1 John 2:12-17 (Maturing in Christ; the world)

FearA 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!

The world

(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.



About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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13 Responses to 1 John 2:12-17 (Maturing in Christ; the world)

  1. Price says:

    Materialism and self-indulgence are often harmful, sometimes restorative and always finite. Sponsorship and/or participation in missions, taking care of our children's children financially, and showing compassion for the needs of others is laying up treasure in heaven. Both take money. However, one man's materialism is another's good stewardship. We must be careful not to judge the path that another is on unless we can judge the heart of that person AND accurately predict what God is doing with and for them.

  2. Alabama John says:

    The Bible says its harder for a rich man to enter Heaven as a camel through an eye of a needle.
    Then in another place gives very clearly what a rich man must do and if he does that, he can go to heaven.

  3. Jay wrote, "Retiring into a life of self-indulgence should be unthinkable to the Christian."

    Living a life of self-indulgence should be unthinkable to the Christian. Just this morning, I read again Jesus' parable of the rich fool who stored up for a comfortable retirement – only to be told that his life would be required of him that night.

    In America today, following the Proverbial example of the ant who stores up in summer for winter consumption, it is prudent to save for retirement. It is not prudent to save for self-indulgent behavior at any stage of life!

  4. Adam Pierce says:

    It seems like we talk of retirement from a vacuum. We shouldn't. We live in the kingdom with others. It isn't about wether or not it is right to save for retirement. It is about whether or not it is right to save for retirement while others in the kingdom are, literally, dying from lack of material possessions.

    Do we have the right, even following Jay's example of saving for a retirement based in mission, while our brothers and sisters are dying? This is a hard question. I am not saying I know the answer, but it does trouble me.

  5. Price says:

    I figure it's sort of like Manna…If you think you can sustain yourself without a daily dependence on Big Daddy…you're fooling yourself…It's an act of faith to help another when your jar of oil is almost empty…But, then God shows up…IMHO

  6. Jay Guin says:

    (Luk 12:16-21 ESV) 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

    Jesus did not condemn the man for his wealth but for failing to be “rich toward God.” Lenski notes that “toward” mistranslated eis, which is only directional when the associated verb is directional. Thus, “rich into God” or “rich concerning God.” The man found his wealth and solace in his wealth and not in God.

    What did he do wrong? “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” He planned to use his wealth for his own leisure — to benefit only himself, and not God and not those in need.

    I don’t read the text as condemning thrift or saving, but in condemning selfish thrift and saving. There’s a distinction.

    To Adam’s comment re whether it’s right to save at all: we should try to imagine an economy without savings and see how well the poor would do in such a world.

    First, business formation comes from accumulated savings — pension plans, endowment funds, and such. And this is where jobs are created — and not just First World jobs. End the accumulation of capital, and you’d create poverty worldwide. The recent US recession has been devastating to many poorer countries that have lost export business and capital investment in their industries due to lost capital ( = savings). (Ask the Irish how they feel about the loss of American capital.)

    Or look at it less globally. If I don’t save for my retirement, who cares for me in my old age? Well, for a time, I could work. But there will inevitably come a point where I must be supported either by relatives, friends, the government, or savings.

    In a country without Social Security, it’s savings, friends, or relatives. The early church had the equivalent problem in terms of widows, who were too old to remarry and who had no job skills or poor health. The church cared for them.

    But what if the men also had no pensions, no savings, and were burdens on the church? The church would have to carry an enormous financial burden — taking their own savings to support their own. (Life expectancy in the Roman Empire in the First Century was 25 (http://geography.about.com/od/populationgeography/a/lifeexpectancy.htm! There weren’t that many widows compared to the number of Christians.)

    But that wouldn’t free up savings to help the poor — because it would create a new class of poor: the elderly church members — who now live into their late 80s or longer and have extremely expensive health care needs.

    The solution is not to refuse to save, but (1) to save for a modest retirement, (2) don’t save to create wealth for the next generation so they don’t have to work, and (3) don’t save to “have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” in retirement.

    Rather, we should see work as having spiritual value (I’m a fan of the Protestant work ethic) and reject the Western notion that we should accumulate wealth to turn our children into spoiled, self-indulgent brats, or to turn ourselves into spoiled, self-indulgent retirees.

