Keep Yourselves from Idols

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols." I see the command in 1 John 5:21, but how do I do it?
Thanks for your question. Because we are all different and have our own distinct issues, a specific answer may not be possible. But let’s briefly consider a few general points.

Underlying every other sin is the sin of idolatry. In other words, we never commit another sin without first violating the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Therefore, to better understand your question, we first need to determine what idols are.

What are Idols?

Idols concern worship. While some of them may fit in a saddle bag (Gen. 31:34), many don’t. Idols aren’t just little figurines made out of wood, clay, gold or precious stones. An idol is anything that is more important to us than God. So, we must ask ourselves what is more important to us than God. Is it our job, position, talents, power, our loyalties, money, family, car, or boat, the latest cell phone, etc.? Any or all of these may become idols for us and we become enslaved by them. We worship them.

True worship is God’s norm for us. Adam and Eve recognized the sound of God walking in the garden (Gen. 3:8). But how did the first couple know it was God and not one of the numerous other animals that Adam had named? (Gen. 2:19-20). They knew because they had heard God previously, at least every Sabbath Day (Mark 2:7). [1] They were familiar with the presence of God (cf. Isa. 6:1-4; Ezek. 1:4-28) and were accustomed to worshiping. Apparently they even taught their children later on of its importance (cf. Gen. 4:3-4). The psalmist reveals that in worship we are to exalt God's name (Psa. 96:1-2a), extend his kingdom (Psa. 96:2b-3), express his greatness (Psa. 96:4-9), and expect his coming (Psa. 96:10-13). How interesting that we observe all these features of worship at the beginning of Genesis: He is called LORD God (Gen. 2:4); Adam and Eve are instructed to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28); "God created" clearly shows his greatness (Gen. 1:1); the first gospel (protoevangelium) is recorded in Genesis 3:15.

From true worship to idolatry. God desires to walk among his people (cf. Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14) and have us in his presence communing with him. He made us for worship and gave us hearts for worship. Everything was “very good” for Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:31) and the first couple communed with God regularly. As the saying goes, "They had it made in the shade." But this early genuine worship of God soon ended when they disobeyed and ate of the forbidden fruit. They didn't do this because they lacked anything. They did it because they wanted to be like God (Gen. 3:5). All it took was one question from a slithering snake and in a quick moment, an idol formed in their hearts. Perfect paradise and perfect worship were lost.

Idolatry is sin. Idolatry is anything that is placed before God. It is a denial of God’s love and goodness. The first couple was loved. They could eat of any tree in the garden but one (Gen. 2:16). However, God’s love and goodness weren’t enough. They wanted what was forbidden. They wanted the “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). A piece of forbidden fruit replaced God in their hearts (cf. Heb. 12:16).

In the eighteenth century, in his hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” Robert Robinson succinctly described wandering from God: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” [2] Sin can and does so easily ensnare us all (Heb. 12:1, NKJV).

How Do I Keep Myself from Idols?

It’s important to recognize that in the command of John 5:21 there is also a promise that we can keep ourselves from idols — it’s possible to resist sin! (1 Cor. 10:13).

In 1 John the apostle gives us some general instructions on how to keep ourselves from idols. The word “keep” means to guard. So then, how do we guard ourselves from idols? 1 John 2:15-17 instructs us not to love the world. 1 John 3:7-10 tells us not to be deceived by our flesh. And in 1 John 4:1-6 we are told to test the spirits because some are of the Devil. These are indeed very general, so to understand these more specifically for our own lives, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to unpack them and expose our own sins to us. “Do not let my heart incline to any evil, to busy myself with wicked deeds in company with men who work iniquity, and let me not eat of their delicacies! (Psa. 141:4). And I assure you from personal experience that if you ask in faith, he will do it in his time.

John gives us all these warnings because we are prone to wonder and drift in small steps toward idolatry (Heb. 2:1; cf. Psa. 119:10; Col. 1:23). Remember "righteous Lot"? (2 Pet. 2:7-8). He would be a good example. We're told he "settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom” (Gen. 13:12). The Berean Study Bible states he “pitched his tent toward Sodom,” so think of how each morning the first thing Lot saw when he opened the flaps of his tent was Sodom. Later we find him sitting at the city gate (Gen 19:1) which suggests that he had risen to some level of influence in Sodom. He became more comfortable with the city of Sodom's lifestyle, moving from a tent into a house in the very heart of the city (Gen. 19:3). Eventually, before he was rescued, we see him offering up his two virgin daughters to be gang-raped by a depraved mob (Gen. 19:8). Lot was prone to wonder, and so are we. Idolatry is nothing to be trifled with. Just ask Lot’s wife who looked back at all her burning idols (Gen. 19:24-26).

