These are John’s final words to his readers. After 84 verses stressing love, obedience, and belief and after a section full of encouragement centered around the things we know (eternal life, confidence in prayer, the evil of the world, the truth of the Son of God), John decides to leave his spiritual children with one simple admonition. And for an apostle who loves repetition in his teaching, the admonition he leaves touches on a subject he has not mentioned at all before.
At first reading this command seems out of the blue. It almost appears like a tag line – as if John is known for this and he always ends his communication this way. John writes a letter or has a conversation with a friend and as he signs off or says goodbye he says, “Guard yourselves from idols!” Kind of like, “Who loves ya’ baby!” It is either that, or John has run out of things to say and so falls back on a handy tip that is always good to remember whatever the context.
But there is another perspective to consider. John is at the end of a letter he began with no introduction. Consequently, it does not make sense that John concludes the letter with anything other than more instruction. And as these are the last words he writes, it is likely he wants to leave his followers with something important. We typically say the most important things last.
Understanding that makes it worthwhile to investigate what John says in its context. What makes him conclude with this short statement? Does it tie in with the rest of the letter and if so, how? Is he really bringing up a completely new topic to end his teaching?
What does the verse mean?
The clue to the context of this verse is in the verse that immediately precedes it. In verse 20 John says we know Jesus has come and that He gave us understanding so we can know the Father. Jesus is eternal life – as John said at the start of the letter – and through knowing Him and abiding in Him, we abide in the Father – the true God.
Verse 21, then, actually continues the thought of verse 20. Since God is the true God we must guard against putting anything in His place. Any substitute for God is an idol – a false god (“false god” may be the better way to understand this verse for our purposes – it does not limit the discussion to statues and images). Verse 21 is actually the negative side of verse 20. We must know the true God and we must guard ourselves from false ones.
Its context thus ties it to the rest of the letter. We know the true God through abiding in the Son. When we abide in the Son we know we have eternal life (13), we know God hears our prayers (15) and we know the Son keeps us from the power of the evil one (18). False gods, however, are of the world. The world lies in the power of the evil one (19) and consists of the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life (2:16). The world is also passing away (2:17) but the one who does the will of God – worships the true God – abides forever (2:17). The opposite of abiding in God and fellowshipping with the Father and the Son (1:3) is idolatry.
Thus instead of introducing a new topic and ending the letter on an odd note, John summarizes his message and leaves his readers with perhaps the most important concept of the book. Do not put anything or anyone in the place of God (John likely also means this as a warning about the heretics – by their heresy they have effectively become idolaters). He has stressed throughout the letter that assurance comes through obeying God’s commands, loving God and others, and believing in the Son. All these begin and end with worshiping the true God and only the true God. In the end, nothing is more critical than putting only God in God’s place.
John’s words dovetail with the first two commandments God gave the Israelites at Mt Sinai – “You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol and serve it.” These commands are really the base on which the other eight rest. They are also the only ones that come with a promise and a curse (“…visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me”). Israel was punished repeatedly for breaking these commands throughout its history. A study of I and II Kings reveals that each king was ultimately judged by only one thing – did he lead the country to worship God or did he lead it to false gods? Regardless of how much evil or good he accomplished, his legacy was summarized by this standard alone.
This verse also goes along with the greatest commandment – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). We can love nothing more than God – God must be preeminent. The idolater is the one who loves something else instead of God or who loves God but not with all his heart and soul and mind – he loves God and… He is the double-minded man of James 1 and the friend of the world of James 4.
And in the end that is really what an idolater is. He loves the world more than God. He loves the creation more than the Creator. Even more, he loves himself more than the One in whose image he is created. He finds the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh and the boastful pride of life more to his liking than the fellowship of God.
What is a false god?
This leads us to a definition of a false god. A false god is anything we put in the place of God. Substituting the lower case ‘g’ for the upper case ‘G.’ It does not have to be tangible. It does not have to be a statue or an image at all. It can be a person or an activity or a place or a state of being or a thing. What it always is in the end, however, is ourselves. Because when we choose to worship something other than God it always ultimately means we put ourselves in God’s place. We find something that makes us feel good or gives us esteem or control or comfort or enjoyment or a sense of belonging – anything that centers our world on us.
This is why Paul identifies greed (Col 3:5) and covetousness (Eph 5:5 – this means the first and tenth commandments are actually two sides of the same command) as idolatry. The greedy and covetous man worships creation because ‘things’ make him happy. And his happiness is paramount. He wants more and more because it is all about him. He thinks something besides God will satisfy him – his satisfaction being the most important thing in his life – so he continually wants more and wants what he does not have. The tragic part of this, of course, is that materialism is a hard god to worship. By definition it is MORE – never ENOUGH (contrast with Matt 5:6).
What we must realize is that we WILL worship something. We were created for worship – and the need for worship is in every human whether it is directed toward God or not. If we choose not to worship God we will simply redirect our worship somewhere else. The one who says he is not religious and does not need to worship anything or anyone is deceived – he just does not recognize the gods in his life. Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody – Bob Dylan.
Deceit, by the way, is always the end result of idolatry. Think of the Old Testament examples of false gods. Baal was the god of fertility who was to provide abundant crops for his worshippers. Yet in the three-and-a-half year drought under Ahab his followers were still crying out and cutting themselves to get him to hear them. The followers of Molech actually threw their babies into fire as an act of worship – this seemed good to them. Only a deceived man decides that something or someone is more worthy of worship than God.
How do we identify false gods?
