Keep Yourselves from Christ-Shaped Idols

I just finished up my series through John’s epistles. Though I learned much about the books and about Christian assurance, the highlight of the study was having my eyes directed Christ-ward time and again. Of course, John describes what the Christian looks like (via the repeated tests of faith, obedience, and love), but he takes special delight in pointing our attention to Jesus Christ, whose Person and Work he describes in vivid terms. It’s glorious.

All of which makes the last sentence of 1 John surprising. Why would John end this great book with a seemingly off-topic command to “Keep yourselves from idols”? (1 John 5:21) Didn’t he know it would be anticlimactic? Didn’t he know it’s not good form to introduce a new topic in your conclusion? Was he distracted from his point? Or was he really concerned that his believing readers might forsake Christ in favor of pagan gods? I don’t think so. I don’t think he changed subjects at all. I think he proclaimed the wonders of the true Christ throughout the book, then closed by warning against Christ-shaped idols.

Think about the historical setting which necessitated the writing of 1 John (and 2 John). The recipients of John’s first letter had been challenged by heretics peddling an incipient gnosticism. Specifically, the false teachers (who had functioned within the church for a time; 1 John 2:18-19) were denying that Jesus was in fact the Christ, the Son of God. Specifically, they denied the incarnation—that Christ had come in the flesh. Thus, John warned against them with shocking aggressiveness, as in 1 John 4:1-3:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

While John warned against these blasphemers throughout his epistles (2:18-23; 3:7, 10-13; 4:1-6; 5:10, 19, 21; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-11), he did more than simply sounding the alarm. John strengthened his readers by presenting to them a stout and stirring Christology. He presented the Lord Jesus in all of His glory, looking from eternity past to eternity future:

  • Jesus is the eternal Word of life, come to earth in real human flesh (1 John 1:1-3)
  • Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7)
  • Jesus is now our Advocate before the Father when we sin (1 John 2:1)
  • Jesus has forgiven our sins for His name’s sake (1 John 2:12)
  • Jesus bore God’s wrath in our place; He is our propitiation (1 John 2:2)
  • Jesus gives us fellowship with God and eternal life (1 John 2:23-25)
  • Jesus will return for us (1 John 2:28; 3:2)
  • Jesus made our adoption possible (1 John 3:1)
  • Jesus is sinless and came to remove our sin (1 John 3:5)
  • Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8 )
  • Jesus, in love, laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16)
  • Jesus came to earth in the flesh (1 John 4:2)
  • Jesus was sent by the Father to save the world by dying for us (1 John 4:9-10, 14)
  • Jesus gives us union with God (1 John 4:15)
  • Jesus initiated love for us (1 John 4:19)
  • Jesus gives us victory over the world (1 John 5:5)
  • Jesus bled for us (1 John 5:6, 8 )
  • Jesus was affirmed to be the Song by the testimony of God (1 John 5:9-10)
  • Jesus offers us life through faith in Him alone (1 John 5:11-13).
  • Jesus has come to reveal God to us and to bring us to God (1 John 5:20a)
  • Jesus is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20b)

Like John’s initial readers, we live in a world in which the most threatening idols aren’t made of wood or stone. The most dangerous idols facing the church today are unbiblical and insufficient understandings of Christ’s Person and Work. Sometimes the heresy is overt, such as recent attacks against Christ’s virgin birth or sinlessness—or even His singleness! More threatening, however, are the more subtle heresies. It might be a denial of the necessity of Christ’s suffering the punitive wrath of God (as described recently in Mohler’s T4G lecture). It might be a denial of the exclussivity of the Christian gospel. It might be the idea that Christ’s work was insufficient and must be supplemented by human works of some kind. It might be a denial of God’s omniscience and sovereignty. It might be a pragmatism that dumbs down the gospel to make it more palatable for rebellious sinners. It might be a form of easy-believism that essentially presents Christ as a homeless beggar hoping we’ll take notice and pleading for admittance into our hearts rather than the glorious God-man, the Lord, who offers us reconciliation with the Father.

The point is this: all of those errors are the very sort of idolatry against which John warned. As I understand it, he wasn’t aiming at the Ephesian goddess Diana with his closing command, but at the Cerinthian Jesus. Why? Because the most dangerous idol in the world is a de-clawed and domesticated Jesus. Thus, John affirms that Jesus is the true God and only Savior, then warns against idolatrous substitutes.

Beloved, keep yourselves from idols—especially idols that look like Jesus.

(Note: Lord willing, a comparison of 2 John and 3 John is in the works.)

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4 Responses

  1. […] – Chris Anderson at My Two Cents offers his conclusion of his study on 1 John; […]

  2. I wondered about the ending to I John too – as well as how Hebrews begins: no standard greeting to a particular church or group of believers.

    Makes me wonder if fragments of these epistles were lost over time – or, rather, if God chose to preserve His Word the way it is and it really wasn’t for us or even all that necessary to know any more. Sorta like how John ends his gospel by saying that Jesus performed many other miracles but only mentioned some of them. Not all of them were for us to know but enough were mentioned that we would believe that He is who He says He is.

    God’s Word is perfect and complete!

  3. Hi, Marc.

    I’m a lot more comfortable with your last sentence than with the first sentence of your second paragraph. :) The idea that portions of Scripture have been lost is indefensible theologically. We can speak of a lost letter (say, to the Corinthian church), but we must conclude that that letter (and the many others which Paul must have written) weren’t inspired and thus weren’t Scripture. So I’d definitely go for your “or, rather” option and not your “makes me wonder” option.

    1 John’s ending and Hebrews’ beginning are intentional; we just need to consider why they were written as they were. Frankly, the beginning of Hebrews is awesome—I love it. “Bam!” right out of the gate!

    Thanks for reading, friend.

  4. Really enjoy reading your blog; it’s been a blessing in so many ways.

    Hebrews is definitely a “Bam! Right out of the gate!” book. It’s not just its beginning that grabs you: there are many sections of the epistle that I’ve come to dearly appreciate. I especially verse 2 of chapter 12 challenging us to look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. I like how the RSV translates it (the pioneer and perfector of our faith) but I am not certain that it’s the best wording most closely communicating the Greek original. I think the NIV says author and perfector but I would need to check.

    Hope it’s okay to reference different translations. Not trying to raise any issues. I’m quite content to use a KJV in discussions here if you’d prefer. :-)

    BTW, I also lean toward the “or rather” option!

    Have a great day!

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