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Do Not Love the World

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12 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. 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. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. 14 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. 15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

John has been fighting against false assurances of salvation since 1 John 2:3, noting that the way we find assurance is through obedience to God’s commandments, specifically his commandment of love. There are plenty within the church who simply do not have the right to be assured of their salvation.

But in this passage, John pauses to reassure genuine Christians of their right standing with God (vv. 12-14). He takes the time to do this because they will need this confidence in order to be victorious in their battle against sin, which he reminds them of in the second half of our passage (vv. 15-17). That’s how vv. 12-14 relate to vv. 15-17. Our ability to stand against the tempting desires of the world will come through our vibrant relationship with God. Assurance promotes perseverance.

Let’s take these two halves of our passage in order. First, the realities for true believers. Second, the expectations for true believers.

THE REALITIES FOR TRUE BELIEVERS

Clearly there is a break in thought after verse 11. Notice how most English translations indent the next three verses, suggesting some sort of poetic rhythm. The content of verses 12-14 is quite different from what we just read, though the concepts of forgiveness of sin and knowing the Father found in these verses do fit with what we have already read in this letter. Several questions are raised when we read these verses.

Children, Fathers, and Young Men

Perhaps the most pressing question we need to ask of these verses is this: who is John referring to when he says he is writing to children, fathers, and young men?

The most popular way to understand these three groups is to take them as representative of different stages of spiritual maturity. Children would be those who are new in the faith. Fathers would be those who are quite mature in the faith. Young men would be those who are somewhere in between. 

But it is also possible that John is using these terms literally to refer to those who are at different stages of their earthly life. Within the church there are three generations of Christians: children, adults, and senior adults; and John wants each of them to know the reality of what has happened to them as a follower of Jesus.

But I think we miss out on the full impact of what John has to say if we try to decide between these two options. After all, what John has to say for each of these groups is true for all of them. It’s not just the “fathers” who “know him who is from the beginning;” John has said in 1 John 2:3-4 that this “knowledge of God” is the privilege of all true believers. So I don’t think we should try to figure out to which category we belong. I would say that John is using these categories of children, fathers, and young men to indicate particular qualities that are most visible during the different stages of life which nevertheless are realities for all true believers.[1]

Children

So when John says “I am writing to you, little children,” (v. 12) he is not writing only to those who are new to the faith or to those who are literally children. He has already used this same word (and will use it five more times later) to refer to all of his readers (2:1, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). When John refers to his audience as “children” he is using the word as a term of endearment as an apostle writing to his spiritual children. This is true as well in verse 13. It is a different word for “children” there than here, but even that word is used elsewhere (2:18; 3:7) as a term of endearment for the entire audience.

Here in verse 12 John wants the “little children” to know that their “sins are forgive for his name’s sake.” In verse 13 he reminds the “children” that they have come to “know the Father.” These things express some of “the earliest conscious experiences of newborn Christians.”[2] But again, I think John wanted to remind all of his readers of these experiences.

In 1 John 1:9 we learned that God stands ready to forgive our sins when we confess them. In 1 John 2:1 we learned that when we do sin we have a helper who secures our pardon by supplying for us the righteousness that we have failed to achieve. And here we are reminded of our total dependence on Jesus as our helper to secure our forgiveness. Our sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. In other words, the basis or cause for our forgiveness is not ultimately or even primarily our confession but rather the provision of Jesus on our behalf. Our sins are forgiven because of him.

Fathers

The word “fathers” suggests a group of older Christians. It is used as a title of respect for an older generation in Acts 7:2 and Acts 22:1. Again it is true of all Christians that they have come to know God, but John seems to be suggesting that our knowledge of God grows deeper the longer we live in relationship with him.

In fact, John describes God here as “him who is from the beginning.” Because he explicitly refers to God the Father at the end of verse 13, it may be that this description is meant to refer to God the Son. In any case the description emphasizes the eternality of God. The “fathers” have come to know “the immutable, eternal God who does not change with advancing years, but who is for ever the same. Time hurries on, but in all generations they find a refuge in him who from everlasting to everlasting is God. They are already consciously living in eternity.”[3]

There is much to look forward to as we grow old in our faith. The gray head and the failing health of the physical body cannot eliminate the joy of many years spent in relationship with the eternal one. This will be the joy of eternity: the deepening of our knowledge of an infinite God. For the Christian, growing old is something to look forward to!

