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  • Writer's pictureDwight Smith

Keep Yourselves From Idols

Keep Yourselves From Idols

1 John 5:21

There must be something exceptionally important about the power of idols over humans that John ends his letter with this somewhat terse warning.

The most obvious religious idols come immediately to mind. Unless one is completely unaware of the existence of idols in differing parts of the broad world of Christianity, and in tribal religions, the warning would seem unnecessary.

But the very concept of idols and their power to blind and subvert biblical Christianity must be taken seriously.

On the surface, idols serve as symbols of something perceived to be spiritually important. They can represent perceived power over sickness or death or desire. If one can manipulate the relationship with the particular idol, then one can conceivably obtain what one wants.

In the various forms of Christianity, idols represent aspects of doctrines held about God. Images of Mary, represent her role as an intermediary between people and Jesus. “Mother Mary, pray for us,” the rosary begins.

For the Israelites in the wilderness the golden image that “apparently” popped out of the fire during Moses’s absence on the mountain top, was, we suppose, a representation of the God who had led them this far. Their knowledge of God is revealed to be both limited and weak.

So weak, that what they had clearly heard Moses teach and say, was transferred onto a symbol that was a direct contradiction of what God had commanded them. “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)

We evangelicals seem to have concluded that we have no idols, symbols that represent a god, one which can provide something we want. We have built our lives upon God and the true God alone. Is there therefore no danger? Is this apparently important word from John not applicable to us?

Beyond the fact that the preserving of this passage by the Holy Spirit should be alert enough, there is I think great warning of danger for us today. The power of any image in the spiritual sense is at least two fold.

One, it represents something meaningful to the one who posses it. In fear, it can represent false safety. In sickness it can represent false hope of healing. In barrenness it can represent a false source of reproduction. On an on we could go to clarify gods who represent something that people want.

Second, the image represents at the very least the possessors idea about a god, or even the true God. The rebellious Israelites wanted a symbol to represent the God who had promised to be in their midst. His presence in the cloud by day, the fire by night, in the radiant presence in the face of Moses, or in the tent of His presence, was not enough.

Their default expectation was to remember and return to the visible gods that they had seen in Egypt. Therefore the warning from God in the very beginning: You shall have no other gods before me! As He had done for so many of their Jewish brothers and sisters before them, He called them to trust them.

Or, as Paul says many years later, “Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (Acts 17:29)

For as Paul has just said earlier in his debate with the Athenians, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God....” (Acts 17:24-27)

What then are the idols available to us today? Their danger is that they appear to have no spiritual significance, but sight unseen they indeed hold out a “promise” of something we want, or even a corrupted idea of the “God” who will provide our wants. The greatest danger is that they supplant the role of God in our lives, and the simple faith of following (believing) Him. He will be our provider, even as He is our God.

Probable 21st century western idols

Comfort: we have become too friendly with comfort. Everything in our nation markets it. So much so that we shamelessly promise that this car, or that house, or this piece of furniture will be more comfortable than any other we have owned. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a bit of comfort. But, two things stand out for those in the Kingdom of God. First, the attitude that we deserve it. Second, it will satisfy.

Safety: King David learned about safety even before He was King. In a moment of extreme danger from King Saul and his forces, gathered to find and kill David, David cries out: “In the LORD I take refuge” (Psalm 11:1).

Wealth: Paul warns Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

Leisure: In the very beginning, we were created to work. This creation is one of the things that makes us human, after the image and likeness of God. In it, we find the answer to the question: what am I here for? I am here to serve God by actively stewarding all that belongs to Him. And, in that pursuit, we discover the genius of God imaged upon us.

Out of the things that God has made, humans are able to create new things! As I like to say, no group of monkeys, no matter how many or how trained will ever create a rocket to go to the moon!

Happiness: I find this one to be the most dangerous. First because it is exclusively based upon context and feeling. Second, because no where in the Bible can I find a promise from God that we were promised happiness. It has become the pursuit of a feeling generation. God does promise joy, meaning, satisfaction. Happiness will have to await the full redemption of our emotions in the new heaven and earth!

All of these, and more are not as obvious as physical idols that clearly represent gods who people worship, or fear, or ask for resolutions. But they are per chance more seductive because of their close attachment to "life" in a violent, broken and yet potentially financially rewarding generation. They are no less dangerous!

Maybe even more so as they seduce with false promises, deaden spiritual sensitivity and eliminate a needed and heightened consciousness of a living, engaged and sovereign God.

Therefore John says, keep yourselves from idols, substitutes! Having already confirmed in the verses before, "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.”


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