Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
Little children was a favorite form of address of John and it was a term of endearment. It was fitting to use it in giving his parting counsel; encompassing, in fact, all he had said regarding his admonition that they should keep themselves from idols and allow nothing to alienate their affections from the true God. His grand objective had been to lead them to the knowledge and love of God; and if all his counsels would be expediently followed, even when the temptations of idolatry and the allurements of sin were present…nothing would separate their hearts from God.
John’s desire for them was to become victorious over-comers in the world in which they lived. The way in which they could achieve this was to keep themselves from idols. That is, anything that occupied the place of God. Other than God, anything else that demanded first place in their lives was an idol. All their devotion, affection, time and energy were to be given, first and foremost, to the Person of God. Not to anything else, even if it was moral, virtuous or devout; unless it came from God Himself.
God said, Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:
This commandment forbids any and all attempts to represent God by images and pictures that would be substituted in the place of God as objects of devotion and may transfer the adoration from God to the image; and all the giving of those affections to other beings or objects which are due only to God; hence, all idol-worship or worship of pagan gods.
We are in no less danger, than they to whom John wrote, of substituting other things in place of our affections for the true God and of devoting to them the time which is due to him. It is possible to love things with such an attachment as to effectually exclude the true God from the heart. The world with its wealth and pleasures may be loved with such a degree of attachment that even an idolater would scarcely give to his idol-gods; including all of the time which the idolater would take in performing his devotions in an idol-temple, but many professing Christians devote with equal fervor to the things of this world. There is practical idolatry all over the world; in nominally Christian lands as well as among the pagan; in families whose god is wealth and material things. Sadly, also in the hearts of multitudes of individuals who would scorn the thought of worshipping at a pagan altar, but such is found in the heart of many who professes to be acquainted with the true God, and to be an heir of heaven. God, and him alone, must have the supreme place in our affections. The love of everything else should be held in strict subordination to the love of him.
Many teach that John was only speaking to the people of his day who had come out of pagan idolatry, but it goes much deeper than this. Ezekiel speaks of God’s people who exhibited an external pretense of being spiritual, but who had set up their idols in their heart. All human substitutes, whether made by man’s hands or created in the mind, are idols.
As William Cowper wrote in his hymn O for a Closer Walk with God…
The dearest idol I have known,
whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from Thy throne
and worship only Thee.