“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21
With these words the Apostle of love concludes his first epistle with an exhortation that the saints are to avoid idolatry of the heart. While not his primary interest, throughout the letter John provides a series of tests for evidence of faith, namely through increasing knowledge of God, growth in holiness, and expression of love for others. With this in mind, it becomes all the more interesting that he concludes his letter as a father toward his children with a statement of keeping oneself from idols.
In beginning our exposition of this verse, we may ask, what are idols? Why are we to keep ourselves from them? And how are we to keep ourselves from them? The Old Testament often outlines the image into which the New Testament supplies the paint and it is true with regard to idols as well. In the Old Testament we get a clear picture of what idolatry looks like. For example, at the foot of Sinai, restless for the return of Moses, Aaron leads the people into fashioning a golden calf:
“3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’”
From this passage we gain insight into the nature of idolatry. Though obviously it is a physical, tangible, visible idol toward which they offer worship, the issue is more a matter of the heart. Additionally, we can see there is sometimes a level of syncretism within idolatry as well; worshipping a golden calf yet giving it the credit for deliverance from Egypt and proclaiming a feast to the Lord on behalf of the idol. God demands not only external worship, but internal worship as well.
Nowadays, we are unlikely to see a golden calf perched on a hillside, though certainly in some cultures and religions idols and icons still maintain a very visible presence. Nevertheless, though less obvious, idolatry runs rampant in the land. Anything that the human heart elevates above the one true living God, by way of desire, time, attention, money, habits, etc. is idolatry. While we may not have golden calves hidden away in our closets, we likely have golden calves hidden away in our hearts. Puritan David Clarkson summarizes well,
“Idolatry is to give that honor and worship to ‘the creature’, which is due to the Creator alone. When this worship is communicated to other things, whatever they are, we thereby make them idols, and commit idolatry. Now this worship due to God alone, is not only given by the savage heathen to their stick and stones—and by papists to angels, saints and images—but also by carnal men to their lusts.”
Pressing forward towards further identifying what may be termed an idol, Thomas Watson in his book The Godly Man’s Picture identifies the chief form of idolatry as the worship of self. Surely this is becoming increasingly evident in our ever-changing world. Interestingly, a passage from 1 Corinthians 6 places idolatry squarely between sins that are sexual in nature, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality” 1 Corinthians 6:9
Romans 1 provides additional support for this sexual form of idolatry that reaches its zenith in homosexual desires, “24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:24-27
If our identification of idols at this point is beginning to take shape far beyond simply the presence of a golden calf, then we may ask of the passage why it’s important to keep ourselves from them.
At its heart, this exhortation from the Apostle John is a restatement of the Second Commandment and is in fact a call to proper worship of God. Here is the original command from God, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6
In this passage, God gives a clear reason for His prohibition against idolatry, namely that He is a jealous God. Giving worship to anything else, in essence robs God of the worship due His name and provokes His jealousy.
Through the message given by the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, we may note how idolatry, even those of sticks and stones, becomes internalized, “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces….” Ezekiel 14:3
The Apostle John in his first epistle is keenly aware that idolatry of the heart will keep one from eternal life because it is a reflective pattern of an unregenerate heart. Note additional commentary from elsewhere in the New Testament:
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Ephesians 5:5
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5
In the two passages above we may glean that covetousness, i.e. unlawful desires of the heart, are labeled as idolatry. So again we find that idolatry, this time from a different perspective, is a violation of God’s holy law, namely “Thou shall not covet” Ex 20:17
Why then are we to avoid idols? 1) It robs God of the glory and worship that is due His name. 2) It is a violation of God’s holy law 3) It hinders and inhibits man’s proper relationship with His Creator. 4) It elevates concern for self above concern for others.
Turning our attention to address how it is that we are to keep ourselves from idols, we may conclude with 4 summary statements. 1) Only a regenerate heart can truly avoid the plague of idolatry. 2) Be alert to all presence of idolatry in your heart 3) Renew your mind daily by the Word of God 4) Pray for God to reveal any unrecognized idols
For John to summarize his letter in this way, he is ultimately defining the chief obstacle for everything he outlined in the previous 5 chapters. Idols stifle one’s knowledge of God. Idols are contrary to growth in holiness. Idols elevate self over love for others. How can one be sure to pass the “tests” of 1 John? Simple, “little children, keep yourselves from idols.”