The next three verses are an obvious unit. Here, we have two panels of three statements: “I write/wrote to you children/fathers/young men.” In the Bible, repetition often marks emphasis, but I think John is doing more than that here. As we look at the subtle changes he makes when he restates his reasons for writing, we learn something about how John views the Christian life.
v12. First, John addresses “dear children,” whose “sins have been forgiven on account of His name.” The word for “children” here certainly implies a young child (so “little children” is a good translation), but the primary emphasis probably is not so much on age as it is on relationship. A child is the offspring of someone. The term speaks either to the actual relationship the child enjoys with her parents or at least to the possibility (and expectation of) that relationship. We are, then, God’s “children” in virtue of the fact that our “sins have been forgiven on account of His name.” This is what all Christians have in common. It is the beginning and basis of the Christian life: our forgiveness in and for Him.
v13. Now John addresses “fathers.” The focus here is less again on age, much less on the notion of father’s having offspring of their own, than it is on idea of maturity or experience. A “father” is one who has “grown up.” In John’s thought, he is the head of his household. He is seasoned, certainly not a child! In fact, to treat a father like a child is insulting (unless he deserves it, in which case, the problem is that he is not acting like–he is not being–what he actually is!). This idea is confirmed by John’s description of them. He says, “you know Him who is from the beginning.” Once again, we see the idea of “knowing” God. These believers have “arrived” in the sense that they are doing what believers ought to do and are called to do. The difference in a child and a father is that one has a deep, intimate relationship with the Father, whereas the other is just coming into that relationship.
Finally John addresses “young men.” By now, we ought to expect less of an emphasis on age in the metaphor and more of an emphasis on a basic quality, which is just what we see. They are those who “have overcome the evil one.” The focus is on their strength, their vitality, which is, of course, just what we should think about “young men.”*
v14. In this verse, John addresses the same groups in the same order, but with some modifications.
First are the “children,” only he uses a slightly different word. Now the word has the idea of “one who is being taught”–a little student, if you will. And notice what he says about these little learners: they “know the Father.” The idea of relationship that is intrinsic to the previous word for “children” is made explicit here. Second, John’s referring to God as “Father” (rather than simply referring to “His name”) makes the family connection unmistakable. We who have had our sins forgiven by Christ are God’s children. As the old song says, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God / I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood.” This all suggests something about what it is these little learners are learning: what it means to be God’s children. In the previous section, John spent a lot of time talking about loving each other. As the text continues, he’s going to continue to explain just what it means to be God’s child.
Next up are the “fathers.” The most important thing here to note is that John doesn’t change anything. The wording is almost exactly the same as in the last verse. Why might that be? I’m convinced it is because once you are a “father”–once you have come to know God through Christ, when you are in that intimate relationship with Him–there’s nothing left to learn or do. I am certainly not suggesting here that such Christians have no further need of discipleship or Jesus or any other such thing. John isn’t saying these people are perfect. (Remember 1:8-10.) The point, rather, is that this is the place we all want to be. This is where we strive to abide. In a word, this is our goal–to know God.
Finally, John addresses the “young men” again. Whereas before the idea of strength and vitality was implicit in the word “young men,” now it is brought out explicitly: “You are strong.” But what is the source of their strength? Are these disciples who have spent years in diligent study, holding seminary degrees, and who serve as local pastors and Sunday School teachers? Perhaps they are, and perhaps they have, but that’s not what makes them “strong.” No, the reason they are strong is “because the Word of God abides in you.” In short, we are strong when we abide in Christ who in turn abides in us. For it is then His strength, and not ours, in which we operate.
I want to make one final point about this section before we move on. Why does John address children, then fathers, then young men? It would seem the more natural progression would be children, young men, and then fathers. That would make sense if we were to read these verses as speaking of three different stages of the Christian life, as if when I were first saved I was a baby, but then after hearing enough sermons I become a strong man, and finally after many years of experience and seasoning I could call myself a father. But I don’t think that’s what John is doing at all. I’m convinced that all three of these ideas apply, or at least ought to apply, to every believer. When we remember that the emphasis in these descriptions (children, young men, fathers) is less on age and more on quality, this becomes clearer. As a child of God, I in some sense share His nature. I am related to Him in a way the rest of the world is not. I am His, not simply because He is the Sovereign God, but because He is my Father. And being in such a relation, I should always be striving to be like Him, to know Him better. As a father, I am (hopefully) seasoned with the very real experience of having known Him. Christianity should never be a dry, academic faith, as if believing the right things is all that matters. God is Truth, and Truth is to be experienced and known in the very core of our being. Yet if we start out as children, and if the goal is to be mature, then how do we get there? By being strong, which we do by abiding in Christ. As we abide in Him and He in us, then through Him we overcome the world. Thus we come not only to see God as our Savior but as our Victor. If we live in faith, we will get to see God actually demonstrate His faithfulness to us. His power becomes something we experience, and it is in that experience that we come to know God experientially and personally.
In short, God is offering us Himself. We can have a living, vibrant faith so long as we abide in Him.
* There’s actually a fun wordplay here that you can’t see in English. The Greek word for “young men” is νεανισκοι (pronounced “ne-ah-NEES-coy”), while the word for “you have overcome” is νενικηκατε (pronounced “ne-nee-KAY-ka-te”). A translation that might capture some of this word play might be, “I write to you who are vigorous because of you have been victorious over the evil one.” To be clear, the important thing isn’t that you know Greek, or even the fun aside, so much as it is that you know that John is using a device like this to draw our attention to something. If John wants us to pay attention, then maybe we should!