Young Men

The word here translated “young men” typically means a man under the age of forty years. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates identified manhood as between the ages of 28-48. These are the “prime years” of physical health and strength. So we are not surprised to hear John say that he wrote to the young men because of their strength (v. 14).

And it was their strength that enabled them to “overcome the evil one.” The “evil one” is clearly a reference to Satan. But “overcoming” Satan probably refers to overcoming the main weapon of the evil one, namely, death.

Mankind, lies subject to death unless it listens to the life-giving word of Jesus; if it listens, then it passes immediately from death to life (John 5:24) because Jesus has conquered death for those who are his.[4]

So the positive things John has to say to the young men are, once again, not due to their own abilities or achievements. Yes, they are strong. Yes, they have overcome the evil one. But both of these are true because—and only because—“the word of God abides” in them. It is because of this reality that John will later say (1 John 5:18) that the evil one now can no longer touch the believer. The victory has been won through faith in what Jesus has done on our behalf.

John reiterates this truth in 1 John 5:4: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our  faith.” Through faith we become participants in the life of Jesus and have overcome the power of sin and death. Galatians 1:4 tells us plainly that Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.” Because Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33), so have we who belong to him by faith.

The Power of Reality

Why did John take the time at this point in his letter to tell us about these Christian realities? I think the answer is that he believes these realities make it possible for us to fulfill the command in verse 15. Notice how at the end of verse 13 and in verse 14 he basically repeats what he just said in verse 12 and the first part of verse 13. Why does he do this? Because he believes the reality of who we are in Christ makes it possible for us to fulfill the expectations for all true believers.[5] In other words, he wrote the first set of realities to assure genuine believers of their right standing with God. Then he repeats the realities, not for emphasis, but because we need these realities to persevere in our faith.

THE EXPECTATION FOR TRUE BELIEVERS: DO NOT LOVE THE WORLD

It is because of these realities that John gives the command in verse 15. As Christians we have our sins forgiven, we have real fellowship with the eternal God, and we have overcome the evil one. We are no longer defenseless against sin, Satan, and death.

On the other hand John also wants us to know that we dare not be passive about our situation. “Each person can and must endure and hold fast thanks to the faithfulness of the Lord, who preserves us from evil (2 Thess 3:3; cf. 2 Tim 4:18) and who has already liberated us by his own sacrifice.”[6] So he commands us: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” This is what is expected of true believers. We are not to be worldly. 

What is the world?

How is it that we are commanded not to love the world when John 3:16 tells us that God does love the world? The answer, of course, is that we must define what John means by “the world” when he tells us not to love it. John tells us what he means when he says “the world” when he tells us that “the things in the world” consists of “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions.” In other words, when John says “do not love the world” he is not referring to people or to created things. He is talking about whatever there is in the world that is hostile to God.

Why are Christians not to love the world?

It should be quite obvious, given this understanding of what John means by “the world,” to see why Christians are not to love it. But John gives us two specific reasons why the Christian must not love the world.

We cannot love both the world and God

James 4:4 says that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” and that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” If the “world” is again defined as everything in the world that is in rebellion to God, then James’ words make perfect sense. For how can we be lovers of God if we love those things that are hostile to him?

John says essentially the same thing as James: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Remember in 1 John 2:5 John says that “whoever keeps [God’s] word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” We said that “the love of God” refers to God’s love for us coming full circle so that we in turn obey God out of love and delight rather than duty. Here again when we read about “the love of the Father’ not existing in anyone who loves the world, we should understand John to be saying that in such a person God’s love has not entered into him and so has not brought about a reciprocal love for God. So this is another test of whether or not we are truly in fellowship with God. Love for the world is not compatible with love for God. It is one or the other.

But how can I know if I love the world or not? John offers us some help when he says “do not love the world or the things in the world.”  We will know that we are succumbing to worldliness if we find ourselves loving the very things that God hates. John tells us about three of those things in verse 16. I don’t think these are all of the things in the world that are in rebellion against God, but they certainly are representative of a lot of such things.

