I write unto you, my little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write unto you, fathers, because ye know him who is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the evil one. I have written unto you, little children, because ye know the Father. I have written unto you, fathers, because ye know him who is from the beginning. I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the evil one (1 John 2:12-14).
John’s first letter represents his encouragement of Christians to maintain their association with God and to walk in Christ’s ways so that his joy might be complete (1 John 1:4). He does so through indicating His relationship with Jesus (1 John 1:1-4), the message of God to be the light and not the darkness (1 John 1:5-7), sin and forgiveness (1 John 1:8-10), knowing Christ and following His commandments (1 John 2:1-6), and love for the brethren (1 John 2:7-11).
Then there is 1 John 2:12-14, a passage that has engendered some controversy. Some believe that the text is corrupted at this point on account of its redundancy and style. Concerning whom does John write? What is he trying to say? What are we supposed to gain from this interesting passage?
We have no good evidence to believe that the text is corrupted at this point. We would do well to set aside such speculations and try to make sense of the text as revealed and preserved.
John seems to be writing some form of poetry– a series of statements perhaps more easily memorized or remembered. The statements have parallelism: a, b, c, a, b, c. The purpose is also somewhat ambiguous. On the surface, it would seem to represent John’s statement of purpose for writing, and yet he has already presented one such statement in 1 John 1:4. Furthermore, no actual purpose is presented– John speaks more about the condition of the “children,” “young men,” and “fathers” more than he does about why he writes to them.
The “little children” are those who have their sins forgiven and who know the Father (1 John 2:12-13). While some may believe that John is writing to actual children, such is unlikely: they have no sins to forgive (Matthew 18:1-4), and he uses this phrase often to refer to believers (1 John 2:1, 5:23). In this passage, it would seem that John has believers who are young in the faith in mind– he expands the connection with children, making the connection between what Jesus says about children in the flesh with the state of younger believers (cf. Matthew 18:1-4 et al). Their faith may be young, but it has a strong purity, innocence and devotion.
The “fathers” are those who “know Him who is from the beginning” (1 John 2:13-14). While fathers according to the flesh might be in view, it is again likely that John refers to spiritual “fathers”, like Paul was for Timothy (1 Timothy 1:2), mentors and shepherds and guides in the faith. They help encourage and direct younger believers in their faith, seeking honor not for themselves, but for the One who saved them (cf. Matthew 23:9-10). Their time on God’s path has been longer and fraught with more dangers, and they have gained appreciation for God who has been from the beginning.
The “young men” are “strong,” “the word of God abides” in them, and they have “overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:13-14). Those in this category seem to be in the middle among the “little children” and the “fathers”: believers in full bloom of the faith, striving diligently to serve God, not yet at the point of having the experience and wisdom to be the “father,” yet having grown significantly from being the “little child.”
It would seem, therefore, that John uses these three categories to encourage all believers in Christ. All of us– men and women, married and single, parents and grandparents– are “little children,” “young men,” or “fathers.” It all depends on where we stand in our faith. John provides statements of encouragement for each category, indicating that each has their role: one is not better because he is a “father” and not a “young man,” but at a different place in the faith with different responsibilities. God has composed the church to have many different people to work together (Romans 12:3-8). All must grow and should aspire to being a “father” one day, but all provide value to the Body when they serve God with the faculties they have been given. Whether we are little children, young men, or fathers, let us stand firm for the faith and serve God!