How many of you are familiar with Dear Abby? For those who are not, let me say that Dear Abby is an advice column that was started way back in 1956 by Pauline Phillips who wrote under the pen name Abigail van Buren. She died earlier this year but her daughter continues to write under the same pen name. And over the years, they have received some choice letters from their readers.
One of my favorites came from a retired school teacher who told about an assignment she gave her students one day. She told them to take out a piece a paper and list the names of the other students in the class. She then had them write down next to each name the nicest thing they could say about the other person. She then took the papers home that night and compiled a list for each student of all the nice things the other children said about them. Then when they arrived at school the next day, she passed out the papers and let them read what was written. And before long, she said everyone was smiling. “Really?” one whispered. “I didn’t know anyone liked me that much!”
Years went by, and the teacher attended the funeral of one of her students who was killed in Vietnam. Many of the other students were also there that day. After the service, the young man’s parents asked to speak with the teacher. “Mark had this with him when he died,” his father said to her and showed her the list of nice things his classmates said about him. “Thank you so much for doing that,” his mother added, “You can see how much he treasured it.” Several of Mark’s classmates overheard the conversation. One of them sheepishly admitted, “I still have mine too. It’s in my top desk drawer at home.” Another said, “Mine is in my diary.” A third said, “I put mine in our wedding album.” A fourth added. “I bet we all saved them!” At that point, the teacher began to cry. She also made sure to repeat that assignment in every class she taught the rest of her career.
Why was that assignment so powerful that none of the students ever forgot it? Because encouragement has the power to do what criticism and correction can never do. Goethe the German philosopher wasn’t a believer, but what he said was true: Treat a man as he appears to be and you will make him worse. But a treat man as if he already were what he potentially could be and you will make him what he ought to be. Amen? Have you ever been blessed by someone’s words of encouragement? If so, you know how quickly it can lift your spirits and give you the courage to believe and do what you couldn’t do otherwise.
I still remember one of the first times that happened to me. An older pastor dropped by the church where I was serving as a youth pastor. I was feeling a little lost and discouraged at the time. And after chatting with me for just a few minutes, he said to me, “You know, what, Gary? I believe there’s gold in you! You just need to let the Holy Spirit bring it out in you!” And even though it was a very short conversation, I’ve never forgotten it, it was so encouraging to me!
I hope you hear something like that this morning because I believe there’s gold in you as well. This morning we’re listening again to the Apostle John who is old man now and has walked with Christ more than 50 years. And I believe what he has to say to us today can lift our spirits regardless of where we are in our walk with God. If you haven’t been with us recently, let me catch you up by saying we’re in the middle of a study of 1 John, a little letter near the end of your Bible. I call this series “Living the Life,” because what we find in this letter, just as the students found in their letters, are words of living hope from a spiritual father who assures us that we are precious to God, now that we love His Son Jesus, and he encourages us to keep growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ no matter where we are in the process of spiritual growth.
Our text is just 3 verses—1 John 2:12-14, three of the most encouraging verses in this letter without a single word of criticism. I plan to quote from more than one version in this study, but I want to begin with the New American Standard Bible where John says this: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.”
Three times John says he’s writing to encourage us. But then to make sure that truth has been sealed in our hearts, he goes back and says it three more times–that’s six times in all–adding a few more words of encouragement to what he’s written. He adds, “I have written to you, children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been 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 evil one.”
Here John describes 3 groups of believers in God’s family, each one at a different stage in their spiritual growth and each one receiving a word of encouragement from John. But notice he doesn’t address them in sequence. First, he addresses the spiritual toddlers who are just learning to walk with God and then he skips ahead to the spiritually mature, and only after addressing both those groups does he talk to those of us in the middle who are actively growing in our faith. And I think he does so for an important reason. But before I get to that, I want to make a few comments about spiritual growth in general.
First, let me remind you that growth is not an option for a Christian; it’s an obligation. In fact, John says without it, it’s difficult to get an assurance of your salvation because where there’s life, there ought to be growth. Second, the goal of our growth is to be like Jesus in all we think, do, and say. Sanctification is the theological word for it referring to that lifelong process by which the Holy Spirit molds us into the likeness of Christ. The Bible commands us, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Finally, let me say that the best place to grow is in a spiritual family like this one, where you get to know others really well, have your patience tested at times, and see the love of Christ lived out in the lives of those who have walked with Him longer than you have.
In fact, I think a smaller fellowship is much closer to the New Testament ideal than the mega-churches of today. Not that there’s anything wrong with attending a mega-church, as long as they provide an excellent small group ministry in addition to their mega-services, where people can help one another grow in their faith. Otherwise, the tendency is for people to slip in and out of their services without getting involved in anyone else’s life. And that isn’t true Christianity.
