1 John 5:20-21
Kenny Stokes
Date Given: 
August 28, 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.

Overview of Idolatry Series

My prayer is that God would enable us to keep ourselves from idols with new awareness, vigilance, power and triumphant, idol-crushing faith.

Last weekend, one of our veteran missionaries approached me after the service and explained the parallel between idol worship in America and idol worship in India. Both go something like this. We have a need, want or desire. We look for an “ultimate,” a god, who we believe will reliably give us what we need, want or desire. When we find that god, we will do whatever we can, whatever we need to do to get that god to give us what we want and what we demand.

This is the third weekend sermon on 1 John 5:20-21. In part one, we aimed to assure our hearts that we worship the true God in Christ from verse 20. We know Jesus, the Son of God, has come. He alone has given us understanding. We have come to know God—the one and only true God—in and through Jesus Christ.

Then last week in part two we aimed to receive the warning of verse 21 concerning idolatry. The warning is for believers individually and corporately. All idolatry takes place primarily in the heart when we worship, love and adore someone or something as ultimate that is not God. An idol is anything or anyone that takes the rightful place of God. Most often idolatry happens when God’s gifts become gods. We closed last weekend with questions (that are available on Pastor Sam’s blog and on my blog) to help us search our own hearts for idols, acknowledging that the hardest idols to identify are our own.

What Idolatry is Not

Before we get too far, let me clarify what idolatry is not. Paul helps us when he says to Timothy, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).  Let’s not misunderstand.

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.

Forms of Heart Idolatry

My aim this week is to name some common forms of heart idolatry. God is worthy of our confident trust, unwavering obedience and greatest love. So, by way of focusing our thought, lets think in terms of these three biblical categories of idols: idols we trust, idols we obey and idols we love.

1. Idols We Trust

The Bible uses the concept of God as the divine King and his people as the citizens of the kingdom. This is where the shepherd metaphor comes in. The term “shepherd” is applied to David as King of Israel and is applied to God. Good kings shepherd their people wisely and well. They lead, feed, care and protect them. Therefore, as God’s people, we can say resting under God’s kingly rule that “we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3).

The response of a people to a good king should be characterized by trust and confidence in the King’s leadership, provision and saving protection. However, when we trust someone or something to lead, provide and protect us better than God, we have lost confidence in him, we distrust him, and we rebel against him. At that point, whoever or whatever we trust is our idol.

Abraham’s God

When God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, he was asking him to sacrifice not only his son but also his firstborn. God had promised Abraham that he would become a great God-glorifying nation through this boy. In Genesis 22, God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

The crisis of faith for Abraham was this, “Is my hope in Isaac or is my hope in God? Is my hope for the security of a family, for wealth, significance, for a legacy of impact in this world in Isaac or in God? Is my hope for Isaac’s future in my ability to protect him and arrange the perfect life for him or in God?”

As Abraham trusted and obeyed God and began to prepare Isaac as a sacrifice to be offered as a firstborn offering to pay for the sins of the family, God interrupted the sacrifice. God had another lamb to be sacrificed for the sins of Abraham’s family. God provided a lamb stuck in the bushes foretelling the death of the Son of God—“the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Trust is the worship issue here. Do you trust in your children to be your savior and provide you with a sense of security—relationally or financially—significance, and a legacy for impact in this world? Do we trust our ministry to be our savior and provide us with significance in the eyes of the people? Do we trust our ability to create the appearance of a well-behaved, model Christian family to be our savior and provide us with grounds for people to praise us and for God to reward us with grace as payment for a job well done? Do we trust our political cause to be our savior and right the wrongs in the world if only we could pass this bill or elect the right candidate?

Do we trust our money to be our savior by buying ourselves out of every trouble, fixing every problem and securing for us a comfortable future? Do we trust our achievement, education or career to be our savior to guarantee for us the esteem of others and our own self-identity? Do we trust our spouse, children, friends or fiancée to be our savior and provide us with all the love, security and intimacy we will ever need? Do we trust only our ability to control the people around us and manipulate the events of life so we might each say, “My will be done on earth. For the glory of me.”

Search your heart for those people and things that you look to for guidance, significance, provision, care, protection and salvation. Are those people and things your ultimate hope? Or are they merely good gifts from God, your true Savior and Shepherd-King? In Psalm 20, David aims to turn the heads away from looking for help from idols when he says in verse 7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

2. Idols We Obey

The Bible uses the metaphor of God as our Lord and we, his people, as his servants. When the people of Israel were in slavery in Egypt, remember the message to Pharaoh? Through Moses, the Lord said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 10:3). The implication is that the people would serve God and not Pharaoh.

Additionally, the metaphor of master and servant is evident in last week’s memory verse from 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.” The response of a people to God as a good master should be characterized by total obedience, interlaced with love and trust. But when a people disobey or disregard the word of their master, it is not as though they have just stepped into freedom. Rather, it is a sign that they are in slavery to another master. Idolatry is spiritual slavery.

Eli’s God

It was an evidence of this kind of idolatrous slavery when Eli, the High Priest, let his sons live in rebellion against God while serving as priests. They were hypocrites in the true sense of the word. The Bible describes them as “worthless men[who] did not know the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12). Yet they were serving as priests in the temple and skimming off the sacrifices for their own personal gain.

