The last verse of I John has raised more than a few eyebrows. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (ESV) These words seem abrupt, and don’t seem connected to anything in the immediate context or even connected to any of the teachings of the book as a whole. What does John mean by ‘idols’? Why does he end his book with this warning?
Idol worship was integral to life in the ancient world. No event could be celebrated without a god. Feasts, weddings, games, funerals, and political events all took place under the silent gaze of wood and stone. The Jews were the notable exception to this practice, but the churches John was writing to were made up of both Jews and Gentiles. It should come as no surprise that the use of graven images would be an ever present temptation to those in the early church. We would expect that New Testament writers would need to issue both warnings and instruction on how to live in a world so wedded to these gods. This might explain why John would issue such a warning, but it doesn’t explain why the warning is at the end of a book that has said nothing about the dangers of pagan rituals. Perhaps pagan idolatry is not the target of John’s warning.
In Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 Paul makes it clear that covetousness is a form of idolatry. It’s not difficult to see the connection. If, for example, I love things that belong to my neighbor more than I love God, that’s idolatry. I’m worshipping things rather than God. We can go further. All sin is idolatry. Whenever I sin, I’m putting myself above God. Now John’s warning makes a lot more sense. In the immediate context John is encouraging us to pray when a brother or sister sins. In the context of the book as a whole the incompatibility of who we are and sin has been a major theme. The one who is born of God doesn’t sin. Given who we are we must guard ourselves against sin.
We might still ask, however, why John doesn’t just write, “Little children, keep yourselves from sin”. Merold Westphal, in his book Suspicion and Faith, points us to a passage that may be of some help. In I Samuel 15, Saul tries to cover his disobedience to God’s commands by offering a sacrifice. Samuel responds,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold,to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.” (ESV)
In other words, Samuel is saying that because of Saul’s disobedience, Saul’s worship in burnt offerings and sacrifices is no different than what pagans do (divination and idolatry). He may look like he is worshipping the God of Israel, but Saul is really just an idolater. Throughout I John, John has been emphasizing the importance of obedience to God’s commands (especially the command to love one another). From Saul’s example we can see that when we fail to obey everything else that we do, though it may look like Christianity, is really just idolatry. Our Christianity becomes a cover up and hence a lie. So John warns us to guard against idolatry.
In my tradition (historic Presbyterian) we have a deep understanding of how false belief about God is a form of idolatry. What we may miss and what I John can help us understand is that false practice is also idolatrous. If I believe all of the right things about God and yet I do not love my neighbor, all of my beliefs become idolatry. My Christian community with its Christian families, Christian schools (or home schools), Christian books, Christian businesses, Christian colleges and Christian politics, without love, is a Christian sham. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”