NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
By Dr. Robert R. Seyda
FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN
CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXLI) 05/26/23
5:21 So, dear children, keep yourselves away from false gods.
More concerned with the Church than its Sacraments, William Jones of Nyland (1726-1800) informs us that idolatry gives another the love, reverence, and devotion that are rightly due to God alone. Many make an idol of riches. Money is their god, and they devote all their powers and opportunities to the eager pursuit of it. “Greed… is idolatry.” Others worship for pleasure, amusement, and endeavor to subordinate everything to their gratification. And others make honor, or fame, or power, their god. We may make an idol of some beloved relative or friend – wife, husband, or child. Or, in some respects, worst of all, a person may make a god of themselves – may think first and chiefly of himself, study their interests and happiness, and love themselves supremely.
It has been well said, “We can avoid wooden idols, but take heed of the idols of gold. It is no difficult matter to keep from dead idols, but be careful to worship the living ones, and especially yourself; for as soon as you appropriate to yourself either honor, praise, knowledge, or power, you set yourself in place of God, and He has declared that he ‘will not give His glory to another.’” And idol worship offers the greatest dishonor and insult to God.
For example, a man with a heartfelt friendship with hymn writer John Newton (1726-1807), Thomas Scott (1747-1821) comments that verse twenty-one especially the Scriptures in the Final Covenant are intended to draw people away from worshipping to “serve the One, living, and true God.” If so, can anyone imagine that an inspired writer would speak of Jesus the Anointed One in this manner unless He was and is equal with the Father, the proper object of all adoration? If the worship of the Son of Man is idolatry, surely John introduced his caution against idols in a very strange manner!
But if the triune YaHWeH, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” three Persons in One undivided Godhead, the Object, and the only Object, of divine adoration: nothing could be more proper and emphatic for the Jews, rejecting the Son, and professing to worship God in One Person, (as the Mohammedans, Deists, Socinians, and others in after ages have done,) had changed the Object of worship, the God of the Bible, for an imaginary Being; and could not be excused from the charge of idolatry: for they could not be seen as different from those, who worshipped the Supreme Being, under the name of Jupiter, or Baal.
So, nominal Christians today have even more need to be warned to “keep themselves from idols” more; and to be careful that they adore the triune God, in whose name the Anointed One commanded that His disciples should baptize while they “bow their knees to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus,” not to forget to “honor” the Son even as they admire the Father who sent Him. The personal assurance of acceptance and salvation arising from an inward consciousness of having been enlightened by God’s knowledge and Jesus the Anointed One, which is truly eternal life in Him. Therefore, there is no need for another god.
At age fifteen, a potential young theologian who preached and held cottage and prayer meetings, Joseph Benson (1749-1821), notes that the Anointed One is last mentioned in verse twenty as the true God and eternal life.He partakes with the Father in proper Deity, and our immortal life is supported by union with Him. Therefore, in verse twenty-one, the Apostle John warns: “Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts.” That is, from all false worship of images or any creature and every inward idol: from loving, desiring, reverencing anything more than God. Instead, seek all help and defense from evil, all happiness, in the true God alone.
We should also note the Apostle John’s reflection on the happy difference that regeneration and the knowledge of God in the Anointed One made between them and the ignorant and wicked world and directed them to guard carefully against all idolatry. We know by all these infallible proofs; that God’s Son has come into a godless society; and given us an understanding by enlightening our minds; that we may know Him, that is true the living and true God, namely, the Father, of whom John appears to speak, and we are in Him that is true in His favor and in a state of union and fellowship with Him.
In addition, the particle “this” is not in the Greek text; rather, “in” or “through;” His Son Jesus, the Anointed One through whose mediation alone we can have access to, or communion with, the Father. The Anointed One is the last person mentioned; He is the true God and eternal life. He partakes with the Father in proper Deity, and our immortal life is supported by union with Him. Therefore, my beloved children, keep yourselves from idols. From all false worship of illustrations or any creature, and from every inward model: from loving, desiring, fearing anything more than God. Seek help and defense from evil. All happiness is found in the true God alone.
Straightforward preacher Charles Simeon (1759-1876) says that in matters established by human testimony, we necessarily proportion our consent to the number and credibility of the witnesses. And if we act in the same manner towards the Holy Scriptures, we will not entertain doubt, either of their Divine authority in general or of the way of salvation contained in them. So, Moses and all the prophets concur with the Apostles in directing our eyes to the Anointed One as the only Savior of a godless society: but in the text before us, we have the testimony of One whose information we cannot doubt and whose integrity not impeached; of One who is too good to mislead, and too wise to be deceived.
