In previous articles we considered the passage in 1 John 2:12-14, where the apostle addresses his readers as ‘children, fathers, and young men. I suggested that John was not writing to three different groups within the church, but to the whole church as having the characteristics of children (new life and innocence through the forgiveness of sins), parents (spiritual wisdom), and youths (spiritual vigour and strength).
Finally, then, in what way do believers resemble ‘young men’? What are the characteristics of spiritual youth? John gives the answer in the closing words of this passage: ‘I have written to you young men, because you are strong and the Word of God abides in you and you have overcome the wicked one’ (1 John 2:14; see also v.13).
Believers are like young men. In spiritual matters they have the vigour and animation we associate in ordinary life with young men. In short, every believer in Jesus Christ is strong.
Waiting on God
This strength, of course, is a spiritual, rather than a natural, attribute. Christians may, in fact, be weak physically; they may even be weak mentally. But nevertheless it remains true that the believer in Christ is strong in a way that no one else in this world is strong.
Consider the verses at the end of Isaiah 40: ‘[The Lord] gives power to the weak and to those who have no might he increases strength. Even the youths shall fail and be weary and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint’.
Isaiah draws a contrast between natural and spiritual strength. Those who rely on natural powers may endure for a while, but eventually they tire and fall as they seek to run life’s race. By contrast, those who are naturally weak but ‘wait on the Lord’ receive power from on high. They run but do not grow weary; they walk the barren wilderness of this world but do not faint.
Indeed, they not only walk and run but also fly! They receive such supernatural aid that they are no longer limited by the capabilities of mere men. They take wing like the eagle, a bird renowned for its soaring flight.
The nature of strength
What gives them this extraordinary strength? It is the fact that they wait upon God; that is, they rely upon God in all things and at all times. Their eyes and expectations are fixed upon one who is ‘the author and finisher of [their] faith’ (Hebrews 12:2). With the psalmist they can declare, ‘My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation; my defence; I shall not be moved’ (Psalm 62:5-6).
Notice firstly that it is the soul (the whole person), not just the spirit, that relies on God. Believers lean on their heavenly Father for strength in every aspect of life. They rejoice in the sovereignty of God. They are sustained and led by the providence of God. They live in the light of ‘every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:3). Their life is a unity of trust in God.
Listening to God
Notice secondly that they wait ‘silently’. This does not mean that they withhold prayer. But it does mean that they listen to the voice of God. Too often we rush into the presence of God, spill out our petitions, and rush away again. If we would be strong we need to hear the Word of the Lord.
John emphasises that the believer can be strong because ‘the Word of God abides in you’ (1 John 2:14). The Scripture is in his heart. ‘Your Word I have hidden in my heart’, says Psalm 119:11, ‘that I might not sin against you’.
How can we be strong against temptation? How can we ‘overcome the wicked one’? By hiding the Word of God in our hearts, saturating heart and mind with Scripture. With the Word of God abiding in you, you have an answer when temptation comes; you have a reason for saying no.
Those addressed by John as ‘young men’ have overcome Satan. Because they have given their allegiance to Jesus Christ, they are no longer servants of the devil; they are no longer servants and slaves of sin. Instead, they are slaves of Christ and servants of the living God.
No other trust
Notice thirdly that believers should ‘wait … for God alone’, for their ‘expectation is from him’. How important this is! We often treat God as a ‘backstop’ in case our other plans let us down. We trust in our own capacity, our own wisdom, our own schemes.
But those who wait upon God have eyes for no one else. Their confidence is in him alone. And it is an expectant confidence! They know that God delivers on his promises, however long it takes.
Speaking of his own physical weakness, Paul declares, ‘when I am weak then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). That is a contradiction, isn’t it? How can you be weak when you are strong or strong when you are weak?
The answer is that, in our weakness, we are cast upon God, and therefore experience and draw upon his strength, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit.
Strengthened with might
True believers have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them and, however weak they may be in themselves, they can (and do) experience the enabling power of the Spirit. The ultimate source of the believer’s strength is God himself, dwelling in the believer by the Holy Spirit.
We see this clearly in a prayer that Paul offers for the believers in Ephesians 3:16. He prays that God would grant them ‘according to the riches of his glory to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man’.
Paul’s words are emphatic. We are not merely ‘strengthened’, but strengthened ‘with might’ or power. Moreover, this strengthening is not just commensurate with our need, but is given ‘according to the riches of his glory’, a measure of which we can have no comprehension.
In short, there is no limit to the grace, power and glory of the Spirit’s inner work. Our faith in its weakness, our prayer in its feebleness, our service to God in all its imperfection, are alike the subject of the Spirit’s gracious enabling.
But what is the purpose of this inner strengthening? It is certainly not that we should boast about our spiritual powers, for only when we are conscious of weakness are we truly strong.
The purpose is clearly stated: ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3:17-19).
The Spirit’s purpose is to make Christ ‘at home’ in our hearts. It is not primarily to endue us with special gifts, or to give us ecstatic experiences. It is to unite us to Christ in a growing love that will not let us go. Rooted in that love, we shall bring forth the fruit of the Spirit and shall ourselves know, as far as we are able to bear it, the fulness of the love of Christ.
One who is thus filled with the fulness of God is a person who is strong. But the strength is not theirs but Christ’s. That is why Paul ends his prayer with the following words: ‘To him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us; to him be glory in the church, by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen’ (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Edgar Andrews is Emeritus Professor of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London, and a former editor of Evangelical Times. This article was first published in ET in September 2001.