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Be On Guard! (1 John 2:12-17)

Be On Guard!
1 John 2:12-17


Minister’s Summary:
God’s incarnational community that is learning to live in his light. Yet we remain surrounded by darkness! Its threat to our faith is real and ever-present. Even though it is passing away, we must be on our guard against its dangers.

Exegetical Notes

Here John provides a general warning to his community. Even though the darkness is passing away, it is still present. It can still infect and hinder the community. There are real dangers to faith. The solution to the danger, however, is to live in community and to have confidence in the community of believers who love God and love each other.

Confidence in the Community (2:12-14).

The text might be structured in this way to highlight the parallel thoughts.

children (teknia)because your sins have been forgiven
fathersbecause you have known him
young menbecause you have overcome the evil one
children (paidia)becauseyou have known the Father
fathersbecause you have known him
young menbecause you have overcome the evil one the word of God lives in you, you are strong


Why the difference in tenses between “write” and “wrote”? Some think the past tense refers to a previous writing (e.g., Gospel of John or 2 John), but I think it is best to see it as an emphatic "I have already written" (or, "let me say this twice"). John does use the aorist tense for what he has just written elsewhere in the letter (2:21, 26; 5:13). Consequently, whatever the point is, John is making it emphatically. The repetition underscores its importance.

Who are these groups? I do not think the difference between the two different words for "children" is anything more than stylistic variation in the repetition. It functions almost like a parallelism. Consequently, there are no more than three groups here. Watson suggests that John is employing the rhetorical strategy of distributio, conduplicatio and expolitio (distribution, reduplication and polishing). He addresses children (the church as a whole), and then distributes between two groups ("fathers" and "young men"). Then he reduplicates the whole saying and varies his reasons for addressing the groups as a form of polishing. Watson claims that the whole section is a digression that serves the affective function of endearing himself to his audience and creating goodwill. While it is possible that this rhetorical style influenced John, it may be more simply a reflection of Semitic repetition. Nevertheless, I think his distribution analysis makes sense and the total impact is that of the Greco-Roman rhetorical style. The three groups, then, may be seen in this light (with Brown, Westcott, and others): the whole church addressed as "children" who are then addressed as two groups within the church ("Fathers" and "Young Men").

Is the distinction between "Fathers" and "Young Men" based on age, dignity or pedagogy (teacher/student). Some even think that John may be addressing elders and deacons (Houlden) which I find implausible. But it may be any one of or some combination of the former three. "Fathers" probably refers to church leaders who were responsible for teaching and have a long history in the community as godly people. That would certainly suit "elders" as a category, but "fathers" is probably broader. "Young men" may refer to a specific group exclusive of women or a specific group of young men distinct from the "fathers" and the rest of the community, but probably refers to everyone who is not a "father" (to the rest of the community).

The "fathers" are praised because they know Jesus who is "from the beginning" which may reflect their pedagogical role. The youth are praised for their strength, commitment and defeat of the Evil One. Both are children who know the Father and their sins have been forgiven.

What is the point? This is the community. It has been forgiven of its sins and it knows the Father. It walks in the light. The leaders are praised because they remain steadfast in their knowledge of Jesus who walked in the light. The rest of the congregation is praised because it stands firm against evil in the strength that God provides. It is an affective, endearing appeal to the community as a united people in their walk with the Father and the Son. It is affirming and preparatory for the warnings to come in the rest of the chapter.

Warning: Appropriate Dualism (2:15-17).

Smalley (p. 80) notes three conceptual contrasts in these verses. The love of the world is contrasted with the love of the Father (2:15), the different origins of that love (2:16—one “from the world” and the other “from the Father”), and the duration of that love (2:17—worldly love passes away but the love of the Father remains forever).

This contrast forms the central flow of these verses. The elements of the world which human beings love so much are identified and set in strong dualistic opposition to what comes from the Father. The elements of the world and the love of the Father are opposites. This is another way to state the dualism of light versus darkness. This is not a contrast between material and spiritual, but between good and evil, between righteousness and unrighteousness.

