Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
“I have written unto you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one.”
This part of I John is controversial among biblical commentators. Much ink has been spilled to show that with this word the apostle beloved of the Lord distinguishes a segment of the congregation: young men. These young men are singled out as a group. The apostle John commends them. They gave wonderful testimony of the Lord’s grace working in them. They made evident that grace of God in their life and daily walk. By that grace of God working in them, these young men persevered through some great struggle. In this struggle they faced the temptations of the wicked one, and they overcame the wicked one. They did so by the Word of God abiding in them.
But much ink has also been spilled to show another possible understanding of this verse. Other commentators think John here ascribes to the whole church the character of youth. As young men are strong, so must the whole church give evidence of that kind of strength. Through the Word of God abiding in them, the whole church shows unnatural strength. By that strength they defeat the tactics of Satan, they do not yield to his temptations. So great is their victory, that they show that the strength of youth is in them.
Whatever the viewpoint, one thing is clear. Scripture uses youth, and the characteristic strength of youth, to make a point. We see that point well made in Isaiah 40:29-31. Young men are strong, but they that wait upon the Lord are far stronger. It is therefore a truth of Scripture and the experience of the ages that the time of youth is a time of strength.
Scripture permits us to consider that strength of youth as God’s work in creation itself.
The strength of youth is strength and power of body. Late teens and early twenties are a time of great strength. Every individual who in later years looks back over the course of his life will have to admit that he was strongest in those years. A young man is able to condition himself to be strong. He is able to perform deeds that cause excitement for all who see them. A young man is also able to condition himself for strength of endurance. He is able to run or swim great distances.
That strength of youth is also agility. Muscles and joints are finely controlled by a tuned, coordinated nervous system. A young athlete is able to stop and start quickly. He is able to change position, rapidly move his legs and arms, hands and feet, almost as quickly as necessity arises. There is a wonderfully instantaneous coordination among the members of the body.
And, speaking of the nervous system, there is also much strength there. The rapidity of everything from reflexes to decision-making to receiving and processing what is seen with the eye and heard with the ear is astonishing. Then there are all the paths of carrying that work of the mind to the body.
God has also given to youth much strength of mind in learning. Memorizing is a much easier task in one’s youth. A young person memorizes quickly, sharply, and accurately, and retains more easily what is memorized.
You young people have a great deal of strength, in both body and mind.
However, all that we have mentioned so far is not enough to tell us the proper strength of youth. The strength must be properly controlled, by two critical virtues.
We draw an analogy from current events. Iran is working at a fevered pitch to join the “nuclear club,” the group of countries that possess nuclear weapons. Iran desires the prestige and power of having a nuclear arsenal. However, Iran cloaks its initiative in the guise of building nuclear reactors and using the technology only for electricity. Nuclear power! Nuclear power is unleashed in the detonation of an atomic bomb. But in a controlled reaction nuclear power can also be used to produce electricity.
The strength of youth is like that nuclear power. Without two critical elements, the strength of youth is a nuclear explosion, good for nothing except visiting destruction and ruin upon a people. But with these two elements, the strength of youth becomes profitable and brings blessings everywhere.
These critical elements are self-control and godliness. Under self-control we place virtues such as temperance, meekness, patience, and prudence. Self-control keeps power in check, either from exploding or from going off in all directions.
This self-control is very difficult for a young person to exercise. You young people know that. Look back on what you said over the course of your day. Look back on the things that you did of which you are now ashamed. How many of those things would you never have said or done had you only thought a little bit? How much damage has that uncontrolled power caused? Self-control holds that power back. It keeps your tongue from wagging. It keeps your hands from flying.
Self-control also keeps your strength from going in wrong directions. The strength of youth can be very busy. All kinds of activities, all kinds of projects. Sometimes projects are simply never brought to completion. Or sloppiness and haste become evident in the final product. Activities that are true duties, things that need to be done, are neglected. Or the strength of youth can be so easily turned to evil purposes. The young man yields to temptation and applies his strength in the pursuit of evil. He runs swiftly in the way of evil and uses much energy in hiding his sin from parents, teachers, and elders. Self-control keeps that energy in check. Self-control keeps that strength from going out in every possible direction. Self-control keeps that strength from straying into evil.
