the gift given only to those who are called by God and therefore believe (Acts 2:38); when Paul describes his readers as overcomers of evil he is addressing believers in the church in Rome (Rom. 12:21); the admonition to be strong in the Lord in order to stand against the devil was also addressed to believers, this time in Ephesus (Eph. 6:10-11); and it is those who are born again who have the Word of God abiding in them (1 Peter 1:23). Paul’s prayer for the believers in Colossae hits several of the attributes in our passage, and would be a worthy addition to our own prayers for our own churches, families, and even ourselves:
May (you) be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:9-14)
Clearly the Apostle is telling us that these truths of the Christian life and of the Christian faith must be understood by all of us. . . . we must realize that not only the little children are to know that their sins are forgiven—all Christians must know that. It is not only the fathers who know that from the beginning, all Christians should know it. It is not only the young men who overcome the wicked one; that is to be true of all Christians.
Douglas O’Donnell sees in these distinctions (children, fathers, and young men) differing levels of relationship with the Father,and John Stott and Martin Lloyd-Jones see differing stages of spiritual development. These are slightly different, but interwoven ideas, for as we grow in our spiritual development, our relationship with our heavenly Father also changes and grows. But how do we understand this?
Think, for example, of an infant. An infant doesn’t understand, nor can she articulate her relationship to her mother, but she knows who her mother is. Among all who may hold her, it is her own mother’s touch, voice, and even smell which she recognizes and desires above all others. As she grows from infancy into childhood she begins to understand her relationship to her mother as unique among all her other relationships, and her love grows from an instinct into sweet devotion. As the child grows, her mother teaches her to obey, which is not always easy, for foolishness is bound up in childish hearts. The teen may bristle or even flat-out rebel against the loving limitations which her mother sets for her, seeing only the constraints and not the wisdom behind them. Suspicion of her mother’s motives may taint her love and trust if she listens to the voices of those who would lead her astray. But once she matures into young womanhood, she learns to recognize the depth of her mother’s love and see the wisdom of what she was taught as coming from a heart of loving concern. As she seeks to imitate her mother, she grows not only in strength of conviction because of the wisdom she has learned, but also in her trust of, love for, and resemblance to her mother.
These are the stages of growth and relationship which I believe John is describing in his poem. The infant Christian is no less of a child of God than the mature Christian, but the mature Christian has grown in understanding her relationship to the Father through many toils and tribulations, and therefore knows her Father more deeply and is strengthened by the journey with a mature trust and conviction that overcomes the onslaught of the world. As we grow in faith and in our relationship with the Father, we grow in our resemblance to Christ. We have been our Father’s children from the day of our new birth, but we have grown in our spiritual development and in our relationship with him. At least, that is the goal!
We conclude, therefore, that the qualities John lists in our passage apply to all believers. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
The first characteristic with which John describes these believers is foundational to the gospel. Without forgiveness of sins one cannot be in fellowship with God. But what does it mean that our sins are forgiven “for his name’s sake” (12)? It is only in Christ’s name that repentance and forgiveness of sins are proclaimed to the nations (Luke 24:46-47); there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:11-12); it is to Christ all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43); and we who now believe were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11).
When we appear before Jesus on the final day, he will grant us access to the glories of heaven based not on any works which we have done in our own name, but only based on the forgiveness which he purchased for us by his blood—in his name—at the cross. No other reason will suffice. For, the name which the Father bestowed upon Jesus when he finished the work he had come to do—the humbly obedient servanthood which found its final perfection in his self-sacrifice on the cross, where the author of life submitted himself to death—that name is the name which is above every name, at which every knee will bow in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:7-11). Among that multitude bowed to their knees to honor our highly exalted Lord, no one will stand and claim worthiness or glory under any other name.
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.
What does it mean that we “know him”? To know him is more than an intellectual assent to his presence, but to delight in him, to take refuge in him because of his goodness (Ps. 34:8); to answer his invitation to find rest in him, taking his yoke upon you in humble submission to his will so that you may learn from him as he gently leads you (Matt. 11:28-29); to hear his voice and follow him, having been known first by him and given eternal life, imperishable, from which no one can snatch us away (John 10:27-28); knowing him as the only true God and knowing Jesus Christ who he has sent is eternal life (John 17:3); knowing him is to be loved and redeemed by him (1 John 4:10).
Knowing God means knowing Jesus, whom he sent to bring us into fellowship with him; it means to trust him, to love him, and to be his; and it means all these things because of his sovereign initiative in election—without his grace in loving and saving us we could never know him! We know him, not because we are so clever, but because he knew us before the foundation of the world. John knows his people, and he knows the false teachers. He wrote this letter to assure his beloved children that they do indeed know Christ and the false teachers do not!
