1 John 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Encouragement to the Faithful
In some worship services, the congregation repeats the words of one of the creeds or confes sions of the church on a regular basis. When the familiar words of the Apostles' Creed are spoken again, those who have gathered to worship are reminded of truths that the church has cherished throughout history. Some churches instruct young people and new converts through a series of classes, structured around a review of the "great truths" of Scripture and perhaps one of the classic catechisms of the church. And many churches use songs and choruses that invite their hearers to "tell me the old, old story" or "sing them over again to me." Reciting the foundational truths that Christians believe and hold dear need not be mindless repe tition. Rather, when the church together recites, sings, studies or listens to the words of creed, confession, hymn or Scripture, read or recited repeatedly, it is also reminded of the faithfulness and constancy of God. We can depend on God to be the same from the beginning. This assur ance of God's stability and faithfulness comes to light in 2:12-14.
Because the Elder is probably quoting familiar, creedlike statements in 2:12-14, many translations (including the NIV) set these lines off to look like a quotation. Just as we might quote a hymn, creed or verse of Scripture to remind ourselves what we believe and to what we are committed, so here the author quotes these lines to serve just such a purpose. John cites the lines at this point to take his readers back to the beginning of their faith, and to remind them of what they have always believed. He has talked about the message that they have had from the beginning (1:1; 2:7), and now he summarizes its content at greater length. His readers are to remember who they are and what they have been given.
First, harking back to 1:6--2:2, John writes because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. On the one hand, this statement serves as a reminder of the way in which they entered the community, namely, through confessing their sins and receiving God's forgiveness in Christ. On the other hand, the statement also speaks of the present reality of the need for forgiveness that is readily and continually available.
The phrase on account of his name refers to the "name" of Christ. In Semitic thought the "name" stands for the whole person. To "believe in the name of the Son of God" (1 Jn 5:13) means, quite simply, to believe in Jesus himself. Similarly, forgiveness on account of his name means forgiveness for his sake, or for the sake of what he has done. What is in view is primarily the atoning sacrifice of Jesus' death on the cross (2:2). Because of Jesus' sacrificial self-giving, God forgives sins through him. Those who have experienced this forgiveness are the children of God, the author's own dear children, the congregation of faithful believers.
While the epithet dear children refers here, as throughout the epistle, to all the church, the author next divides the congregation into fathers and young men (so NIV). It is not uncommon in the Bible for the whole people to be thought of as consisting of "young and old." Sometimes these categories refer to chronological youth and age, sometimes to spiritual youth and maturity. Jeremiah promises the people that when God inaugurates the new cov enant, "they will all know [him], from the least of them to the greatest" (31:34). The prophet Joel, quoted by Luke in Acts, speaks of a time when "your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions" (Joel 2:28; compare Acts 2:17). Such language does not mean that only men are included, nor that those who are old experience one thing while the young experience another. Rather than pointing to divisions among the people, this language looks at the whole congregation, viewed from the least to the greatest, from new Christians to the mature, from young to old. What is true of one group is no less true of the other.
And yet it is not unfitting that John writes to those fathers that they have known the one who is from the beginning. By fathers he means those who have wisdom and maturity that comes with experience. Fa thers need not connote men only, and we might render it as "elders," provided that we do not then think of church officers. In this verse it may be that Jesus Christ is the one who is from the beginning. Elsewhere in the epistle the Elder speaks of several things that have been "from the beginning," such as the message that has been delivered (2:24; 3:11; compare 1:1) and the command that has been passed on (2:7). What John means by such descriptions is not so much that these things have always existed--the command to love "as I have loved you," for exam ple, was given in a particular historical place and time--but that as long as they have existed they have been the same. Both the foundational message that the Elder proclaims and the command to love have re mained unchanged over the years. And Jesus Christ, the agent through whom God forgives sin, has not changed over the years either. If the "elders" came into the church through the forgiveness of Christ, they can be assured that he is the same, and that his forgiveness is constant--and continually needed. Their knowledge of him does not need to undergo a radical transformation. Christ has been faithful, even as the "elders" have been faithful in their commitment to him.
