By Dr. Robert R. Seyda



5:21 So, dear children, keep yourselves away from false gods.


These words by the Apostle John are right out of the Jewish Torah.[1] The Apostle Paul does the same by reminding the Corinthians that the Spirit warned us not to desire evil things as Israel’s fathers did nor worship idols as they did. Don’t the Scriptures tell us, “The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to dance” in the worship of the golden calf? So be careful and avoid getting involved in any idol worship.”[2]

That’s why believers must never become partners with those who reject God. How can you make a partnership out of right and wrong? That’s not partnership; that’s war. Let me ask you, is light a best friend with the dark? Does the Anointed One walk arm-in-arm with the Devil? Do trust and mistrust hold hands? Who would think of setting up pagan idols in God’s holy Temple? But that is what we are, each of us a temple in whom God lives. God Himself put it this way:[3]

            I’ll live in them, move into them;

                I’ll be their God, and they’ll be my people.

                So, leave the corruption and compromise; leave it for good,” says God.

                “Don’t link up with those who will pollute you.

                I want you all for myself.

                I’ll be a Father to you; you’ll be sons and daughters to me.”

                The Word of the Master, God.[4] [5]

If the Apostle John’s words were sufficient to persuade all who hear or read them to turn away from idols and worship the Living God, what he saw in his revelation must have changed his mind. Thus, after Earth’s population was put through some of the most horrendous and terrifying experiences ever upon humanity, John noticed that the remaining men and women who survived these plagues and wars went on their merry way. They would not renounce their demon worship, nor their idols made of gold and silver, brass, stone, and wood – which neither see nor hear nor walk![6] Although World Wars I and II and September 11, 2011, New York’s Twin Towers massacre were not as appalling, still those drawn to churches and synagogues for prayer were soon back in their old sinful haunts.

We can see why Jesus taught His disciples to call on their Father in heaven, blessed be His name, that His kingdom would come, and will be done on earth as in heaven. Ask Him for His provisions and protection and to forgive our wrongdoings the same way we have forgiven those who mistreated us. And don’t let us be led into temptations we can’t resist but rescue us from hardships and annoyances.[7] Some scholars believe that asking God not to lead them into temptation was the defense they needed against idol worship. Notably, the Greek adjective ponēros is a derivative of the Greek verb peirazō used to explain Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The devil’s main aim was to tempt Jesus into trusting him instead of God.

Why would you want a dead god when you have a living God? When you have an omnipresent God who can speak, why would you talk to a brainless idol who can’t answer prayer? When you have an omniscient God who can see everything, why would you want a wooden god with no eyes? If you have an omnipotent God who can pick you up when you fall, why serve an inanimate god who cannot pick itself up if it topples over? No, says John. Stay connected with the living Anointed One, who is united with the living God, so you can live for eternity.

Though this is a separate sentence, it is as if it were an appendix to the preceding doctrine. The reviving light of the Gospel ought to scatter and dissipate not only darkness but also all fog from the minds of the ungodly. Therefore, the Apostle not only condemns idolatry but commands us to beware of all images and idols, by which he implies that the worship of God cannot continue uncorrupted and pure whenever people begin to venerate icons or images. For so innate in us is a superstition that the least occasion will infect us with its contamination. Just like a match can start a fire, so a spark of idolatry will inflame and engross the minds of many when an occasion arises. And who does not see that images are such sparks? But what can sparks say that will save lost sinners? Torches are needed to set the whole world on fire.

At the same time, John speaks not only of images but also of altars and includes all the instruments of superstitions. Moreover, down through the ages, some churches have perverted this passage and only apply it to the statues of Jupiter and Mercury and the like, as though the Apostle did not teach against the corruption of Christianity whenever a manufactured bodily form is ascribed to God, or whenever statues and pictures form a part of worship. Let us then remember that we ought carefully to continue in the spiritual worship of God to banish far from us everything that may turn us aside to gross and carnal superstitions.

