A Devotional from Central Presbyterian Church.Find another day here.
Friday July 3, 2020
1 John 5:21
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
As John closes out his letter to the early church, he does so with the heart of a father sharing battle-tested wisdom with his beloved children. Yet, with his parting thought, John appears to deviate from the script by saying, almost out of nowhere, “keep yourselves from idols.” Nowhere else in his letter do we find any discussion of idols, and the word doesn’t appear even once in his gospel. Why then, we might fairly ask, does John choose to sign off by referencing a subject that he has not, and will not, fully clarify? The simple answer is that this must be something that is at once really important to John as well as being so obvious a command as to require little by way of instruction or explanation. In fact, when we examine all of John’s writings, we do see that the subject of idol worship appears prominently in his apocalypse, the book of Revelation. In the Lord’s letters to the first-century churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, there is a repeated warning against eating food sacrificed to idols. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8, the issue of eating food that had first been offered to idols was a deeply concerning problem for some believers, especially those who were young in their faith. Apparently, animal sacrifice to the many gods of Rome was so rampant that it was nearly impossible to find meat which had not at one point been previously offered to an idol.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, walking across the dry ground of the parted Red Sea, He delivered His people not only from the hand of harsh oppressors, but also from a land of idol-worship. You may recall that Egypt was a land filled with idols, and archaeologists and historians have identified over 2,000 Egyptian deities, including the sun-god Ra, sky-god Horus, cat-god Bastet, mother-goddess Isis, and many, many more. Of the litany of gods, the living Pharaoh was considered to be the most powerful. Through the 10 plagues and subsequent defeat of Pharaoh’s army—the greatest military power in the known world—at the crossing of the Red Sea, the God of Israel proved decisively His power and superiority over any and all rivals. There was no longer any question as to who was really in control of the world. And yet, in one of the most flagrant examples of the sinfulness of man, just days later, while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people of Israel took a pile of their Egyptian gold and crafted their own god in the form of a golden calf, declaring, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” While the Israelites had been taken out of Egypt, Egypt was not taken out of the Israelites.
What is an idol? We typically think of idols as figures or images made of wood or stone, like the golden calf, that pre-modern people crafted as objects of worship to represent their gods. But the most basic definition is anything which is worshipped instead of the one-true God. French reformer and theologian John Calvin wrote in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, “the human mind is a perpetual forge of idols.” The apostle John knew the dangers of idolatry facing the church. Not only was the Roman empire filled with all sort of immoral pagan worship, but he saw first hand in the Pharisees how even zeal for adherence to the commands of God could turn into an idol.
Idolatry is not exclusive to a people long ago in a place far away. Modern idolatry may look different on the outside, but at its core the principle is the same: a failure to ascribe to God the glory and worth due to Him alone. Our idols today come in all forms and fashions, and they are often things that are not inherently wicked or sinful at all. However, as Calvin pointed out, we can quickly turn anything into an idol. Within my own life, I have seen many good things, like my love of the outdoors, spending time with family, and even my devotion to ministry assume the place in my life that only God Himself belongs. In my fallenness and sinfulness, I value good gifts over the Giver of the gifts, prioritize creation over the Creator, and give precedence to what I am doing for God instead of what God has done for me. As a Christian, I must take great care to not allow my passion towards any possession, any person, any party, or any platform to infringe upon my passion for Jesus. My heart only has room for one primary love, and it must be love for the one who loved me so much that He gave His life for mine. May we find in Him our greatest treasure, our deepest love, and the satisfaction of our searching souls.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, You are the one and only way to God. We confess that there are a great many “good things” that have allowed to take up residence in our hearts, but You are the only one worthy of our worship. Open our eyes to our areas of idolatry, and help us to love You above all others. Help us to remember all that You have done for our sakes, that we might live for Yours. We pray this in Your Holy name, Amen.