"Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen" 1 John 5:21.
THERE are authorities who would say that these are probably the last words in the entire Scripture, if you take Scripture in chronological order. This point cannot be proved, but there is a good deal to be said for it. In any case, these are the last words of [John] who was so concerned about the life and the future of these Christians to whom he was writing. The words of an old man are always worthy of respect and consideration; they are words that are based upon a long lifetime's experience. The last words of all people are important, but the last words of great people are of exceptional importance, and the last words of an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ are of supreme importance.
Here is a man out of this great and mighty experience saying a last word. He is an old man; he knows the end is at hand, and he sees this group of people in a hostile world, and he wants them to live a life of victory. He wants them to have a joy that may be full, and this is his final word to them: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
There are constantly things in this life and world that threaten to come between us and [the] knowledge of God. In other words, whether we like it or not, it is a warfare, it is a fight of faith; there is an enemy set against us. We have just been reminded of that "that wicked one" that John speaks of towards the end of the letter; and the supreme object of that evil one is to come between us and this knowledge. And the way he does that, of course, is to try to get us to fix our mind and our attention and our heart upon something else. So it is in order to warn us against that terrible danger that John ends on this note.
Let me, therefore, put this in the form of three propositions.
The first is that the greatest enemy that confronts us in the spiritual life is the worshipping of idols. The greatest danger confronting us all is not a matter of deeds or of actions, but of idolatry.
What is idolatry? Well, an idol can be defined most simply in this way: an idol is anything in our lives that occupies the place that should be occupied by God alone . . . anything that holds a controlling position in my life is an idol.
Of course, an idol may indeed be an actual idol. But it does not stop at that; would to God it did! No; idolatry may consist of having false notions of God. If I am worshipping my own idea of God and not the true and living God, that is idolatry.
But let me go on to point out that idolatry can take many other forms: it is possible for us to worship our religion instead of worshipping God. How subtle a thing this idolatry is! We may think that we are worshipping God, but really we are simply worshipping our own religious observances and devotions. It is an error always of every Catholic type of religion that lays stress upon doing particular things in particular ways, such as getting up and going to early, morning Communion. The emphasis may be more upon the observance of this rather than upon the worship of God.
I give that as but an illustration. It is not confined to the Catholic type; it is also found in the most evangelical circles. It is possible for us to worship not only our own religion but our own church, our own communion, our own religious body, our own particular community, our own particular sect, our own particular point of view, these are the things we may be worshipping. Theology has often become an idol to many people; they have really been worshipping ideas and not worshipping God. What a terrible thing this is; and yet, and I am sure we all must agree, how easy it is to forget the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and to stop at the ideas and the theories and the teaching concerning Him.
Also, there are people who worship their own experiences; they do not talk about God, they talk about themselves and what has happened to them, always self in the foreground rather than God.
Further, the idol in the case of some people is their own country; there are people who worship it. Are we guiltless of that? There are people who worship the state, or certain people in the state; there is a kind of mysticism that has often been developed . . . there are people still who worship the state, the power of the state and what the state can do for them; they live for it, it is their idol, their god.
But perhaps the supreme idol is self, for I suppose that in the last analysis we can trace all the others back to self. The people, for instance, who worship their country do so because it is their country. They do not worship another country, and that is for one reason only: they happen to have been born in this one rather than in that one.
It is really themselves. And the same is true with children: it is because they are your children. And this other person? Well, it is the relationship in which that one person is something to you, it is always self. All the saints throughout the centuries have recognized this. The ultimate idol about which we have to be so careful is this horrible self, this concern about myself, putting myself where God ought to be. Everything revolving around myself, my interest, my position, my development, myself and all the things that result from that.
The greatest danger in the spiritual life is idolatry, and it comes into all our activities. It comes into our Christian work; it is the greatest danger confronting a man standing in a pulpit preaching, a concern that he should preach in a particular manner. It comes into the activities we are engaged in. Let us examine ourselves as we think about these things.
