The preceding passage, on the surface, seems to be nothing more than a simple acknowledgment to whom this letter has been addressed. The Apostle John cites three distinct groups within the Church and makes ostensibly elementary comments about each one. However, there is far more significance than quite possibly meets the eye behind these relatively simple words. It is worth our while to explore this gold mine in which are hidden treasures beneath our very feet. Those content with receiving only those things which can be easily obtained through little effort or who prefer to be spoon-fed will miss much, for a man’s hunger drives him on. For those who are seekers indeed, grab your picks and shovels, switch on the light of truth atop your hard hats, and let us be encouraged to dig towards a deeper level than previously attained or even considered.
The first group John refers to is children, as those who know that God is their Father and that their sins are forgiven in Christ, their Savior. These are relatively new converts who are not expected to have a great deal of understanding beyond this. There is no hint of rebuke, for this is accepted as normal for this initial stage of their spiritual walk. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child (I Cor. 13:1a) and, for everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe, but solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:13-14). The prevalent line of thinking for this level of maturity is, “What has God done for me?” In having a good foundation laid into their spiritual lives they are given a steady diet of the elementary teaching about the Christ, while being exhorted to press onto maturity. It is worth noting what these elementary teachings are considered to be. They are described as a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God, of instruction about washings, and of laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (Heb. 6:1b-2).
Certainly, it is both appropriate and necessary to have these fundamental truths instilled in the lives of newborn babes. But, when the general assembly consistently receives this baby food week after week, month after month, and year after year, it is no wonder that our churches as a whole continue to be so relatively immature, lacking in spiritual depth. Rather, we are exhorted to leave the elementary teaching about the Christ and to press on to maturity (Heb. 6:1a). Whether church leaders are incapable due to their own spiritual lack or unwilling for less than honorable motives in keeping the sheep dependent upon them, the resulting condition of spiritual retardation remains the same, requiring radical changes to correct the spiritual malnutrition in our midst. If left unchecked, we can expect this pattern to be perpetuated to our own hurt and shame, for as it says, like people, like priest (Hos. 4:9a).
We now come to the group referred to as, young men. John writes to them that, you have overcome the evil one, and that, you are strong, and the word of God abides in you. The prevalent line of thinking here is, “What I can do for God?” John knows that through Christ they have obtained victory over sin and death, that they are of an age where they enjoy both spiritual and physical vitality, and that they are at peak mental capacity for absorbing the word of God. They are chomping at the bit to utilize their gifting and feel a sense of destiny that they have a mission to fulfill. Much is revealed in the passage which says, The glory of young men is in their strength... (Prov. 20:29a). This group is a mixed bag, consisting of both blessings and curses. How can this be?
You have heard it said that a person’s strength can also be their weakness and herein lies the great dilemma for young men and the Church. Many will ask, “What dilemma could possibly be created by young men desiring to serve the Lord?” Well, these young men are filled to the brim with knowledge, good knowledge mind you, about the Lord and His Church, but there is yet a large chasm between knowledge and wisdom. And the honor of old men is their gray hair. You see, wisdom is derived by the practical application of knowledge over time, lots of time. As one older Chinese Christian worker expressed it, “After about ten years you begin to know a little something of the Lord and His ways.” There is another saying which all too often applies to young men in the Church and their zeal to be active early on in “the ministry,” which is, “knowing just enough karate to get your teeth kicked in.”
In the early Church young people and new converts did not “serve the Lord.” They did not go into “full-time ministry.” The idea would have been foreign to them. Well, then, what did they do in the church? They learned Christ from men who intimately knew Him. They did not simply hear teaching on “church life.” They witnessed it first hand. They lived it experientially. They learned to be spiritually normal. They learned to function as a simple brother in the Lord within a local church and the surrounding community. They were taught that there had to be Divine “inreach” before there could be authentic outreach. And, it was out from this collective experience wrought over a good, long incubation period that God selected a relatively small number to be sent out as itinerant workers.
Now, someone will always bring up the alleged example of Timothy as being an exception to the rule, and of course, it is not surprising as to just how many consider themselves to be one of those “exceptions.” Well, if they can show similar preparation for ministry as Timothy then they might have a case. Let’s see now, he was saved as a result of Paul’s first missionary journey through his region. After living as a simple brother in the local church for five years while gaining a reputation in the local church for being an excellent young man in Christ, Paul asked this young man, who at the time was probably in his early to mid-twenties, to accompany him. That’s all! No great prophetic word was spoken over him as to how great a man he would be and how great a ministry he would have on behalf of the Kingdom. So, for the next several years he primarily served as a baggage handler, laundry man, tentmaker’s apprentice, and messenger boy. Oh, yes, he also spent a good deal of time with men of apostolic stature. He observed a great deal, asked a great deal of questions, and as a result, learned what few men in all of church history have been afforded. You simply can’t pay for a first rate spiritual education like that, even if you can find it. Oh, and one more thing; God did not go to these great lengths to produce a pastor-elder at the local level. Timothy could have remained local and have been sufficiently prepared right where he was. No, he was uniquely prepared to be a church planter, an apostolic worker. If the “exceptions” out there claim to have comparable spiritual credentials as Timothy, they may want to consider having the Lord examine their hearts to see if they lack, among other things, the integrity required of men called to such a work.
And finally, we come to the group referred to as fathers. The key phrase here is, you know Him who has been from the beginning. The children and the young men also know the Father, but not the Father who has been from the beginning. This simple phrase denotes a level of spiritual depth in the Lord lacking in different degrees by the two previous groups. The honor of old men is their gray hair (Prov. 20:29b), so when the time came for Moses to select elders, he chose wise and discerning and experienced men (Deut. 1:13a). It could be said that fathers may be defined as those who through much time and personal experience have acquired a deep understanding of who Christ is and the Father’s eternal purposes. John may have expressed it best in this way, What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handles, concerning the Word of Life-and the life was manifest, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us-what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (I John 1:1-3).
Spiritual fathers are more, so very much more, than just teachers, for they minister not merely a gift, but a life. For if you were to have countless teachers in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers; for in Christ I became your father through the gospel (I Cor. 4:15). And how does a spiritual father minister? Paul eloquently elaborates on this point to the Thessalonians, where he writes, we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us (I Thes. 2:7-8).
Proceeding in our spiritual walk, we start out as children. From there we move on to becoming young men, ultimately attaining to and functioning as fathers. This should be the normal path and process toward spiritual maturity for every man in Christ. The Scriptures teach that all in Christ have at least one gift and that these gifts are irrevocable once given. But spiritual fatherhood transcends gifting and calling and, by His grace, can be apprehended by those who earnestly pursue this highest form of all ministry. To “hit the mark” we must first know where to aim. To pursue something of great worth we must first come to recognize and appreciate its eternal worth. If we can be faithful to this call, the next generation may yet say to us, “Thank you for thinking beyond yourselves, for allowing the Lord to invest in you in such a way that you now have much to deposit in us,” and thereby, serving the purpose of God in your generation, as well as theirs.
For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should teach them to their children; that the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, that they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments (Ps. 78:5-7).