John has sprinkled clear tests throughout this epistle by which we can know who knows Christ and who does not. Remember, it’s his purpose to assure us in our faith if we are believers and to drive us to Christ if we are not. Our purpose here is not to point fingers at others, but to examine our own hearts. According to the following passages, the difference between those who know Christ and those who do not is clear:
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1:6-7)
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (2:3-6)
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (2:9-11)
John writes twice to the young men that they have “overcome the evil one” (13 & 14). In the second declaration of their overcoming he tells them why (or how) they have overcome. The reason they have overcome may be missed if we read this passage as a sequence of causality. He writes that they are strong, because the word of God abides in them, and, therefore, they have overcome the evil one. Elsewhere he writes that believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is the source of the victorious faith that overcomes the world—and that this is true for everyone who has been born of God (5:4-5)! This is true of us because it is true of our Savior. Jesus himself assures us that while we will have tribulation in this world, we may have peace in him and take heart, because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). We overcome not because of ant magical fortitude we find within ourselves, but because as born-again believers we are abiding in him who has overcome.
Paul describes what this overcoming faith in the life of the believer looks like in Romans 12:17-21:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Do you notice that this is not a sword-wielding, chest-thumping, standing on the necks of our enemies sort of victory; nor a comfortably-enjoying-my-best-life now; but rather a putting down of our own natural inclinations and humbling ourselves in submission to God’s revealed will in our lives sort of victory? Living peaceably with others is easy when they wish to live peaceably with us. But when others do not wish to live peaceably with us there are no loopholes—as far as it depends on us we must continue in the attempt! Sisters, this is hard stuff. But if we leave the vengeance to our perfectly powerful, wise, and just God, giving thought to do what is honorable and treating our enemies well, we will not be overcome by evil, but will overcome evil with good.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel strong. When John declares that “[we] are strong” he does not mean that we are summoning up our own strength for this overcoming battle. But that we are quietly relying on God as we entrust ourselves to him (Isaiah 30:15); because the wisdom of God displayed in our crucified Savior, though it appears to all the world to be utter foolishness and weakness, is in fact his power displayed to those who are called to be his (1 Cor. 1:23-25); and his grace is sufficient for us because his power is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Strength, for the Christian, is displayed in the Holy Spirit so renovating our hearts and minds that by his power we now resist the sins and worldliness which formerly held us captive. Though we remember the allure of these temptations we resist them, pressing on toward the higher goal of obedience and abiding in Christ, even when we would rather fall down and allow our baser nature to choose the easier path.
Finally, how does “the word of God abide in [us]”? Isaiah tells us that God’s word is like the rain that nourishes the earth, causing it to bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, not returning to God empty-handed, but accomplishing his purposes—salvation and life—for which he sends it (55:10-11). In the New Testament it is often compared not to the rain which makes the seeds to grow, but to the seeds themselves. We read there that the word of Christ, the gospel, is implanted in our hearts and blooms in faith, saving our souls, for it is the imperishable seed, living and abiding, by which we are born again (Rom. 10:17; Eph. 1:13; James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:23-25).
The most important means of grace is the word of God. Since the Word contains both the law and the gospel, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, it has a universal significance even beyond its public proclamation in church as a means of grace… The “word of God” does not come only in the form of Scripture and its public proclamation; it also comes to us indirectly, secondarily, having been absorbed from Scripture into the consciousness of the church or a society of people. Above all, it is not merely a sound but also a power and the accomplishment of God’s will (Isa. 55:11).
If God’s word is his means by which he reveals himself and his will to us, the means and the power by which he imparts to us wisdom and strength, accomplishes our redemption, and all his holy will, shouldn’t we love his word and seek every opportunity to know it better? Note the Psalmist’s love for God’s word displayed in this snippet from Psalm 119:
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.—Psalm 119:9-16.
Sisters, please hear me: this is meant to be an encouragement to growth in grace. Begin where you are, not looking to where you “ought to be.” Use this portion of Psalm 119 (or all of it!) to pray for a deeper love for God’s word in your own heart and mind. This is a prayer which the Lord delights to answer.
The Covenant Thread
Read the promise the Lord gave to Jeremiah (below) which was true then for those who were exiled to Babylon and awaited their return to their homes and is still true of all believers who await their heavenly home. Then note what Peter calls us in the opening greeting of his first epistle, and what he says is true of us who are foreknown of God the Father. Do you see the promises of both these passages in what John has written in 2:12-14?
I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (Jeremiah 24:6-7, italics mine)
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you (1 Peter 1:1-2, italics mine)
We know God because he made a covenant—with himself!— to make himself known to us and to bring us into fellowship with himself. This was the covenant of redemption, ordained in eternity past and executed in history. We are known and loved with an eternal, redeeming love! After the inspired authors of Scripture there is nobody who put it better than J. I. Packer, read slowly:
What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact that underlies it—the fact that he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.
John writes to believers because our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ name sake, because we know him who is from the beginning, because we have overcome the evil one, because we know the Father, because we are strong, and the word of God abides in us. All of these things are true of us because God first knew us! I pray that you would grasp even the hem of this truth, and that the fact that God knows you would so fill your hearts and minds that it would overflow into devotion and love for our Lord and Savior, displayed in the fruits of obedience and humility, renewed thirst for his word and prayer, and mutual love for one another as we together share in fellowship with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
 Stott, 102.
 Martin Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, (Wheaton, Il: 2002), 204-205
 Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Reformed Expository Commentary, 1-3 John, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015), 62.
 John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity Press, first pub. 1964, reprinted 2009), 102; Lloyd-Jones, 204-205.
 Lloyd-Jones, 206.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics; John Bolt, Editor; John Vriend, Translator, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 4.441
 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1973), 41-42.