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Teaching series from 1 John

Stages of Christian Spiritual Development

1 John 2:12-14

Teaching t12638


Remind of setting (MAP), including how the Gnostics shook the Ephesian Christians’ faith (“We’re the ones who really belong to/know God – not you.”). In this passage, John assures them that they do indeed belong to and know God (read 2:12-14). Before we look at this brief passage very closely, I want to make three general observations:

It isn’t clear why John repeats himself to the three groups within the church. Maybe he is referring to a past letter (“I have written”) as well as this present letter (“I am writing”). Maybe it is just repetition for emphasis and elaboration.

John’s references to “young men” and “fathers” are not sexist. John and the apostles – like Jesus – were counter-cultural in their high view of women (Gal.3:28). This was just culturally customary language which they would have understood to apply to all of the recipients regardless of their genders.

When referring to Christians as “little children,” “young men,” and “fathers,” John is not speaking about Christians in different stages of physical/social development. Rather, he is acknowledging different stages of Christian spiritual development (see also 1Cor.2,3; Heb.5; Eph.4:14-16; etc.), which we will explore soon.

Spiritual birth must precede spiritual development

Before we look at these stages, though, we must understand explicitly what John assumes we know – that before we can develop spiritually, we must first be born spiritually.

In human physical life, there is a pre-natal gestation process and a post-natal development process (DIAGRAM). But between these two processes is the crisis of physical birth (DIAGRAM WITH “X”) – that event in which the baby leaves the mother’s womb and begins to live as an individual. This is why we mark birthdays, not conception days. It isn’t just that we often don’t know the specific conception day; it is that life as an individual actually begins when we are born.

Jesus used human birth as an analogy for the beginning of our spiritual lives – what He called being “born from above” or being “born of God’s Spirit” (Jn.3:5). As with human life, our spiritual lives are normally preceded by a gestation process of varying lengths and involving many factors (e.g., dissatisfaction with what we thought would fulfill us; exposure to accurate information about Jesus; positive interactions with Christians; life-crises that shatter our security and/or identity; etc.). But becoming a Christian is a crisis-event (like physical birth). And unlike physical birth, which we do not initiate, spiritual birth occurs by our conscious choice to receive Jesus (Jn.1:12).

No one, not even God, forces you be born spiritually. You can not only postpone your own spiritual birth; you can prevent it altogether – the ultimate human tragedy. Where are you on this diagram? Will you say “Yes” or “No” to God’s invitation to be born spiritually. Do you realize that not saying “Yes” is saying “No?”

When you choose to receive Christ, God makes you His child forever and gives you His spiritual life. Then you can begin to grow and develop and mature spiritually. Christian spiritual development is not Gnostic/New Age – suddenly acquiring new knowledge and power through special practices, dramatic experiences and secret doctrines. Rather (as we saw earlier) it is a growth process, through different developmental stages, toward maturity. For each stage, God has already provided the resources we need to mature to the next stage. The key for us is to consistently appropriate these resources, and to embrace the responsibilities of each stage. This passage provides us with a basic “developmental map” – describing the key resources at each stage of spiritual development, and implying the main responsibilities of each stage.

Stage #1: “Little children” – baby Christians

“Young children” (2:12a – technion) and “children” (2:13b – paidion) are synonyms in this passage. They refer to the first stage of spiritual development – spiritual infancy and early childhood. How long this stage lasts may vary according to different factors (e.g., help from other Christians; previous Bible knowledge; etc.), but Paul implies that we can and should progress beyond stage within two or three years.

What provisions does God make for spiritual infants and young children to enable them to flourish and begin to develop? John names two: “Your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake” and “You know the Father.”

You can develop spiritually only if you can relate to God confident of His Fatherly acceptance – that His love and acceptance do not waver, and that you are always welcome to come to Him for communion and to ask Him to meet your needs. Just as young children thrive only with this kind of healthy attachment to their parents, so we thrive spiritually only with this kind of healthy attachment to God. Children who are not sure of their parents’ love do not develop properly!

How can we relate to God confidently when we sin against Him every day? Because “our sins have been forgiven us for His name’s sake.” God has already forgiven us of all of our sins (perfect tense). Read 2:2 – Jesus has fully satisfied God’s righteous wrath against all of my sins. He forgives, not on account of what we do for Him or how we vow to change, but “for Jesus’ name’s sake” – on account of what Jesus has done for us. So I need never worry about God condemning or rejecting me no matter what I do. True, He will discipline me for my own good, but this will always be within the sphere of His acceptance.

Tragically, many Christians never develop past spiritual infancy because they are taught that God accepts them only if they quit sinning, or only if they ask daily for forgiveness, etc. Even more tragically, many Christians are taught the truth about God’s complete acceptance but refuse to really believe it – insisting on their own standards of performance, trusting others’ love more than God’s, etc.

Therefore spiritual babies have two primary responsibilities. The first is to learn about and believe in God’s complete forgiveness. The best way to do this is to memorize passages that teach this truth (like 2:12). The second is to relate to Him on this basis. The best way to do this is to draw near to God each day and confide in Him regardless of your recent performance.

Are you appropriating these provisions? If so, you will establish the foundation of a healthy Christian life. And God will move you into the next stage of spiritual development...

