Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 2:12–17

   John’s Reasons for Writing

In today's passage, John addresses his readers with words of reassurance of what he'd written so far. Next week's passage is much less encouraging. John the Elder will, in vv. 18–27, strongly warn his readers about the secessionist opponents: Docetists and Gnostics (described in detail in week 2's summary). Having begun a direct exhortation to his readers in 2:1 with the address “My dear children," the author now continues that exhortation. The opponents described in 2:11 were “in the darkness” and “walking around in the darkness,” having their eyes “blinded” by darkness. The letter's recipients, however, because they were loyal to the community and John's teaching, were able to “live in the light” (2:10). Now the author addresses them directly as those who belong to Jesus (the Light) and live in him and his light.

While today's passage is beautifully written, it has interpretation problems. Note two things that are certain. First, this passage isn't a poem but it's poetic and rhythmical. Second, John's been warning his people of the perils of spiritual darkness and their need to live in the light. In every case, their best defense was to remember who they were and what had been done for them. In 2:12–17, we have something of a break or pause in John's argument. He doesn't want to give his readers the impression that he thinks they're living in darkness; neither does he doubt the authenticity of their faith in Christ. Instead he directs this page of his first letter to those false teachers whom he regarded as fraudulent, not to his dedicated, devoted church members. He tells them his view of their Christian standing to confirm in them a proper self-confidence of genuine Christians while denying the opponents their unfounded assurance.

Why John Wrote This Epistle (1 John 2:12–13)

First John, of course, is a circular letter that had been distributed to other churches. But John addressed it to the members of his house church in Ephesus, members who were at different stages of growth in fellowship with themselves and with God. Remember these two themes of this epistle: fellowship and assurance. Some church-body members were beginning to doubt whether or not they were the sons and daughters of Father God.

12I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
13I 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 (2:12–13).

Notice that John uses titles for family members, reminding us that the body of Christ is made up of a family of brothers and sisters, spiritual fathers and mothers, young men and women, and of course Jesus and Father God. He addresses his readers, not according to their years of age but to their measure of spiritual maturity. It's possible that the "dear children" text in today's 2:12–14 addresses one specific group, although he uses three different titles for these children: (1) All believers are "dear children" (or "my children," "little children," and "God's children," depending on translations) because they are born again and their sins are forgiven; (2) all are “fathers” because they believe in him who "is from the beginning"; and (3) all are “young men (people)” because they have the requisite strength to resist the devil.

The clause "because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name" reminds us of something in which we're to rejoice. If we fail to rejoice in this, we've got problems. The "on account of his name" provides the reasons for forgiveness; they're not found in us but in God. If we fail to give him the credit he's due, we'll probably continue to fail to see the consequences of our sin and the greatness of God's forgiveness of sinners like us. When we couple the greatness of our sin with the remarkable cost to Jesus and God for us to gain our forgiveness, we must be totally grateful for having been forgiven. Realize this: Forgiveness is God’s gift, not man’s achievement!

Addressing "you, fathers" in v. 13a, John sees in fathers, men who have an experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ. David Guzik writes this in his commentary on this verse: "Just as surely as there are little children, there are also fathers. These are men and women of deep, long, spiritual standing. They have the kind of walk with God that doesn’t come overnight. These are like great oak trees in the Lord, that have grown big and strong through the years." In v. 13b, its "young men" are those who've known spiritual victory over Satan and his realm. Guzik goes on to say: "As much as there are little children and fathers, so also there are young men. These are men and women who are no longer little children, but still not yet fathers. They are the ‘front-line’ of God’s work among His people."

Specifically regarding "young people," the psalmist asked and answered in Psalm 119 the question that people of every age ask: "How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word" (v. 11). That's the secret of people who overcome the devil in today's wicked world, no matter their age: Keep the word of God in your heart, and live it fully!

John's "him who is from the beginning" (v. 13) could refer to God or Jesus. But because God is referenced to in v. 14, the reference here is to Jesus. Those who are addressed as "fathers" have remained faithful to the apostles' testimonies about who Jesus was. Regarding "young men," the emphasis is on the victory of all believers over "the evil one" (that is, Satan, a theme that will reappear in 5:4–5, where we're told of who has the ability to "overcome the world”).

With Emphasis (v. 14)

14I write to you, dear 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 lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one (2:14).

Common to John's writing style is his repetition of important words, phrases, and themes; he knows well the value of repetition. Here in v. 14, he repeats himself with emphasis and conviction while introducing a new thought about the "word of God" that "lives" in true believers. Previously, he used "Word of life" (1:1) for the message about eternal life that Jesus revealed to his disciples while he was on earth. The phrase here should be interpreted similarly.

Everyone needs encouragement! Apostle John has been dishing out strong words to warn the flock about the false teachers who were intentionally trying to deceive them. He'd said in 2:11 that those who don’t love their brother live in darkness as unsaved individuals. In v. 15, he'll warn his house-church members saying anyone who loves the world doesn’t have the Father’s love in them. But before he'll warn them, he inserts 2:12–14 to hearten and motivate those who might have been troubled by his written warning. He wants his readers, no matter the stage in their Christian life, to consider all that God had done in their lives so that they'll realize that their faith remains genuine and they can rest assured of that fact.

