Friday, December 16, 2022

Keep Yourselves from Idols (1 John 5:21)

A big part of farming is, of course, checking up on your flocks and herds and making sure they are safe, as I did this evening. 

I thought about that when I came to the final verse of the book of 1 John. In one sense, it seems very much out of place. I mean, the letter is all about eternal life based on the finished work of Christ, and that we can know that we know God if we keep his commands, and that we are to love our sisters and brothers and keep believing in Jesus, etc. I'd expect at least a fond "grace and peace to you" or "greet everyone for me," but instead we find:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

That's it.


End of letter.

At first, it didn't make sense to me. But notice this: John has just talked about how Jesus Christ is "the true God and eternal life," and that we may perceive and know him experientially. The charge "Keep yourselves from idols" seems, then, to follow quite naturally. Knowledge of, and communion with, the one true God is completely incompatible with any and all God-substitutes, be they actual physical idols or any untrue mental image we might have of God. "Dear children," writes Eugene Peterson in The Message, "be on guard against all clever facsimiles." Similarly the Latin Vulgate reads, "Filioli, custodite vos a simulacris." I even like how my Hawaiian Pidgin Bible renders the verse: "Eh you guys! You jalike my own kids! So, stay away from da idol kine gods." But surely the Oscar goes to The Living Bible:

Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God's place in your hearts.


But what does this have to do with farming? The verb that John uses here for "keep" is not tēreō (as in verse 18) but phulassō -- the verb that's used of the shepherds who were guarding their flock by night when Jesus was born (Luke 2:8). Believe me, farmers can never grow lax in this duty. There is too much at stake. Likewise, the book of 1 John is a reminder that until the Lord's promised return we must wage a constant battle against worldly desires (1 John 2:15). We can lust for popularity. We can lust for money. We can lust for automobiles. As Augustine once said, the City of God is often overpowered by the call of the City of Man. 

Stop it, says John. Don't go there. Today, as always, we are not to replace the one true God with our little "gods." We are not to entangle ourselves with the affairs of this world if we are to please our Commander-in-Chief. Jesus isn't merely item number 1 on the program. He is the program. And that's what John seems to be emphasizing as he concludes his letter.

Jesus Christ is God. He has the first word and the last word and every word in-between. What matters is stewardship, and it is required of servants that they be found faithful, not only until death but unto death if necessary.