    Money can do a lot of good for a lot of people if (a) we have it and (b) we use it wisely. Retirees can either become volunteers or keep working in order to fund wise, Christian ministries from their labor (or their freed-up savings).

    But if no one were to save, the economy would collapse and we’d have far more poor than we do now.

    We could perhaps have a profitable discussion as to the causes of long-term poverty in this very wealthy country. It’s been shown repeatedly that merely redistributing wealth does not cure poverty.

    Yes, we should be generous to the poor. The Bible is plain. But we could give away 100% of the wealth of the church to the poor, and the poverty problem would not be cured or even much helped — unless the money were spent with great wisdom.

    I’m not a big believer in giving money away to make myself feel better. I think we should give out of love for others. And that means being very thoughtful about what sort of giving will actually help the recipient the most. Sometimes, money is a scorpion, and what is really needed is an egg.

  7. Adam Pierce says:

    I agree with virtually all you say here. In particular:

    2) don't save to create wealth for the next generation so they don't have to work, and (3) don't save to "have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry" in retirement.

    as well as

    I think we should give out of love for others. And that means being very thoughtful about what sort of giving will actually help the recipient the most. Sometimes, money is a scorpion, and what is really needed is an egg.

    It seems to me, though, that you are equating not saving for retirement to not saving at all, and also towards not creating wealth. I am not saying don't have any savings. I am also not saying don't create wealth. I would even argue that one of the main roles of the American Christian in the world-wide kingdom is in the creation of wealth – as long as it is followed with its distribution.

    I'm not naive towards the causes of poverty and how our capitalistic government creates wealth and jobs throughout the world. I also believe that life in the Kingdom is not measured in effectiveness, but in witness, sacrifice, and invitation.

    Here is maybe the crux of my issue. I don't give $ to beggars. I give food, clothing, shelter, love, etc – but not $. 10 years ago my brother asked me "Then how do you deal with Jesus command to give of all who ask of you?" I had an answer then, and I have an answer now, but I always wonder if maybe my brother was/is right.

    Jesus never qualified about who to give to – he doesn't say give only if deserved. In fact, his examples are the opposite – give to those who hurt you, who oppress you, who subjugate you. He doesn't say give only where it will do the most good. He simply said give.

    When talking to the rich, Jesus had a sliding scale of acceptable giving – from 50% of accumulated wealth to 100% of accumulated wealth. The norm was 100%.

    I'm sure you would agree that we are the rich.

    Maybe Jesus was actually on to something. We qualify Jesus words and make them "spiritual" words about the heart – and most assuredly they are. But over and over Jesus says to give it all away – to whoever asks of you. Maybe our qualifications of Jesus words are softening a little too much the point that Jesus was trying to make.

    That's all I am trying to say through this. We are to save – but to bring the Kingdom to fruition. We are to save so that we can then spend to help usher in the Kingdom. We are to create wealth so that, when asked, we can give. We are the save so that when our brothers and sisters are in need we can meet the need, thereby allowing God to meet the need through the Body of His Son.

    Finally, I wonder how much our thinking on retirement comes from our fear of dependence on the Body – a manifestation of the utter independence that we Americans take as our God given, inalienable right – which, of course, it isn't.

  8. Alabama John says:

    Lay by and store means raising your children in the Lord and many other things that you do , teach, and help others in this life.

    I don't believe it has to do with money at all.

    There are far more of real value that you can accumulate that is real riches!

    To have someone look at you and comment there goes a man of God is being rich indeed.

  9. aBasnar says:

    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.

    I think there are more applications: The whole field of entertainment is one of them. The way we think and reason is another. Also the way we dress and date. I'm sure you all know the scriptures that deal with these things.

    I found an excellent video on YouTube concerning entertainment that I try to put here (Let's see how this button up there works):

  10. Adam Legler says:

    A pastor I like to listen to on the radio always talks about how you spend your money is the biggest indicator as to what kind of Christian you are. Are you storing it in Heaven or earth?

  11. bigfry2003 says:

    Jay, if I'd kept up better with this particular thread of posts, perhaps I'd been a better contributor to your excellent class this past Sunday. But that would've been cheating, right? 😀 Must say again that my wife and I really enjoyed our time at University. Your minister is a very capable teacher/preacher, and I thought his message was very good.

  12. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks much. Glad to have you join us Sunday. As I said, I think you two helped catalyze the discussion in my class. I wish you’d come every Sunday.

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