This witness is no other than Yahweh. What false fascination is it to substitute any different plan of salvation in the place of that which God offers us? Suppose for one moment that we dare suggest to God that we knew a better way than He did what was best for Him and us to do. Could we also presume we are “stronger than He?” and can we persuade Him to make changes to His decrees? No! That is useless thinking! We may entertain our prejudices and load the Gospel with disgraceful ideas that promote as true and irreversible. But Scripture says, “Those that have the Son have spiritual life, and those that do not have God’s Son have no eternal life.” Let all of us then cease weaving a spider’s web and accept with gratitude “the true salvation that is in the Anointed One Jesus alone.”
Considering everything the Apostle John has said so far, Adam Clarke (1774-1849) notes the Apostle John concludes with the same affectionate feeling with which he commenced. Keep yourselves from idols. Avoid the idolatry of the heathens; not only have no false gods but have the true God. Have no icons in your houses, none in your churches, none in your hearts. Have no object of idolatrous worship; no pictures, relics, consecrated tapers, wafers, crosses, etc., to which your minds may be divided and prevented from worshipping the infinite Spirit in spirit and truth.
Dr. Macknight, says Clarke, that John cautioned his disciples against going with the heathens into the temple of their idol gods, to eat of their feasts upon the sacrifices they had offered to these gods; and against being present at any act of worship which they paid them; because, by being present, they participated of that worship, as is plain from what the Apostle Paul has written on the subject. That is a person’s idol or god from which they seek happiness; no matter whether it be Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Minerva, Venus, or Diana; or pleasure, wealth, fame, a fine house, superb furniture, splendid linen and drapes, medals, curiosities, books, titles, human friendships, or any earthly or heavenly thing, God, the supreme good, only excepted. That is an individual’s idol that prevents them from seeking and finding their ALL in God. So be it! So let it be! And so it shall be, God, being our helper, forever and ever!
A servant of God whose preaching was doctrinal, imaginative, quaint, and earnest, Robert Finlayson (1793-1861), a preeminent Scottish preacher, points out that the Apostle John’s parting words, “My little children, guard yourselves against idols.” naturally fixes on the word of special affection for his readers. Earlier in this epistle, John put forward Divine keeping – “He that was begotten of God [the Divine birth] keeps him.” Here in verse twenty-one, he puts forward self-keeping – “guard [‘keep,’ with added emphasis] yourselves.” The idols against which we are to be on our guard are the vain shadows that usurp the place of the true God.
In connection with heathen idolatry, there are false representations of God as above – to be apprehended by people’s senses. Heathens worshipped these in temples made with hands; they had many idols, taking delight in impurities and human victims’ blood. In connection with idolatry, in a broad sense, there are such false representations of God as these – pleased with our taking selfish gratification, does not extend his interest beyond our home or some narrow circle of friends, is indifferent to our happiness, overlooks our actions and will not bring us into judgment.
Let us oppose these false representations of God given in images of the Incarnation. Let us brood over this remarkable fact till pointless shadows flee away, and God comes to us in all the splendor of His love. We may think of John, now amid the realities of heaven, still beseeching us, and with greater intensity, to beware of the deceitful shadows that are here as often taken for God.
After analyzing John’s conclusions, Gottfried C. F. Lücke (1791-1855) states that since the Father of Jesus, the Anointed One is the only true God, and since eternal life only exists in fellowship with Him through the Anointed One, and since beyond the sphere of this communion, there is only death, beware, little children, of the idols, and every connection with them! The danger against which John warns never entirely ceased in the apostolical age, in those communities which converted from heathenism.
At the time when John wrote, this danger was so much the greater, and the warning the more necessary, since the persecution and seduction of the heathen κόσμος (“kosmos”) was becoming ever more and more threatening, and constantly made a more and more easy prey of slothful half-Christians, who were satisfied with the mere appearance and name of Christianity. Therefore, it is also contrary to John’s words in the context to suppose anything different is implied in “idols,” such as gnostic heresies or anything similar.
I found this short autonomous homily, which was very enlightening: (1) If something draws the unconverted away from the living God, anything that does this must be named an IDOL. (2) Love of self is born in us and, if not confronted early, will be our master. It feeds upon falsehood, unkindness, greediness, and pride. You must gratify it at whatever cost, and then it demands more and more. Self is a dreadful idol. Beware of it. (3) When choosing what to wear, don’t forget the beauty of the pearl fades if it’s not in its proper setting. (4) When it comes to pleasure, do not feed a child’s appetite for exciting amusements until they can use them, though so many innocent, playful ideas remain. We have known children whose Sundays were boring. The things they wanted to do were their idols. So whenever you have a chance, ask your child on Sunday morning if they wish to go to church or Disney World.