While the world passes away, the one who "does the will of God" (like "do the truth") remains forever. The one who does the will of God is the one who loves like the Father loves, walk like Jesus walks, or the one who abides in the light of God. Only the love of the Father endures; the world will not. This is an eschatological perspective on human existence and the permanent character of God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.

I appreciate Brown's comment on the "pride of life." He translates the phrase as "material life that inflates self-assurance" (Brown, 311). It a false security in the materiality of life or overconfidence in one's security due to one's station or wealth or power. Worldliness is reflected in the attitude of withholding from your brother what he needs because you are driven by materialism and wealth. You may say you love your brother, but you do not "do the truth" (cf. 1 John 3:17-18 where failure to share the "world's life" is failure to love in deed and truth).

Burge rightly comments (p. 116): “These three characteristics are frequently compared with the temptations of Eve in the Garden of Eden or of Jesus in the desert (wrong interest, wrong passion and pride), but the parallels seem weak. John is rather sketching a sweeping portrait of what it means to be seduced by worldliness and the allure of sin."

What is the point of this dualism here? It contrasts light and darkness in yet another way and it drives home the point that the source of darkness is the world. The source, then, of a failure to love your brother in deed and truth is worldly. The dualistic picture here serves to support the command to love your brother rather than love the world. It serves to call again one to walk in the light by living out of the love of the Father rather than a love for the world.

Theological Perspectives

Stability in faith derives from sharing the love of the Father in community. John reminds his readers of the communal nature of their life together. They have “fathers”—links with the past. They share life together—they are all children of the Father, and they have all experienced victory in their lives through redemption. They have a shared experience, a shared history and a shared Father. Community is critical to faith and the endurance of faith.

Another factor, however—and foundational—is the “love of the Father.” This is the ground of community itself. This is what endures and it is the reason we endure. The love of the Father has an eternal quality that gives life and perfects us in life.

Consequently, John address two dangers here: the danger of losing a sense of connectedness with the community and the danger of losing the experience of divine love because the “world” has become too enticing for us. Darkness looks pretty on the outside, but it blinds those who embrace it. Its beauty does not last. But the love of the Father endures forever. It is eternal life.

Of course, for John the love of the Father is demonstrated, revealed and experience in relation to Jesus Christ who is the Word of Life.

Teaching Particulars

Function of Text: This appeals to the community to remain united in their walk with the Father and Son over against the dangers that the world offers.

Theology: The community has experienced the eternal nature of the Father's love so that what it has is permanent but what the world offers is transitory.

Application: Do not love the world because it is a darkness that is passing away. Rather, remain within God's community of light where genuine joy remains forever.

Teaching Outline: Whom do you Love?

1. Memory is an important factor in communal life. Memory shapes our future and the past provides stability for the future.

2. The community knows the Father and their sins have been forgiven. They live in the light of God's love and faithfulness. Our leaders have known God and we have overcome the Evil One. We are strong in God's light.

3. Therefore, do not be deceived by the glitter of the world's darkness. There is nothing permanent there. It is passing away. It will not endure.

4. Eternal life (permanence) is found in love of the Father. The light of God endures and the one who walks in the light endures.

5. The test is whether you love the brothers or hate them. When you love, you experience the eternal life of God, but when you hate, you participate in the passing darkness of the world.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How does the poetic saying of 2:12-14 root a community in a shared history, experience and faith?

2. Characterize your own community of faith in the light of its history and experience. How does it give your faith life and endurance? How has it shaped your faith? What victories are present in your community that encourage you to remain within it?

3. What does it mean to “love the world”? How is “world” defined here? Illustrate how worldliness is exhibited around you?

4. How does this worldliness endanger the community? How does it endanger your own personal faith? Where does the love of the world compete with the love of the Father in your own life?




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