Going to the Next Level

1 John 2:12-17

September 25, 2011 | Brian Bill

Years ago, a “Dear Abby” column ran a story by a retired schoolteacher.  One day she had her students take out some paper and list the names of the other students in the room. Then she told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.  She took the papers home and compiled a list for each student of what the others had said about him or her.  She then gave each student his or her list.

Before long, everyone was smiling. “Really?” one whispered.  “I didn’t know anyone liked me that much!”  Years later, the teacher went to the funeral of one of her former students, who had been killed in Vietnam.  Many who had been in her class years before were there.  After the service, the young man’s parents approached the teacher and said, “We want to show you something.  Mark was carrying this when he was killed.”  The father pulled out of a wallet the list of all the good things Mark’s classmates had said about him. “Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”

A group of Mark’s classmates overheard the exchange.  One smiled sheepishly and said, “I still have my list.  It’s in my top desk drawer at home.” Another said, “I have mine, too.  It’s in my diary.”  “I put mine in our wedding album,” said a third. “I bet we all saved them,” said a fourth.  At that point, the teacher sat down and cried.  She used that assignment in every class for the rest of her teaching career (as quoted by Pastor Steven Cole).

encouragement does more

This reminds me of what a poet once said: “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”  The Book of 1 John is filled with conviction as we’ve been corrected and urged to go deeper in our faith.  

Please turn to 1 John 2:12-17 and follow along as I read: “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.  I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.  I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.  I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father.  I write to you, fathers, because you have known 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.” 


It’s always a good practice when studying a passage of Scripture to make some observations.  Here are some things I wrote down.

  • This passage seems to stand out from the rest of the book; almost like it could be part of a poem or creed or maybe even a song.
  • The tenor of this text is filled with personal encouragement, not necessarily exhortation; it’s more comforting than commanding.  
  • These verses are repetitious with some of the phrases repeated verbatim.  This shows that John is a good teacher.
  • Six times we see the phrase, “I write to you…because.”
  • John uses endearing family terms – dear children, young men and fathers.  
  • These different terms seem to represent different stages of spiritual maturity, though in another sense every believer has experienced all three at the same time.  By the way, the word “stages” is better than “levels” because levels imply that someone’s better or higher than someone else.  That’s actually what the Gnostics taught.

Some commentators believe that there are only two categories represented here because the phrase, “Dear children” is used throughout the book to refer to all believers.  However, since the Greek word actually changes to refer to “young children” in verse 13, I believe there are three distinct groups mentioned.  

I’m going to use three different sized chairs to represent three different stages of spiritual growth.

1. The spiritually young. 

Let’s look first at what I’m calling the spiritually young.  Let’s pull verse 12 together with the last part of verse 13: “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name…I write to you, dear children because you have known the father.”  In this beginning stage of the spiritual life, two big things stand out.

  • Forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a foundational truth and a defining characteristic of a child of God.  Notice it says that our sins “have been forgiven,” not “might be or maybe.”  And they’re forgiven “on account of his name.”  Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking our punishment, so that our sins might be forgiven.   I talked to someone recently about the importance of having our sins forgiven.  As I presented the gospel as clearly as I could this individual said something that shocked me: “I’m not sure I want my sins forgiven.”  That response baffled me all day.  Why wouldn’t you want your sins forgiven?

Friends, let’s never take our forgiveness for granted.  That reminds me of Psalm 32:1: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”

  • Family.  In human terms, there are only two ways to become part of a family – you must either be born or be adopted into a family. Here’s the cool thing.  When one becomes a member of God’s family, you are born into it through the new birth (John 3:3) and you are adopted by God the Father (Romans 8:15). 

2. The spiritually growing. 

We see this group in verse 13 and in verse 14: “I write to young men, because you have overcome the evil one…I write to you young men, because you are strong and the Word of God lives in you.”  In this stage, there are three characteristics listed.

