Why John Addresses Three Groups Here
Let's get one obstacle out of the way right off the bat. When John addresses children, fathers, and young men, he does not mean that what he says of one group is not true of the other. That's obvious as you read the whole letter and see each of these privileges applied to the church as a whole.
I think the three groups of "children," "fathers," and "young men" originated something like this. In these verses John wants to reach out to the church with affection and encouragement. So he begins by calling them all children, just like he does five other times (2:1, 18; 3:18; 4:4; 5:21).
Then he pauses and thinks: "I certainly don't want to give offense to the leaders in the church—the venerable old men or the virile young men—with this affectionate term 'children.' Perhaps I should address these two groups directly this once." And so he applies truths that are valid for the whole church to these two specific groups: the venerable fathers have knowledge, and the virile young men have conquered. But don't skip over these verses if you don't happen to be in one of those groups. What is true for them is true for all believers.
This Text in Relation to John's Overall Purpose
Now let's step back and try to see this text in relation to the overall purpose of John in this letter.
Two Strands in a Mother's Letter to Her Daughter
Compare 1 John for a moment to a letter that a mother writes to her daughter who has gone away to college. The mother gets word that there has been an unusual outbreak of smallpox on the campus with five cases confirmed. Her daughter is not among the victims—at least not yet. The mother knows that, but goes to the card shop and gets a card that has a little rhyme on the front cover that says,
I ask not that God give you wealth,
But daily beg him for your health.
Then she writes on the back of the card,
Don't misunderstand. I'm not writing you out of distress because I think you are among the victims of the smallpox outbreak. On the contrary I am rejoicing that you are well!
Of course, I don't want you to get sick. Take the necessary precautions. But I write because my heart is full of memories and confidence. I recall how you once had measles and your face looked like a prize fighter in the 15th round—and how you got completely well!
I remember how you were so brave back when the small pox vaccinations were still given in our little town with a piece of broken glass. You took it without a tear, and now you've got that protection in your body.
You've been so strong and healthy! It seems, as I look back, that when everybody else was falling with the flu, you conquered the enemy and hardly got the sniffles. You obviously know some wonderful secret!
So hold on to what you've got. Take heart in the manifest work of God in your life. Keep yourself in his wonderful health.
I am full of joy in the gift of health we share.
Why did this mother buy this card and write this note? The card said, "I beg God daily for your health." Then she wrote, "I don't want you to get sick. Take the necessary precautions . . . Hold on to what you've got . . . Keep yourself in his wonderful health." So it's clear that at least part of her reason for writing is to help the daughter stay healthy.
But on the other hand, she said, "I am not writing you out of distress . . . I rejoice that you are well." She spends most of the letter delighting with her daughter in how well she is and how she has been able to conquer sickness again and again.
What's the relationship between these two strands in this letter? On the one hand, the mother wants to intensify her daughter's appreciation for the gift of health, and strengthen her confidence that she will be able to withstand disease. And on the other hand, she wants her to hold on to the health she's got and not do anything to lose it.
The relationship between these two strands is that the mother wants her daughter's appreciation for the gift of health and her confidence in staying well to motivate her to be vigilant in keeping the health she has.
In other words, when the daughter sees the value of what she has, and feels the assurance that she really can be victorious over sickness, she will have the zeal she needs to hold fast to what she has instead of throwing it away on all-night parties and foolish eating and no exercise.
The Same Two Strands in John's Letter
It seems to me that 1 John is built on this same pattern. If you look up all the places where John tells us why he is writing, you find two strands just like the pattern in this mother's letter.
First, he says in 2:1, "I am writing this to you that you may not sin." In other words, he doesn't want them to get sick. He wants them to stay well. Then in 2:26 he says, "I write this to you about those who would deceive you." In other words, he is warning them about some dangerous germs of error in the community. "Watch out for the germs! Don't get sick!" That's one strand in John's letter, just like one strand in the mother's letter was to urge her daughter to vigilance—don't throw your health away on all-night parties and junk food and lazy habits.
But there is also a second strand in John's letter. In 2:21 John says, "I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it." In other words, "I am not distressed because I think you have been infected by these germs of error. I don't think you are among the victims of 'smallpox'. In fact I am rejoicing in your good health."