In fact, I think it’s helpful to remember that due to persecution, the church didn’t own a single building or piece of property for the first 3 centuries of its existence—which means when you invited someone to church, where were you inviting them? To the home of another believer, the largest of which could hold 40 to 50 people, which means the early churches were more like extended families than the big churches of today. And as a result, what happened? The church exploded with growth, not only in number, but in Christlikeness. So with all of that said, let’s dive in and look at the first stage of growth John describes and the words of encouragement he has for us—
1. New Christians
Notice again what he says in verses 12 and 13. Tthis is from the KJV. “I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.” And then he adds in verse 13, “I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father. The first thing I want to point out is that two different words are used for children in this passage. The first simply means “born ones” referring to all the believers in God’s family, no matter how long we have known the Lord, because no matter how old we get in the faith, we’re never going to stop being His children. Isn’t that how you feel about your children? No matter how old they get, they’re always going to be your kids, and you are always going to be concerned about them. And the same thing is true of our Heavenly Father! We’re always going to be His children no matter how long we know Him.
What’s the basis on which we’ve become His children? John says it’s “because our sins have been forgiven for His name’s sake.” That’s something that has been settled forever for every child of God. Notice John doesn’t say our sins may be forgiven. He says they are forgiven period, end of statement, no more need to question it. But what God does want us to do forever is remember why they’re forgiven. It isn’t because of any good thing we have done. It’s because of the grace of Jesus , the eternal Son of God, more precious to God than anything else in the universe, who shed His blood on the cross to pay for our sins!
Then to encourage the newest members of God’s family, John adds in verse 13, “I write unto you, little children because ye have known the Father.” The word for children here is paidia referring to little children who’ve just recently been born again into God’s family. And like newborn infants and toddlers, they bring great joy to the heart of God and great excitement to a spiritual family. Jesus said the angels of heaven rejoice more over 1 sinner who repents than 99 who’re already part of the family. So that’s what we should pray for with great hope and expectation, just as grandparents long for the day when their children will have children of their own and bring new life to the family. We should pray for God to give us new believers that we can nurture in the faith.
Of course, little children can be selfish and sloppy and make lots of messes for their parents to clean up after them. I’ll never forget officiating at a wedding years ago, and afterwards I picked Heidi up during the reception and held her on my hip like this, and her diaper leaked over my brand new suit. Children are messy and so are spiritual children! Like their natural counterparts, they don’t know what to believe or the proper etiquette for social occasions. So they make doctrinal and relational messes that the more mature members have to clean up. And yet, John says they do know the most important thing of all! They know their Father and just as one of the first things a child learns to say is, “Da-da,” spiritual children cry out from the moment of their spiritual birth, “Abba, Father,” and it fills the heart of God with joy!
So how do we help them grow in their newfound faith in Christ? That’s the second thing John addresses in this passage. He skips over the young adults for the moment and addresses those at the opposite end of the spectrum, and he does so for an important reason. It’s because the parents, not the teenagers, are the ones who’ve been given the responsibility to provide for and protect the children in the family. So that’s the second group John addresses—
2. Mature Christians
Notice what he says to them in verse 12. This is from the NIV. He says, “I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.” And then he says the same thing again in verse 14: “I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.” And that surprises me! You’d think that as important as fathers are, John would have more to say to them. And yet, I think that’s in keeping with the quiet ministry of those who are more mature in the faith. In fact, it reminds me of something the late Erma Bombeck wrote about her father years ago in her newspaper column. She wrote:
When I was a kid, a father was like the light in a refrigerator. Every house had one, but nobody knew what they did once the door was closed. My dad left the house every morning and always seemed glad to see everyone at night. He opened the jar of pickles when nobody else could. He was the only one in the house who wasn’t afraid to go in the basement by himself. He cut himself shaving but no one kissed it or got excited about it. He set the mousetraps and went to the drugstore when anyone was sick. When I got a bike, he ran alongside me for at least 1000 miles until I got the hang of it. I was afraid of everyone else’s father but not my own. Once I made him tea. It was only sugar water but he sat on a small chair and said he liked it.
Whenever I played house, the mother doll had a lot to do. I never knew what to do with the daddy doll so I had him say, “I’m going to work now,” and threw him under the bed. When I was 9, my father didn’t get up one morning and go to work. He went to the hospital and died the next day. I went to my room and felt under my bed for the daddy doll. When I found him, I dusted him off and put him on my bed. He never did anything. I didn’t know his leaving would hurt so much. It still does.
Fathers—spiritual or biological—don’t seem to do that much, but the contribution they make to a family is invaluable. Roy Martin was one of the spiritual fathers in the church I served as a youth pastor. I was 25 at the time. Roy was 75. And to be honest about it, I knew a lot more about the youth of our day than Roy did. After all, he hadn’t been a teenager since the 1930s! So he never tried to tell me how to lead the group. What he did was keep me stable and well-balanced and loved those kids even when I was ready to throttle them.
