1 John 5:20-21
Kenny Stokes
Date Given: 
August 22, 2010

1 John 5:20-21

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. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

My prayer is that over the next two weekends, God would enable us to do verse 21 with new awareness, insight vigilance and power. Verse 21, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Let’s each one of us right now ask God for new mercy to do this for his glory and our joy.

True Worship Opposes Idolatry

The last time I preached a few weeks ago, I focused on verse 20, which is a succinct assurance that we worship the true God through the Son of God, Jesus Christ: “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.” That sermon on true worship from verse 20 is, in my mind, the first of three messages on idolatry. Why? It simply is because worship of the true God through Christ Jesus is the opposite of idolatry. It’s the cure, the antidote. So, verse 20 rightly precedes verse 21 because true worship is the way to heed the warning of this weekend’s text, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Not a Modern Problem?

If you are like me, at the outset you may be thinking, “It’s the 21st century. Idols are not my problem. I don’t have any good luck charms on my key ring. I don’t have little statues of Jesus in my car that I trust for protection. Idolatry is not my problem.” But stick with me. As we look at this text, I’ll first make three observations from verse 21. Second, we will briefly review the biblical concept of idolatry. Third, by way of application, we will begin to search our hearts for idols.

Observations From Verse 21

1. Addressed to Every Believer

My first observation from verse 21 is that this is a warning addressed to each and every individual believer. It is addressed to the “little children.” The “little children” are the Christian disciples under John’s apostolic care, teaching and oversight.

May none of us think like this, “I received Christ; therefore, idolatry is not a problem for me. I’ve been discipled for years; therefore, idolatry is not a problem for me. I have devotions twice a day, go to church three times a week, never miss my small group, listen to sermon podcasts on the way to work, memorize books of the Bible, serve the Lord in ministry tirelessly; therefore, idolatry is not a problem for me. I cashed in my idols when I came to Jesus; therefore, idolatry is not a problem for me.” This is my number one fear in coming to this sermon, that Christians ignore this little verse. It is addressed to Christians! We need to consider this verse.

Now, before Pastor John left for his extended leave, he said he was going to search his heart for idols. I wonder if you said, “Idols! You’re searching for idols!” Did it hit you that way? I hope not. I hope the way it hit you was, “Wow. I need to search my heart as well.”

The 19th Century pastor, J. C. Ryle, wrote concerning idolatry among believers,

It is not necessary for a man formally to deny God and Christ in order to be an idolater. Far from it. Professed reverence for the God of the Bible and actual idolatry are perfectly compatible: they have often gone side by side, and they still do so. The children of Israel never thought of renouncing God when they persuaded Aaron to make the golden calf…. We may rest assured that idolatry is a sin which occupies a far wider field than this…it is a pestilence that walks in the Church of Christ to a much greater extent than many suppose.[1]

So I say with certainty, verse 21 is a call to each one of us to vigilantly guard and protect ourselves from idols.

2. Addressed to the Whole Christian Community

Second, this word is addressed to us as a whole church community—not merely addressed to individual Christians. The warning is addressed to the “little children” in the plural. This is a word of warning for us at Bethlehem, for local churches, not just a handful of people who have “the idol problem.” I take heart in the fact that I am not the only one at Bethlehem who needs to hear this warning. We all need it. And, there is grace for us in humbly hearing the warning together and striving to live it out together. The fight against idolatry in particular—like the fight of faith generally—is a community project.

I thought of it in terms of two illustrations from my life, neither of which are about positive worship. One was when I was sitting in a circle at a meeting at one of those tiered marketing deals where they get you to sell stuff. We were going around the circle saying what we dream about and what we really want. One person said they wanted a really big house with a swimming pool. The next person said they wanted to take flying lessons and buy their own plane. Around the circle it goes and it comes to me and I say, “I want a dog.” The big, expensive things is not an idol of mine and we can help each other by not promoting and perpetuating idols by affirming them in each other.

Another illustration is from when I was interviewing for a pastoral position at a church. After a couple hours of interviewing, the church representative asked me, “What will make you happy?” And I said, “God. Jesus.” He replied, “No, no, no. How much money do you want?”  Keeping ourselves from idols is a community project and we can either prop up each other’s idols and play along or we can call one another out on our idolatry. 

