“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” -1 John 5:20-21
In these verses we see that Jesus is the truth: He reveals God. We also see that Jesus is reconciliation: through His incarnation and sacrificial death, we can have a personal relationship with God. These verses show us that Jesus is the way: only through Him can we get to God. In addition, we see that Jesus is the life: there is unspeakable joy in a relationship with Him. Finally, we see the danger of the alternative.
The Heart of the Matter
John’s final words to the church in his first epistle are, “keep yourselves from idols.” This is peculiar because nowhere else in the letter does he write anything about idolatry. It’s also interesting because he’s talking to Christians here. We may be tempted to think of idols only as statues like the golden calf, but John is getting at something deeper. What really is idolatry?
I think Martin Luther gave the best definition in his Large Catechism. When writing about the first commandment he says:
“The simple meaning of this commandment is, You shall worship me alone as your God. What do these words mean and how are they to be understood? What is it to have a god, or what is God?
Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and where we resort for help in every time of need; to have a god is simply to trust and believe in one with our whole heart. As I have often said, the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and confidence are right, then likewise your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your confidence is false, if it is wrong, then you have not the true God. For the two, faith and God, have inevitable connection. Now, I say, whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.”
From Luther’s definition we can see that idolatry has to do with worship. And as it says in verse 20, if it’s the one true God Jesus Christ, then it’s true worship. If it’s anything else, it’s false worship: idolatry. So an idol can be anything. It could be a statue, but more often it’s a reputation or wealth or possessions or power or pleasure or food or family or a relationship. Idols are often good things that we turn into gods. Whatever it may be that your heart clings to, if it’s not Jesus, it’s an idol.
And from Luther’s definition we see that it’s a matter of the heart. Ezekiel 14:3 says:
“Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them?”
As Scripture tells us, idolatry isn’t something external. It’s internal. It has to do with your soul longings.
One and Done
Luther’s point in talking about the first commandment in this way is that in order to break any of the other nine, we have to break the first. Every time we sin, it is a violation of the first commandment because we have put our faith in some other god, some idol. For example, let’s say you tell a lie. The reason we lie is usually because we don’t want to hurt our reputation or we want to save face. And the reason we do so is because human approval or our reputation is our idol. So we lie to hold onto that god.
We know this all too well. This happens with Christians. That’s why John writes them this warning. Even though we are Christians and have faith in the one, true God, we still sin at times because we cling to idols. It doesn’t mean we aren’t Christians, it just means our faith is weak. John Calvin once said, “The human heart is an idol factory…Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols”.
So what do we do then? We have to make war against our idols. These verses say “keep yourselves from idols.” Keep can also be translated guard or defend or watch. John is talking about being on the defensive against idols that would lead us away from the one, true God Jesus Christ. But how do we do this?
There’s really only one way to fight our tendency to worship creation rather than the Creator. Since our hearts are idol factories, we can’t be content in simply turning away from our idols. If we leave it at that, our hearts will simply manufacture a new idol to cling to. We are always worshipping something. Therefore, we must return to the one, true God, worshipping Him alone. We must look to Jesus Christ to satisfy all of our longings and desires.
And the good news is He can. No idol can bring you the joy, happiness, or satisfaction you were made to know. Blaise Pascal once said:
“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”
No amount of wealth, fame, pleasure, or anything else will fill you. There’s only One that can: Jesus. The one you were made for. He can satisfy you when every idol has let you down.
Jesus is better.