I want to direct your attention to one particular verse of Scripture this morning—the final verse of the First Letter of John to the churches, 1 John 5:21. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." It's an interesting verse. For scholars of the New Testament and commentators on the First Epistle of John, it can be a matter of some perplexity. One of the interpretive questions that seems that has to be answered by anyone who's going to be dealing with 1 John is, "Why this ending?" Generally, if you look at the epistles of the New Testament they end with either a doxology or some kind of benediction. They end either with some great chorus of theistic and Christological truth or they end, as so often Paul ends his letters, with a very clear word of affirmation and benediction, amounting to something like a final encouragement and a prayer for those who were the original recipients of the letter, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to us as well. John ends his letter not with a doxology, a valediction, or a benediction. It's not there. He ends this letter with the words "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
You know it's a perplexity for other reasons as well for Johannine scholars, because nowhere in this letter has John mentioned idols. It's not there. Nowhere in the other two of his letters does he mention idols. Nowhere in the Gospel of John does he mention idols. Why here? Why now? Why all of a sudden? Why at the end? Why out of context does he just close this letter with such urgency? You can't read 1 John without sensing the urgency. Here is John, writing as a pastor as well as an apostle. He's writing to a church that has been preyed upon, to a church that has suffered a secession and a loss of members, to a church that is deeply wounded and seemingly uncertain, a church that is tempted by sin, and a church that is beleaguered and needs apostolic exhortation and teaching and instruction and encouragement. And then he ends it, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
It's a perplexity to many people. What are you going to do with this? You're preaching verse by verse through the book. You reach all the way to the end, and having preached through five chapters of a rather seamless argument you come to verse 21 of chapter 5, and here you are with "Little children …"
Now that's familiar. John does use that language. He uses the language of "Little children" in a way that is not patronizing, nor does he refer to them meaning that they're literally children. He writes to them because they are learners, using a language that would have been familiar to those as a teacher would speak to learners. But it's an endearing word, and there's no way to remove the endearing nature of it here. It's fatherly. It's literally patristic. Here we have John speaking to those whom he loves—young believers in the faith, children in the faith. "Little children," having in chapter two referred to the church in these words, and now we hear them again: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
Keep yourselves from idols
You know if we read this in the Old Testament, if this were Elijah, we'd know immediately where it was coming from. We'd go right to Mount Carmel. We know what that looks like. We know the danger of idolatry. We know the seduction of idolatry. We know the incursion of idolatry. One of the things that is most perplexing to us as we look to the Old Testament is how the children of Israel, God's covenant people, the one who had received theophany after theophany, the ones to whom God had spoken, because in Deuteronomy 4, as it says, he spoke to them because of all the peoples of the earth, "He spoke to them that they would know that they are his." Has any other people heard the voice of the Lord speaking from the fire and survived, as Moses? To those people, the people he had rescued out of bondage to Pharoah and Egypt, you would think there would be an immunity to idols. But time and time again they're going back to idols. I'll admit. It's a perplexity. I look at it and I am continually shocked as I read the same text I've read over and over again. As I read through the Scriptures and find the same narratives over and over again it's like the little boy who's seeing the movie for the second time says to the person who's about to get hurt, "Don't do it!" yelling at the screen. You want to look at the text and say Don't do it! And then Don't do it so stupidly. "Threw this stuff in the fire and look what came out." That's just the way it seems to be. If this were in the Old Testament, I think we'd understand "Keep yourselves from idols," because we can see in the Old Testament, they go back to idols all the time, all the time, all the time.
In the New Testament it's interesting, of course, that there is a continual reference to idols, but it's in a very changed context in the New Testament. In the New Testament, for instance, you have a classic text such as Paul at Mars Hill from the book of Acts. Paul arriving in Athens sees the city filled with idols and he has a paroxysm. He is literally undone. He has an emotional breakdown of heartbroken concern when he sees the city filled with idols. He doesn't see the churches filled with idols. He saw the city filled with idols. The situation has changed. Idolatry now in terms of the New Testament is primarily something that is out there. Now, as you read the letters to the churches, for instance, in the Book of Revelation it's clear it's not as out there as we'd like to think. And it's that which is left behind, that's what makes the idol makers angry in a city like Ephesus. It's because their business is being hurt as the gospel is being proclaimed.