Stage #2: “Young men” – Christian workers

“Young men” (2:13,14) is neaniskos, which refers to a young adult (c.f. Matt.19:22; Mk.14:51). Most cultures do not acknowledge “adolescence” as a developmental stage (let along stretching adolescence into almost 10+ years!). People go from childhood into young adulthood – from being primarily under the care of their parents to taking on adult responsibilities like marriage, parenting, soldiering, etc. In the same way, John speaks of “young men” as Christian workers. In this stage (which covers many years), John emphasizes engagement in the spiritual battle against Satan – both resisting his attacks on their own lives and (presumably) and helping others to escape his control.

Have you been a Christian for a couple of years or more? Is spiritual warfare a reality in your life? Are you aware of how Satan typically attacks you? Are you fighting for other people’s spiritual welfare? If your answers are chronically “No,” you may be more of a spiritual casualty than a “young man!”

John names three provisions God has given you “young men” for this stage of our development. These provisions also imply a responsibility on our part to use them.

“You have overcome the evil one” – “young men” stand on Jesus’ authority over Satan. We have already been delivered from his domain (Col.1:13). We already have access to Jesus’ authority over him (Eph.1:20,21; 2:6). We are already assured of Jesus’ future conquest (Rev.20). Do you keep this in focus – or listen to Satan’s threats and intimidations?

“You are strong” – “young men” depend on the power of the Holy Spirit in daily life. “Strong” refers not to our own native strength, but to the power of the Holy Spirit, who is greater than Satan is (1Jn.4:4). This is why Paul tells us to “be strong in the strength of God’s might” in order to stand firm against Satan’s attacks (Eph.6:10,11). As we walk learn to live by the power of the Spirit, we can tear down Satan’s fortresses of deception (2Cor.10:3,4) rather than get taken captive by them. Every Christian has this power – but many do not wield it consistently.

“The word of God abides in you” – “young men” know and use God’s Word in battle. Satan’s main tactic is deception – about who God is, about who we are, about what life’s purpose is, etc. Therefore, our main weapon is the truth – what God says in His Word. Eph.6:17 calls us to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word (rhema – utterance) of God. We are to use God’s Word to counter Satan’s lies (just as Jesus did in the desert) – lies directed to us and to others, speaking God’s truth to ourselves and to others, both in conversation and intercessory prayer (Eph.6:18). We have access to God’s Word – more access than any Christians in the history of the church. The question is: “Does the Word of God abide in me?” – are you deeply familiar with it, and do you regularly use it to recognize and overcome the lies of the evil one? How tragic when Christians have such access to God’s Word – yet live as prisoners of war!

Are you appropriating these provisions? If so, you will be effective in your part of the battle. Stay at this, and God will move you into the next stage of spiritual development...

Stage #3: “Fathers” – veteran mentors

John calls those who are in the third stage of spiritual development “fathers” (2:13a,14a). They are not merely “old men” (Christians for a long time); they are “fathers” – substantially mature Christians. Just as “young men” continue to live on the foundation they laid as “children,” so “fathers” continue in the battle against the evil one. But their years of relating to God, His track-record of faithfulness, and their experience in the battle make them seasoned leaders and mentors (“fathers”) for others in the church.

John assures them of what the Gnostics were denying – that they “know (gnosko) Him who has been from the beginning.” The Father and Jesus are knowable, and the “fathers’” knowledge of Him is genuine. Jesus promised that those who follow Him will experience true intimacy with Him and His Father (Jn.14:21,23). Their knowledge of God is both precious to them and also extremely valuable to the “little children” and “young men.”

I thank God that He gave me some “fathers” (EXAMPLES)! I honestly don’t know what would have happened to me without their example, advice, encouragement, warning, and prayer.

I thank God that we have several “fathers” in this room – Christians who have kept growing in their knowledge of the Lord, who know Him better than they did 40, 20, 5, or even 1 year ago! What stability and vitality there is in this growing knowledge of God! How valuable this knowledge is for the younger Christians around them! But we need more.

We need more “young men” to press on to become “fathers.” Is this your #1 life goal? No one can prevent you from doing this but you! Tell God this is what you want!

We need more long-time Christians to get back in the battle and become “fathers.” You may have gotten sidetracked, but it’s not too late! Tell Him you want this, and He will immediately revitalize you and eventually redeem your mistakes!


I want to make explicit what is implicit in this passage: Spiritual development requires involvement in God’s family! Isolated Christians do not develop spiritually. Are you vitally involved in God’s family? (PROMOTE HOME CHURCH ENGAGEMENT)

It should also be clear from this teaching that spiritual development is neither automatic nor inevitable. This is why in the next paragraph (1Jn.2:15-17) John warns against a key obstacle to spiritual development – the world-system (NEXT WEEK).

Although John calls all of his audience “little children” (teknion; see 2:1; 3:7,18; 4:4; 5:21) as a term of endearment, the use of “young men” and “fathers” here argues for this more specific usage of teknion. In the same way, although John calls all of his audience “children” (paidion; see 4:4), the use of “young men” and “fathers” here argues for this more specific usage of paidion.

See Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthian Christians in 1Cor.3:3a (“you are still fleshly”), who had been converted two to three years earlier.

“Him” may refer to Jesus, who like the Father has been from the beginning (Jn.1:1). Some Gnostics denied the eternal pre-existence of Jesus, viewing Him instead as a kind of junior spirit. “Him” may refer to the Father, who has been from the beginning. Some Gnostics denied that He could be known – see Stott, J. R. W. (1988). The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 19, pp. 51,52). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.