Without using complicated language, Albert Barnes (1798-1870) says that this is a favorite mode of address by the Apostle John and was proper to use it in giving his parting counsel, embracing, in fact, all that he had to say – that they should keep themselves from idols, and allow nothing to alienate their affections from the true God. His object was to lead them to the knowledge and love of God, and his instructions followed. So, if, amidst the temptations of idolatry, and the allurements of sin, nothing were allowed to estrange their hearts from God.
Therefore, keep yourselves from showing any respect to idols. By not doing so, they would imply communion with them or their devotees. The word rendered idols means an image, ghostly apparition of a god, shadows of the dead, or any image or figure representing anything, mainly invisible things. Hence, anything designed to represent God was to be acknowledged as representing Him or to bring Him, or His perfections, more vividly before the mind. The word “idol” applies to heathen deities, but it would also be appropriate for any image designed to represent the true God and through or by which He was to be adored.
With impressive theological vision, Richard Rothe (1799-1867) is of the persuasion that verse twenty-one contains the grandest doxology in praise and honor of the Anointed One that the Apostle John could utter. Everything that signifies falling away from the Anointed One comes under idolatry. The Anointed One is the sacred image, the means of revealing God given by God, through the religious recognition and adoration of whom sincere reverence, a religion uniting us with the true God alone is possible. Adoration of the Redeemer, therefore, is often regarded as an encroachment upon the adoration due to God alone. Instead, John sets forth as the only worship well-pleasing to God. Jesus the Anointed One alone reveals God for all humanity, And He does so despite His being in the form of a servant. He that sees Him sees the Father; he that fails to see the Father in Him does not know the Father.
This appearance in the center of our human history, notes Rothe, is the guiding star by which we alone can find our way. We are to fix our inner person’s gaze steadily on Him and, at the same time, to apprehend the features of His appearance more and more clearly and precisely; it is the art upon which the practical Wisdom of the Christian depends and the source of that which deserves to be called faithful Christian simplicity. The thought uttered at the close of verse twenty (that the Redeemer is the true God and eternal life) leads John directly to a view that forms an emphatic finish of his Epistle. The idea of God reminds him of God’s antithesis, the idols. It occurs to him naturally that any turning away from the Anointed One to another, whoever and whatever it may be, is idolatry.
According to Robert Jamieson (1802-1880), Andrew Fausset (1821-1910), and David Brown’s (1803-1897) way of thinking, the Apostle John’s words for his dear children to keep away from anything that might take God’s place in their hearts as an affectionate parting caution. The problem was that Christians were surrounded everywhere by pagan idolaters, with whom it was impossible to avoid meeting in the streets, bazaars, public baths, etc. Hence the need to be on guard against any indirect compromise or act of communion with their idol worship. Some in the city of Pergamos, in the region where John wrote, fell into the snare of eating things sacrificed to idols. When we cease to stick close to God, we allow possible contamination from a godless society’s cesspool run by the devil.
 Jones, William: The Pulpit Commentary, op. cit., p. 169
 Newton, John: Composer of “Amazing Grace,”
 Cf. 1 Kings
 Matthew 19:28
 Ephesians 3:14
 Scott, Thomas: Commentary on the Holy Bible, pp. 413-414
 Benson, Joseph: Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, op. cit., p. 349
 Simeon, Charles: Horæ Homileticæ, Vol. XX, op. Cit., Discourse 2467, pp. 539-547
 1 Corinthians 8:10
 Clarke, Adam: Wesleyan Heritage Commentary, op. cit., Hebrews-Revelation, p. 400
 1 John 3:18
 Finlayson, Robert: The Pulpit Commentary, op. cit., Vol. 22, pp. 171-172
 Cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4
 Ibid. 10:14
 Lücke, Gottfried C. F., A Commentary on the Epistles of St. John, op. cit., p. 292
 British Weekly Pulpit, The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. 22, op. cit., First Epistle of John, op. cit., p.472
 1 Corinthians 10:14
 1 Corinthians 8:4,7; 10:19; Romans 2:22; 2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:9
 Barnes, Albert, New Testament Notes, op. cit., 1 John 5, pp. 4896-4897
 1 Thessalonians 1:9
 Rothe, Richard: Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., The Expository Times, September 1895, pp. 563-564
 Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5
 Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, New Testament Volume, op. cit., p. 731