Jottings from John’s First Epistle (Paper 3)
Dennis Williamson, Belfast
The second occurrence of the term "little children" in the Epistle, 2. 12, reminds us again of what is true of all the family. The simplicity and solitary dignity of the statement should delight us. "I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake". Since the apostle is about to exhort the different age groups within the spiritual family, he will first let them all know the firm footing upon which each one stands, irrespective of the group to which he belongs. All have their sins forgiven, and this has been done in keeping with God's character, righteously, completely, and eternally. It is "for his name's sake"!
There is a Name I love to hear, I love to speak its worth.
It sounds like music in mine ear. The sweetest Name on earth.
It tells me of a Saviour's love, Who died to set me free.
It tells me of His precious blood, The sinner's perfect plea.
Before he proceeds, the writer would pause and have his readers revel in all the plenitude of divine forgiveness. Characteristically, as in this instance, he drops spiritual gems throughout the Epistle. Here and there we see them gleaming in the beauty and symmetry of divine inspiration.
Stages of Growth in the Family. In our previous paper we considered some of the standards of God in the family; here we see that same family in its various stages of development. As already indicated, the term "little children" in verses 13 and 18 is different from that employed in verses 1 and 12, and again in 28 of our chapter. We repeat this, realizing its importance to a proper understanding of the passage. The term is not now general as referring to all the family, but particular as identifying babes, distinct from young men and fathers. A sphere has now been entered where John, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, addresses himself appropriately to each of these groups according to their stage of development in the spiritual family. May we remind our hearts that father would convey the thought of maturity in divine things, young men of energy in the same, and babes of infancy. It is therefore assumed that the fathers, for example, have passed through the experiences of the babes and young men, and so have reached a stage, not merely of physical maturity but of spiritual, for this is evidently that which the apostle is treating in the context. What we see here is a picture of the normal stages of spiritual development in God's family. Abnormality in this respect, as in 1 Corinthians 3. 1 and Hebrews 5. 13, is not envisaged here. Each group is addressed twice, once in verse 13, and then once each again in the section 2. 14-27. In verse 13 he refers to their past spiritual experience. Next, he exhorts and admonishes the young men and the babes regarding the future.
Fathers. There are no old men in the family of God, for while there is development there is no decline. Here is Proverbs 16. 31 in focus, "The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness". How rewarding to look back to earlier years in Christian experience, and reflect on men with obvious maturity in divine things. There is something special about them, and John seems to summarize it well in the phrase "ye have known him that is from the beginning", a knowledge gained by experience of the Lord. There can be no advance on this; thus when the writer addresses the fathers for the second time in verse 14 he repeats the phrase. Another principle may also be observed. It is not expected that those with this degree of spiritual maturity should require warning and admonition!
Young Men. John gives us the char acteristics of the young men, v. 14; then he cautions them, vv. 15-17. He is not unaware of the fact that these, with the babes, will be the object of the attack of the evil one. With this in mind, he deliberates upon those things which will not be conducive to their progress. According to Scripture, the glory of a leopard lies in its spots, the glory of a woman in her hair, the glory of fathers are their children, and the glory of a young man is his strength, Jer. 13. 23; 1 Cor. 11. 15; Prov. 17. 6; Prov. 20. 29. Addressing the young men, then, the apostle first of all says "ye are strong", then "the word of God abideth in you", and thirdly "ye have overcome the wicked one". Incidentally, overcoming in this context refers to those who by faith have sided with God against the evil one. These are the characteristics that one should see at the stage of growth described by the term "young men". Paul, it would seem, had the same idea before his mind, and so exhorts Timothy accordingly in 2 Timothy 2. 1, "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus", "rightly dividing the word of truth", v. 15, then he warns about the "snare of the devil", v. 26.
