“MY LITTLE CHILDREN”: A LAST WORD
1 John 5:21
1. One of the latest and perhaps the most reassuring of all the New Testament letters–the one written specifically so that we who believe in the name of the Son of God may know that we have eternal life–ends with this sentence: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
2. What a surprising and thought-provoking way to conclude such a letter!
a. “Idols” are not been mentioned in the whole letter up to here.
b. John repeatedly speaks to his readers as “children” or “little children” or “my little children,” with an obvious tone of tenderness and affection.
c. His favorite phrase is “we know,” and he uses it over and over again to remind readers of things that are certain.
d. In fact, he makes three impressive claims of reality in the verses immediately preceding this.
e. But his last word is: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
3. I cannot help but draw this conclusion: Idolatry remains, even for beloved and well-informed people, not only the basic threat to well-being, but also the one most likely to blind-side a person.
4. Our unending, urgent need is to keep ourselves from trusting or revering or following anyone or anything but God himself.
1. The rest of the Bible confirms that when things go wrong, idolatry will somehow be at the root of it.
a. That’s where the trouble begins in Genesis: “...your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).
i. Here’s a person already “like God,” made in his image, being tempted with the possibility of being as a god.
ii. The draw is, “Find out for yourself. Experience good and evil for yourself. Make life what you want it to be!” That is the spirit of idolatry.
iii. And when the determination is made to find the highest good in something other than God, what comes is not fulfillment, but hardship and heartache, disease and disorder and disaster, inhumanity and violence and crime, aging and death and futility.
b. When Paul describes the human condition in Romans, idolatry is again the bad soil out of which a sorry crop of misfortune grows: “...although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him...they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images...they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator...” (1:21, 23, 25).
i. Here is the flat refusal to recognize the eternal power of God, or to respect his divine character, or to rejoice in his true and good ways.
ii. But what develops is not a state of “no God;” its an existence where individual imagination is the reality, and where personal desire is the rule, and where shameless selfishness is the law.
iii. And as God “gives us up” to the gods of our own making, even the most sophisticated idolaters inevitably pass through a terrible descent: darkened hearts, dishonored bodies, degraded relationships, debased minds, and delusion about the whole awful process!
2. Though idolatry may be the most influential sin, it is also the one we least suspect in ourselves.
a. One reason is that there is an unavoidable paradox in this problem.
i. An idol, by the nature of the case, is nothing. As the product of a creature’s imagination, it can’t move or speak or hear or teach or save (cf. Jer. 10:3). It has no life in it, so it has to be carried about like a burden. An idol has no power to form an intention nor to carry out a purpose. It is nothing.
ii. But having idols, as we have just learned, can destroy a life. There are spiritual forces connected with devotion to any idol which can bring a person to nothing and cause him to perish (cf. 1 Cor. 10:19-22). An idol may be nothing, but there is something about the practice of idolatry that is awfully destructive!
iii. These two sides of the coin are brought together in passages like these.
(1) Psalm 115:4-8
(2) Hosea 4:12-14
b. The other reason we may not suspect that we have any idols ourselves is the obvious, even embarrassing, folly of idolatry when we observe it in someone else.
i. Isaiah 44:9-20 provides the most vivid demonstration of the sheer foolishness of what happens any time a person designs his own “god.”
(1) A man who has shown no willingness to trust God nor to listen to him finds that he has a need for identity and worth that is just as real as his need for a fire to keep himself warm or for supper to satisfy his hunger.
(2) He hires an ironsmith who gets so hungry and thirsty and tired that his strength fails to help him make a god strong enough to satisfy him.
(3) Another man who is a carpenter uses part of a tree which is fuel for a man and shapes it into the figure of a man with the beauty of a man to dwell in the house of the man it is supposed to help.
(4) The man who lives in that house uses the other part of that tree to kindle a fire, warm himself and roast his supper, then he falls down before the part of it that has been turned into his god and pleads with it to deliver him!
(5) His eyes and heart have been shut so that he cannot understand that he “feeds on ashes”–he is engaged in something that cannot possibly bless him!
ii. But think of what has happened: something which is good in and of itself (in this case, a piece of wood) has gotten turned into an object of devotion, a place that belongs only to God.
iii. It’s the same thing that occurs every time any person installs anything before God, or insists on having control over God, or imagines God to be what that person himself wants.
3. A consistent theme of Scripture is that, for good reason, God cannot and will not stand for idolatry.
a. From his first commandments to Israel onward, God has made it clear that there are two things he cannot allow.
i. One is the worship of any idol (Ex. 20:3).
ii. The other is the worship of himself as if he was an idol (Ex. 20:4).
b. One reason–the first and biggest reason–why God cannot stand for either of these behaviors is the truth about who He himself is.
i. Even the words that are used for idols suggest “unreality.”
ii. The point is that God is not like that. He is real! He lives, speaks, sees, hears, plans, acts, creates, brings things about, delivers, and judges!
(1) Habakkuk 2:18-20
(2) Isaiah 46:8-11
c. Another reason–also very meaningful–is that God will not stand for what it does to us.
i. Every human being gets his or her identity and significance and direction either from having God above all else, or from being centered on something else.
ii. Since we were made in his image and for his love, when we try to justify our existence through devotion to some “god-substitute” we will experience “lostness.”
iii. Timothy Keller, in his book The Reason for God, offers these illustrations (adapted from footnote 8, p.290-291):
(1) If you center you life and identity on your spouse or your love relationship, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming to you.
(2) If your center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.
(3) If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
(4) If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You’ll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up in your life.
(5) If you center your life and identity on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the ‘escape strategies’ by which you avoid the hardness of life.
(6) If you center your life and identity on relationships and approval, you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism and thus always losing friends. You will fear confronting other and therefore will be a useless friend.
(7) If you center your life and identity on a ‘noble cause,’ you will divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and demonize your opponents. Without them, you have no purpose.
(8) If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don’t live up to your standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating.
iv. No wonder God wants us, through Christ, to love him supremely and to seek his kingdom and his righteousness above all!
v. Whatever a person lives for is Lord of his life. Jesus is the only Lord who, if we serve him, will fulfill us completely, and, if we fail him, will forgive us eternally. (Keller, 179)
1. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” What an important last word!
2. What John does not want his “little children” to be moved from is stated one verse earlier in verse 20.
3. Let us be sure we know we are “in his Son Jesus Christ.”