Our passage today is 1 John 2:12-17.
12 I am writing to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
13 I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.
14 I write to you, dear children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Fatheris not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.1 John 2:12-17
I want to jump right in by looking at verses 12-14. The first thing to say about this is that we shouldn’t read anything into the fact that John addresses only fathers and young men – there’s no mention of mothers or young women. I don’t want to go into the details of why I believe this, but I hope it suffices to say that addressing only the males would be a normal way of speaking in that culture. However, I think we are safe in assuming that John has in mind the whole people of God, women included.
The other thing I want to say about this passage actually amounts to my not saying very much at all. And that is that there are an awful lot of questions about these verses in Biblical Studies circles. Some of those questions are things like, “where did these verses come from?” That is, the verses have the form of a hymn, a poem, or an aphorism. Did it originate with John? Or is he borrowing a well-known saying. If he’s borrowing a well-known saying, does he modify it for the Christian context? And what does any such modification tell us?
Other questions have to do with, for example, the repetition of phrases – John addresses children, fathers, and young men, each twice. And twice he says the phrases, “because you know him who is from the beginning,” and “because you have overcome the evil one.” What does the repetition, and also the unique phrases in each, tell us?
As well, there are questions of grammar or language. In the first half of the “hymn,” John says (in the NIV), “I am writing to you.” But in the second half, he writes, “I write to you.” In the Greek, this represents the present tense and the aorist tense (which is usually, but not always, translated as past tense).
And there are many other such questions about the passage, all of which seem to lack any consensus by biblical scholars.
So all of that to say, regarding all of these questions about this passage, that I won’t attempt to draw a conclusion on most of these issues – at least at an academic level. In short, I tend to think we can draw a couple of conclusions about these verses (12-14) – and this may be a bit of a cheat because I’m not really addressing the issues I mentioned. Firstly, I think it’s safe to say that John, in this structure and style, is addressing the entire people of God. Members of this people may be new to the faith, they may be “old” or established in the faith, or they may be somewhere in between. But John is speaking to them all. He draws them all together under one umbrella. Which brings us to the second thing that I think we can conclude, or at least that I think we should focus on. And that is that the constitution of this people, the identity of the people, is found in their relationship with God. Specifically, John says that:
- Their sins have been forgiven on account of his name
- They know him who is from the beginning
- They have overcome the evil one
- They know the Father
- They know him who is from the beginning
- They are strong, the word of God lives in them, and they have overcome the evil one.
So in short, I think John is saying to this people something like, “you are all on different points along your journey, but you have all entered or been brought into this Christ-life.”
If we once more set this against the backdrop of a group of separatist false teachers who are leading (or trying to lead) some astray, we might understand that John is once again emphasizing that this is a people who depends on God, who puts their faith in God, and seeks to know God. This is a people who seeks to walk in the light. This is who they are; this is how John wants to identify them.
And so, John delivers these next few verses:
15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Fatheris not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.1 John 2:15-17
Once again, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but we might very well read verse 15 as beginning with a “therefore.” We might hear John say, “You have been brought into, you have become part of, you have entered into the life of the people of God. Therefore, do not love the world or anything in the world…” Or we might hear something like, “You are on the God-path; therefore, don’t start walking on another path.”
Now again, I want to point out a couple of things about this passage that I hope might be helpful. Firstly, I want to say something about John’s use of the phrase “the world,” or “in the world.” And I want to again set that in the context of John’s frequent use of dualisms. For John, the world is very much that which is not of God. And of course we need to understand that in the context of the fall (and our on-going fallenness). We have frequently pointed out that the original sin of Adam and Eve had to do with desiring and choosing to be gods unto themselves – knowing (or determining) for themselves what is good and evil. However, that choosing for themselves (or determining for themselves) also very much entails rejecting God’s values, God’s boundaries, and God’s order. By choosing for themselves or ourselves, human beings are saying, “God, we don’t want your world, we don’t want your life, we want to make our own.” The love for the Father is not in them.
Now of course we know that, or we’re familiar with that. But the point that I want to emphasize is that “the world,” in John is not some external arena that we can exit by walking out the door. We can’t leave the world by creating a Christian nirvana or pseudo-empire. We can’t leave the world or reject the world by only engaging in “Christian” activities or purchasing only “Christian” products or participating in only “Christian” systems. Because the world is not without, it’s within. When we read, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them,” we need to examine not what’s around us, but what’s within us.
Which leads us to verse 16 which says,
16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.
John gives us three categories of “in the world” which we need to watch out for: The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (most other English translations simply say, “the desires of the flesh… etc.”). I want to be careful about over-interpreting these because we don’t want to get the impression that there are only three things. However, I. Howard Marshall defines these as follows (and as rephrased and simplified by myself):
The desires of the flesh, that is desires that come from the flesh, have to do with various aspects of human, bodily life. These may include things like food or drink or sexual gratification. But in essence, these seem to have to do with sensual (that is, of the senses) desire.