So the second principle is that we must guard ourselves against this. "Keep yourselves," says John, which really means that we must guard ourselves as if we were in a garrison against this horrible danger of idolatry. Now you will notice that John tells us this is something that we have to do; it is not done for us. "Keep yourselves from idols." You do not "Let go and let God." No; you are always on guard, you watch and pray. You realize this terrible danger; you have to do it.
At first sight John seems to be contradicting himself, because in the eighteenth verse he says, "We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth him, and that wicked one toucheth him not." Is he contradicting himself? No; these things form the perfect balance that we always find in Scripture from beginning to end. It is simply John's way of saying, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: For it is God which worketh in you . . ." (Phi 2:12–13).
In other words, we must keep ourselves in right relationship to Him. If you and I keep our minds on the Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, we need not worry. The Son of God will keep us, and the evil one will not be able to touch us. We do not have to meet the evil one in single combat; I am not fighting the devil directly, as it were. What I do is I keep myself in that right relationship with Christ, and He will defeat the enemy for me. I must be careful that some idol is not receiving my time and energy and the things that should be given to God. I must be constantly on the watch . . . I must guard my mind and understanding; I must watch my spirit and my heart. This is the most subtle thing in the world. It is the central temptation, so that I constantly have to watch and pray and ever and always be on my guard.
But that brings me to the last proposition, which is essentially practical. How is this to be done? How am I thus to guard myself from idols? It seems to me that the principles are quite simple.
The first thing we must always do is to remember the truth about ourselves. We must remember that we are God's people, that we are those whom Christ has purchased at the price and cost of His own precious blood. We must remember our destiny and the kind of life in which we are engaged and in which we walk. We must remember, as John has reminded us in the nineteenth verse that "we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the wicked one."
In other words, if we are of God and belong to God, then we must live for God, and we must not live for any of those other things. It does not matter what they are, I must not live for anything in this life and world. I can use them but not abuse them. God has given me these gifts; but if I turn any of them into my god, I am abusing them, I am worshipping the creature rather than the Creator. Oh, the tragedy that we should be doing that! The way to avoid that is to realize what I am; I am to exercise this "understanding" that Christ has given me through the Holy Spirit (v. 20). I am to remember that I am not of this world, and therefore I must not live for or worship anything that belongs to it.
Or we can put that in the form of a second principle: I must remember the true nature of idols. That is the way to avoid worshipping them and a very good way of guarding yourself against idolatry. Just look and consider what they are, and there again is something we need to be reminded of constantly. Look at the things to which we tend to give our worship and our adoration; even if we put them at their highest and their best, are they worthy of it? Is there anything in this world of time which is worthy of our worship and our devotion?
We know full well there is not. There is nothing in this world that lasts; everything is only temporary, everything is moving on to an end. There is nothing lasting and eternal; they are thus unworthy of our worship. They are all gifts given to us by God, so let us use them as such; let us not regard them as worthy of our entire devotion. Is it not tragic to think of a human soul worshipping money, possession, position, success, any person, children, or anything else of this life and world? It is all passing away. There is one alone who is worthy, and that is God.
And that is the last thing to remember. The way ultimately to keep ourselves from idols is to remember the truth about God and to live in communion with Him. Whenever we are tempted to engage in idolatry, let us think again of the nature and the being of God. Let us remember that the privilege that is offered to us is to worship Him and to walk with Him, to know Him and to commune and converse with Him, to be a child of God and to go on and spend eternity in His holy presence.
It is as we realize this wondrous possibility of knowing God that everything else should pale into insignificance. In other words, the Apostle's final advice, it seems to me, can be put like this: we must strive without ceasing, to realize the presence and the fellowship and the communion of God. To realize His nearness and His presence, to realize His companionship, to know that we are with Him and in Him, and to see to it always and ever that nothing and no one shall ever come between us and Him.
David Martyn Lloyd–Jones (1899-1981): Perhaps the greatest expository preacher of 20th century. After successful medical studies he nearly became a physician when called by God to preach the Gospel. Successor to G. Campbell Morgan as minister of Westminster Chapel, London, England, 1938–68. Born in Wales.