Their father, Eli the High Priest, should have stopped this and would have if he had served God. But he feared and honored his sons more than God. So the Lord said to Eli, “Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded, and honor your sons above me by fattening yourselves on the choicest parts of every offering of my people Israel?” (1 Samuel 2:29). Eli’s idolatrous master was his two sons. He feared his sons’ displeasure more than God’s. That which you fear most is your god. That which you fear controls your behavior.

Tim Keller says,

We can locate idols by looking at our most unyielding emotions. What makes us uncontrollably angry, anxious, or despondent? What racks us with a guilt we can’t shake? Idols control us, since we feel we must have them or life is meaningless…What many people call “psychological problems” are simple issues of idolatry. Perfectionism, workaholism, chronic indecisiveness, the need to control the lives of others—all stem from making good things into idols that then drive us into the ground as we try to appease them (Counterfeit Gods, xxii-xxiii).

Obedience or fear is the worship issue here. Do you fear your children so that you spoil them, withholding correction from them because you don’t want them to be upset with you? Likewise, are you so enslaved to your image of the ideal Christian family that in your harshness and overbearing control, you are willing to sacrifice your relationship with your children and your marriage to get it at all costs? Have you made food (Philippians 3:19) or sex your master, and slavishly seek your comfort in the “peace” provided by a bowl of ice cream or sexual release? Are you enslaved to something—spending money, romance or sex—to the point where you continue to yield to your idol’s demands even when doing so threatens your work, ministry, marriage and perhaps your life?

Search your heart for those people and things that you fear and serve and are enslaved to. Are those people and things your ultimate master? Or is God?

3. Idols We Love

The Bible uses the metaphor of marriage to represent the spiritual relationship between God and his people in the Old Testament and Christ and his people in the NT. Since our relationship to God is like a marriage, when we love someone or something other than God as ultimate it is like spiritual adultery.

Before Moses died, God told him that the people of Israel would “whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them” (Deuteronomy 31:16).

As a result, it is not surprising that spiritual adultery is one of the common themes describing idolatry in the prophetic books of Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Hosea was even commissioned by God to marry a prostitute. When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a whore, and get children with a whore, for the country itself has become nothing but a whore by abandoning the Lord” (Hosea 1:2).

Hosea then lived out the parable. God’s people had forsaken their covenant with the Lord. Likewise, Hosea’s wife forsook her marital vows. In Hosea 2:13, the Lord says of Israel that in going after idols, God’s people had “adorned herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the LORD.”

Rachel’s God

In Genesis 30:1, Rachel made a statement regarding her yet-to-be-conceived baby. Rachel had no children and she said to her husband Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob replied, acknowledging the idolatry, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2). Rachel felt that if she did not give birth to a child that her life was not worth living. That which you cannot live without is your god.

Love is one of the worship issues here. In the marriage metaphor, God has betrothed himself to us in love. He is committed to us. Christ loves the church, his bride. It’s idolatry when a loved one is elevated to the place of God and looked to as the ultimate hope and when the jilted fiancée speaks of suicide after the couple breaks up.

The Search for Idols in Your Own Heart

Yesterday, on the Desiring God blog, a pre-recorded video of Pastor John was posted where he expressed one of his aims for Bethlehem during his absence. He said,

I hope that everybody will be discerning whether John Piper has positioned himself in their heart as a faithful minister of the gospel to them or as an icon of whatever inappropriate kind. Let the church be cleansed and purified in my absence and say, “OK, it was nice to have John for these reasons, but God is God, and the Spirit is the Spirit, and the gospel is the gospel, and there are other people who can communicate those truths to us.”

Just like I'm testing my heart to discern whether I'm addicted to or idolizing aspects of public life, I would like the church to grow in their mature freedom from an excessive dependence upon anything about me that's not gospel, that's not humble, that's not Godward.

So how can we begin to root out these idols? Here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Search your heart for idols that you trust, obey or love more than God. Search for the idolatry of God’s gifts becoming gods, of gifts becoming ultimate.

2. Find intentional community in a small group. The Christian life is a fight faith to trust, serve and love the true God through Christ. The fight of faith takes place in our hearts, not at the level of doing good things.

We are influenced by our context, our communities. Every person we meet on earth is an evangelist, either for the worship of the true God or for the worship of his or her own idol. That’s a clue as to why we need small groups for at least two reasons:

  • Encouragement in worshipping the true God in Jesus. For instance, we need reminders that he will never fail us nor forsake us.
  • Accountability through spotting idolatry in one another since we are not very good at seeing it in ourselves. Small group is a place for you to identify and knock down my idols. And it is a place for me to identify and knock down your idols.

3. Check out some resources on the Web such as…

  1. David Powlison’s article “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair’.”
  2. Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods. [Available at the Bethlehem Bookstore]
  3. Elyse Fitzpatricks’s Idols of the Heart. [Available at the Bethlehem Bookstore]
  4. The “How People Change” seminar or class that is offered here.
  5. Mark Driscoll’s messages on idolatry.

4. Don’t despair in your fight against the idols of the heart. Take heart as God promises his unfaithful people of his covenant love in the book of Hosea, so also in Christ he promises you, “I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:20). How can he do that? How can God promise to faithfully be our God even when we have idols in our hearts yet to be identified, knocked down and renounced forever? Because as Ephesians 5 says, Christ loved us, the church, and gave himself up for us, that he might sanctify us, having cleansed us by the washing of the water with the word, so that he might present us to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing and that we might be holy and without blemish.

© 2017 Bethlehem Baptist Church