January 3, 2021
Some people thrive on tests. They’re the ones who come to class prepared on test day– pen or pencil in hand. Eager to prove themselves once again. The teacher passes out the test face down. These prepared students are on the edges of their seats, holding a corner of the paper, ready for the teacher to say, turn your papers over and begin. They flip the page, begin writing furiously – and don’t stop till their done. Of course, they’re usually the first ones done – practically dancing up the row, big smile, handing the test in at the teacher’s desk. Another opportunity to demonstrate their superiority, preparation and hard work.
Then, there are the rest of us. Maybe worked hard and prepared, but the shaking hands are still sweaty holding the pencil. Nervously glancing around the room, wondering if you’ll know the answers and pass the test. The last one to hand the test in when time is called or the bell rings. Wondering until the test is graded and returned, how you did. And at that moment, there’s nothing better than getting the test back with a good grade, even a positive comment from the teacher. Great job, exclamation point.
This in now our seventh sermon in the book of I John. If we were honest, we’d have to say it’s been a little tough/difficult. John has been a little hard on us. Well, actually, on false believers who were spreading their lies, had left the church, and were seeking others to join them in their supposed spiritual enlightenment. And so, John takes them to task. Three times in the first chapter, he targeted these false teachers, saying things like:
- If we say we have fellowship with Him, and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
- If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
- If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.
Very clearly, John is exposing these false believers. Oh, they saw themselves as special, having arrived at some higher level of spiritual enlightenment. They were spiritual, just ask them. And yet, while claiming they had no sin, they walked in utter darkness. The truth was not in them. They were not true believers. They did not have eternal life. You see, John will say in I John 5, in the two verse before his purpose statement, “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Well, John wasn’t done. He got to chapter 2 and said things like:
- The one who says, I have come to know Him, and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. [That’s interesting. In chapter 1, he said, if we say we have no sin, we’re liars. Now he says, if we say we know Him and don’t keep His commandments, we are liars. No sin on one hand – not keeping His commandments on the other – there’s a balance – and Jesus is in the middle of that balance. Remember verse 1 of chapter 2? I’m writing these things so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Do you see? Two extremes to avoid – with Jesus in the middle – we cling to Him.]
- The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as Jesus walked.
- The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now.
From those statements, as well as a cursory review of the rest of the letter, we find John is administering a test – with three questions. Hands should perhaps be shaking, palms sweaty – because to fail this test is more significant than failing a class or repeating a grade. And you have to pass with a hundred percent – you must get all three questions correct, or you fail the test. You see, miss one, and you have a 66 – that’s failing. I don’t know about new grading systems where everyone gets a participation ribbon. You cannot fail this test. What is the test? Are you a genuine believer? Pass the three questions of this test:
The theological test – you must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh, to die and be raised again as a propitiation for His people.
The moral test – you must seek to obey His commandments. You must pursue holiness. John doesn’t say you have to be perfect – again he says, if you sin, you still have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous. But, the overall characteristic of your life is to walk in the light, as He is in the light – to walk as Jesus walked.
The relational test – you must love other Christians. And we will see in the rest of the book, this is an active love. This love does something. It is a love that demonstrates itself with words of encouragement and actions of love.
I’m going to talk about this more in the weeks to come, but you cannot just say you are spiritual – that sounds a lot like enlightened. You’ve reached some spiritual plateau – and maybe you even like Jesus – you think He was a good man. Changed the world with His teaching, He did. But if you don’t see Him as the Son of God, come in the flesh, there is no hope for you.
If you try to be good, most of the time, but you think the Bible is a little antiquated and outdated – and you believe in some new morality outside what the Bible says – there is no hope for you.
And if you say you’re spiritual, but you don’t really love Christians – you think them intolerant, bigoted – you just don’t have much to do with the church – there is no hope for you.
Strong words, I know. Now remember, it is only simple repentance and faith in Jesus that saves you – but seeking to obey His commands and loving other Christians proves you have been saved.
So again, three tests John gives to ascertain the reality of Christian faith. And maybe over the past six weeks – six sermons – you’ve felt a little out of sorts, a little irritable. You’ve thought John, or me, to be a little too strong. A little difficult to swallow. I get that. John seems to understand it, too. Because we come to a text today where he seeks to encourage us, his readers. He knows we are taking the test – hands shaking, palms sweating. Oh, there may be those at the front of the line, ready to prove themselves faithful. But for others, it’s perhaps been a little challenging – and you’re wondering. See John, as the teacher, making his way up and down the aisles, and offering words of encouragement – great job, exclamation point. That is the point of the text today, in the middle of chapter 2. Read it with me – I John 2:12-14.