And we know. The “and” instead of “but” here is proper – it sums up the whole with a final assertion. Whatever a godless society and its philosophy choose to assert, Christians know that God’s Son has come in the flesh and endowed them with mental faculties capable of attaining knowledge of the true God. The Christian’s certainty is not fanaticism or superstition. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it;[8] by the gift of the Anointed One, they can obtain an intelligent knowledge of Him who is indeed God. “Him that is true” does not mean God, who is not, like the devil, a liar, but “God through and through,” as opposed to the idols against which John goes on to warn them. Thus, the Epistle ends as it began, with the fulfillment of the Anointed One’s prayer.[9]

We must be content to leave the question open; both interpretations make excellent sense and none of the arguments favoring either one is decisive. Moreover, the question is not essential. That Jesus is the Anointed One, God’s Son, who was with the Father from all eternity, is the very foundation of John’s teaching in the Gospel and Epistles; and it is not of much concern whether this particular text contains the doctrine of the Divinity of the Anointed One or not.

But if with Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373 AD), we interpret the word “this” to be of the Anointed One, the conclusion of the letter is brought into harmony with its opening,[10] in which the Anointed One is spoken of as “the Eternal Life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” Moreover, we obtain a striking contrast with what follows. “This Man, Jesus the Anointed One, is the Godhead: it is not idolatry to worship Him. Whosoever says that He is not Divine makes us idolaters. But idolatry is to us an abomination.”

So, let’s look at this final “we know” here in verse twenty-one. Christians know with certainty that God’s Son came in the flesh. This penetrates the point of difference with the false teaching John addresses throughout his epistle. It is impossible to fellowship with God apart from Jesus the Anointed One. Furthermore, the phrase “God’s Son” occurs six times in this last chapter. It expresses His eternal relationship with the Father.

In addition, the Greek word for “come” includes the ideas of arrival and personal presence. The Son of God came in personal presence in His incarnation.[11] For this reason, Christians have spiritual understanding through the Holy Spirit.[12]  Gnostics taught that salvation came through speculation but not believing in the incarnate Anointed One. Such “understanding” is the power or capacity of knowing.  Christians received the ability to recognize the incarnate Anointed One at the point of regeneration. This transformation allows believers to experience God in intimate fellowship.  “Know” here is knowledge held with assurance, not just by the acquisition process. 

Then notice the three uses of the word “true” in this verse. “True” means real as opposed to false. Jesus, through His person and ministry, stayed in line with the truth.  Everything He is and does follow the facts. He resembles the truth and corresponds by His very nature to what is genuine about God. There is nothing fictitious, imaginary, or counterfeit about Him.  God did not simulate Him.  There is no impression of pretension in Him.[13] By being like Him, we see that Christian living is life at its best. 

Therefore, the truth of Christianity rests upon Jesus the Anointed One as God’s Son.  Man-made Christianity is a religion, God-made Christianity is a relationship. It does not rely on relative or pluralistic thinking but on an eternal person. This reality transcends finite, human truth. No matter how brilliant a person may be, if they have never come to know God personally, they cannot understand God’s Word or its Author. God requires that we be introduced to the Author before we can comprehend His writing.[14] 

But we must ask, who wants to know anything about God these days? We want to know how to become a success. So, we became interested in stock market investments and political issues. But few of us have a vibrant interest in eternal things. As a result, people relegate God to the outer edges of the universe. Those who embrace the incarnation have an entirely different take on God. They not only want to know about Him but also to fellowship with Him. They cannot get enough of Him. Knowledge of God in the incarnation is knowledge on a personal and intimate basis.

Now comes the hard part. Do we know our spiritual address? The spiritual address of every believer is in the same status quo as Jesus the Anointed One. Every Christian has the status quo in God’s eyes. When God looks at us, He sees Jesus because we have Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Jesus has eternal life, so we have eternal life. Jesus took our condemnation, so we will never be condemned.[15]

It leads us to John’s last emphasis. In verse eighteen, we had ”he keeps[16]here the verb “you guard” – (KJV “keep”).[17] The aorist, rather than the present imperative, is used to make the command more forcible, although the guarding is not momentary but will have to continue. Also, what is the meaning of “the idols” here? In answering this question, it will be well to hold fast to the common canon of exposition, that where the literal interpretation makes good sense, the literal interpretation is probably correct.

