In 2:12-14 John supplies a reaffirmation of forgiveness and sanctification. William Barclay suggests that John, in these verses, may have both a narrower and a wider meaning in mind. On the one hand, he was separating the people into the three named groups, suggesting figuratively a spiritual growth process from children to young people to fathers, from being what Paul calls “babes in Christ” to being “mature Christians.” This is the way John Wesley interpreted the passage. On the other hand, according to Barclay, John had a wider meaning in mind; namely, that all Christians have the blessings mentioned to one degree or another.
From the former perspective, when we are converted, we become children of God in Christ. Then we enter the sanctification process and grow in Christ to become young people. And from there we grow on to be come fathers in Christ, that is, Christian adults. That’s the sanctification process.
From the latter perspective, John gives three characteristics of all Christians. First, as the children in verse 12 have their sins forgiven, so do all Christians. Second, we see him saying in varying ways of each of the groups that they know God. He says it of fathers and children in verse 13, and of the young people in verse 14. This means that he is teaching that there is an increasing knowledge of God as Christians mature from children to young people to fathers. Third, John speaks of the young people as overcoming the evil one (v.13), because they are strong (v.14). And again, this is something that is true of all Christians to a degree. Even babes in Christ are intended to be free from what John Wesley called outward sins.
The controlling statement in verses 15-17 is, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” This statement could not be clearer. The only questions are what are “the world” and “the things of the world?”
Of course the phrase “the world” can mean simply the physical universe, which God created and pronounced to be very good. But in the writings of John, “world” means the rebellion of mankind against God. It is a negative word.
The “world” is under the control of the evil one, he says later in the epistle (I John 5:19). The world lies in darkness he says in his Gospel (Jn. 12:46), that is, in sin. But nevertheless, God so loved this sinful world that he gave his only son to save it (Jn. 3:16).
Thus the believer’s situation is difficult. We live in a kind of constant tension. On the one hand, we are separate from the world. We no longer stand under the judgment that God brings against the world because we have passed from death to life. We are walking in the light rather than in the darkness.
On the other hand, we still live out our lives in the world; and we constantly are exposed to its temptations, which want to pull us away from God and into sin. And of course John is concerned about that possibility. Therefore he warns, “Do not love the world or the things of the world.”
The danger lies in the temptation to give to the world, or the things of the world, the devotion and affection that we ought to give God. If we do that, we cannot love God. That’s why John says: “If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” And that is why Jesus said that we cannot love both God and Mammon.
John gives three examples here of love for the world: “the lust of the flesh,” “the lust of the eyes,” and “the pride of life.” First the lust of the flesh. This refers to the desires that originate in our flesh, in our humanness.
It obviously includes sensual, bodily pleasures such as inordinate desires for food, drink, or misdirected sexual satisfaction. But “desires of the flesh” encompass much more than that. The “flesh” here involves everything that is separated from God. It is not just blatant and notorious sins. It includes every demand of pleasure that harms other people; it includes using people for our own selfish ends, or for the gratification of our selfish desires. And I believe it includes such things as living in luxury while others are living in want. That is the lust of the flesh.
The second example of love of the world given is “the lust of the eyes.” This one flows out of the first. The eyes frequently are the source of the lusts of the flesh. This would include such things as viewing pornography.
I remember counseling with a young married couple at a church in another state. They were as sweet and nice as you could ask; and they obviously were in love. But, they had a problem. It was pornography. He had gotten hooked on it; and though he wanted to break away from it, he had not been able (to that time at least) to do it.
Of course she felt completely inadequate and frustrated by the whole thing. How could she compete with Miss October and the voluptuous women recruited for pornographic movies and all of the fantasies that surround them?
And he was frustrated too, because of his inability to break the bondage he found himself in. He literally could not drive in certain parts of their city, because if he did, the temptation to go certain places would overwhelm him. I referred them to their pastor for counsel, and I pray that he has found release.
The lust of the eyes also includes the tendency to be captivated by outward visible show. It is the spirit that wants to acquire the beautiful and desirable things that one sees. And once having acquired things, it wants to flaunt them before others. The person with this spirit is wrapped up in material things and has lost sight of spiritual things.