I want you to understand something. John did not write this letter to the false teachers – the false so-called believers – who had left the church. No, he’s writing about them. He wrote to true believers who were struggling. Who had heard the words of the false teachers, and were confused, maybe even tempted to follow. Were they right? How do I know I have eternal life? John is not writing to condemn his readers, but to encourage them – to give them tests he expects them to pass – to give them assurance that they are indeed faithful followers of Jesus.
Remember the purpose verse: These things I have written to you so that you may know that you have eternal life. Not so you fail the tests, but having passed the tests, you can have assurance. I remember Howard Hendricks wrote a book called the Seven Laws of the Teacher. I don’t remember the seven laws, but I remember him making this statement – the teacher is not teaching if the student is not learning.
Now certainly, the student has the responsibility to learn. But the point was, good teachers teach so that their students will learn. And a good teacher doesn’t give a test to fail the student, but to pass the student. To ascertain if they’ve grasped the material. So also, John and I want you to not only pass, not only grasp, but apply the material.
They are serious tests – but he expects us, as true followers of Jesus – to pass. And further, to demonstrate that those who deny the deity of Jesus come in the flesh, who live ungodly lives, who don’t love other family members – are not truly Christians. But also encourage us – and to challenge us in those truths. Sanctification – is a lifelong process in the life of the believer. We need regular encouragement, admonition, confrontation, accountability to pursue Christ together.
So, he gets to these verses and seeks to encourage us. He has been a bit challenging. But now, I’m writing to you, not them, to you, as children, young men, and fathers, because your sins have been forgiven, you have overcome the evil one, and you know Him who has been from the beginning. So be encouraged. These are gospel benefits that he addresses in the rest of the letter – and they are yours through your faithful commitment to the gospel.
Now, I don’t know about you, but in my regular Bible reading, whenever I’ve read these verses, I’ve scratched my head. What is John saying, what is he doing here? He’s simply reminding us, encouraging us, by telling us who we are. In fact, while seemingly out of place, challenging to grasp, most suggest this is a highpoint in the letter – maybe even the highpoint. Because, he’s not writing to discourage – but to encourage us. And he does so by highlighting things that are true of us, reminds us who we are, to strengthen our faith and encourage further faithful growth.
There is an intentional literary structure here. In a largely oral culture, he’s trying to grab our attention, and give us things we can easily remember. It’s like when I say, listen, or, to be clear, or pay attention. This structure is seeking to do just that. Let me show you:
Three times, he says, I am writing, in the present tense. I’ve picked up the quill, and right now I am writing. But then, he says three times, I have written, past tense. Is he referring to two different times of writing? No, he’s simply saying, I am writing, I am writing, I am writing – then he says, I have written, I have written, I have written – he says it for emphasis, because he largely repeats what he just wrote. I am writing, I have written, now don’t miss it.
And he identifies three groups of people: children, young men, and fathers. Lots of discussion about that. Some suggest he is writing to three groups of people which represent various stages of the Christian life – children, young, then old. Possible. Others note, when he says my little children a number of times in this letter, he is writing to everyone. So, some suggest he says, I writing to you all as children, but some of you are young in the faith, and some are old. Possible.
Still others note the use of the masculine – young men, and fathers. So, is he only writing to male believers? Most agree not – they are simply representative of the church family – much like we used to use masculine pronouns when speaking of everyone. Or, like many authors of Scripture write, brethren, or brothers, that certainly includes women.
So, I’m not fully convinced if he is writing to three groups, or just two – but the point is, we are at various stages of spiritual growth and development, and we all want these things to be said of us as we mature in the faith. He’s writing to these people who have not succumbed to the false teachers, who have not left the church. So, what does he say?
- To little children, I am writing to you because your sins have been forgiven for His name’s sake, and as a result, you know the Father.
- To young men, I am writing to you because you have overcome the evil one, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you.
- To fathers, I am writing to you because you know Him who has been from the beginning.
Let’s look at each of those for a moment. To little children, I’m writing to you because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. This is the essence of the gospel. People, all people, by their sin have rebelled against God’s sovereign and good rule. He said don’t, and we did. He said do, and we didn’t. As a result, we have no relationship with Him as Father. We are accountable to Him, and judgment for our sin is right and good and proper.
