John ends his epistle with a single sentence that seemingly stands alone: "Dear children, keep yourselves from idols." 1 John 5:21. At first glance, this last sentence may seem out of place, or even out of left field. It is a warning that seemingly comes from nowhere -- completely disassociated with the text that precedes it.
On closer inspection, however, it is a warning that makes perfect sense. In fact, whatever its significance in the first century, it is a warning of incalculable magnitude in the world of today -- and particularly in the so-called Christian world.
The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, brings into sharp focus what is meant by "idols." We are to put to death our earthly nature. It is not merely a matter of subordinating our earthly desires to our love of God:
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
I have heard it said that idolatry simply means putting anything before God. I am not quite sure where this idea comes from. Perhaps some think of the First Commandment admonition “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) as meaning that we can love the things of this world, as long as we love God more.
This, to me, is a very dangerous idea. My first objection is theological. I don't think the First Commandment permits us to have other gods who are subordinate to the one true God. I think it requires that we worship God alone. Indeed, the very epistle we have been studying, 1 John, forecloses any other possibility. Again, John tells us we must choose -- we can love the world or we can love God; but we cannot do both:
"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[d] is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever."
1 John 2:15-17.
My second objection is more practical. And, that is that I do not think it possible, once we open the door to loving things of this world, to honestly and accurately discern when our loves of things eclipses our love for God. The heart is, after all, above all things deceitful. Jeremiah 17:9.
We are really good at convincing ourselves that we put God first in our lives, but it is usually a lie. Worse, the only ones we fool with our never ending efforts to convince ourselves that that God is supreme in our lives is ourselves. You know the idols in your lives. I do not need to tell you about them.
As I was thinking about this, the Lord brought me to chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Joshua. Joshua was at long last instructed to lead the people into the Promised Land. It was a new generation -- the old had died in the desert. This new generation saw God part the Jordan -- just as their forefathers had seen the God part the Red Sea. They saw God bring down the walls of Jericho. They saw the manna stop falling from heaven, and they were able to eat from the land for the first time.
Despite all of this, one of their number, Achan, denied God the one thing he had demanded -- obedience. God would deliver Jericho into their hands, but Jericho and all that was in it was to be devoted to the Lord. Joshua 6:15-19. Despite all he had seen God do -- despite all he knew about God's power -- the shiny things found in Jericho were too much of a temptation for Achan. And, Achan took some of that which was to be devoted to God for himself. For a robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold many Israelites died -- including Achan and all of his family. Joshua 7:24-26. What an incredible price to pay for taking a few shiny things!!
Interestingly, after the sad story of Achan's seduction by the shiny things, God sent Joshua and the fighting men to conquer king Ai. But this time, God allowed the Israelites to keep the plunder and the livestock for themselves. Joshua 8:1-2.
If only Achan had been patient. If only he had not succumbed to the temptation of those shiny things -- those idols. God, as it turned out, had something waiting that was better. And, he does for us too. Indeed, that is why we are to keep ourselves from idols, and instead store up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
What are we supposed to devote to God in these last days? Only our very lives. We are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices. See 1 Corinthians 12:1-2. Because of idols the wrath of God is coming. But because of grace, something even better than the shiny things of this earth awaits for those who put their trust in Jesus.
Oh, and one more thing. If you are still wondering what idols you have in your life, let me suggest a good place to look -- a mirror.