1 John 5:21
Great Texts of the Bible
The Peril of Idolatry

My little children, guard yourselves from idols.—1 John 5:21.

These would seem to be the last words of Scripture that were written, the last charge of the last Apostle, the last solemn warning in which the Holy Spirit sums up the Gospel for all generations. Yet they sound strange. Surely we have no idols. What need have we of such a charge as this?

Not much, if wood and stone are needed to make an idol; but if we are putting anything whatever in God’s place, we are not so clear. Some calling themselves Christians have worshipped saints on every high hill and under every green tree; some have made the Church an idol, and some the Bible; some have made money their god, others have worshipped success, and others have sold themselves for pleasure.1 [Note: H. M. Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things, 91.]

It may well be that the Spirit had brought before St. John’s mind the danger arising from the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, was spoken of to them as a man like themselves; a fact that might lead them from the Deity of the man Christ Jesus to deifying other creatures, and investing these with Divine attributes, and attributing to them Divine power, and approaching them with prayer and praise, which, though fitting worship in the case of Jesus Christ, would be idolatry addressed to other creatures. And so St. John adds these words to the end of his Epistle, lest the doctrine he had just insisted on should be misused and perverted, as indeed we know from Church history it has been.2 [Note: W. E. Jelf, A Commentary on the First Epistle of St. John, 82.]


Tendencies to Idolatry

1. Man everywhere has some appreciation of the spiritual. We may describe it as we will, but everywhere man is conscious of it, in some form or fashion. If we take the lowest form of that conception of which we know anything, that which is called “fetish worship,” what is the root idea? It is a recognition of the spiritual, it is an expression of fear. A fetish worshipper, if he be unaccompanied by his fetish, will refuse to trade with you, will refuse to have any dealings with you. Why? Because he thinks that the carrying of his particular fetish keeps away evil spirits. His conception of the supernatural is the conception of antagonistic forces, and he endeavours to charm them away. All charms, all necromancy, all attempts to avert some catastrophe by this kind of thing, are of the same nature. They are a recognition of that which is beyond. And it is not only a recognition of the spiritual as beyond the material; it is also a recognition of relationship of some kind. Idolatry is always born out of this recognition, and out of a consciousness of need. The need is an anxiety. It may simply be a need of protection, or it may be a need of communion; but whether this or that, every idol is a demonstration of the Divine origin of man. As St. Augustine said long ago, God has made the human heart so that it can never find rest save in Himself. After that rest humanity everywhere is seeking, and all idolatry is a demonstration of the search.

When the populace of Paris adorned the statue of Strasbourg with immortelles, none, even the simplest of the pious decorators, would suppose that the city of Strasbourg itself, or any spirit or ghost of the city, was actually there, sitting in the Place de la Concorde. The figure was delightful to them as a visible nucleus for their fond thoughts about Strasbourg; but never for a moment supposed to be Strasbourg.

Similarly, they might have taken delight in a statue purporting to represent a river instead of a city,—the Rhine, or Garonne, suppose,—and have been touched with strong emotion in looking at it, if the real river were dear to them, and yet never think for an instant that the statue was the river.

And yet again, similarly, but much more distinctly, they might take delight in the beautiful image of a god, because it gathered and perpetuated their thoughts about that god; and yet never suppose, nor be capable of being deceived by any arguments into supposing, that the statue was the god.

On the other hand, if a meteoric stone fell from the sky in the sight of a savage, and he picked it up hot, he would most probably lay it aside in some, to him, sacred place, and believe the stone itself to be a kind of god, and offer prayer and sacrifice to it.

In like manner, any other strange or terrifying object, such, for instance, as a powerfully noxious animal or plant, he would be apt to regard in the same way; and very possibly also construct for himself frightful idols of some kind, calculated to produce upon him a vague impression of their being alive; whose imaginary anger he might deprecate or avert with sacrifice, although incapable of conceiving in them any one attribute of exalted intellectual or moral nature.1 [Note: Ruskin, Aratra Pentelici (Works, xx. 229).]

2. Man must have a God, and when he loses the vision of the true God, he makes a God for himself. The making of idols is an attempt to find God, and God is always built up out of the imagination, and according to the pattern of the builder himself. Every idol is the result of a conception of God which is the magnified personal self-consciousness of the man who creates his idol. Or to put it in another form, idolatry is self-projection. First man imagines his God, and the God he imagines is himself enlarged. “Eyes have they, noses have they, hands have they, feet have they.” The Psalmist in those words took the physical facts, and showed how man in making a God projects his own personality; and calls that magnified personality God. It is seen at once that the result is magnified failure, intensified evil. So all human conditions which are evil, being active in the thinking of the man who would construct his deity, are to be found intensified in that deity. To go back to the Old Testament, we have Baal, Molech, and all the evil deities. What are they but the evil things of humanity magnified? And so everywhere we find that men have made idols according to their own understanding.