For example, I’ll never forget the snow retreat we took them on one winter. Roy went along to help—the only adult who helped us on a regular basis. He hauled the chili to the top of the mountain in the back of the brand new station wagon he bought just before the retreat. And while dishing it out, one of the kids dumped the whole vat over on his brand new carpet. His reaction? “Nothing to worry about. This is the Lord’s car, and a little chili never hurt anybody.”
Roy was a rock, not only for our youth group, but for the entire church. For example, when we faced a big financial decision, like whether or not we could afford to take on my salary as a youth pastor, his response was, “What’s wrong with you people? The Lord is still on His throne. He rules and overrules to get His will done.” And suddenly everyone would calm down and start believing again. As Erma said, I’m not sure what he did in that church, but I’ve missed him ever since he’s been gone and he’s also one of the first people I want to see again when I get to heaven.
Spiritual fathers and mothers may not exhibit the same degree of energy or engage in the same level of activity as younger members, but they do something even more important. They give us the faith and wisdom and stability that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and why are they able to do that? Well, it isn’t because of age alone. There are lots of folks who’ve lived to a ripe old age and have no wisdom at all! The reason they have such a stabilizing influence is because they “know Him who is from the beginning! They’ve walked with God for a long time and have an eternal perspective on things. As Roy would say, “Little things don’t bother me anymore because I’m traveling light.” That’s why the 20-something churches of today struggle with so much instability in their midst. They have so few fathers and mother to give them the balance they need.
So how do we go from being spiritual children to fathers and mothers in the faith, so we can provide the church with the stability it needs? That’s the issue John saves for last and remedies in addressing the third group of believers—
3. Growing Christians
He says in verse 13, “I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.” Growing Christians know who the enemy is. It’s Lucifer and his legion of fallen angels called demons. And therefore, we also know that this life is never going to be anything but one long spiritual battle against forces we cannot see with our eyes. And yet, notice what John says to encourage us. He doesn’t say, “You will overcome the evil one.” He says, “You have overcome the evil one!” The final chapter has already been written, and we’ve won the war! How? Because of our faith in Jesus! As John writes and we’ll study later in chapter 5, “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith!”
Of course, between now and then, we have decisions to make about the quality of our lives. The quantity of our life is never in question. Because He lives, we are going to live forever! But each new day poses a new decision: Will I walk in the power of God’s Spirit or will I let the enemy sideline me for the day?
Verse 14 tells us how to stay strong in the Spirit. John says, “I have written to you, young men because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” Like Samson’s hair, the key to our strength is God’s Word hidden in our hearts. Paul calls it the sword of the Spirit and David says, “Thy Word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against Thee.” Here the word “abide” means to “settle down and make its home in us,” describing something we do on a continual basis. You see, it’s one thing to own a Bible; it’s another thing for the Bible own you. And that’s what John says we need. For there are no shortcuts to becoming a man or woman of God! The only way to grow strong in the Spirit is to walk through the battlefields of life by faith, learning to counteract the devil’s lies with God’s promises, and finding out in the end that God is absolutely trustworthy in all He says and does.
So take a moment to examine yourself before we finish: In which of the 3 categories do you fall? Are you a new Christian who’s just begun to walk with Jesus? If so, we couldn’t be more excited about it! You bring a whole new sense of life to our fellowship that we need! My encouragement to you is to study the Bible on a daily basis, so you grow strong in the Spirit and overcome all the lies of the evil one. Or maybe you’re a growing Christian! My challenge to you is to keep growing in the faith and trusting the promises of God. Ask Him also to put a spiritual father or mother in your life who’ll pass on to you the wisdom they’ve learned. Or maybe you’ve walked with God a long time. Then you don’t need a lot of advice from me. You know both the Bible and the God of the Bible. My only reminder to you is to speak up when words of faith are needed and tell us how good and faithful God is. And if God brings someone across your path who’s in need of a mentor, take time to give them the encouragement they need.
I finish this story from Joseph Stowell who had the opportunity to sit next to Billy Graham one night at a dinner for the staff and board of the Billy Graham Association. Billy was 80 at the time and Dr. Stowell asked him: “Of all your experiences in ministry, what have you enjoyed most? Was it your time spent with presidents and heads of state? Or was it….” Before he could finish the sentence Billy responded: “No. None of that! By far the greatest joy of my life has been my fellowship with Jesus—hearing Him speak to me, having Him guide me, sensing His presence with me, and His power through me. That has been the highest pleasure of my life!”
What a great answer, and what a great man of God! You see, from start to finish, it’s all about Jesus—learning to know and love Him better. That’s what I need and want! And I imagine that you do too. So take a moment before you go on to something else to ask Him for help to reach the next stage He has for your life.