It is worth noting who John directs verse 21 to. He says, “Little children.” He speaks to believers. He warns believers to guard themselves from idols. Before we assign idolatry only to those who do not know the truth we should keep in mind that John obviously thinks this is an ongoing fight for the child of God.
That being the case, how do we identify the potential false gods in our lives so we know what to guard ourselves against? Remember we are looking for things that we might put in the place of God. Things in our lives that we look to for what should only come from God. Things that we worship instead of God because of what they supply to us or do for us.
Consider the following questions:
Where do we spend our time and resources? Regardless of what we say our priorities are, how we spend our time and resources is the most telling sign of what we value most. False gods always require sacrifices.
What do we talk about? If someone were to follow us around with a tape recorder, how many references to God’s work in our lives or to the gospel would it record?
What makes us angry? Many times our anger is aroused when we are deprived of what we value most or deprived of what we look to for satisfaction.
What do we think about when our minds are not otherwise occupied? The thoughts that make up our default mindset reveal where our heart really is.
What do we fear losing the most? This shows where our security and self-worth are.
Without prompting, how would we describe our ideal life? How many of us would answer this question simply by saying, “Whatever circumstances made me know and enjoy God the most and be most useful for His kingdom?”
The most basic question which God poses to each human heart: “Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s functional trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight?” Questions bring some of people’s idol systems to the surface. ‘To who or what do you look for life-sustaining stability, security and acceptance? What do you really want and expect? What would make you happy? What would make you an acceptable person? Where do you look for power and success?’ These questions or similar ones tease out whether we serve God or idols, whether we look for salvation from Christ or from false saviors. – David Powlison
Remember that idols are typically not bad things in and of themselves. They can be drugs or alcohol or pornography, but more often are good things that have been elevated to a wrong level. When we look for the false gods in our lives it pays to look most closely at noble pursuits that have become out of balance. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes. Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things in life. (Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods; 15.)
However, we must also not forget that God does give us His creation to enjoy. The key is what forms the center of that enjoyment. Solomon says, “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (Ecc 2:25). We must not label every pleasure an idol.
It is not idolatry to enjoy a bowl of Raisin Bran or a steak or a Chipotle dinner, savoring the sweet or spicy or hearty flavors. Food is a gift from God and is to be received with thanksgiving. It is idolatry if you look to food as your “functional savior”—your comfort, your peace in times of anxiety.
It is not idolatry to enjoy life, walks in the woods, playing the guitar, great photography, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, movies, games, sports, etc. Life, creation and the activities of life are gifts from God to be received with thanksgiving. It is idolatry if you are more satisfied in the joys of life than in God.
It is not idolatry to seek a job, earn money to provide for your own or your family’s expenses, and to give to church and charity. Your money is a gift from God to be received with thanksgiving. It is idolatry if you depend upon money and the things it can provide more than you depend upon God and his ability to provide and care for you.
It is not idolatry to love, trust or be devoted to your wife, kids or fiancée. Family and friends are gifts of God, to be received with thanksgiving. It is idolatry if life is not worth living without these people you love.
The aim in tearing down our idols is not to jettison the gifts of God. Our aim is to worship God alone and to receive his gifts as mere gifts, not gods to be worshipped. Receiving God’s gifts with thanksgiving to God is not idolatry. But we must be careful, lest we be deceived. – Kenny Stokes
How do we eradicate false gods?
Assuming we identify false gods in our life, what do we do about it? How do we remove something we have put in the place of God and replace it with God Himself?
Again, verse 20 guides us along with John’s purpose in writing as expressed in 1:3. We must know Jesus. We must abide in Him. We must know the truth and know the Father. This knowledge comes from prayer and study and worship. We must repent of our false gods and replace them with the fellowship of the Son and Father that John said was his goal for his readers. As we truly commune with God, our understanding of what a life with Him is like will grow. And as we grow in our knowledge of Him, our ability to identify and replace the false gods in our life will also grow. Just like a bank teller learns to identify counterfeit currency by handling only real dollars, so our ability to identify false gods will grow as we experience and understand the sweet communion that can only come from the true God.
It may sound simplistic, but knowing God more is really the only answer. We must practice the spiritual disciplines and grow in our appreciation of who and what He is and does. The more we know Him the more we will be satisfied with nothing other than Him. He is greater than anything He created and He alone can satisfy the needs He placed in us. Thus as we know Him more and more our needs will be met in Him more and more.
Paul gives us an outline of what this looks like in Colossians 3. If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry (Col 3:1-5).
Tim Keller addresses how to replace idols as follows: Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something besides God. This cannot be remedied only by repenting that you have an idol, or using willpower to try to live differently. Turning from idols is not less than those two things, but it is also far more. “Setting the mind and heart on things above” where “your life is hid with Christ in God” means appreciating, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done for you. It entails joyful worship, a sense of God’s reality in prayer. Jesus must become more beautiful to your imagination, more attractive to your heart, than your idol. That is what will replace your counterfeit gods. If you uproot the idol and fail to “plant” the love of Christ in its place, the idol will grow back. (Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods; 25.)
Understand, however, that this is a lifelong pursuit. Eradicating the false gods in our lives takes time – and like so much of sanctification is never fully completed this side of eternity. Remember that our goal is to hear our Savior someday say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The faithful part entails getting up every day and counting on the new mercies of God and slowly becoming more and more conformed to the image of His Son. We will not have success all at once but we must be faithful to identify and eradicate what gets in the way of true worship and fellowship. The verb tense John uses in verse 21 is present – this is an ongoing and continual fight.
That is it. To realize His nearness and His presence, to realize His companionship, to know that we are with Him, and to see to it always and ever that nothing and no one shall ever come between us and Him. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Life in Christ; 622.)