Dear God and Father of us all

Forgive our faith in cruel lies,

Forgive the blindness that denies,

Forgive Thy creature, when he takes

For the all-perfect love Thou art

Some grim creation of his heart.

Cast down our idols; overturn

Our bloody altars: let us see

Thyself in Thy humanity.

3. The whole history of the Jews, of which the Bible is the record, is one long warning and protest against idolatry. Abraham became the father of the faithful because he obeyed the call of God to abandon the idols which his fathers had worshipped beyond the Euphrates. Jacob made his family bury under the Terebinth of Shechem their Syrian amulets and Syrian gods. But Israel was constantly starting aside into idolatry like a broken bow. Even in the wilderness they took up the tabernacle of Molech, and the star of their god Remphan, idols which they had made to worship. Even under the burning crags of Sinai, “they made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image”; and for centuries afterwards the apostate kings of northern Israel doubled that sin in Dan and Bethel.

The seven servitudes of the Book of Judges were the appropriate retribution for seven apostasies. From Solomon to Manasseh, king after king, even of Judah, forsook Jehovah. Then came the crashing blow of the Exile, the utter ruin of every hope of domination or of independence. The agony of being thus torn from their temple and their home and the land they loved cured them forever of material idolatry; but they fell headlong into another and subtler idolatry—the idolatry of forms and ceremonies, the idolatry of the dead letter of their law. Pharisaism was only a new idolatry, and it was, in some respects, more dangerous than the old. It was more dangerous because more self-satisfied, more hopelessly impenitent; more dangerous because, being idolatry, it passed itself off as the perfection of faithful worship. Hence it plunged them into a yet deadlier iniquity. Baal worshippers had murdered the Prophets; Pharisees crucified the Lord of Life.

4. What gives this tendency its strength? The Jews were tempted to worship these idols because they saw in the lives of the nations around them that emancipation from shame, from conscience, from restraint, from the stern and awful laws of morality, for which all bad men sigh. They longed for that slavery of sin which would be freedom from righteousness. It was not the revolting image of Molech that allured them; it was the spirit of hatred, the fierce delight of the natural wild beast which lurks in the human heart. Molech was but the projection into the outward of ghastly fears born of man’s own guilt; the consequent impulse to look on God as a wrathful, avenging Being, to be propitiated only by human agony and human blood; and as One whom (so whispered to them a terrified selfishness) it was better to propitiate by passing their children through the fire than to let themselves suffer from His rage. It was not any image of Mammon that allured them to worship that abject spirit. It was the love of money, which is a root of all evil; it was covetousness, which is idolatry. And why should they worship the degraded Baal-Peor? Just because he was degraded; just because of “those wanton rites which cost them woe.”

Idolatry, kneeling to a monster. The contrary of Faith—not want of Faith. Idolatry is faith in the wrong thing, and quite distinct from Faith in No thing, the “Dixit Insipiens.” Very wise men may be idolaters, but they cannot be atheists.1 [Note: Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens (Works, xxxiii. 154).]

Do these tendencies not reveal themselves still? Is it not possible that we form to ourselves false conceptions of God? We think of Him on the one hand as a self-willed despot, or we think of Him on the other hand as a sentimental father, who has within Him no power of anger or of passion. Again, have we not thought of Him too often as an indifferent proprietor,—forgive the homeliness of the figure of speech,—an absentee landlord, who collects rents on Sundays, and cares nothing about what happens to His property during the week? How often shall we have to plead guilty to this charge, that we have a god to suit our own convenience; that we accommodate the doctrine of God which the Bible contains, and which Jesus uttered finally for the world, to our own low level of life; that we have allowed our selfishness to blur the vision of God, and to make or create a new god according to our own understanding?2 [Note: G. Campbell Morgan.]


