Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.–1 John 5:21
We’ve, at long last, arrived at the end of 1 John. Some ninety entries and eighteen weeks separate us from the first verse. Presumably John didn’t take quite so long in composing his epistle. Still, he undoubtedly put some time and thought into the piece. The literary student in me appreciates greatly the various structures that John employed to make his message more memorable and powerful. Yesterday’s verse struck me as a marvelous capstone to the intricate and elegant structure of John’s letter. Then we get to today’s verse, the last in the letter.
“Oh yeah,” John seems to tack on, as if in an afterthought. “Stay away from idols.” I almost hear an aged uncle shouting “Don’t take any wooden nickels” as we head out the door. Is this really how a fine theologian, pastoral minister, and Greek stylist wants to end his epistle? Did that monk who probably added the trinitarian language back in 1 John 5:8 also append this verse?
Of course that isn’t the case. Indeed, this verse serves as the logical capstone to the entire book, but only when we understand the logic behind the entire book. What is John trying to say here? Certainly he spent a great deal of time telling us to love each other. If you don’t love your brother, then you don’t love God. Anyone who loves God loves his brother, and so forth. There’s a lot of love going on in 1 John.
John, however, didn’t want us to get the cart before the horse. Lots of people in our society think that love is a great thing. We’re supposed to be inclusive, celebrate diversity, give to charity, and a lot of other loving things. These are, for the most part, very good things, things that seem to fit nicely with John’s message. What I notice, however, is that people sometimes take the next logical step, making the human–the object of our love–an end in itself.
Let’s think that through. If the purpose of life is to love other people, whose purpose is to love other people, whose purpose is to love other people, ad infinitum, then aren’t we missing something? It seems like sort of a backwards Ponzi scheme. In reality, such focus on humans as the end of our attention takes us into idol worship.
An idol needn’t stand like Zeus or Anubis. Human hands need not have crafted it. It can be a tree or Nature or the Sun. In short, an idol is any created thing that is worshiped in place of the Creator of things. Lest we forget, John began his letter with a reference to “That which was from the beginning,” and he ends it by cautioning us against those things that might distract us from “That which was from the beginning.”
As we bring this study to a close, we do well to inspect our lives for idols. Probably you have neither a Buddha nor an Ashereh pole in your home. That does not absolve you of the guilt of idolatry. Perhaps your idol is your house, your car, your family, your career, your position in an organization, music, movies, or sports. I must constantly remain vigilant against an idolatry of books. For you, it’s probably different. Regardless, remember John’s final words and “stay away from idols.”