Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

Exiles and Sojourners.

Christianity, Religion

“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.” 1 Peter 2:11

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” Philippians 3:20.

One of the central themes of the Bible is homelessness. This thread runs throughout both Testaments and creates an apparent uniformity between the Old and New Testaments. Throughout the Scriptures, there are two common ways in which this motif of homelessness plays out: exile and sojourning, or traveling and wandering.

The theme of homelessness appears in the very first chapters of the Bible; in Genesis 3, mankind is forced out of Eden as a result of the Fall. Because of sin, humanity lost access to the home that God had created for them and thus became exiles in creation. From the beginning of Scripture, we learn that mankind is in spiritual exile, and the rest of Scripture is about God leading man back to Himself.

The process of returning from exile would be long and leads to the secondary homelessness motif of sojourning. God set in motion humanity’s return by calling Abraham to leave his homeland and to follow Him to a land that He would give to him. If Abraham did this, God would bless all the nations of the Earth through Him. Abraham followed God, and for the rest of his life, Abraham was a sojourner–a traveler, a wanderer, a pilgrim–following God to the Promised Land. This narrative repeats itself throughout the narratives of the Genesis patriarchs and culminates in the Exodus narrative with Moses leading Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt back to Canaan–back to the land promised to Abraham. This return to the Promised Land–just like man’s return from spiritual exile–would not be easy. The Israelites would continue to test God while en route to Canaan, and this ultimately resulted in their being forced to wander and sojourn in the desert for forty years. The sins of the generation being freed from slavery in Egypt forced Israel to be exiled in the wilderness until that generation died, and then a new generation would inherit the Promised Land. The land would be inherited; however, after several generations, because of sin and spiritual infidelity to God, exile came again. The cycle had repeated itself: just as Adam and Eve were forced into exile due to sin, Israel would be forced into exile because of its sin. It would seem that man was no closer to being delivered from spiritual exile at the close of the Old Testament than he was at the first moment of his exile. God, however, was still at work.

Fast forward several hundred years: the Babylonian Captivity had long been over, and the Jews allowed to return to their homeland. Jesus of Nazareth was preaching throughout the Judean countryside. The message that He preached did not sync with the established teachings of works, self-righteousness, and slavish devotion to the Law that the other rabbis taught. Instead, Jesus preached a radical message that the Kingdom of God was here and that those who genuinely sought to please God were going to live a life of complete reliance upon God for everything–as wanderers would need to rely upon someone else to provide for them. Furthermore, Christ taught that the committed and sincere follower of God would understand that, since we are all exiles and sojourners, we must love and take care of one another. His teachings reinforced the narrative of homelessness and sojourning; a man once approached Jesus and told Him that he would follow Jesus anywhere. To be sure that this man understood this part of the cost of being His follower, Christ told him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” (Luke 9:58.) In His own life, Christ embodied the motif of the sojourner; He was the New Adam, the New Abraham, and the New Moses.

Many began to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, who was sent by God to restore Israel and to be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations. Many thought that He would be a leader like Moses, who led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and wandering and exile in the desert, or like David, who ruled Israel when they were faithful to God; before they were exiled again. Maybe Christ would overthrow Roman occupation of Judea and recreate the Kingdom of Israel, as it had been in David’s day, and things would be as they should; Israel would once again occupy and inhabit the Promised Land. Then the exile would indeed be over.

Christ did come to end the exile, but not a political exile; He came to end the much more severe spiritual exile. Christ came to end the exile that was begun when Adam and Even were forced out of Eden; He came to restore humanity’s relationship with God. He would do so, not by force or by revival, but by letting His enemies kill Him. His death and His blood would complete the long and arduous process that God had planned to bring mankind back to Himself. Fallen humanity was now redeemed, and those who were redeemed would one day enjoy the home that God had prepared for them.

With the spiritual exile over, the task now became a waiting game. Christ’s disciples and followers had to teach the successive generations that, as redeemed followers of Christ, we are still in exile–not spiritually, but physically. This world is not our home; we must not be conformed to it, nor must we be swayed by the goings-on of this life. Our home–our citizenship, as Paul said–is somewhere higher and better; it is in the realm of God, in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are sojourners, just as Abraham was, following God where He leads us, waiting eagerly to be taken to the Land of Promise. We must live differently from the world while we are here, as Peter encouraged us. We must remember the high price Christ paid to end our spiritual exile and live accordingly.

Christ broke the cycle of homelessness and exile. He died to end our spiritual exile and to give us a home with God. The spiritual exile is over, but we are still physical exiles in this world. We are sojourners here. This world will pass away, our home with God is eternal; our citizenship does not belong to nations, our citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. Remember that and travel on, pilgrim.

Artwork: “Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress,” artist unknown, 17th Century.