Forms of Idolatry

1. Idolatry manifests itself at times in gross and material forms.—What was the sin of Jeroboam? That he set up golden images at Dan and Bethel, and in doing so provided for the people a representation of God. When Jeroboam set up those golden images, he had no idea of setting up new gods. That was not the sin of Jeroboam. In the wilderness, when the men, waiting for Moses, according to the ancient story, made a golden calf, they were not making any new god. When we read the story carefully, we discover that they were making a likeness of Jehovah, and when they had made their golden calf and bowed themselves before it, they observed a feast of Jehovah. That was the sin of Jeroboam also; not the setting up of a new deity, not the introduction into the national life of a god borrowed from surrounding countries, but an attempt to help Israel to know Jehovah by a likeness, a representation of Him which should be set up at Dan and Bethel. In so doing, Jeroboam was not breaking the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods,” but the second, “Thou shalt not make any likeness of God.”

We go a little further on in the history of Israel, and we find Ahab. The sin of Ahab was different from Jeroboam’s in that he introduced other deities and placed them beside Jehovah. He built temples for Baal and established the worship of Baal. That was not a representation of Jehovah, but another deity. The sin of Ahab was that he broke the first of the words of the Decalogue. The breach of the second word of the Decalogue always precedes the breach of the first in the history of believing peoples. First, something to set up to help us to see and understand God; and then presently other gods usurping the place of God. First, a false conception of God, and we worship it; secondly, some other deity by the side of God.

Dr. Buchanan, who was an eye-witness of the worship of Juggernaut in India, describes what he saw. The Temple of Juggernaut has been standing for eight or nine hundred years. The idol is like a man, with large diamonds for eyes; with a black face, and a mouth foaming with blood. Well, he says he saw this idol put upon a large carriage, nine or ten times as high as the biggest man one ever saw. And then the men, women and children (tens and hundreds of thousands were there together) began to draw the carriage along. The wheels made deep marks in the ground as it went along. And here there was a man who lay down before it, and the wheels went over him and killed him on the spot. And again there was a woman, who in the same way lay down before the idol, thinking she was sure to get to heaven if she was crushed beneath that idol’s carriage wheels. And he saw children there drawing the idol. And he tells about two little children sitting crying beside their dying mother, who had come to the city of the idol, and perished there from fatigue and want. And when they were asked where their home was, they said they had no home but where their mother was. And that mother was dying before her time because of her idolatry. Well might he have told such little ones how foolish and how wrong such conduct was, and said to them, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”1 [Note: W. H. Gray, The Children’s Friend, 111.]

As we were preparing a foundation for the Church, a huge and singular-looking round stone was dug up, at sight of which the Tannese stood aghast. The eldest Chief said,—

“Missi, that stone was either brought there by Karapanamun (the Evil Spirit), or hid there by our great Chief who is dead. That is the Stone God to which our forefathers offered human sacrifices; these holes held the blood of the victim till drunk up by the Spirit. The Spirit of that stone eats up men and women and drinks their blood, as our fathers taught us. We are in greatest fear!”

A Sacred Man claimed possession, and was exceedingly desirous to carry it off; but I managed to keep it, and did everything in my power to show them the absurdity of these foolish notions. Idolatry had not, indeed, yet fallen throughout Tanna, but one cruel idol, at least, had to give way for the erection of God’s House on that benighted land.2 [Note: John G. Paton, i. 201.]

2. There is also an intellectual idolatry when our own false notions are allowed to usurp the place of truth. The first meaning of the word “idols” is false, shadowy, fleeting images; subjective phantoms; wilful illusions; cherished fallacies. This is the sense in which the word is used by our great English philosopher, Lord Bacon. He speaks of “idols of the tribe,” false notions which seem inherent in the nature of man, and which, like an unequal mirror mingling its own nature with that of the light, distort and refract it. There are also “idols of the cave.” Every man has in his heart some secret cavern in which an idol lurks, reared there by his temperament or his training, and fed with the incense of his passions, so that a man, not seeking God in His word or works, but only in the microcosm of his own heart, thinks of God not as He is, but as he chooses to imagine Him to be. And there are “idols of the market-place,” false conceptions of God which spring from men’s intercourse with one another, and from the fatal force of words. And there are “idols of the school,” false notions which come from the spirit of sect, and system, and party, and formal theology.

All sin is an untruth, a defiance of the true order of earth and heaven. In one of Hort’s great sayings, Every thought which is base or vile or selfish is first of all untrue. These are the idols from which we have to keep ourselves. Whatever you think of God in your inmost heart, you will live accordingly. Whatever idol you make Him into, that idol will make you like itself.1 [Note: H. M. Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things, 94.]

