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Idolatry – 1 John 5:21



Text. 1 John 5:21. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen
As we come to the very last phrase in John’s first letter, we are driven back to the most basic premise of the Christian faith. That there is only one, True, Holy, God who will not tolerate the worship of any other god that we might invent. John warns us to guard our lives from idols. There is a deep pastoral concern that the believers watch their lives, be so careful, for idolatry can present itself in so many forms, and can draw us away from faithfully following the Lord.

1. Be Aware of idols.
So John reminds us, ‘keep yourselves from idols’. Literally, keep yourselves from THE idols. – εαυτα απο των ειδωλων. It’s the definite article. It seems that John had some particular form of idolatry in mind:-

  1. Idolatry Examined. There was idolatry in the church. There was idolatry all around. So how would it present itself to Christians?
    1. The idolatry WITHIN the visible church? THERE WAS IDOLATRY WITHIN THE CHURCH! The Gnostics who had been influencing the church, and who had by this time probably left the church, and taken some of the Christians with them. John has already described them as ‘antichrists.’ Their idolatry consisted of presenting a FALSE CHRIST. There are still people who preach false Christs today.
    2. The Idolatry of the ancient people of God. THERE WAS IDOLATRY IN ISRAEL’S HISTORY. There is a history of idolatry among God’s people in the Bible, and not just among the pagan nations, who had idols like Dagon, (the god of the Philistines, – half man and half fish) – there were the Baal gods of the Canaanites. But there were idols among the Israelites too. The golden calf that the people built at Sinai was an example. In Acts, as Stephen faced death at the hands of the Jews, he preached repentance to his persecutors and reminded them if their history of idolatry as a nation, Acts 7:37-43,
    3. The idolatry of pagan society. THERE WAS IDOLATRY ALL AROUND. The church was in a pagan world, bought their food from from pagan shops where the meat had been offered to idols, walked along streets which were full of idols. The Roman Emperor was himself an idol of sorts. Ephesus, where John was the pastor of the Christian Church, was the home of one of the greatest wonders of the world, the pagan temple of Diana. Every time the Christians in Ephesus walked through the city, they were confronted with idols, idolatry and false worship of false gods. They must beware!
  2. Idolatry Experienced. Now, let’s bring this right up to date. We live in the twenty-first century. We do not worship statues. But does that mean we are free from idolatry? Not at all! Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 95. We face pressures from a pantheon of false values–materialism, love of leisure, sensuality, worship of self, security.
  3. Idolatry Explained. Now let us make some personal application. What about you, and what about me. How does idolatry affect me?
    Idolatry involves wilfulness. I have a wilfulness about me, a desire to put myself first, making me my own God. After all, that’s what society teaches me to do, I’m told to have self esteem and and values myself – because ‘I’m worth it’. Everything revolves around me, for that is society’s way. Proverbs 16:25

    1. Idolatry involves worship. St Augustine said, Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped. Can our worship in church be idolatrous? Yes it can, if we introduce anything into that worship that is about me! Anything that we might think would be better than what God has ordained. Deut 12:32 Think of all the innovations that have been introduced into worship, that are not sanctioned in God’s Word. Things like statues, and rosaries and masses, but what about mime and drama and dance and many other things designed to attract and amuse the heart of man, – could these maybe be just idolatry!
    2. Idolatry involves wastefulness. How many of us have wasted years of our Christian life because of the distraction of an idol?

So, like the Christians of John’s letter, we need to heed God’s word, and be aware that idols exist all around us. Idolatry is a SERIOUS SIN. Idolatry is not to be taken lightly. Now, how shall we guard ourselves from idols?

2. Beware of Idols!
How can we protect ourselves? Remember that this is not an isolated sentence. It is that last instruction, the final conclusion, in an entire book, a long loving pastoral letter. That letter is the context for the statement we have read. The key to keeping ourselves from idols lies in what John has already written! So, let’s remind ourselves of what John sees as the normative Christian life:-

  • Repentance and Confession of Sin. Recognising our true spiritual condition, and agreeing with God that we are sinners, admitting it, turning from it, mourning over it, accepting with thankfulness God’s cleansing and forgiveness. Let’s remind ourselves of what John said in 1 John 1:8-10
  • Abiding in Christ. Staying close to Jesus, just by the simple exercise of spiritual disciplines of reading god’s Word and prayer. 1 John 2:28
  • Awareness of the Family Relationship among God’s Children. We are part of God’s family! We are in the fellowship, and there is family support. Stay close, and we’ll all watch out for idols together. 1 John 3:1
  • Christian Discernment, by the work of the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God to our hearts. 1 John 4:1

All of these things are an essential part of every single Christian’s life. They are our weapons to defend our hearts from idolatry. You can see how that would work in practice.

So, with that short recap, we reach the end of John’s first letter. John is still beautifully expressing his love and fondness for the church, still concerned about the onslaught of falsehood coming from the Gnostics and others, and still reminding the brethren to keep a close watch on themselves, – remain in the fellowship, stay close to The Lord, live the daily humble Christian life, – persevere to the very end, and we will meet on day around the heavenly throne.

© Bob McEvoy

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