“I write to you...” (1 John 2:12).
Like individual notes to specific groups tucked into a letter to the whole community, John seems to dole out various correspondence. “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake. I write to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one” (1 John 2:12–14).
How are we to understand this? Does John want us to separate that correspondence from the general community and deliver the notes to their respective youth groups and men’s groups in our local church? Is he giving teaching that is for their ears only?
I think what John is doing is this: he is speaking to each of us in various stages of our Christian maturity. In verse 7 he addresses the “brethren” (v. 7, or “beloved”), the whole Christian community. Now in the poetic style of the Old Testament prophet, he addresses three groups – children, fathers, and young men – using the word “because” to highlight what is characteristic of each group. For emphasis, John addresses each group two times in two different tenses, such as we might talk to our children: “I am telling you for the hundredth time what I already told you.”
We might think of these stages in this way: children are new believers; young men are those in the trenches of the Christian life; fathers are those seasoned in the faith. When I would attend our annual denominational meeting, I would regularly hear the assembly addressed as “fathers and brethren,” not different groups so much as different stages.
We can summarize the picture John paints. A child is new to the faith, fresh in the knowledge of forgiveness of sins, enjoying peace in relationship with the Father. A young believer is very much involved in living out the Christian faith, engaged with the evil one in his or her life and work for Christ. A father is one who has grown in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ over the years and who knows deep intimacy with God.
When I look at my family photo albums I see my children in the various stages of their physical maturity. John lays out for us what is characteristic of our spiritual growth and development, not by way of replacement but development. Children are to grow and their features as they do will be recognizable as Christ is formed in them. Together we are part of a Christian community who walk in light rather than darkness.
How might the various maturity levels in Christian community relate to one another?