George Herbert says that if you look on the pane of glass in a window, you may either let your eye rest on the glass, or you may look through the glass at the blue heaven beyond it. Now Beauty, Truth, and Goodness are windows through which we may see God. But, on the other hand, just as a man who looks at a window may let his eye rest on the pane of glass, instead of using the glass as a medium through which he can look at the glowing scene beyond, so we may allow our minds to rest on Beauty, or Truth, or Goodness, instead of using these as media through which to contemplate God.2 [Note: Hugh Price Hughes, The Philanthropy of God, 229.]

Like all those who find their vent in Art, Jenny Lind seemed always as if her soul was a homeless stranger here amid the thick of earthly affairs, never quite comprehending why the imperfect should exist, never quite able to come down from the lighted above and form her eyes to the twilight of the prison and the cave.3 [Note: H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 18.]

3. But most frequently idolatry assumes a practical shape.—What does St. John mean by an idol? Does he mean that barbarous figure of Diana which stood in the great temple, hideous and monstrous? No! he means anything, or any person, that comes into the heart and takes the place which ought to be filled by God, and by Him only. What I prize most, what I trust most utterly, what I should be most forlorn if I lost, what is the working aim of my heart—that is my idol. In Ephesus it was difficult to have nothing to do with heathenism. In that ancient world their religion, though it was a superficial thing, was intertwined with daily life in a fashion that puts us to shame. Every meal had its libation, and almost every act was knit by some ceremony or other to a god; so that Christian men and women had almost to go out of the world, in order to be free from complicity in the all-pervading idol-worship. Now, although the form has changed, and the fascinations of old idolatry belong only to a certain stage in the world’s culture and history, the temptation to idolatry remains just as subtle, just as all-pervasive, and the yielding to it just as absurd.

Just consider what your feelings would be, were a heathen king to conquer this land, and to set up the images of his gods in the beautiful cathedral at Salisbury, where so many generations have been accustomed to worship God and His Son. Yet the heart of a Christian is far more beautiful, and far more precious, and far dearer to God, than that cathedral. The cathedral at Salisbury will not last for ever; Christ did not die for it, He did not purchase it with His own blood. But us He has bought; for us He has paid a price, that we might be His for all eternity. What, then, must be His feelings, to see His own hearts defiled and polluted by being given up to idols?1 [Note: A. W. Hare, The Alton Sermons, 493.]

Hear, Father! hear and aid!

If I have loved too well, if I have shed,

In my vain fondness, o’er a mortal head

Gifts, on Thy shrine, my God, more fitly laid,

If I have sought to live

But in one light, and made a mortal eye

The lonely star of my idolatry,

Thou that art Love, oh! pity and forgive!2 [Note: Mrs. Hemans.]

Many people spend their life as some African tribes do,—constructing idols, finding they are not the oracles they fancied, and breaking them in pieces to seek others. They have an uninteresting succession of perfect friends and infallible teachers. How many need the angel’s word, “See thou do it not.”3 [Note: John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 3.]

I went out into the garden to walk before dinner, and with difficulty refrained my tears to think how oft and with what sweet delight I had borne my dear, dear boy along that walk, with my dear wife at my side; but had faith given me to see his immortality in another world, and rest satisfied with my Maker’s will. Sir Peter Lawrie called after dinner, and besought me, as indeed have many, to go and live with him; but nothing shall tempt me from this sweet solitude of retirement, and activity of consolation, and ministry to the afflicted.… When he was gone I went forth upon my outdoor ministry, and as I walked to Mr. Whyte’s, along the terraces overlooking those fields where we used to walk, three in one, I was sore, sore distressed, and found the temptation to “idolatry of the memory”; which the Lord delivered me from—at the same time giving the clue to the subject which has been taking form in my mind lately, to be treated as arising out of my trial; and the form in which it presented itself is “the idolatry of the affections,” which will embrace the whole evil, the whole remedy, and the sound condition of all relations.1 [Note: The Life of Edward Irving, i. 258.]

4. But we must not imagine that God calls upon us to hide every sign of affection.—It is true that Jesus said “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”; but He also denounced those Pharisees who refused to help their parents under the pretence that they gave so liberally to the Temple treasury.

William Black, in his story In Far Lochaber, describes a household “where every natural instinct was repressed as being in itself something lawless; where the father held that he could not love God truly if he showed any demonstrative affection for his children.” In his own early home in Glasgow, Black had been brought up in that way. There was genuine family affection but no outward token of it. He revolted from that afterwards, very naturally, and the training of his own three children was very different. But that was the old Scottish idea, having its root in religion—“Keep yourselves from idols.” Mothers, losing a child, have sometimes said, “I made too much of an idol of my child, and God has punished me by taking it away.” No, no. Do not hide, do not limit natural affection in the name of religion. You make an idol of your child if you would do anything dishonourable for the child’s sake; if you say, as it were, my love for the child justifies me; or if you spoil the child by over-indulgence, or by want of rebuke when it does wrong. But do not in the name of religion hide or diminish the tokens of affection. There cannot be too much of that in the home life.

