If you’ve read the entire New Testament, then you’ve read this verse. However, I bet it’s not one you were determined to commit to memory. And unless you sit under a pastor who has preached expository sermons through this epistle, I think I can can say with 99.9% accuracy that you’ve never heard a sermon on it or read a book devoted to it. This timely verse is sorely neglected, and our negligence is not inconsequential.
While the verse itself isn’t all that strange (you can find its message echoing throughout the Scriptures), it seems strange because of the way it ends an epistle abruptly. For at the end of John’s first letter, he writes, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). There’s no benediction, goodbye, or “Sincerely, John.” Just “keep yourselves from idols.”
Whenever Evangelicals think of idols, we tend to think of the statues we might see in Hindu temples, Roman Catholic churches, or the little Buddhas we see in someone’s garden; however, idolatry goes much deeper than that. Furthermore, idolatry is something we all must guard against and flee from. As one theologian has observed, the human heart is like its own idol factory. And A. W. Tozer, in his book, Knowledge of the Holy, notes how idols are not simply objects people bow down to worship, but idolatry includes even the notions of God that are not in line with the truth of who He is. So, an idol is any object, thought, feeling, idea, etc. in which we harbor and place above God or of which we substitute Him for to find our pleasure, meaning, purpose, or identity.
Ours is certainly a hedonistic, idolatrous society, and these have certainly been carried into churches. I’m reminded of this every year at this time when churches restructure their evening services for Super Bowl Sunday, just to watch a stupid ball thrown around. I’m reminded of this when I’ve seen Hillsong videos where they’ve introduced goddess worship (this is not at all subtle in one of their recorded concerts). But I also want to add the quests for the supernatural phenomenon (e.g, “gold dust,” tongues, warm fuzzies, hype, etc.). Understand, I don’t deny authentic miracles and spiritual gifts exist. But I am saying we, as human beings, are prone to make such things—especially experiences—into idols (and as a godly man I know had taught, if you want an experience, Satan will give you an experience). The same thing with “blessings” (e.g., money, a dream come true [a signed contract], a large congregation, etc.). I think one form of idolatry so prevalent in our day is the love for the blessing rather than the love for the Blesser.
Regardless whatever we might turn into an idol, their works will always pollute devotion and worship of God. Idols will always begin steering one’s heart from the Scriptures and bringing it into question. Idols will always help us find justifications as to why we can place them beside the throne of God and deceive us into thinking our hearts can be divided and still be wholeheartedly devoted to God. Our idols will tempt us to curse our Redeemer if we are not given our “fixes” of our desired blessings. Idols distort our thinking of God and sound theology (the “prosperity gospel” teachers are a case in point).
Idols divide our hearts and seek to be divine substitutes. And when God doesn’t give us what our idols give, we begin questioning Him and even doubting Him. We’ll even begin accusing true worshipers of God who are sent to warn us.
The true God isn’t one of our own making. He is what He is, whether we like Him or not. Indeed, He is merciful and kind, but He is also holy, holy, holy. His richest of blessings is not the things of earth but Himself. This isn’t so much in the hype and hoopla, but in His peace. You and I both wrestle with idolatry. We must continually have the Holy Spirit’s help in smashing them and giving us discernment.
Just because something is miraculous, supernatural, or gives us warm sensations, or grants us monetary prosperity doesn’t mean it’s of God. Make no mistake, the evil one can market counterfeits. We must continually test the spirits (1 John 4:1-2). How are we viewing the Scriptures, God’s Word? How are we viewing Jesus Christ and His atonement? And are we willing to shuffle the things of God to make room for idols (this requires real examining).
Our idols might appear to give us our temporary pleasures and experiences, but they will rob us of the peace, joy, security, and divine presence only the true God can give.