The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


'I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake. 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. I write to you, 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 abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one' (2:12-14).

Obedience to God and love for others should be marks of the Christian's life, as we have been reading in the last few verses. If there is no obvious obedience and no love in our lives, we may doubt and other people may wonder whether we really do belong to Christ. But in the first place we are made Christians, not by what we do, but by what God does for us. The verses that we are studying here come between what John has said about loving others and what he is going to say about not loving the world. He appeals to his Christian friends not to love the world, remembering what and who they are, because of what Christ has done for them. He calls them 'little children' as he often does in this letter (2:1, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) and then probably he is addressing the younger men and women as 'young men' and the older as 'fathers'. Each time he addresses them it is to remind them what God has done and has made possible in their lives.

a. Children of God.

`I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake.' This is the beginning of the Christian life. We could not come to God apart from His forgiveness. For God is holy and pure and we are sinful. Yet He is willing to forgive. This is the heart of the gospel. He sent His Son to be our Saviour. That is the meaning of His very name, Jesus (see Matthew 1:21). He died that we might be forgiven (read again 1:7-10). Because of what He is (Jesus, our Saviour) and what He has done (by dying on the cross) we are forgiven. That is why it is said we are forgiven 'for his name's sake'. It is His purpose that the good news of `repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations' (Luke 24:47). The message is that, everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43). Everything in the Christian life follows from this gift of forgiveness - it cannot go before it. 'I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake,' John says.

Another great and wonderful thing goes with that. John can say, too, 'You know the Father'. If you have accepted the forgiveness of your sins, then you know the Father. You know the mighty God, your Maker, as your Father. You can come to Him as your Heavenly Father. He receives you. You are His child (see 3:1-2). The beginning and foundation of the Christian life is this - so simple, so deep, it affects everything in life. God forgives me and I am His child.

b. Men of God.

To know God's forgiveness and to know that I am a child of God is the beginning of the Christian life. But that Christian life must go on. The child of God must become a man or woman of God. The Christian life involves battle - battle against all evil. John could write to these 'young men' and say to them 'you have overcome the evil one'. They had faced the evil one (as Jesus Himself did in His temptations) and they had conquered him. How? What was the way of victory? John says, 'You are strong' - and that was not in their own strength. We are very weak, but we 'can do all things in Him who strengthens us' (Philippians 4:13). We can 'be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might' (Ephesians 6:10). We can pray - as Paul does in Ephesians 1:19-20 and Colossians 1:11 - for the power of God, that we need every hour of the day and' that God is always willing to give to those who ask Him.

The second great thing that John could say of the young men was 'the word of God abides in you'. When God's word, which tells us of His will and brings us His promise and encouragement, is in our hearts, we have the finest weapon with which to fight evil. It is 'the sword of the Spirit', as Paul says in Ephesians 6:17. It was the weapon that Jesus used in all His temptations (see Matthew 4:1-11). The Psalmist says, 'I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee' (Psalm 119:11). God's word, studied and meditated on, in our hearts and minds, then controlling what we do and say - this is the way of victory in the battle against evil.

For the child of God to become a man or woman of God two things are needed as habits of life more than anything else. One is turning to God in prayer to find His strength for every need and for every battle. The other is turning day by day to God's word as we have it in the scriptures, to let Him speak to us and direct us and so to let His word 'abide' in us.

c. Strength unchanged as the years pass by.

John also thought of the old people among the Christians as he wrote this letter. As we grow older we feel that so much around us changes. Old friends move away from us or die. We feel especially today that the world changes so quickly - new inventions, new powers men have, customs change, the whole way of life is in a state of rapid social change. As we get older it is a tremendous strength to know that our trust is in the great unchanging God. He is the One who 'is from the beginning'. He will at the end still be the same. We do not need to rely on the things of the world, or even on other people. We know the One who is from the beginning and who never changes. Since He is eternal and He has taken us to have fellowship with Him, we have eternal life (John 17:3). In body and in mind we will become weaker as the years pass by (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:5).

Unless the Lord Himself comes first, we will die - but to die is 'to depart and be with Christ' which is 'far better' (Philippians 1:23). As we belong to Christ, we have life in Him, and He is 'the same yesterday and today and for ever' (Hebrews 13:8). In this we have sure comfort for old age and sure hope for the end of life here on earth.

These are great truths that have been given to the `children', the 'young men' and the 'fathers'. We are forgiven and accepted with God as His children. By His word in our hearts we have power to overcome the evil one. We have hope in our great God, unchanging from beginning to end. If we stand by these things we will be prepared for the strong words that come in the next few verses.


Lord God, I thank You that I can come to You as a child to a heavenly Father though You are the mighty Maker of the universe. Thank You for the forgiveness of all my sins. Thank You that You want to guide all my life and to give me power to conquer evil. Thank You that You never change, though I change and all that is around me changes. Praise, all praise to You, loving God, mighty Father. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. Read Matthew 4:1-11 and study carefully how Jesus in His temptation used 'the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God'. In what ways can and should we do the same?

2. In the fellowship of Christians in what ways can old people be of special help to those who are younger, and the young be of special help to the old?