But God loved us anyway, and sent His Son, the Christ, God in the flesh, to do what we could never do. He atoned for our sins by bearing our sins, dying on a cross in our place, and by simple faith in Jesus, we can be saved from our sin and its consequent punishment. Through faith in Jesus, our sins are forgiven. This is the consistent message of Scripture. Though your sins be as scarlet, they will be white as snow. It is the promise of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31:33-34,
33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
34 “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
This central truth is most of the sermons of Acts. Consider Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. Having preached Jesus as the Christ, crucified and resurrected, those listening were pierced to the heart, and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter answered, Acts 2:38, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In his second sermon at the Temple, after healing the lame beggar, he said in Acts 3:19, “Therefore, repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
Glance through Acts, and you’ll find this was a typical part of the gospel presentation. The reason we need to be saved is because we are sinners. Our society doesn’t use that word much anymore, because sin is ultimately committed against God, to whom we will give an account. So, if you don’t believe in God, or your standards of morality are horribly skewed and unbiblical, then you don’t really believe in sin, either. But sinners we are – and the very great news of the gospel is that through Jesus, God forgives our sins.
In fact, please notice – for His (Jesus) name’s sake. When the Scripture speaks of a name like this, it speaks of all the person is. For example, if I say to you, I come to you in the name of the President, you know that means more than I come to you in the name of Donald or Joe. It means I come in the name of all the presidency represents. So also, when John says, we are forgiven for His name’s sake – it is because of who Jesus is, the Christ, the Son of God, and what He accomplished when He came. We are forgiven not because of us – we don’t deserve it – but because Him – for His name’s sake.
And notice something else critically important, meant to be an encouragement to us. I pointed out that John writes, in the present tense. He writes, in the past tense. Because – and every result – every because is in the perfect tense. I told you a few weeks ago – it’s my favorite. Because the perfect tense means something happened in the past with ongoing effect. Every one of these is perfect tense. Here, your sins are forgiven – in the past, with ongoing effect – to the present day. He’s providing assurance of salvation. Because you have believed in Christ, your sins were, and are to the present day, on into eternity – forgiven. Hallelujah.
And as a result, you know the Father. Remember, the false teachers were likely proto-Gnostics, who claimed to have a special knowledge and therefore special relationship with God. John uses their word, to know, to say to us, because our sins are forgiven, we know the Father. We truly know the Father. Don’t listen to those who want to entice you with something besides the gospel – something besides Jesus. Remember – our sins are forgiven for His name’s sake – for the sake of Jesus. And we are reminded, the only way to the Father – to be reconciled to Father, to know the Father intimately in a Father-child relationship – is through the Son. I am the way, the truth and the life – no one comes to Father except through Me.
Next, to the fathers – we’ll take them in the order John writes them – he says it twice – I write to you because you know Him who has been from the beginning. The only difference is, I write to you, I have written to you. Because they know Him who has been from the beginning. This is possibly because they are older, at least older in the faith, and have known Christ for some time now – perhaps even the beginning of the gospel proclamation. These are more mature men and women who have the responsibility care for and lead other believers.
But it also possibly means, you know Jesus – who was from the beginning. You see, we remember John 1:1, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. You actually know Jesus, as God, who was with God in the beginning. You know – perfect tense – and you continue to grow in your knowledge of the One who is eternal, with God throughout eternity.
Third, to the young men, I am writing to you, I have written to you because you have overcome the evil one. The evil one refers to the devil. What does that mean? Well, later we’ll see in chapter 3 that Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil. What are the works of the devil? That certainly includes encouraging humankind’s sinful rebellion against God. It certainly includes his attacks against us – tempting us to sin, seeking to destroy us as he sought to do Job, seeking to devour us through temptation to evil and perpetrating evil. He is evil through and through.
But the young men – young believers – through their faith in Jesus, have overcome the evil one – his desire to tempt us, to destroy us. Don’t miss how John qualifies it the second time he writes it in verse 14, lest there be any confusion. Yes, you have overcome the evil one – Satan himself, because you are strong. How so? Because the word of God abides in you. This is how we defeat Satan. Not in our own strength. We remember even Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness, overcame Satan’s temptations three times by the word of God.
So also, when Peter says, your adversary the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, so resist him. How? Firm in your faith. James says, resist the devil, and he will flee from you. So do it – resist him in your own strength? No. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Next verse, draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. As you draw near to God, through His word, by His Spirit, the devil will flee, because he will not want anything to do with you. Because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world.
Brothers and sisters, be encouraged. Your sins are forgiven, and you know the Father. You have overcome the evil one because you are strong as the Word of God abides in you. You know Him who was from the beginning. Test passed. Excellent job.