I took the poker, a few minutes before writing this, to break a piece of coal on the fire, and got a painful shock. I struck again, and struck harder, without feeling anything. I had struck the second time in the right place, about a third from the end of the poker. And human love may be more manifested, instead of less, when the love of God is at the root of it. The tokens of the earthly love will not then by any means injure or impair the heavenly.

I could not love thee, dear, so much

Loved I not honour more.1 [Note: John S. Maver.]

We cannot know or enjoy or love the world too much, if God’s will controls us. Has a mother anything but joy in watching the little daughter’s devotion to her doll? Not until the child is so absorbed that she cannot hear her mother’s voice. Did anyone ever love the world more than Jesus did? Yet was anyone ever so loyal to the Father’s will? Worldliness is not love of the world but slavishness to it.2 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 10.]


Defence against Idolatry

How are we to guard ourselves against idols? What is the defence?

1. We must cherish the vision of the true God and eternal life.—We have that vision in Christ. If I would know God, I must see Him in Christ. And if the God I am worshipping is any other than the Christ who came to reveal Him then the God I am worshipping is not the true God, and I have become an idolater. We cannot see God, cannot apprehend God, save as by the revelation that He has made of Himself. In that holy and infinite mystery of incarnation there is an adaptation of God Himself to man’s own method of finding God.

2. Another defence will be found in our love of truth.—It is not by learning or by culture or even by worship that we come to the knowledge of God. The utmost that even worship can do is to cleanse us for our higher duties—those duties of common life in which our God reveals Himself, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health alike. Even the Supper of the Lord would be a mockery, if Christ were not as near us in every other work of truth we do. Only let us be true, true in every fibre of our being, and truth of thought shall cleanse our eyes to see the truth of God which is the light of life.

The easiest lesson in the school of truth is to do our work in the spirit of truth. Petty as it may seem, it is the earthward end of a ladder that reaches up to heaven. It is a greater work to give the cup of cold water than raise the dead. Our single duty here on earth is to bend all our heart and all our soul and all our mind to the single task of learning the love of truth, for the love of truth is the love of God.1 [Note: H. M. Gwatkin, The Eye for Spiritual Things, 94.]

3. But it is not only our own effort that is needed; for just a sentence or two before, the Apostle had said: “He that is born of God”—that is, Christ—“keepeth us.” So our keeping of ourselves is essentially our letting Him keep us. Stay inside the walls of the citadel, and you need not be afraid of the besiegers; go outside by letting your faith flag, and you will be captured or killed. Keep yourselves by clinging to “him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless.” Seek fellowship with Him who is the only true God, and is able to satisfy your whole nature, mind, heart, will; and these false deities will have no power to tempt you to bow the knee.

“The Lord thy Keeper,” then: ’tis writ for thee,

By night and day, wayworn and feeble sheep!

Without, within, He shall thy Guardian be;

And e’en to endless ages He shall keep

Thy wandering heart.

The Peril of Idolatry


Aked (C. F.), Old Events and Modern Meanings, 119, 135, 151, 167.

Colenso (J. W.), Natal Sermons, ii. 329.

Cornaby (W. A.), In Touch with Reality, 11.

Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 23.

Dykes (J. O.), The Law of the Ten Words, 53.

Farrar (F. W.), Sermons and Addresses in America, 164.

Figgis (J. B.), The Anointing, 79.

Goodwin (H.), University Sermons, ii. 32.

Gray (W. H.), The Children’s Friend, 111.

Gwatkin (H. M.), The Eye for Spiritual Things, 89.

Hare (A. W.), Sermons, ii. 327.

Hare (A. W.), The Alton Sermons, 487.

Henson (H. H.), Ad Rem, 121.

Hughes (H. P.), The Philanthropy of God, 223.

Hunt (A. N.), Sermons for the Christian Year, ii. 10.

Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 326.

Maclaren (A.), Triumphant Certainties, 31.

Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 300.

Stanley (A. P.), Sermons for Children, 10.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), Mission Sermons for a Year, 381.

Christian World Pulpit, lxvi. 401 (Henson); lxix. 232, 259, 325, 403 (Aked).

Church of England Pulpit, lxiii. (1908) 483 (Bernard).

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