‘Little Children’ in John’s First Epistle
John Mitchell, Cardiff
The apostle John uses a number of words in his first Epistle which describe believers as children of God. One such expression in the diminutive, "little children", used seven times in the Epistle, 2. 1, 12, 28; 3. 7, 18; 4. 4; 5. 21, shows that which is characteristic of all the members of God's family.
In 2. 1 we read, "My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous". Although chapter 1 has told us in no uncertain terms that we deceive ourselves if we say we have no sin, the opening of chapter 2 informs us that if we take note of what John writes we will be kept from falling into sin. However, in the event of our sinning, we are assured that we cannot perish, for we have One who takes up our cause with the Father. We observe that even the apostle John himself was dependent upon the advocacy of Jesus Christ, for he says, "we have". Our righteous Advocate is not exercising His ministry at the right hand of God in order to bring us into the family of God, but so as to maintain us in harmonious relationship, not with a Judge, but with the Father. We thank God for the present ministry of Christ for His people. Not only has He become the propitiation for our sins, but His advocacy on our behalf confirms the security of the salvation freely granted to us.
John next uses the word in 2. 12, "I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake". Those born of God have been forgiven, and enjoy a relationship with God on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross. Before the apostle speaks of the various stages of growth in the Christian life in chapter 2, he tells us that this relationship with God has its starting point in the forgiveness of sins. No one is received into the family so that he might find forgiveness, but, having been forgiven, he then enjoys this relationship with God.
The third use of this expression in chapter 2 is in the form of an exhortation which stresses that every child of God is duty-bound to abide in Him. "And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming", 2. 28. John exhorts us as God's children to recognize the value of the anointng that we have received, and consequently to abide in the Son. It is noticeable that the tense of "abide" is the present, thus stressing the need of making this a constant practice. This is in view of the manifestation of the Son, and of our not being ashamed in His presence at His coming, but rather having boldness before Him in that day.
When the apostle uses the word in 3. 7, he gives a warning to believers to be on their guard against deception, "Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous". Whilst John's writings are intensely spiritual, there is contained in this verse, and in verses 8-10, essential practical tests to ensure that we be not deceived. There is a stress on "doing" in the verses; so that John is saying, in effect, "the fruit reveals the root". The way we live shows clearly the one to whom we are linked, either to Christ or to the devil. John's simple, yet sublime, conclusion is that a righteous life proves a connection with the righteous One, and similarly love to others shows the existence of a relationship with a God of love. The opposite is seen in unrighteous and hateful conduct; the connection with the devil is thereby shown.
The apostle uses the word again in 3. 18, where we are told to guard against hypocrisy. "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth". Love is that which must express itself in practical terms, for merely pious platitudes are not love at all. Although scaling heights in spiritual teaching, John is so practical and straightforward when it comes to expressing love to our brethren; "But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?", v. 17. Our genuine love towards our brethren is the evidence that we have been saved, and that we appreciate the value of the sacrifice of the One who laid down His life for us.
In 4. 4, we find that those who are in God's family are indwelt by the Spirit for John says, "Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world". This is a word of encouragement for the beloved of God in a day when many teach what is false. The test as to truth or error is the Person and work of Christ. In order to experience overcoming power in a world that listens to the voice of antichrist, it is essential to be in the good of the witness of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God. All who have accepted the truth involved in the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh (His pre-existence, His mission, His retention of both Deity and humanity through which latter He has effected our eternal salvation by His atoning death) have this witness. How much there is in this portion of John's first Epistle which reminds us of his Gospel; see John 5. 43; 6. 14; 7. 28-29; 8. 42; 10. 5; 14. 17; 15. 19; 16. 13, 28, 33; 17. 14; 18. 37.
The beloved apostle's final use of this endearing expression "little children" is in the last verse of the Epistle, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols", 5.21. This parting word is suggested by the thought of "the true God" in verse 20. This warning against idolatry shows that there can be no substitute for the Son, and the little children are warned by the aged apostle to be on their guard against the many forms of idolatry existing in the world. This great Epistle of fellowship, 1. 3, ends with this striking, yet fitting, exhortation. There is no proper fellowship with God if we are devoted to another, Hos. 14. 8.
So we have these seven references in this Epistle to the "little children", who form the family of God, John 1. 12. They have an Advocate with the Father, 1 John 2. 1; their sins have been forgiven, 2. 12; they are duty-bound to abide in Him, 2. 28; they should be wary of deception, 3. 7; they should guard against hypocrisy, 3. 18; they are indwelt by the Spirit, 4. 4; and they should keep themselves from idols, 5. 21.
It does not matter how long one has been in God's family; these reminders and exhortations never cease to be necessary for all the "little children" to heed.