But John here doesn't deal with idolatry as something that is out there in the marketplace in Athens. He says as he concludes this letter, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols."
So what are we going to do with this? Well, I do not think it should perplex us. I don't think it's a difficult issue at all. I don't think it's an interpretive conundrum at all. I think it's actually in his context amazingly clear. I think in this one verse the apostle John has summarized his entire letter. It's almost as if John reaches the end of his letter and says in sum, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." Something very interesting when you look to 1 John. And as we look together at this text you'll notice that it begins with a very clear claim of revelation.
That which is from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, the life was made manifest, and we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us, that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you so that you too may have fellowship with us. And indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, and we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
John here begins his letter with a clear claim of revelation, very similar in terms of the theological point that is made to what we heard in the call of worship from the opening verses to the book of Hebrews—a clear declaration that we are here only because God has revealed himself in Christ. He has made himself manifest to us not just in order that we may see him but in order that we may know him and in order that we may be redeemed. We are here precisely because, and only because, God has decisively acted in Christ to make himself manifest to us. We did not seek him out. We did not find him. We did not discover him. We were shown him. He showed himself to us.
We know the living God
First John has to do with a very clear danger to the church. As John is writing to the church, he is very concerned with the fact that there are those who were once with them who have departed from them. Now there's something very important there that we have to go to time and time again in the history of the church and in the history sometimes of our own experience in the congregation. We have to be able to say we understand exactly what John means when he says they went out from us because they were not of us. There are false pretenders in the church. There are false believers in the church, and when they go away it is not because having been saved they have lost their salvation. It is because they are now exposed as being those who never truly believed.
It appears that the great threat, the theological threat, the heretical threat to the church of John's concern here, that this great threat is some variant of Gnosticism. Now, Gnosticism is one of those words that can mean virtually anything in the hands of the one who might deploy it. But it basically comes down to the fact that it is some variant of a belief very common in the ancient world, especially in the Mediterranean basin, that salvation comes to those who have a secret knowledge. That indeed the problem humans face is a deficit of knowledge. Salvation comes, liberation comes when that secret knowledge, that mysterion, that secret mysterious knowledge is received. And there were various Gnostic schools, various Gnostic philosophies. But common to them all was the idea that salvation comes through knowledge.
Well that makes the letter all the more interesting, doesn't it, because John begins his letter in which he's going to address a church that has been greatly traumatized and even tempted by this problem of Gnosticism. But he doesn't back off of knowledge, not a bit. He doesn't back off of knowledge being important and central. He begins with the fact that we know the one true and living God, because that God has made himself manifest to us in Christ, and we know. Look at the text with me. The next verse: "This is the message (content) we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." Again and again he speaks to know.
Look at verse 18: "Therefore we know that it is the last hour."
Verse 21: "I write to you not because you do not know the truth (interesting negative construction, not that you do not know, that means you do know) but because you know it and because no lie is of the truth."
Chapter 3:1: "The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him."
Knowledge is very central to his concern. Knowledge becomes the secret. Yes, not the secret to salvation in the sense that we are saved by some secret knowledge, but it becomes the understanding of the defining line between those who know God and those who do not, those who possess the true knowledge of God in Christ and those who claim some other knowledge.
In verse 2: "But we know that when he appears we shall be like him."
Verse 5: "You know that he appeared to take away sins and in him there is no sin."
In verse 16: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers."
In verse 19: "By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him."
In verse 24: "And by this we know that he abides in us by the Spirit whom he has given us."
Chapter 4:2: "By this you know the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God."
Verse 6: "Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error."
Verse 7: "Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love."
Verse 13: "By this we know that we abide in him and he in us because he has given us of his Spirit."
Verse 16: "So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us."