John’s expression of his readers' personal assurance (vv. 12–14) provides the basis for his appeal for separation from the world as a further ground for assurance (vv. 15–17). The mere physical age distinctions aren't likely intentional, as John discloses when he uses “dear children” (Greek teknion [in the New Testament], a kindly address by teachers to their disciples) elsewhere to include all his readers (2:1283:185:21). The words "dear children" not only convey the author’s expression of endearment, they suggest their need of instruction and dependence on teachers, including God.

On Not Loving the World

15Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16For everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — comes not from the Father but from the world. 17The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (2:15–17).

A person either loves the world or loves the Father (First John 2:15-17)

Here John presents two opposing options: A person either loves the world or loves the Father. Apparently the body of secessionist opponents loved the world and its ways, since John will describe them as: being “from the world” (4:5a); having “gone out into the world” (4:1); those who “speak from the viewpoint of the world” (4:5b); and those to whom “the world listens” (4:5c). Clearly, he's set a specific conduct — love for the world — to test a so-called believer's belief: The individual who “loves the world” shows by this allegiance to it that he has no love for God. Consequentially, God’s love won't dwell in such individuals.

Verse 16's "For everything in the world . . . comes not from the Father but from the world" reveals why love for the Father isn't “in” a man, woman, or young person who loves the world instead of God. Everything a person could desire on a human level originates with the world, not with the Father. [Author and Pastor AW Tozer said this in 1940 about the sense of sin in today's world.]

John breaks into three parts "everything in the world." First, the reference to "lust of the flesh" probably doesn't refer simply to carnal or sensual desire or behavior (lustfulness or promiscuity). The term is probably related to the Jewish context that looks at the nature of man as a whole, every desire of human beings as human beings: all that meets their wants and needs. Some such desires would be sensual, carnal, and vulgar while others would be unobjectionable.

The second part, referencing "lust of the eyes," more likely suggests that it's through the eyes that the above-referenced character traits are made visible and desirous. Such desires aren't merely human desires; they're related to one’s awareness of one’s surroundings, that is, the conscious part of human nature that focuses on sinful cravings for what can be seen, which can lead to covetousness.

And the third part is "the pride of life," which the NET Bible translates as "the arrogance produced by material possessions." Here, the material security of one’s life and possessions produces a boastful overconfidence. People who think they have enough wealth and property to protect them and ensure security have no need for God.

In this passage's closing verse, the author reminds his readers that everything in the world is short-lived and momentary, and that "whoever does the will of God" is the genuine Christian, in contrast to the opponents who'd worshiped in Ephesian house churches, loved the world, and had gone out into the world. In effect, for many people, the world, which is momentary, is passing away with all its desires. At its end, the world and worldly desires will have passed away.

From a practical standpoint, in contrast to the opponents, the Elder wants his readers to continue to appreciate the significance of Christ's earthly life and ministry that's based upon obedience. This obedience to God must acknowledge a requisite need for a spiritual dimension in one’s life, contrasted to an opponents' purely human perspective. Consequently, “whoever does the will of God” is the believer; it's in the doing of God’s will obediently, especially to the new/old command to “love one another” within the Christian community, that the believer demonstrates that he or she is indeed a genuine Christian. Such obedience, according to the author, provides true believers with an unlimited amount of personal assurance while "living forever."

Closing Considerations

While it's often quoted that "Compromise is usually a sign of weakness," many people respect those who are willing to compromise, since such willingness is often seen as a sign of maturity. However, any time we compromise issues of morality, integrity, obedience to God, or to the truth of Scripture, we're bound to pay a high price.

Dr. Charles Stanley says in his commentary on this passage, "There is a battle going on within each of us. As believers, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit, who convicts us of sin, prompts us toward obedience, and teaches us truth. However, there is also a fleshly part of us that longs for selfish pleasures and values the priorities of this fallen world. As much as we may try, we cannot straddle the fence between the flesh and the Spirit. . . We must make a choice — and not just one time but daily, even hourly."

Compromising by giving in to our fleshly desires leads to internal corruption. We may not notice it at first, but stepping beyond the boundary of obedience affects our mind and future choices. Each concession makes the next one easier: Satan first gains a toehold, which eventually becomes a foothold and then a stronghold. As God allows us to reap what we've sewn, the final result is ruin.

Instead of sitting on the fence, let's make up our mind ahead of time to follow the Lord wholeheartedly so we'll reap the benefits of living fully devoted to Christ.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  What grade would you give yourself for obeying God over the last week?
  • Q. 2  Put into words what it means to live according to God's word.
  • Q. 3  Rating from 1 to 10, to what extent are you living according to his word today?

This Week’s Passage
1 John 2:12–17

New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 2 narrated by Max McLean.]

Finger pointer

Take Warren’s “John’s Three Epistles Quiz” now
—   or   —
bookmark his quiz and take it later.

See Warren’s other Bible-study quizzes.