The third example is called “the pride of life.” The word used here in the Greek has the meaning of laying claim to more than one deserves. It is the spirit of the braggart who seeks to impress others with his possessions, or who exaggerates things to puff himself up in a prideful way.
None of these is of God. They are of the world. And that is why John warns against them. When we love the world, we love the temporal, the temporary. And we commit ourselves to that which passes away. But the person who loves God and does the will of God will abide forever (v.17).
It truly is amazing, in view of this clear biblical teaching, that so many people who claim to be Christians are at the same time deeply committed to the material realm. I suspect that some folks have their primary commitment to their possessions; and they have a secondary commitment to God as a kind of heavenly fire insurance.
Their attitude, whether expressed or not, is to make it through this life by relying on material things. And then if there really is a heaven and hell, faith in Christ will provide a way to heaven in the end. According to John, that is a very dangerous procedure.
The problem is the subtlety of it all. I will give you two illustrations. First, a few years ago some friends invited Tillie and me to a special Christian event at a church in another city. And before going to the special service, we went to dinner with our friends and another Christian couple whom they knew.
The other couple was very wealthy. They also happened to be prominent members of the church where the service was being held. That dinner was an experience of culture shock for me. The dinner conversation, which was dominated by the rich couple whom we had never met before, was about investments, an antique car collection they had, and several tax loopholes that were enabling them to reduce their tax load. Indeed they seemed almost obsessed with keeping their money out of the hands of the government.
A little later they began to talk about Christmas presents, since Christmas was near. That in turn led to a discussion of what the gentleman called a “bauble” that was hanging around his wife’s neck. He made it quite clear that the pendent was not a Christmas gift, but only a “bauble” to amuse her. It was a solid gold replica of an antique car, with diamonds as hubcaps and headlights.
During that meal, nothing whatsoever was said about Jesus Christ, including by me! I just sat there in awe, making an occasional noise to indicate I was listening.
After the evening was over, and we were at home, I was quite tempted to be severely critical and judgmental of that couple. After all they ostentatiously displayed their wealth; they showed themselves obsessed with money and material things; and I saw no spiritual depth in them at all.
But as I reflected further, I began to imagine what it would be like for a genuinely poor, Christian couple from a poverty-stricken area of the third world to sit down to dinner with my family and me. They would be just as awe-struck with our wealth and conversation as I was at the dinner in question. And sometimes we have little or nothing to say about Christ at dinner. What would their impressions be?
The second illustration is one of my former students at Asbury College. This student demonstrated how easily an immature Christian can get caught up in the complexities of trying to be a good Christian, while at the same time being almost totally selfish in outlook.
The young man was a senior at the college who came to the altar of Hughes Auditorium to pray. He should have been gaining some maturity as a senior, but in fact he was kneeling there weeping and manifesting a classic case of emotional and spiritual immaturity.
As I talked to him, I discovered that he was upset, because God had not yet given him some sort of blueprint about his future.
Now I knew this young man fairly well. He was a fine Christian who wanted to do the will of God, as he understood it. But his spiritual “receiver” wasn’t working very well. He didn’t know whether or not to marry his girlfriend. He didn’t know what he was going to do after graduation. And though he said that he wanted to do the will of God, he couldn’t determine what that was. And he went on and on in that vein, voicing concerns which were legitimate, but which indicated how totally wrapped up in himself and his personal decisions he was.
I was very gentle with him. But I pointed out to him a couple of important matters. I reminded him that for all of his whining around (I didn’t use that phrase with him), he was young, healthy, handsome, educated, a saved Christian, and had a girlfriend who cared about him.
I also reminded him that part of the privilege of being made in the image of God is to have freedom of choice about many things, including whom to marry, and normally, what vocation to pursue, etc. I went on to say that, although it is a little scary sometimes to have to exercise those choices, God always is with us–even if we make mistakes. He got the point. I know, because at the end of our talk he said to me: “I need to grow up don’t I?”
Now obviously that student’s problem was much less serious to my mind than that of the rich couple. But the focus of their attentions was similar in that it was totally on themselves and their personal comfort in the world rather than on God. May God deliver all of us from the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.