  • You have overcome the evil one.  Notice again that this is something that has already happened – they “have overcome” the evil one.  Biblically understood, we have victory over Satan because of what Jesus has done for us.  1 John 4:4 says: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  We need to wear our spiritual armor at all times because Satan is out to discourage, deceive and derail us.  And, according to 1 Peter 5:8, like a roaring lion, he is out to “devour” us.
  • You are strong.  Young and growing believers are strong in the strength of the Lord, knowing that according to Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.”
  • The Word of God lives in you.  The reason the spiritually growing can say that they’ve overcome the evil one and that they are strong is because the Bible has become embedded in their lives.  The word “lives” here means to “settle down and make its home in you.”  Psalm 119:9, 11: “How can a young man keep his way pure?  By living according to your word…I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”  Jesus is our model for how to deal with the devil as He cited Scripture three different times when faced with temptation (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10).

3. The spiritually mature. 

In the third stage are those who demonstrate “a long walk in the same direction.”  Check out how the exact phrasing is used in the beginning of verse 13 and again in verse 14: “I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning…I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.”

  • You have known Him.  The spiritually mature are known as people who know God.  Is there anything better than that?  There are many people in this church, that when their name comes up, people say something like this: “He knows God.” Or, “She knows God.”  The idea here is not that you just know information about God but that you have an intimate relationship with Him.  And out of that seasoned experience come wisdom and maturity.
  • Who is from the beginning.  The spiritually mature know God with deep reverence in a spirit of rejoicing.  Notice that they know “Him who is from the beginning.”  This focuses on God’s eternality, the fact that He is the Almighty Creator who is timeless and true.  When you spend time with someone like this you get the sense that they have an appetite for the eternal perspective on life, a reverent familiarity with God.  It’s true that the older you get the more you know what is most important in life.

Which Way Are You Going?

be on guard against the things of the world

After these words of encouragement, John gives us some words of exhortation.  He wants to point out the dangers of living in the world in which we live.  Not only do we have to do battle with our own fleshly desires and be prepared to fight the devil, we also have to be on guard against the things of the world.  These forces can knock us right out of our chair.  An example of this is a man named Demas, a partner of Paul’s.  Listen to these sad words from 2 Timothy 4:10 that unfortunately could be said about many today: “…for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me…”

I love what A.W. Tozer has written: “Every man is as close to God as he wants to be; he is as holy and as full of the Spirit as he wills to be…”   Some of us push back on this because we say that we want to be close to God and we don’t know why we’re not.  Actually, in large part, it’s up to us.  Here’s a synopsis of what I think John is saying in this section: When we grow with God we’ll avoid embracing the world.  Let’s look at verses 15-17 one verse at a time.

1. Choose what you love.

Verse 15 says: “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  The tense here indicates that this is something that was already going on and so John is saying something like this: “Don’t be loving the world.”  This is an either/or deal, much like what Jesus said in Luke 16:13: “No servant can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

This is a big deal to God because the world is not simply a passive entity but a rival for our affections and allegiance.  James 4:4 says, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?  Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

Obviously this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t enjoy the beauty of the world that God has made or that we shouldn’t love the world of people that He’s made.  John is using the word “world” to refer to the evil, organized system under the control of Satan himself.  Flip over to 1 John 5:19: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”  Steven Cole nails it when he writes: “Worldliness is, at its core, a matter of the heart.  If your heart is captured by the world, you will love the things of the world.  If your heart is captured by the love of God, you will be drawn to Him and to the things of God.”

2. Control yourself. 

Check out verse 16: “For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world.”  John is referring to three threats about the way of the world.

