John has been talking about walking in the light. Then he seems to launch into a strange digression, talking about fathers, young men, and children. After that he repeats himself and mentions the same three groups again. What is John trying to say? John is saying that not everyone is at the same level of spiritual maturity. We have to therefore adjust to accommodate different levels. We must meet people where they are in their walk with God.
These levels cause a lot of problems in the church. Let me illustrate. Imagine you and your extended family all go on a nature hike. This hike includes children, old people, and young people. After about an hour, the family group gets spread out along the trail.
The little children bring up the rear. They are so excited about being in the woods that they stop and look at every tree and flower. But they’ve never been in the woods before, and they don’t know that they’re supposed to stay on the trail. They can’t tell the difference between a pretty flower and poison ivy, or a brown snake and a rattlesnake. Someone has to watch them closely, and they move very, very slowly.
Then there are teenagers and young adults. They know more about the woods—in fact, they think they know everything. They like to move fast and cover a lot of ground. They’re frustrated with the others who lag behind. Sometimes they get into trouble by getting too far ahead and often storm down the wrong trails. More often than not, they abandon the rest of the group.
The old folks—the fathers—are in the middle. They don’t care how fast they go, they just enjoy the road and the company. Often they hold back to take care of the children. They don’t care when they get there. They just keep moving on.
So we soon get three groups, which are young people in the front, old in the middle, and kids to the back. This isn’t a hiking party, it’s a parade. If these three groups don’t learn to walk together the family falls apart.
The same thing happens spiritually. Spiritual “kids” are new believers. They trust Jesus, but they know very little about the Christian walk. Spiritual children frequently stray from the path, because there are few spiritual directors to guide them. Someone has to show them how to walk like a believer. If they are left to themselves, then they don’t last long.
“Young men” are believers who have learned enough to avoid the obvious sins, but not enough to overcome the less obvious ones. They grow impatient with childish lessons and want teaching that is broader and deeper. They are also impatient with the old-timers who seem to move much too slowly.
“Old-timers” have lived enough to know their limits, so they proceed with caution. Life to them is about who they are, and not what they do. They are interested in enjoying the process more than achieving the results. They want to share their wisdom with others, but the kids and the young people resent their interference and suggestions. They have neither the enthusiasm of new believers, nor the drive of the young, but they do have wisdom and experience.
Churches respond to these three groups differently. Sometimes a church will pick one group and base everything on their needs.
A church can gear everything to the seekers and new believers, focusing on evangelism and rudimentary discipleship. But in the process they are just covering the same material week after week, until everyone else gets bored and leaves.
A church can appeal to the Spiritual athletes by giving deep theological teachings, and stirring challenges towards world transformation, calling for utter, selfless commitment. But the spiritually immature can’t meet those challenges without some serious help, so most of them drop out. The old timers get frustrated too, because they are just trying to keep their old bones together day by day.
A church can focus on the old-timers by giving non-challenging messages about comfort, enduring trials, and “what a friend we have in Jesus.” They can’t understand why the others have to change the things that are so comfortable to them.
So the Body of Christ splits into three groups, without much communication between them. But these groups all have problems, because they are incomplete alone. We need kids, young people, and old-timers. The kids of one generation become the old timers of the next. We are all maturing into old people, and as we do our spiritual needs change. Churches have to build for a lifetime of ministry to people which involves ministry to all three groups.
John doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about these differences, he just acknowledges that they exist. He doesn’t tell us any shortcuts to maturity or any way to rejuvenate old-timers. Instead, he focuses on spiritual health instead of spiritual growth.
Growth and health are different. You can be healthy at six or sixty, or unhealthy at any age. Health is something that you must maintain. The same ingredients of health are true for any age. You need rest, emotional balance, a good diet, and lots of exercise. The same is true in our spiritual lives just as it is in our physical lives.
In 1 John, the apostle is talking about staying spiritually healthy. We see that reflected in what he says about these three groups.