Self-control is a form of self-denial. The truth is that your first reflexive action is often sinful and causes harm. So often your depravity is the very first to respond to temptation. Pride, also, will often be the first reaction. Unrighteous anger is sometimes the quickest to arise. Things said and done immediately are often done out of spite, envy, and jealousy. When self-control is exercised, the power you have is not used to sin. The strength waits to be used properly, making true strength of youth.
Self-control paves the way for the second critical element, godliness. Like self-control, godliness has a number of features. It includes wisdom, spirituality, holiness, righteousness, and love. Godliness is the ability to govern and direct the power you have in the proper way and for the proper purpose.
First of all, godliness means that you are inclined toward God. You live in fellowship with Him. You are His child and He is your God and Father. In that fellowship you have the fundamental desire to do only what is pleasing to Him. Your heart belongs to Him and your great aim in life is to bring Him glory.
Secondly, godliness means that you have the ability to carry on in your life, saying and doing what is pleasing to God. It means that you use your mind, mouth, and hands to work righteousness. It means that you fill your days, hours, and minutes doing what you do to the Lord’s glory.
Godliness can be difficult to fulfill. It is one thing to have a heart for the Lord and for His glory. It is one thing to have the desire of heart to do what is pleasing to God. But it is another thing to carry out that desire by the words of your mouth and the deeds of your hands. You must see your godliness working out to that end. The strength of youth must be evident in youth!
Godliness means being involved with the Word of God. It means reading the Scriptures. It means studying the Scriptures. It also means having a love for that Word as the Word of God. That love clings to the Word as a Word of life. That love submits to the Word. (To get a good idea of that loving submission, read Psalm 119!) Submit to the Word where it addresses what you must believe! Submit to the Word where it addresses what you must do!
Godliness means also an awareness of God’s presence through all your life. Wherever you go, you know that God is there. You know that He is there as the One you desire to please and obey. You know He is there with you and near you in wonderful, abundant grace. He is there to give you the ability to use your strength to do what pleases Him.
Godliness, then, means the use of your strength to do those things that are pleasing to God. Godliness comes to its full realization in your thoughts, words, and deeds, showing that glory of God. You confess His name and His truth with your mouth—everywhere. And the words of your mouth and the deeds of your hands all show the real power of that name.
Do not forget that godliness also means that you gratefully confess the true Source of that godliness: God. By His Spirit He so guides your strength that it shows itself in godly words and actions. At the same time, you exercise self-control and godliness. By that power of the Holy Spirit, you choose deeds of righteousness over deeds of wickedness. By that power of the Spirit, you actually do godliness.
Now we are ready to see how all these elements are presented to us in the passage we began talking about, I John 2:14. These youth (whether the church or the young men in the church) have showed themselves strong in battle. Their strength was found, first, in their victory. They overcame the wicked one. They were presented with the temptation of Satan. By their selfcontrol they gained the opportunity to consider the temptation. They saw the temptation for what it truly was. That temptation lost its appeal and the ugliness of sin was seen under its surface. In spite of this strong temptation, they were able to overcome the wicked one and live uprightly through godliness.
We must also see in this passage what made for that strength of youth. These youth were strong because the Word of God was abiding in them. That Word was their guide. It became their guide because they spent time in the Word. They read the Word, and through faith they laid hold on the content of that Word, the gospel of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. By that gospel they received strength so that they would be properly strong: spiritually strong in the kingdom of God. That same Word also showed them the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. These youth heard that Word and it remained with them. In their temptation they did not act out of their depravity. They applied the Word that was abiding in them to that temptation and saw its evil. Their strength they did not use to join the evil one, but to be godly. They overcame!
Here is the real and true strength of youth. It is found not merely in physical strength or stamina. It is found not merely in agility of body or quickness of mind. It is found first in a heart and spirit that is directed to God and to His glory. By that strong government of heart and spirit, body and mind serve godliness. In consecration to God, young people show their true strength. The Word abides in them. They overcome the wicked one himself.
What a gift is this true strength of youth! Begun in youth, it is a strength to be maintained and enjoyed through the believer’s life. You young people who are disciplined to have this kind of spiritual strength have established yourselves to be strong for the rest of your life. That strength, of course, must be maintained. Through good, sound, spiritual exercise, expect that strength not only to remain, but to become greater and greater!