A poem about maturing in Christ
(1Jo 2:12-14 ESV) 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.
The ESV and some other versions take these three verses to be poetry, because of the parallel structure. I’m sure that’s right, and like all good poetry, the full meaning doesn’t reveal itself on the first reading. Here’s my take:
John writes to the “little children” — new converts — and assures them that have already received forgiveness of sins, not because they merit it but for the sake of Jesus. Even though they aren’t as strong as Christians with more experience, they nonetheless should be confident in their forgiveness.
He writes to the “fathers” — old men, who’ve walked many years with God — because they know (literally, “have come to know”) Jesus. They don’t just know about him but they know him experientially. They’ve walked in his sandals, they’ve spent late hours in prayer, they’ve lived with Jesus and have been rewarded with an intimacy that only comes from time spent together.
He writes to the “young men” because they’ve overcome Satan — not that Satan is utterly defeated, but that they’re moving away from Satan and toward Jesus. The battle isn’t over, but the outcome is clear. The defeat is certain because they’ve struggled against Satan many times and won.
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.
John then writes to the “children” or “youths.” It’s not the same word as “little children.” And yet he commends them for knowing the father — the same compliment extended to the fathers earlier. The word for “children” at the end of v. 13 appears only here in 1 John. It’s not the same as the “little children” by which he refers to the all the readers. Most commentators take him to be referring to the same people as the “little children” — new converts — as before.
John seems to be saying that even new converts know the Father, although not at the same depth as “fathers.” You have to know God, through Jesus, to be saved at all. In 2:3-5, John taught that we only know Jesus if we love our brothers. A new convert is brought into a loving community, and quickly responds to the love of God shining through the community. But he’ll know Christian love in a deeper, richer, better way when he’s invested a few decades in that community.
The rest of the poem parallels the earlier messages about fathers and young men, except he says a bit more about the young men — who have “overcome the evil one.” They “are strong, and the word of God abides in [them].” Now, “word of God” cannot mean the New Testament — because it hadn’t been written and compiled yet! Rather, it has a dual meaning. John referred to Jesus as the “word” in 1:1. But in 2:7 the “word” is the commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young men, John says, overcome the evil one and are strong by incorporating Jesus and the old/new commandment into their lives. This how Satan is overcome and defeated!
(1Jo 2:15-17 ESV) 15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
John does not mean by “the world” the people of the world, of course. In 1 John 2:2, we are told that Jesus died for the whole world. Rather, John refers to the “things in the world,” “all that is in the world,” “desires of the flesh and … of the eyes,” “pride of possessions.” Plainly, he is condemning what we call materialism — finding joy, comfort, and safety in consumer goods. John argues simply that the world is passing away — and material goods with it. We’ll last forever — and so we need to find our joy in permanent things, not temporary things.
Paul says much the same thing —
(Col 3:2-6 ESV) 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
This is a hard lesson for modern Americans — because we are rich and we like being rich. We enjoy our stuff. And many of us are going broke because of it. One of the biggest problems our members face is overspending. We have more problems with reckless spending and credit abuse than with actual poverty! This is a country so rich that one of our largest health problems is obesity! Consumption is killing us.
And that’s easy enough to say. The hard part is answering the inevitable question: where do you draw the line? I don’t know. In fact, I suspect that that is a useless question. Maybe there’s a better approach: where is your heart? Do you take your vacations at the beach or in the mission field? Do you spend your free time helping those in need or tending to your flowers? Do you live for your hobbies and recreation or for others? Is your life consumed with commitments that mean nothing in the long run or with the passionate pursuit of eternity?
Get your time right, and I think your spending habits will follow. I’m not saying there’s no time for rest. There is. But when all our time is spend in labor to make money to spend on recreation — either pre- or post-retirement, when our life goal is a retirement dedicated to golf and travel, then we have a heart problem.
I have no problem with saving for retirement — if you save in order to pour yourself into God’s mission. Missionaries don’t have to be in their 20s. I know many couples who’ve retired into the mission field, into church planting, into campus ministry …
You see, the best retirement I can imagine is as a volunteer teaching or serving or otherwise doing kingdom business. That’s how you get to live a little bit of heaven while you’re still alive. Retiring into a life of self-indulgence should be unthinkable to the Christian.