All this is to say that there is only one antidote for the destructive idols we've constructed in our hearts. The above illustrations point to one and only one solution — we must continuously preach the gospel to ourselves, both individually and in community. If Lot would have remained in community with Abraham, he would have never lived in Sodom. If only Adam had remembered and believed that, as God’s vice-regent, he had dominion “over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26). And when he was tempted, if only he had said, "the LORD God commanded that we may eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil we shall not eat (Gen 2:16-17), so be cursed and go eat dust!" (cf. Gen. 3:14).

We need to continuously practice GIGO (Gospel In, Gospel Out). The word of God is a quick two-edged sword to guard us from temptations both within and without. We always need to be preaching the gospel to ourselves and to others, both in word and by deed. We need to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). We see terms like destroy, demolish, tear down, pull down, overthrow and captive that are words of warfare because we are in a spiritual battle (cf. Eph. 6:10-18). While there may not be a demon behind every tree, there are often idolatrous temptations behind many of our very thoughts. And thoughts too often turn into actions.

We aren’t in heaven yet, but we should be living as if we are already there (cf. Heb. 11:10, 16; 13:14). Why? Because those in Christ are already members of the kingdom of heaven (Eph. 2:19; Phil. 3:20; Heb. 12:22; 1 Pet. 2:10-11). We are citizens of another country — a heavenly one. We remain on this earth merely as temporary alien citizens. As such, we need to surround ourselves with our new kingdom realities and find the gospel in every aspect of our lives. This has power to influence what or who we worship and indeed power to deliver us from idols. This is the message of 1 John 1:1 - 5:21.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” [3]


[1] Church in the Garden? (A) The Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 begins with the word “Remember.” God is here reminding Israel of the Sabbath they were given back at creation (Gen. 2:1-4) — the one Adam was familiar with.

(B) The garden had "all kinds of trees" (Gen. 2:9), and on the walls of the tabernacle were images of palms, flowers, and cherubs (1 Kings 6:29; Ezek. 41:18).

(C) Rivers flowed out of Eden (Gen. 2:10) and "flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb" is the river of life in heaven (Rev. 22:1-2; cf. John 7:38-39).

(D) God planted the garden in the east, in Eden (Gen. 2:8; 3:24), and the tabernacle gate faced east (Num. 3:38; Ezek. 43:1-7).

(E) The Tree of Life was in the garden (Gen. 2:9; 3:22) and is in heaven itself (Rev. 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).

(F) The "cool of the day" (Gen. 3:8) represented the evening sacrifices of Israel. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), cool of the day is translated as deilinon (at evening), which is used 5 other times in the LXX referring to the time of the evening sacrifices (Exod. 29:39, 41; Lev. 6:13; 1 Kings 18:29; 2 Chron. 31:3). God walked in the Garden just prior to the sacrifice made for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21).

(G) God gathered Adam and Eve for discipline (Gen. 3:8-19). And church discipline is commanded in the New Testament church (Matt. 18:15-20).

So, the Garden being viewed as God's first tabernacle on earth, coupled with the fact that it takes very few people to have an assembly, even as few as two (Matt. 18:20), we may view the first church on earth as in Eden. Worship happened in the garden.

[2] Robert Robinson penned the words to this hymn in his early twenties. In time, he came to believe in the right of private judgment so much that he disliked the binding of anyone’s conscience by a statement of faith. He slowly devolved in his theology, becoming a little too tolerant of some other views. Shortly before his death at age 54, he preached at Joseph Priestley’s Unitarian church, a church that denied the deity of Christ (Socinians). Robinson had a strong beginning in the 1750s and 60s, but near the end of his life, he had begun to wonder. “A widely-told, but unverifiable, story says that one day as he was riding in a stagecoach a lady asked him what he thought of the hymn she was humming. He responded, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."” Dan Graves. “Did Robert Robinson Wander as He Feared?” ( Last Accessed 31 October 2020.

[3] There are numerous chiastic patterns within 1 John. This one links the first part of 1 John with the last. It is a chiastic pattern the beginning and ending theme of 1 John asserts the Gospel (A, B, A’, B’), while the topics in-between undergird the workings of the Gospel (C, D, E, F, E’, D’, C’).

  • A. Prologue: The Gospel of Eternal Life (1 John 1:1-4)
    • B. Cleansing From All Sin (1 John 1:5-2:2)
      • C. Old/New Commandment (1 John 2:3-17)
        • D. Antichrists (1 John 2:18-27)
          • E. Confidence: Do Not Sin (1 John 2:28-3:10)
            • F. Love One Another (1 John 3:11-18)
          • E.’ Confidence: Keep the Commandment (1 John 3:19-24)
        • D.’ Antichrists (1 John 4:1-6)
      • C.’ Old/New Commandment (1 John 4:7-5:5)
    • B.’ Cleansing From All Sin (1 John 5:6-12)
  • A.’ Conclusion: The Gospel of Eternal Life (1 John 5:13-21)

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).