The desire of the eyes has to do with greed that is aroused by what one sees. This may seem not too different from the former, but it may help to think in terms of covetousness – i.e. the commandment that prohibits or warns against coveting what others have.
The third item listed is translated by the NIV (and others) as “the pride of life.” The NRSV, helpfully, translates this as “the pride in riches.” Marshall explains that the word translated “life” (again, by the NIV and other English translations) can be understood as the things that support life, or perhaps “make up life.” The phrase, “pride of life,” can essentially be taken to mean something like pride in the things that you have.
Taking that understanding, we can extrapolate this to understand “pride in riches” (NRSV) as extending to not only things, but also position or power. In the Ancient Near East, and many other cultures (including our own), possession or riches is often equated to position or prestige or power. Taking pride in riches is often not solely a matter of material wealth but of social standing. “Pride of life,” then, can likely be understood as this desire for social superiority.
Again, we should probably be careful about seeking to be overly-specific in terms of these three categories. It seems evident that John has in mind a general disposition, or a general orientation towards things of the world instead of the things of God. John is bringing our attention towards the incompatibility of the way of the world, the way of life in which we valorize our own sinful desires, priorities, and values instead of seeking the true life which is found in God and made possible through Christ. All of these things, John tells us, will pass away. They will be revealed as temporary, false, and illusory as the will of God, the purposes of God, are made complete in Jesus.
17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
Now there’s a sense in which this all is so obvious that it may not seem worth talking about. If we have been Christian for any length of time, we know that we’re supposed to live for God and not for the world. We know that we’re supposed to avoid sin and seek holiness. We know that we’re supposed to be living for the kingdom. We know all of this so why does John bother saying it? Or why is he making such a big deal about it?
Well, among other things, we remember that John is dealing with a congregation that is facing division, facing turmoil because of false teachers. We could suppose that these false teachers are teaching a different kind of holiness than what John is talking about – that kind of holiness that is revealed to him by Jesus. I have no doubt that this is true – John is trying to return people to their true calling – to live life in and through Christ.
But I also think that John’s words are important, even crucial, because of the simple fact that we aren’t actually very good at identifying when we’re living according to the ways and values of the world. We are so immersed in the ways of the world, so shaped by the ways of the world, and so blinded by our own sinfulness and brokenness that we most of the times cannot distinguish between the darkness and the light.
There is a somewhat famous quote which tells us that the devil does not come to us in a red cape and horns but as an angel of light. And I want to say something similar about the world – that is, the world that is not God’s kingdom. The world does not lead us astray through obvious temptations, immoral activities, or rampant debauchery. Rather, the world seems eminently reasonable, often upright, and leading to glory.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is, “How are we living in the world? How are we seeking or desiring the things of the world instead of the things of God?” And more to the point, how can we know the difference? Here, we are moving into the realm of my personal reflections, but it seems to me that for John, the answer was contained in the person of Jesus. For John, the difference between the apostolic witness (of which he was a part) and the false teachers was, “he had heard, he had seen with his eyes, he had looked upon and his hands had touched” the person of Jesus. It was this Jesus that John proclaims. It was this Jesus which he invited the community to have fellowship with.
We don’t have that, but we have the witness, the testimony, the very word of God. I hope that you’ll understand what I’m trying to say and forgive what I’m not trying to say, but scripture properly understood is not primarily instruction, not even primarily guidance, but it is primarily revelation. What I mean by that is that the bible is often treated as a set of rules or regulations. If I can say that a little gentler, I have many times heard scripture referred to as a handbook or guidebook for life. Looked at this way, we mine scripture for the things we have to do and the things we have to avoid in order to stay on God’s good side and make our way into heaven. Everything else, essentially, can be ignored (or shoehorned into the former).
There’s actually an exegetical approach that (in my opinion) is based on such an understanding – the principlizing method.
Of course I’m being a little hyperbolic (because of course the Bible gives plenty of instruction and guidance), and at the same time I’m not saying anything new (that we all can and need to read and pay attention to the bible better). We are all aware of this tendency and try to do better at it. And none of us read or hear the word of God perfectly.
But simply what I want to say is that in scripture, God reveals to us who He is, God reveals to us His character, His holiness, His purposes, and His great love for us. And if we want to know what it is to live in the light, if we want to know what it is to have fellowship with God, if we want to know what it is to walk as Jesus walked – as opposed to walking in the way of the world – we need to hear, to see with our eyes, to look upon and touch the person of Jesus, the Son of God, and God very God, as revealed to us through the revelation of God.
So my recommendation and suggestion to you this week (and I hope on-going) is that you spend time regularly in scripture. My specific recommendation to you would be that, as we work our way through 1 John, you might want to read John’s gospel alongside. Pay attention to Jesus as he’s shown to us by John. Pay attention to His character, His concerns, His priorities in announcing the Kingdom of God. Notice how He calls us into life – into eternal life – because of His great love for us.