  • The cravings of sinful man.  The word “cravings” is the same word translated as “lust” in the next phrase and refers to all the intense and inordinate impulses that come from within.  Instead of just doing whatever you want and fulfilling every desire that you have, we are to live under control.  I like how one pastor puts it: “I can admire but I don’t have to acquire.”
  • The lust of his eyes.  This refers to a strong desire or impulse particularly as it relates to greed and covetousness.  One test to see if you are struggling with the lust of the eyes is to ask yourself what you enjoy looking at.  There might be lust in your life if you’re fixated and focused on something and you have a hard time thinking of anything else.  What we see with our eyes is what we end up wanting, which by the way is why Job said this in Job 31:1: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young maiden.”
  • The boasting of what he has and does.  The desire of the flesh and lust of the eyes refer to what we do not have while boasting refers to what we do have.  This is a tough one to control because many of us have been taught to be self-reliant and self-sufficient.  Do you think too highly of yourself?  Do you find yourself bragging about what you have or what you’ve done or how superior you are compared to others?

3. Keep your eyes on eternity. 

Verse 17: “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”   The world and worldly desires are disintegrating.  Things here are transitory.  Popularity is precarious. The buzz wears off.  Infatuation flames out.  Pleasure is short-lived.  Some of us are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The best way to keep from loving the world is to love God more fully.  Those who do the will of God by believing in Jesus Christ and living the way He wants will live forever.  Those who hitch their wagons to the world will pass away.  It’s true that we are in the world; but we’re not to be of the world.

A Family Meeting

There have been times that my wife and I have called a family meeting to address issues that have crept into our home.  Sometimes these are attitudes or actions and other times we meet to discuss a new direction we’re going in as a family.  I’d like to have a church family meeting right now.

1. We’re all on the same team even though we’re at different spiritual stages. 

If you’re a born again believer, you’re in one of these chairs.  Remember that John finds something positive to say about individuals at each stage because each one manifests something of Christ’s character.  To use the metaphor that John uses, all believers are walking in the light; some have just been walking a little longer than others.

2. We need each other to help us grow. 

I was challenged this week by the verse in Joel 2:28 that was quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17 that says in the last days God will pour out his Spirit and “…your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”  Let’s allow our young people to share their vision and let’s also listen to the dreams of our older saints.  That’s how God designed it to be.  We need each other.  Here are some practical steps.

    • Bring your chair closer to another chair.  One of our problems is that we don’t know people in different chairs.  And when we don’t know or understand someone we tend to either not like them or be suspicious of them.  When you get close to someone you find out that he lives with regret or she was mistreated as a girl.  Maybe you discover that a young father never had a father to look up to.  Or perhaps an older saint is grieving about a prodigal son or daughter.  
    • Try to sit in another chair and see life through this perspective.  For those of us who are older saints, let’s try to remember what it was like for us when we were just beginning our walk in the light.  For those who are just starting out, seek out opportunities to learn from the wisdom of the older.
  • If you’re further along in your spiritual journey, bring others over to your chair.  We learned this phrase in a previous sermon: Before passing on, pass on a legacy of faith.  Come alongside someone and look for ways to mentor and disciple.  This is exactly what happens in Apples of Gold when our mature mentors seek to live out Titus 2:4: “Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children.”

No matter what age you’re at or what stage you’re at, you have the responsibility to grow…and to take others with you.

3. Let’s avoid all ‘ageism.” 

There’s no place for us to discriminate or have prejudice toward people of a different age than we are.  Let’s also commit to not generalizing or stereotyping someone simply because they are a certain age.

I think it’s helpful to realize the difference between maturity and spirituality.  Becoming mature in Christ is our final goal or aim.  Spirituality is the process by which we get there.  It’s like the boy who came up to his dad and said, “I want to grow up to be as big as you are.  How can I do that?”  The dad certainly wouldn’t say, “Well, try real hard to grow up.  Think about it.  Work at it.  Strain and stretch and you’ll get there in a week.”  No.  The dad would tell his son to eat and exercise and sleep and then he can’t help but grow…but it will take time.  In a similar way, when we practice the spiritual disciplines we will grow to Christian maturity. 

Let me talk candidly to the older and the younger for a bit.

