12 January 2017

1 John 2:12-17

“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.” (v. 12)

Psalm: Psalm 10:1-12


This short section of the letter begins with a rhythmical passage, which looks good on the page, but which raises some questions of interpretation. To whom are the words addressed? If the writer addresses all Christians as 'little children' (1 John 2:1) then why are fathers and young people (or 'young men' in some translations), singled out for a special message? Or if they are addressing different age groups within the church, then children being the only ones whose sins are forgiven seems rather inappropriate.

If we make the assumption that "children" refers to all Christians, then possibly the distinction made between "fathers" and "young people" refers to those who are mature in faith and those whose faith is new. Certainly the words addressed to fathers in verses 13 and 14 are identical, and imply that they are firm in faith. But the young are described as having "conquered the evil one" (v.13) and being strong, with the word of God abiding in them (verse 14). Is the writer congratulating them for not succumbing to the new teaching which had divided the church? Maybe that teaching came into the fellowship through those who were new converts and the ones praised in the letter, though new to faith, have remained faithful to the traditional gospel.

But if the initial greeting "little children" refers to all Christians, then perhaps this passage means that for everyone the life of faith begins with the forgiveness of sins, and continues into an experience of God the Father through Christ, that it is a continuing battle against the powers of evil, but there is victory through Christ.

This passage ends with warnings about getting priorities wrong. Verse 15 seems to go against the ringing words of John's Gospel "God so loved the world …" (John 3:16), but it does not refer to the whole inhabited world. Rather it refers to those aspects of the world which go against the will and purposes of God. The letter spells them out - "the desire of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, the pride in riches" (v. 16).These are the things which can corrupt human life, and must be controlled. We need to remember that this letter was written in the expectation that all things would soon end, and this is worked out in the remainder of chapter 2.

To Ponder

  • How would you translate the three aspects of worldliness mentioned in verse 16 in 21st-century terms?
  • How would you encourage someone in their life of faith?

Bible notes author

The Revd Richard Bielby

Richard is a supernumerary Methodist presbyter in Stockton on Tees. He is a part-time prison chaplain and also serves as a voluntary chaplain at Durham Cathedral.