1 John 1:11-14
A Church in Crisis
The book of 1 John arises out of a crisis in a local church. Certain prominent members had come to deny Jesus’ deity and had left the congregation. John’s language suggests that the defection may have been a large one. He writes this concerning those who had left:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
--1 John 2:19
John is not being flippant here. The conflict left the church wounded and bleeding. The church grieved over its losses while it resisted the one-time comrades who now fought against them. Doubtless, the people who remained in the church wondered what else was to come and whom they could trust.
Because the threat remained active, the apostle put the church on high alert. “I write these things to you because of those who are trying to deceive you” (1 John 2:26). John called the church members to stress two dimensions of Christian truth. First, they were to “love one another” (1 John 3:11). As important as the truth was, if it were applied coldly without love, the church would have become as lifeless as those who had defected.
Second, they were to guard their doctrine. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3a).
Uncompromising, Caring Men
These two callings came together among the men, who needed to stand their ground. The men in the church bore the first responsibility to care for the church during times of spiritual warfare. John includes a hymn in his letter, devoted to the three generations of manhood.
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake.
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.
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
Men Guarding Men
The hymn involves instructions to the three generations of men—children, young men, and fathers. Each generation is valuable to the church, and each generation is given a task that runs in line with its identity.
Children: To the youngest John writes, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12 ESV) and, “because you know the Father” (1 John 2:13). The message to the children is written at their level, as it ought to be.
Children are impressionable by nature. They will respond equally to good or bad influence, and John assumes that the older members will assure good influence. This is why John writes the reassuring words to the children. Their call lies in remembering that they “know the Father.” That is all they are called to do. Children are to be cared for before anything else.
Young Men: As children grow into men, their growth becomes purposeful. They do not coast into adulthood by accident. They grow into warriors to bear witness of the truth. John’s message to the young men contains the most martial language in the hymn. “I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:12), and “because you are strong, / and the word of God abides in you, / and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13).
Of the three groups, the young men receive the most comprehensive instructions. Their identity lies in their strength and the confidence that they have overcome the evil one. Their task lies with the word of God that abides in them. They are called to guard it.
Young men have begun to exercise their powers of reason in preparation for the conflict before them. Their eyes remain bright with their spiritual vision, and John calls them to press forward in full confidence that they will win.
For John, the warrior generation includes all those who fight for family and the church’s purity and safety.
Fathers: But no one fights forever. As warriors grow into seasoned adulthood they become the church fathers. The two stanzas directed to this group are identical. John writes to them, “because you know him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:12 and 13).
The term fathers is not limited to men who have borne children. The fathers are all the senior men. Their identity and task both lie in their experience and knowledge. They have had time to plant their spiritual roots deep into the soil. And because they know him who is from the beginning, they are called to guide the children and young men.
Fathers are the mature church members, the wise men, the men who encourage and temper the younger men. Their identity rests in their wisdom. Their influence extends throughout the church. As the fathers remain strong, the church remains secure.