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“LITTLE CHILDREN, KEEP YOURSELVES FROM IDOLS”
by Philip Owen

             As our children begin to grow up and exercise some independence, we frequently give them some parting advice as they leave the house without us: “Behave.” “Drive carefully.” “Remember to act like a Christian.” We feel compelled to urge upon them, not some new bit of information, but some old bromide that will serve them in good stead if they will heed it while they are absent from us. Similarly, John gives parting advice at the close of his first epistle, advice which the Spirit of God would implant in our minds and hearts in order to keep us safe as we live in the world: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.” (I John 5:21).

 
            “Little children.”  John uses this term of endearment seven times in this epistle. (The Greek is a single word, teknia. The AV uses the term “little children” nine times, but two translate a different Greek word.) It is a reminder at once of the great affection the Lord has for us and of the potential we have like “little children” to become oblivious to spiritual danger. It is an evidence that heavenly exhortation comes from and because of a God who loves us and that it is intended, not merely to restrict us, but to protect us. We would do well to append a mental “little children” to every exhortation in the Bible as a reminder that our Heavenly Father, who loves us and knows the sins to which we are prone, desires to keep us out of harm's way.
 
            “Keep yourselves.” The Greek is more forceful than our English translation, conveying more the idea of “guarding against.” “Guard” suggests a more active and aggressive state than does the more placid “keep.” Guarding requires constant vigilance and suggests that the one who guards has the weapons to defend what he is guarding and to attack any opponent. On one side of the coin is the truth expressed by Paul, namely, that God is able to keep us from falling (a truth concerning our eternal standing before God), on the other side is the truth expressed here regarding our moment-by-moment state. God places the responsibility for that upon us. Similarly, He swore that He would give His people the Land of Promise, but Israel had to go in, nevertheless, and conquer it with sword and spear. God will be with us, but we must keep ourselves. The responsibility for being watchful for anything that would separate us from truth and faithfulness lies with us.
 
            “From idols.” Literal idolatry pervaded the culture of John’s day. His readers recognized that they were surrounded by a heathen culture that worshipped images. John was warning them not to succumb to the societal tide. But he was also reminding them that idolatry could take many forms, the subtler ones being both more insidious and often more dangerous. The latter warning pertains to us today. While we may never have occasion to bow down to stone or wooden image, an idol is simply anything that would usurp first place—God’s rightful place—in our hearts and minds. Before we dismiss these words as being obvious and boring, we need to examine ourselves. What do we give first place in our lives? Where do our thoughts go when free to roam? Around what activities do we shape our lives? Are there interests and activities in our lives that dictate how we spend our time or that are nonnegotiable? If they are things other than the Lord and His service, then, they are idols. If truth be told, very few believers yield their lives to God; most harbor one or more idols. Often times, it is not one easily identifiable tangible interest or activity. It is the more elusive self—self-will, self-interest, self-desire. And because the object of that will, interest, or desire may change from moment to moment, it goes undetected and uncorrected. And so John says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols."

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