And then climactically in 5:13: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life."
And at this point we ought to have the truth very clearly in our minds that John believes we know a whole lot. John is absolutely certain that we know a very great deal. And he doesn't just recite all that we know. He keeps repeatedly going back and saying we know this; we know this; we can't say we don't know this; it's not that we don't know this, we do know this; we know this and because we know we know that, we know that and the next thing. We know a whole lot of things. And all of this comes to the point he makes in verse 13, which in one sense is the mission statement of his letter. "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God." How is it that anyone comes to believe in the name of the Son of God, as Paul tells us in Romans 10: "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ." There is a knowledge necessary to faith. "How is that we can call upon the one of whom we have not heard?"
But knowledge is not enough. Knowledge by itself does not save, but salvation does not come without knowledge. "I write these things to you who believe." It's not just to know. The verb is different here. I write these things not merely to those who know, but he says here "to those who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know you have eternal life." How is it we can know we have eternal life? It is because we know Jesus Christ the Son. We not only know him. We not only know about him. We not only know of him. We know him. We believe in him.
1 John 5:15
There is more here than an intellectual knowledge, but there is not less here than an intellectual knowledge. Verse 15: "And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him." We know. The most important thing we know is the assurance of faith that comes to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. We know that those who believe in him have eternal life. We know that. And that we know that he loves his church, he hears us in whatever we ask. We know that we have the requests we made of him.
We need protection from the evil one
And then in verse 18: "We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him." Now isn't it fascinating and instructive to us that here the apostle, having dealt with the secession, explaining that those who left were not from us because they were not of us, having come repeatedly, as we have heard, to come back to say we know, we know, we know. We can't say we don't know; it's not that we don't know. It's that we do know; we do know this. And on the basis of this, having known it, we believe; and having believed, we are assured of our eternal salvation, of the gift of eternal life.
But now he says we know some other things as well. We know that one who is born of God does not keep on sinning. We know this. We know that the one who is truly regenerated, the one who is truly redeemed does not persist in sin. And it's not because he or she can liberate himself or herself from sin, but, rather, it is the one who is born of God. Now the way we understand that is by going back to the first part of the letter where he makes it very clear that it is this Christ, the one who is born of God, who protects us, and the evil one does not touch him.
Among the things we know is that we need protection from the evil one. It's interesting that he turns to this here at the end of the letter, isn't it? And this is an interesting way to warn people. It's a very interesting way for a pastoral exhortation to be in the context of a pastoral warning that now says, just remember, sin is an ever present danger. And remember you need protection. You need protection from the evil one. "… the evil one does not touch him." We know. We know that the evil one does not touch the one who is born of God. We know that. And how do we know that? Because it's been revealed to us in Jesus Christ the Son. He is the one who is born of God, who protects us. There is an evil one, but the evil one cannot touch the one who is Christ's.
Then at verse 19: "We know that we are from God …" But then there is something else that is affirmed here that we need also to be reminded of. John writes that the "whole world lies in the power of the evil one." This text affirms the lordship of Satan, the lordship of the devil over the world.
I have to admit that I think most of us—I include myself in this—often do not think clearly enough about this. When we read the newspaper, when we observe the world around us, when we pick up on the news by Twitter or however it comes to us, we need to remind ourselves that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. We forget that. We minimize that. We do so to our grave danger. We know. You know these things are written, as John is writing the church here, as affirmations that are supposed to be things we already know. And it's embarrassing. I don't know about you. It's embarrassing to me sometimes to be told things I know that I kind of remember but I didn't remember that I knew. It's one of the reasons God gave me a wife who remembers everything because she will remind me of things that I did know. I just don't kind of know them now. In all likelihood I won't know them a few minutes from now. And we need to be reminded from time to time. It is embarrassing to us that our brain seems to hold things so tentatively, so weirdly. And then we remember the things we don't want to remember. There's certain knowledge we can't get rid of. We can't get a tune out of our heads.