As our text (2:12–13) says, "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his 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." Not because you are sick but because you are well—thank God!
This strand continues to the end of the letter in 5:13. John says, "I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life." In other words he is writing to strengthen their assurance that they will indeed live forever. No sin will conquer them.
So what is John's purpose in this letter? On the one hand he says, "I am writing to help you not to sin. I am writing to warn you against the deceivers." And on the other hand he says, "I am writing because you are forgiven. You know the truth. You are strong. I want you to have assurance of eternal life."
On the one hand he intensifies their appreciation of what they have in Christ, and deepens their assurance of eternal life. And on the other hand he warns them about those who would deceive them, and urges them to have a vigilance against sin.
And how do these two strands of John's letter relate? I think John means for the strand of confidence to motivate the strand of vigilance. He wants to motivate the fight with the confidence of victory. The aim of our text (2:12–14) is to give the motivation needed to carry through on 2:1, "I write that you may not sin."
Let me try to clarify how this works by using the three statements of 2:12–13 to pull the two strands together.
- In the first case, John would say, "Remember what I said back in 1:7. Don't go on walking in the darkness, because only if you walk in the light will the blood of Jesus cleanse you from all sin. But YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN!" (2:12).
- In the second case he would say, "Remember what I said back in 2:4. Don't go on disobeying God's commandments because if you do, your claim to know Christ would be a lie. But YOU DO KNOW HIM WHO WAS FROM THE BEGINNING!" (2:13).
- And in the third case he would say, "Remember the truth of 3:8. Don't go on sinning because he who sins is of the devil. But YOU HAVE OVERCOME THE EVIL ONE!" (2:13).
You are forgiven! You know Christ! You have conquered the devil! So be encouraged! Abide in Christ! Use his truth and power to avoid the germs of error and to defeat the temptation to sin.
Hope and Courage to Fight Sin and the Devil
John knows that none of us can overcome temptation and escape error if we feel that our sins are unforgiven, Christ is unknown, and the devil is victorious. Will a soldier have any strength and courage to fight if he feels the guilt of going AWOL last weekend while his company was slaughtered, and if he thinks the commander has gone away to lead another more hopeful battalion, and if fifty enemy soldiers are standing around the lip of his foxhole?
All that soldier will feel like doing is blowing his brains out. Unless there is hope of winning there is no motivation to fight. Even the soldiers who fight to the death when hope is gone are driven by the passion not to be defeated by dishonor. But when all hope is gone, strength goes, vigilance goes, motivation goes, and a great dark cloud settles down on the soul.
But John's aim is that they overcome the darkness, that they keep the commandments, that they walk in the light, that they be full of joy, and conquer hate, and love each other with a love so real that the world will see it and give glory to God. His aim is that the Christian soldier lying in the mud of that foxhole will all of a sudden feel a surge of hope and courage to grab the machine gun of the Word of God and mow down the demons in his life.
(You did notice, didn't you, in the last half of verse 14 that the weapon that defeats the devil is the Word of God? "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.")
Where Does Hope and Courage to Fight Come From?
But where does that kind of hope and courage come from in the mud of a foxhole? It comes from 1 John 2:12–14. We hear, and by the grace of God, we believe—news that's almost too good to be true. "Your sins are forgiven for Christ's sake—even last weekend. You do know Christ; he is not far away. He is right behind the enemy. And so in him you have already conquered the enemy." John wrote this text to offer you those words this morning as a gift, to lift the cloud of darkness off your soul, and to put your gun back in your hand.
Why John should repeat these three statements (I write to you children; I write to you fathers; I write to you young men—I wrote to you children; I wrote to you fathers; I wrote to you young men)? Why John repeated these statements almost verbatim has utterly baffled scholars for two thousand years. It baffles me. But might not the simplest solution be that when you want something to get special attention, when you want something to sink in, you say it twice.
John knows that his letter is tough. The main burden of this letter is that you can have assurance that your hope in the foxhole is real when you start shooting your machine gun. But he knows that's not all he needs to say. In this text his burden is to say, "Fellow soldiers—fellow sinners—there is good reason for hope. Sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. You know that Christ has been king forever. And be assured that his enemy and yours is defeated."
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him,
His rage we can endure,
For lo his doom is sure:
One little word will fell him.