1. Emotional Balance and Rest.
“I write to you little children because your sins have been forgiven.” Developmental psychologists tell us the first lessons we must learn in our lives is unconditional love and acceptance from our parents. If we fail to get that, then it affects our mental and physical health for the rest of our lives. Christians learn God’s acceptance from the Cross of Christ. God loves us unconditionally, which He expressed by giving us full forgiveness through Jesus. Many Christians have never learned, so they live with a constant sense of guilt and responsibility. They can never just rest in the Lord, because they do not believe God loves them. They can never do enough to satisfy the wrath of God. They have never learned that God loves them just as they are.
The first step to God is the step to the Cross. Once we have learned God’s acceptance, then everything else makes sense. “Just as I am without one plea/ but that Thy blood was shed for me/ And that Thou bidste me come to Thee/ O Lamb of God, I come.”
Jesus loves you just the way you are. If you haven’t come to understand that, then you will never be healthy spiritually. God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but He does expect us to understand that He loves us. We don’t have to do anything—He just loves us. All we do is love him back.
2. A Good Diet
“I write to you fathers, because you have known Him from the beginning.” We know him by daily partaking of a three-course meals, which is studying God’s Word, prayer, and the theology and practices of the church.
Sometimes I run into people who say they don’t need to study God’s Word. The Bible is 1300 pages long. It’s amazing that anyone who studied it for a few years in a Bible school could claim exhaustive knowledge of it. Furthermore, the meaning of the Bible changes with age. Every time you read it, you discover different levels of meaning. A classic book is defined as one which can be read a hundred times, and we will still get something new. Read the Bible a hundred times, and you have spent 1,300,000 minutes or 61,666 hours. Until you have done that, you still don’t know the Bible.
Prayer is direct communication with God. It is much more than saying grace at a meal or a short devotional in the morning. It is lifelong learning. Martin Luther once said that his time was so filled with business, and his mind so filled with worries and concerns, that he could not survive without spending at least four hours a day in prayer. Yet the average pastor today spends about three minutes in prayer. What did Luther know about prayer that we do not? He understood that prayer is a study, not a hobby. It takes a lifetime to master.
John says, “You have known Him from the beginning.” He has been a continual witness to Christ over centuries. How we interpret the word and what we learn from prayer are both filtered through the glasses of our own experiences. In order to get beyond our own biases, we must look to the witness of the historical church. Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 1:20 that no Scripture is of private interpretation.
There is no question that we may ask about the Bible or prayer that hasn’t been asked and answered over a hundred times. There is a huge body of knowledge and wisdom that has been passed down to us through the ages. Theology is learning how others have interpreted great truths. God reveals Himself to the whole church together. His great truths have been around since the beginning.
“I write to you young men, because you are strong, and have overcome the Evil one.” How do young men get strong? They work at it! In Philippians 2: 12 Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
There are three kinds of spiritual work. The first is self-control. The early church did a lot of fasting, not in order to get some prayer answered, but to curb their appetites. It’s not easy to separate ourselves from the world, but it is necessary. We must learn how to resist the Devil, and resist him with vigor, if we want him to flee from us.
Don’t resent self-control, but embrace it. If we resent the pains of correction, then we are condemned to a hellish existence. But if we thank God for correction, then it propels us to a higher state of joy.
The second is evangelism. Evangelism is an attitude as much as an action. It is the desire to tell everyone everywhere--all of our friends and families about the Lord. All of us together strive to fulfill the challenge of the Great Commission.
The third work is the transformation of the world. In Genesis 1 we are told that humans were created to have dominion over the world. The word in Hebrew is more of stewardship than dominance. We were created to make the world a better place. In the Lord’s Prayer we always pray. “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done.” Whenever we pray this we are asking for God’s will to be done on earth. That means we are working to make the world a better place, without poverty, pollution, wars, sickness, disease and suffering.
We will never achieve any of this, but than that is the point! Does a body-builder ever stop adding on weights? Does a runner ever say that his last time was fast enough? Exercise is supposed to be a continual lifetime challenge.
As we get on in years, we have to work harder to stay healthy physically. As we get on in our spiritual lives, we must also work harder to stay healthy. We need more prayer, more Bible study, and more spiritual action, not less. We never arrive at perfect peace. We must always be going forward.
Whether you are a new believer or a very, very, old one. We all need spiritual rest, spiritual food, and spiritual action. If we practice these disciplines of life, we can stay spiritually healthy all our lives.