Here the literal interpretation makes excellent sense. Remember, Ephesus was famous for its idols. To be “temple-keeper of the great Artemis” was its pride.[18] The moral evils which resulted from the abuse of the right of the sanctuary caused the Roman senate to cite the Ephesians and other states to submit their charters to the government for inspection. Ephesus had been the first to answer the summons and strenuously defended its claims. It was famous for its charms and chants, and folly of this kind found its way into the Christian Church.[19]

As so often happens with converts from a religion full of gross superstition, many observances survived by adopting Christianity. With these facts before us, we can hardly be wrong in interpreting “the idols” quite literally. The apostle’s “little children” could not live in Ephesus without constantly interacting with these polluting but attractive influences. Therefore, they must have nothing to do with them: “Guard yourselves and reject them.” But, of course, this literal interpretation places no limit on the application of the text. To a Christian, anything is an idol that usurps God’s place in the heart, whether this is a person, a system, a project, wealth, or whatever. All such intrusions come within the sweep of John’s injunction, “Guard yourselves against idols.”

Besides stone, wood, or metal idols, John opens the door for other substitutes for God by calling it idolatry. It means following a model of one’s invention or imagination. The Christian life will be severely stunted if a believer acquiesces to false teaching. That’s why “keep” expresses urgency and decisiveness – “Do not hesitate.  Do not fool around with false religion because of the serious damage it can do to your soul.”  The meaning is guard, defend – Defend yourselves against idols. Do not desert the reality of God’s Word for an illusion.”  Anything or anyone that substitutes for God is idolatry.

As such, an “idol” is anything that represents itself as God. It is a substitute for the real thing. It can be any false idea of who God is. It could be any value that is central and most important to the believer. It is anything that comes between the soul and the Savior. That might be a person, a pleasure, or an ambition. Some Christians think that when “worshipping” an idol, people use a format similar to Christian worship. But that is not true. The Hebrew verb for “worship” is šāḥâ and means to bow down before a superior image.[20] And the Greek verb proskyneō implies kneeling facing the floor to show homage to superior beings in rank.[21] And in the English language, it defines as “showing reverence and adoration for.”

So, the command to keep us from idols is a command to protect ourselves against spiritual corruption.  This mandate presents a contrast to “the true God” of the previous verse.  John pits the true God against false teaching.  Their teaching was the idolatry that John refers to here: “Since you already know the true God, defend yourself against any teaching that would violate who God is.”  How can we forsake the One who saved us and gave us operating assets for living the Christian life?

Twenty-first-century music and movie stars are as authentic as first-century idols. The terms for such images may change, but the principle behind them does not. By contrast, first-century people venerated the Greek god of extreme vanity and self-absorption ‒ Narcissus,[22] but we adore the “self.” They revered the god of wine, vegetation, fertility, festivity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and theater ‒ Bacchus,[23]and we addict ourselves to drugs, alcohol, and immorality. They worshiped the goddess of love ‒ Venus and we worship illicit sexual pleasure. They worshiped the god of physical beauty ‒ Apollo and we adore the body. Finally, they worship the goddess of science ‒ Minerva and we put great trust in science to answer the ultimate cosmological questions of life.[24]  God wants us to guard ourselves against anything that would ruin our march toward maturity in the Anointed One. Anything that masquerades as truth will blunt development in the Christian way of life. We can tell if we are idolaters by what we give our commitment, attention, interest, energy, time, or money. Whatever controls our thoughts is our god. What do you get animated about? That is your god. 

[1] Exodus 20:3-4

[2] 1 Corinthians 10:6-7, 14; cf. Exodus 32:6

[3] Cf. Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 37:27

[4] Cf. Isaiah 52:11; Ezekiel 20-34, 41

[5] 2 Corinthians 6:16-17

[6] Revelation 9:18-20

[7] Matthew 6:9-13

[8] 1 Peter 3:15

[9] See John 17:13-19

[10] 1 John 1:2

[11] John 10:10; 1 Timothy 1:15

[12] 1 John 2:20

[13] John 6:32; 15:1; 17:3

[14] 1 Corinthians 2:14; Luke 24:45

[15] Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 1:3, 6; 2:6, 10

[16] Cf. 1 Timothy 5:22; See Revelation 3:3 (“hold fast”)

[17] 1 John 5:21

[18] Acts of the Apostles 19:35

[19] Ibid. 19:13-20

[20] Genesis 18:2; Exodus 23:24; 34:14

[21] Matthew 2:2; 8:2; Acts of the Apostles 7:43

[22] Narcissus in Greek mythology, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was distinguished for his beauty.

[23] Bacchus was the Roman god of agriculture, wine, and fertility, equivalent to the Greek god Dionysus.

[24] Luke 12:15; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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