The Elder writes to those who are young, whether chronologically or spiritually, because you have over come the evil one. Since youth and strength are often linked together, the epistle's words about overcoming are appropriately directed to those who are young. But here the imagery does not suggest physical strength so much as it does perseverance in the life of faith and commitment. These words are reminiscent of Isaiah 40:31, that "those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. . . . They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint."
Like Paul, the author of 1 John views the struggle in which human beings are engaged as a struggle against "principalities and powers." For the evil one who is mentioned here is the devil (3:8, 12), the "one who is in the world" (4:4). John does not mean that God has abandoned this world to the power of evil, or that evil is stronger than God. As one hymn states it, "Although the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet." So it is that those who have been forgiven on account of his name have overcome the evil one. Through the forgiveness that comes in Christ they have escaped from the power of the evil one, which manifests itself through slavery to sin and death (Jn 8:31-36). The Elder does not write that they will overcome or that they can overcome but that they have overcome. They have been transferred from death to life, from darkness to light. That they live in the sphere of light and life is their victory, their overcoming. Christians have overcome not by means of their own moral achievement, but through the victory over the power of evil won in Christ's death and resurrection (compare 1 Jn 3:8; 5:4-5, 18-19).
The Elder has a realistic view of what that victory implies. Already he has made it clear that it does not mean the Christian lives without sin in this life. Victory is not found in moral perfection, but in having the discernment to know the way to life and to walk in it. Now his readers need to be admonished to take what was an initial choice and make it a continued commitment. Again, the metaphor of the path is appropriate, for victory is not a plateau that is attained but a path on which we have set out and on which we continue to walk.
Having outlined three central truths of the Christian life for his readers, John seems to start over by addressing, again, children, fathers (elders) and young men (people). He reiterates the same truths, but makes a few crucial changes. He reminds his dear children that what is ultimately at stake here is knowledge of God (you have known the Father). Although the English translation obscures it, the author uses a different and more emphatic verb (the aorist) when he writes, I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father. It is as if he says, "What I have written to you, I repeat: you have known the Father." What is striking is that in verse 12 he actually wrote to his dear children because your sins have been forgiven. That forgiveness was offered through the mediation of Christ. In this way the Elder links what he writes about knowledge of the Father to what he has written about forgiveness through Christ: the only way to knowledge of the Father is through "the name" of Jesus Christ.
Once again (v. 14) John writes to the elders that they have known him who is from the beginning. Whereas earlier this phrase characterized Jesus, here it seems to refer to the Father, mentioned in the previous verse. The Father is unchanging. If the "elders" were promised that they knew the Father as they made their initial confession of faith, they need not fear that their knowledge has proven defective in any way.
Finally, the young people are once again addressed. Again they are told, you have overcome the evil one, but two explanatory clauses are now added: you are strong and the word of God lives in you. Basically these two clauses express the same truth captured by the statement you have overcome the evil one, but with the added nuance of resisting false doctrine (Smalley 1984:79). For the Elder can speak not only of over coming the evil one (2:13-14) and of overcoming the world (5:4), but also of overcoming "them," the false prophets inspired by the spirit of antichrist (4:4). John promises his readers that in remaining faithful to the message they have always heard, they are remaining faithful to the very word of God. It lives in them. But because the dissidents have left the word of God, that word no longer abides in them.
In summary, then, this section demonstrates the same pastoral con cern for building up the congregation that we have seen before. By reminding them of who they are and what they have been given, John assures his readers that they can be confident that they know God. Each statement of verse 14 describes the believer's standing in salvation: as children of God, they are strong, they have God's word abiding in them and they have overcome the evil one. But these are not simply abstract truths or credal assertions. The author's point is twofold: First, we can have confidence with God because God is not capricious or fickle, ar bitrarily tinkering with the truth or changing the grounds on which he is to be known. Second, this same, faithful God is not alien and distant, but knowable--knowable to us, knowable to me--in the love of Christ. What God revealed in Christ was not a new side of the divine character, but the confirmation of the love and forgiveness that have always char acterized God's actions.
What the Elder writes is not new to his readers. But it serves a useful function to lay it all out again, to spell out exactly what constitutes the "way of life." By so doing, John prepares his readers for the warnings that follow (2:15-17). If they have chosen the way of life, the way of forgiveness and knowledge of God, they must continue in their commit ment to it. For there is no other truth and no other way, except the love of the world--and that way is incompatible with the love of God.