The desires of the flesh “describes the desire of our fallen and sinful nature.”[7] In other words, what John mentions first is the propensity within each one of us to rebel against God. Paul refers to this propensity in Ephesians 2:3: “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Even after we experience the new birth these “desires of the flesh” are still a threat to us. Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” How many professing Christians do not take seriously the tendency within themselves to rebel against God? Sinner beware! I hear far too many of us excusing our sinfulness rather than making war against it.

The desires of the eyes are “temptations which assault us not from within, but from without through our eyes.”[8] Once again it is far too easy for us to be taken by what we see. Before long we begin to think that we simply cannot do without something, and then our eyes have led us into covetousness, which Paul says is idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

Finally, we end up with pride in possessions. The word translated possessions is also found in 1 John 3:17: “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” So “pride in possessions” is the claim or the impression one gives that his possessions really matter. This is a common sin in this materialistic world. We tend to look down on people who can’t seem to keep up with the “in” things of this world in technology or dress or style. We laugh at missionaries who come back from the field and their wardrobe is out of date. We live as though what we possess in this life is life, but that is a deceptive lie, and a dangerous temptation for all of us.

John says that love for these kinds of things is incompatible with love for God. Let me give here a further clarifying word: one commentator helpfully points out that desire and pleasure are not wrong in and of themselves: God made us as creatures with appetites and desires, the meeting of which produces pleasure as in the eating of food when I am hungry produces pleasure. “There are, however, occasions when the satisfaction of my desires may be sinful. A desire to murder somebody is clearly sinful, and so too could be my desire to enjoy a good meal when I could share my resources with poor, starving people. What I have to ask myself is whether my “love” for things and people is sinful.”[9]

That means that it will not always be easy for us to identify “worldliness.” The Scripture does not give us a legalistic set of rules to keep us from worldliness. That’s because the antidote to worldliness is not rules to follow but rather the gospel. The only thing that can keep us from loving the world is the love of God bringing about radical, God-centered devotion within us.

The world will not last

The second reason John gives for why the Christian must not love the world is found in verse 17: “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” The world in rebellion against God is being destroyed. God in his love for us wants to keep us from being destroyed with it.

So he commands us not to love this transitory world. For those who think that God’s command not to love the world makes him out to be a kill-joy who has no interest in our happiness, this verse counteracts such ideas. When God makes this command he has our eternal joy in mind.

Furthermore, the only ones who will be able to not love the world are those who do the will of God. What does that mean? Doing the will of God means completing the tasks that God has assigned to us. In other words, doing the will of God is another way of saying, “keeping God’s commandments.” And remember that “keeping God’s commandments” means delighting in what he commands. Only the new birth can produce that kind of delight.

The commandments that we are called to carry out are radical and self-sacrificing. One who loves the world and its desires simply cannot carry out these commands and so will show that he is not truly in fellowship with God. Conversely, the one who does the will of God abides forever.

CONCLUSION

My hope for this message is that it will produce radical, assurance-bearing love for God in those who are truly his. And my hope for this message is that it will produce God-terrifying fear in those who have become complacent in their relationship with God.

When John says that “the world is passing away along with its desires” its possible that he is encouraging true believers to take heart that for them not only is the world passing away, but so also are their desires for it. When the things of this world begin to lose their grip on you, there is reason to rejoice, for it may indicate that God has given you the ability to value the things that are eternal.

At the same time, John wrote the command of verse 15 to those whose spiritual status was unquestioned, yet “he found it necessary to warn them against an attitude which could ruin their fellowship and land them in spiritual destruction, namely love of the world.”[10] Those who love the world will surely pass away with it. May God give us all the grace to not be lovers of this world, and the grace to resist the temptation to love it as well.


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[1] I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 138.

[2] John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 102.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. Bruns, “A Note on John 16:33 and 1 John 2:13-14,” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (December 1967): 452.

[5] Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1984), 78.

[6] A. Kretzer, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT), ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 3 vols (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 3:135.

[7] Stott, The Letters of John, 104.

[8] Ibid., 105.

[9] Marshall, The Epistles of John, 143.

[10] Ibid., 142.

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