Realizing what an attraction this world can become to young men, the writer spares no words to expose effectively its true nature. A digression on the significance of the word "world" will not be out of place. In this context it refers to that system which Satan has led men to erect to counteract the effects of the fall, the system over which he is head. Thus, as a system it is a failure, v. 15; as to its source it is a failure, v. 16; and as far as stability is concerned it is also doomed to fail, v. 17. Worldliness does not reside in things, but in our attitude, affection, and ambition in relation to those things. We can see here the wisdom of the apostle in touching the very heart of the matter— "Love not"! The force of the teaching is that one cannot simultaneously be loving the world and the Father. The one is diametrically opposed to the other. John skilfully outlines the appeal of the world in the three phrases used. (1) The lust of the flesh, (2) The lust of the eyes, and (3) The pride of life. This trilogy of deception, demonstrated in the history of Eve in Genesis 3, and contrasted with Christ in Matthew 4, Luke 4, is here demolished by the apostle as far as possessing any benefit for the children. The writer says, it "is not of the Father". This is enough for obedient children. The world is finally contrasted with the will of God, v. 17. It is shown to lack any element of permanence. However "he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever".
v. 18. Spiritual maturity is seen in the apostle as he, conscious of the snares and perils of the pathway, gives suitable preventative ministry for the babes. When problems occur, it is so easy to have hindsight and say what should have been done. A true teacher, however, in touch with the Lord, will receive principles from His presence to convey which, if obeyed, will avert catastrophe. Hence John here spells out guidelines for the babes in the family. How his tender heart would yearn over them. John was witnessing the rise of false teachers denying, amongst other things, that unique relationship between the Father and the Son. Individuals like these were not only false but extremely subtle. We can well imagine his justifiable concern. How would we react in similar circumstances? They had heard of the fact that antichrist would come. It was now the last hour and many of that nature were already on the scene, both opposing the doctrine of Christ and attempting to usurp His unique and pre-eminent position amidst His people. Many such are with us today. However, continuance in spiritual things is the evidence of reality. Again the writer would remind them not to be beguiled by loud profession. The separation of these men from the saints gave an indication of the source from which they had come. The apostle says, "they were not all of us", v. 19. Actually there is no distinction here intended, as if some were of us. The phrase should rightly be, "not one is of us". All who went out proved they were false; unreality marked them, they were spurious.
In contrast, he speaks to the chil dren, "but ye have an unction (anointing) from the Holy One, and ye know all things". The Holy Spirit indwells the youngest member of the family. His presence obviously does not depend upon any degree of spiritual development as some teach! No, He indwells permanently each believer, Rom. 8. 9; 1 Cor. 6. 19. There are many things concerning the doctrine which young believers may not be able to describe in detail, but, due to the presence of the Holy Spirit within, they know right from wrong, truth from error, Christ from any antichrists. We repeat, they will not always be able to identify the finer points of the falsehood in the doctrine they hear, but something within instinctively repels anything not of God. The Person of Christ is the final test.
For preservation, it is essential to hold tenaciously to the truth already received, and to measure all things as to their value or otherwise as they relate to the Person of Christ. Do they lead to a greater acknowledgement of Him? Are they detracting in the slightest degree from the inherent value of His sacrifice? In the absence of God-given teachers, the children are not left to flounder at the mercy of the false teachers; by no means! The Person of the Holy Spirit dwells within, not only as a Comforter but as a Teacher, and unqualified submission to Him will lead to abiding in Christ practically, as He takes of the things of Christ and shows them to us.
Shame at the Goal in Relation to In verse 28, the apostle reverts to the term which embraces all the family; fathers, young men, as well as children. I do not think that any believer will shrink from the presence of the Lord at His coming, nor do I believe that any true child of God will be left behind when He comes. Neither of these ideas finds support in this section. Here the man who in the Word is called the Seer takes a look into the future, and gives us the longings of his heart as a true father. Fidelity has marked him as he has sought to convey the mind of God to His people; he hopes this will be reflected in all those who come under his care. Thus he draws a word picture of that future scene. Thinking of that day when the Lord will be manifest, he encourages the children to abide in Christ, so that when He appears the apostles as teachers may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him. We say to our children, "what will others think of me if you behave like this?"; our aim is to encourage obedience. This is a faint impression of what the writer is trying to convey in spiritual terms, as he projects our minds to that future day.