If you are not a Christian, don’t think that you won’t benefit as you listen in. All human beings worship someone or something all the time. The call here is that we worship the true, Creator God. Perhaps you will gain insight in understanding what or whom you worship day after day.

3. Warning Against the Plurality of Idols

Third, this is a word of warning about the plurality of idols in our lives. It doesn’t say, “Keep yourselves from an idol”—singular. It says, “Keep yourselves from idols”—plural. Don’t make the mistake of identifying only one idol but seek to identify many. David Powlison says, “Idols are rarely solitary. Our lives become infested with them.”[2] 

With those three observations from verse 21, let’s move on to review the concept of idolatry from a wider biblical perspective.

A Biblical Overview of Idolatry

Idolatry in the Old Testament

A good place to start to grasp the contours of idolatry in the Old Testament is from the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. The first two commandments in vv.3-5 are, “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”

And from Exodus 20 we can see at least three things.

1. God is passionately jealous that we worship him, the true creator God, and not worship anything he has created as “god.”That zeal God has for his own glory is not vain self-absorption or selfish; it’s right! He is the creator of all things and should be acknowledged as such. He is the giver of all things and should be acknowledged as such. All the glory and goodness of creation is a mere reflection of his glory. God is over all the universe of creation and it is right that he be acknowledged as such. He would not be righteous in himself nor loving to all he has created if he were apathetic about idolatry. God is passionately jealous that we worship him and not anything he has created as “god.” It is right and good that God—the God of the universe—calls all of humanity to worship him alone. It would be wrong of him to do otherwise.

2. God prohibits the worship of “a carved image, or any likeness of anything” (Exodus 20:4). Only once in my life have I ever seen idols clearly marked and advertized for sale in America. I saw a store in the New Orleans French Quarter with an exterior sign over the door saying “Idols for Sale.” The store was filled with thousands of figurines and trinkets made of wood, stone and plastic. We don’t orient our worship toward a statute or picture of Jesus. We orient our worship to Jesus. That’s why, for instance, the insanity of worshipping images is recorded in Jeremiah, “‘Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.’ There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:5-6).

3. More broadly, God prohibits the worship of anyone or anything other than himself, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Period. In other words, the prohibition against idolatry was never limited to carved images but extended to any other “god” we might worship. That’s why, for instance, Isaiah warns the people of God not against hoping in wooden carvings representing gods but against trusting the King of Egypt and his army for safety. “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!”(Isaiah 31:1).

Let me mention another place to see idolatry in this broader metaphorical sense in Ezekiel. In chapter 14, Ezekiel gathered the leaders of Israel and diagnosed their problem as idolatry (Ezekiel 14:6-8). The problem he puts his finger on was not that they had taken idols into their homes and worshipped. Rather, the problem was that they had taken idols—false gods—into their hearts.  

Idolatry in the New Testament

What about idolatry in the New Testament? Turn to Romans 1. From Romans 1 we can say that the essence of human sinfulness is idolatry. Idolatry is our trading of the worth and glory of the Eternal God for the temporal value of created things. Romans 1:21-23, “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”

Idolatry is a word to describe what happens when we turn our worship away from God and attach it to anyone and anything else. Thereby, idolatry gives rise to the myriad of sinful desires and sinful actions that characterize humanity apart from grace. Romans 1:24-25 says, as a form of judgment, that God has given humanity over to our idolatry-driven desires. “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” As judgment, God has given them up to vain, idol worship.

This is like this week’s Fighter Verse, Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” You cannot bow down to money. You cannot serve the god of money and the God of the Bible.

Summary of Biblical Overview

Overall the biblical teaching is consistent. An idol is anything or anyone that takes the rightful place of God. It doesn’t matter if it is an object or a person or anything else. It doesn’t matter if there is an actual “carved image” or not. It is true to observe that in the New Testament there is more of a focus on “idolatry of the heart” and less of a focus on idolatry of carved images.

David Powlison observes, “If ‘idolatry’ is the characteristic and summary of the Old Testament word for our drift from God, then ‘desires’ is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift…Interestingly (and surprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart” (Powlison, 36). When a created thing takes the place of worth, value, beauty, honor, trust, fear or love that rightly belongs to God, it is an idol.

How does this biblical perspective inform our understanding of 1 John 5:21? Since 1 John says nothing about worshipping carved images, verse 21 most likely refers to idols in their broader New Testament metaphorical sense of “idols of the heart.”[3] The warning is to cast out the myriad of idols within own hearts. And the warning is to keep yourselves from the idols that you create in your heart to satisfy “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions” (1 John 2:16).