  • To the younger.  Treat the older with respect and honor.  Don’t disassociate from them simply because they are older.  Seek out their wisdom.  Move toward them.  Maybe even ask someone who is more mature to mentor you.  Continue to work at growing in your faith and strive to live out 1 Corinthians 14:20: “Brothers, stop thinking like children.  In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”
  • To the older.  Look for ways to train the next generation of Christ-followers.  Don’t automatically assume that the younger are not spiritually minded just because they are not yet mature.  Seek out someone to pour your life into and remember that ministry is messy sometimes.  I need to keep Proverbs 14:4 in mind: “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean.” 

4. Go to the next stage in your spiritual journey. 

What is it that God is asking you to do?  What’s your next step?

  • The spiritually young.  Don’t stop growing!  1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”  But don’t stay on a diet of just dairy.  Listen to the words of Hebrews 5:12-13: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” Don’t be like the toddler who fell out of bed and was asked what happened.  This is what he said: “I guess I just fell asleep too close to where I got in.”
  • The spiritually growing.  Keep ingesting the Word of God so that you move towards maturity.  Here’s a verse for you found in 1 Timothy 4:12: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.”  When you set an example in how you live and how you love and in what you say and how you play, people will have a hard time looking down on you.
  • The spiritually mature.  Don’t settle for just information; continue to ask God to bring transformation and to keep your heart tender.  Hebrews 5:14 comes to mind: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”  Notice that the way to maturity is by constantly consuming solid food.  What we know needs to show.  This training then helps us to sort out the good from the bad in our lives.

5. Our faith must be lived out in our homes.  

This passage also challenges me to make sure I am passing along my faith to my own family.  I was really encouraged this week to get this email from a young wife in our church.  Here’s part of what she wrote: We have been so blessed by this church…I have seen my husband grow so much (along with myself).  I used to nag him to read the Bible, and now he leads our family in prayers and listens to the Bible on CD in his free time!  He has become the encourager in our family.  So, thank you for your excitement to preach the Gospel.  It has changed our family in such amazing ways.”

Friends and family, let’s determine to encourage one another because each spiritual stage has its own challenges.  On top of that, the world exerts a powerful pull on each of us.  Our flesh screams out for fulfillment.  Some of us have been knocked out of our chairs.  Let’s come together and live out the message of Hebrews 3:13: “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”  Who will you encourage today?

Let’s close today by singing about God’s amazing grace.

Questions for Further Study

  1. Would you say that you are growing as a Christian or are you stalled out spiritually?  How committed are you?  50%?  75%? 100%?
  2. John emphasizes again the truth of forgiveness in Christ (2:12).  Why do you think he keeps repeating this throughout the book?
  3. In this passage John uses various terms of endearment from the family.  What basic affirmations of Christianity can even a “babe in Christ” understand according to verses 12-13?  
  4. Who is he referring to when he addresses them as “dear children”?  Why do you think “fathers” are singled out?
  5. Discuss the relationship between the phrase, “the word of God lives in you” and “you are strong” in verse 14?  How does this correspond to overcoming the evil one in verse 13?  Why are these assurances especially directed to young men?
  6. What promise in verses 12-14 is most important to you?  Why?
  7. Read 2:15.  Does this mean that we’re not supposed to love God’s world?  In what sense should Christians love the world (see John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:18-20)?  What about the world are we not to love according to 2:16?  
  8. Do you struggle more with cravings, lust of the eyes, or boasting over what you have and do?  How do these three things summarize what the world is all about?  Give examples from pop culture.
  9. What truth from Sunday’s sermon has most impacted you this week?  
  10. One pastor has said that if you’re 95% committed to Christ, you’re still 5% short.  What specifically is holding you back from complete commitment?  Share this with someone and begin praying that God will give you a sold-out heart for Him.
  11. Go through this passage again with your family and discuss what “children” and “young men” are to learn as well as the truths that “fathers” (parents) must hold on to.  How can you help each other to live out these truths?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?