But John comes along to say after this climactic statement that he makes in verse 13, that "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know you have eternal life." He comes back to remind us of the thing that we are to know, as he concludes here, and that second of the triplet that is included in this closing passage is that we know that "the whole world lies in the power of the evil one."
That's another reason why we should come into a room like this on a day like this to remind ourselves we are here under the necessary protection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot defend ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves. Only he is able. And we'd better plead for his protection, a protection that we just read is assured to us because of his faithfulness.
We know the gospel as a truth
There is a third thing here in the conclusion that we know. In verse 20: "And we know that the Son of God has come and 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."
One of the problems in some theological education is a tentativeness that is simply a disguised form of sin. We do not know the gospel as a hypothesis. We do not know the gospel as a theory. We know the gospel as a truth, because we know the one who is true. We do not know merely about him; we know him. And in knowing him we are here assured of eternal life, because of who he is and what he has done. And we are here assured of his protection because of who he is and what he does for us now. And we are here assured of the fact that we really do know.
"Little children, keep yourselves from idols." I hope the context becomes more clear when we look at this. Idolatry is belief in a false god. As the Ten Commandments make clear, as you look at the contours of everything found in the Old Testament concerning idolatry, the problem of idolatry is that it is a belief in the wrong god, any other god. "You shall bring no other god before me." And the problem is it's so easy to come up with some other god. Those who seceded from the church here of John's concern, those who caused so much trouble, those who have gone to a different knowledge, John wants to identify them in a way that anyone who knows the Scripture and knows the one true and living God and his hatred of idolatry should understand they became idolaters. They went after another god, and they departed. They were not of us. That's why they went out from us. They're idolaters.
That's another reason why we need to gather together and remind ourselves of the persistent problem of idolatry. It's really good. In fact it's healthy and necessary that we remember that that was not a word spoken only to Israel in times of old. It's a word spoken to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ right now. Christ speaks to his church through this epistle to say, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols." And theological education can offer, either by intention or by accident, an entire panoply of idols. Heresy rightly understood and a biblical conception is a form of idolatry. The allure of heresy is the lure of knowing and worshiping and claiming and serving some other god. And theologically, if you define God differently than he defines himself in his self revelation, you are an idolater. If God reveals himself in his Word to be as he is, as he has done for our good and by his grace, and then we say, no, I believe in a god who is not that way but some other way, you're an idolater. Modern theology is nothing more than a secession of idolatrous ideologies.
But we need also to recognize that we can make idols of lesser things, of less obvious things. We can make an idol of our own academic achievement. The heart of Gnosticism is rooted in the Bible's affirmation that knowledge puffs up. And that makes it a little dangerous to accumulate knowledge because the more knowledge you accumulate, the puffier you get. The more puffed up you are tempted to be.
That's another reason why it's good for us to remind ourselves that we don't know anything worth knowing that we came to know on our own. There is nothing we know that wasn't revealed to us, and we were taught by those who in a faithful secession of teachers have been taught by others, and we will know it in order to teach yet others that they may faithfully teach others. That's the way it works. We have nothing that we have not received from someone else. And that Someone ultimately is the Triune God who loved us and showed himself to us.
We can make idols of academic achievement. We can make an idol of orthodoxy and know everything orthodox and true about Christ but not know him. That's why when you read this letter John is so concerned to say the same thing again and again: I know, we know, we know, we know, we know; we can't say we don't know; it's not that we don't know, we do know. And then you come to that climactic verse in verse 13: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life."
I don't know about you, but I'm humbled by this. I don't want us to lose any concern for orthodoxy. We know what the stakes are. We know that anything that is not orthodoxy is not merely heterodoxy; it's idolatry. And yet, as concerned as we must be to avoid heresy and the obvious idolatry of substituting the self-revealing God for some other god we would worship, we also need to make certain that we are not just here to know about the one true and living God, but to know him. We need to make very certain that we are not merely those who know, but those who believe, and that all by grace. "Little children, let us keep ourselves from idols."
Albert Mohler Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is author of numerous books, including The Disappearance of God.