Search Your Heart

How do we search our hearts for idols? First, don’t think of idols as primarily bad things. More often, they are good things that we have exalted to become ultimate. So don’t think if idols as primarily bad things but more often as good things. I find it most help to put it this way: Idolatry is when God’s gifts become gods.

Thomas Oden writes,

When a finite value [becomes a center of value by which other values are judges and] has been elevated to centrality and imagined as a final source of meaning, then one has chosen what Jews and Christians call a god…To be worshipped as a god, something must be sufficiently good to be plausibly regarded as the rightful center of one’s valuing…One has a god when a finite value is worshipped and adored and viewed as that without which one cannot receive life joyfully.[4]

In his sermon titled “Soul Idolatry Excludes Men Out of Heaven,” English Puritan Pastor David Clarkson (1621-1686) gives us thirteen pointers I’ll draw from to help us identify the idols of our hearts and I will frame them as questions.[5]

  1. What do you most highly value?
  2. What do you think about by default?
  3. What is your hightest goal?
  4. To what or whom are you most commited?
  5. Who or what do you love the most?
  6. Who or what do you trust or depend upon the most?
  7. Who or what do you fear the most?
  8. Who or what do you hope in and hope for most?
  9. Who or what do you desire the most? Or, what desire makes you most angry or makes you despair when it is not satisfied?
  10. Who or what do you most delight in, your greatest joy and treasure?
  11. Who or what captures your greatest zeal?
  12. To whom or for what are you most thankful?
  13. For whom or what great purpose do you work?

The Fight of Faith

This is not new. This is not non-Bethlehem. We at Bethlehem talk about the Christian life being a “fight of faith.” We fight to believe the promises of God—that he is better than all the promises of sin—and not to believe the lies of sin. Another way to say it, we fight to believe the true God and not to believe the idols. I believe things that are less than ultimate because I believe those promises instead of the biblical promises. The fight of faith is to reject idols.

A brief word to non-Christians, you are more religious than you think. Human beings are worshippers. Calvin said that our hearts are an idol factory. That’s how we live. We live by orbiting our lives around these ultimate values. As a human, you have a god or gods that you fear, love, trust, worship, are controlled by. So, stick with us. Come back next week.

Tim Keller, when speaking to pastors, explained how the world needs to hear this kind of language from Christianity in diagnosing the sin of the world. He says,

Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry… Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them they are sinning because they are looking to their careers and romances to save them, to give them everything that they should be looking for in God. This idolatry leads to drivenness, addictions, sever anxiety, obsessiveness, envy of others and resentment. (Keller, “Talking About Idolatry in a Postmodern Age,” Gospel Coalition).

I would urge you to search your heart too. Ask God for help, and he will help you. Search your heart to identify your idols. They are there, shaping your values, birthing sinful desires and causing sinful actions. Search your heart by the light of the Word and presence of the Spirit. What or who functions as your ultimate value, your ultimate meaning, your ultimate joy? What is the center of your life? Whatever it is, if it isn’t God it is one of his gifts.

As you search your heart, don’t let yourself off the hook by identifying someone else’s idols. It is so easy to do. O how easy it is to see the idols in the lives of other people. On the one hand, this can be helpful in the context of a humble community of believers. We can help one another see our idols and fight the fight of faith together. On the other hand, this can be deadly in a people blinded by pride because the hardest idols to see are your own. The danger is that I may swell with the self-exalting delusion that “Everyone else has idols, except me!” Look in your heart. The hardest idols to see are your own.

Next week, Lord willing, come back and I hope to describe some of the workings of specific idols with the hope that God would grant us new awareness, new insight, new vigilance and new power to worship God in Christ alone. For his glory and our joy, now and forever.


[1] J.C. Ryle, The Definition and Cause of Idolatry.

[2] David Powlison, “Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling. vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1995, p. 44.

[3] That’s the sense in which the Apostle Paul calls ‘covetousness’ idolatry in Colossians 3:5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”

[4] Thomas C. Oden, Two Worlds, (IVP) 1992,  p.95.

[5]  “Soul Idolatry Excludes Men Out of Heaven,” in The Works of David Clarkson, Vol II, reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust.

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