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'Little children, guard yourselves from idols' (1 John 5:21).

What was John's meaning? Did he mean, "Be careful not to end up in the local pagan temple" or does he intend to convey another type of idolatry (perhaps a spiritual idolatry of the heart)? Or does He mean both?

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It's not a matter of either/or but both/and.

Spiritual idolatry, as you put it, and physical idolatry, as I put it, are very often--if not always--conjoined, in more ways than one.

In our post-modern world, it's rare for a person to bow down to an idol that is literally made of wood and stone and metal. The adherents to the Canaanite religions certainly did, and the ANE culture, in general, was more prone to believe in talismans and the like than we are today, though an argument could be made that the New Age Movement and its belief in the power of crystals and the like is more talisman oriented than you might at first think.

Nevertheless, the Apostle John is alluding to any thing which comes between us and our unstinting devotion to our God and Savior. Idols of this sort could be any one of a number of things, including pleasure, fame, fortune, independence and self-reliance, grown-boys' toys, and in the Apostle's day, a false- and quasi religion, Gnosticism, which in part introduced the heresy that we can and should separate the spiritual from the material.

In conclusion, just as one cannot completely segregate spiritual- from physical idolatry, neither can you exclude the spiritual component from even physical things. In other words, human beings are an admixture, so to speak, of spiritual and physical (or material) aspects, and amazingly enough, so was Jesus! That's the way we--and He--were designed by God. Ultimately, however, aren't most, if not all, idolatries indicative of a spiritual problem?

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Executive Summary

The Greek New Testament in addition to most English translations of the passage treat verses 18-21 as one unit, or one paragraph. John is admonishing his followers in this paragraph to protect themselves from the slavery of sin (idolatry), which otherwise exposes one to direct demonic influence.


In the Hebrew Bible idols were correlated with demons. The following two passages are examples.

Psalm 106:34-38 (NASB)
34 They did not destroy the peoples,
As the Lord commanded them,
35 But they mingled with the nations
And learned their practices,
36 And served their idols,
Which became a snare to them.
37 They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons,
38 And shed innocent blood,
The blood of their sons and their daughters,
Whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
And the land was polluted with the blood.

Deut 32:16-17 (NASB)
16 “They made Him jealous with strange gods;
With abominations they provoked Him to anger.
17 “They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.

Other passages correlate idols with images of animals. The following passage provides one such example of how Cannanite deities were depicted in the images of animals.

Lev 17:7 (NASB)
7 They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot. This shall be a permanent statute to them throughout their generations.

Idolatry is the usurpation of divine authority. The image of the idol represents disobedience. This image stems from original disobedience in the Garden of Eden. The following graph therefore provides the self-evident model of divine usurpation, where the image of the animal replaces God.

Thus idols represent demonic power, which comes from disobedience (sin). The Apostle Paul brings this concept from the Hebrew Bible into the Christian New Testament in the following passage.

1 Cor 10:20 (NASB)
20 No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons.

In another passage Paul correlates idolatry with slavery. That is, slavery is correlated with idolatry.

Colossians 3:5 (NASB)
5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.

Paul is not saying that immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed are demonic, but that they "add up" to idolatry. In other words, the sinner "pays obeisance" to particular addictive behaviors. While all men are sinners (Rom 3:23), some are enslaved to particular sinful behaviors.

2 Peter 2:19b (NASB)
19b . . . for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved.

The enslavement to sin is the power through which demons may exercise their influence over human beings. The "idol" is therefore not only the image made with hands (traditional definition of idol), but slavery to some form of addictive, sinful behavior.

Galatians 4:7-10 (NASB)
7 Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God. 8 However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years.

The phrase, "by nature are no gods," is the same reference that Paul used in 1 Cor 8:4 and 1 Cor 10:20 in regard to demons.

In summary, idolatry encompasses not only graven images (traditional definition of idol), but also slavery to addictive sinful behaviors, which make the sinner "pay obeisance" to the power of sin. When the sinner is enslaved to some addictive sinful behavior, then is the sinner exposed to direct demonic influence, since idolatry is persistent sin (whether continually bowing to the man-made graven image or addiction to sinful behaviors). In this sense, "idolatry" usurps divine authority.

Wrap Up

The passage (paragraph) of 1 John 5:18-21 reads as follows.

1 John 5:18-21 (NASB)
18 We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. 19 We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

The Greek word for "touch" is ἅπτομαι, which, in every other instance of its usage in the Greek New Testament, means to touch something (like a cloak, garment, the eyes, etc.), but in the LXX, the word is used of Satan, who "touched" Job. That is, it was not that Satan "touched" Job so much as Satan struck him.

Job 2:5-6 (NASB)
5 However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face.” 6 So the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life.”

Other LXX passages that use the Greek word ἅπτομαι to mean strike down are 2 Sam 5:8, 2 Ki 15:5, Job 1:11-12, Job 1:19, Job 19:21, and Jer 12:14.


The Apostle John is indicating that without specific permission from the Lord, the child of God is protected from being "touched" by Satan. However, any addictive sinful behaviors (idolatry) will expose the child of God to direct demonic influence.

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The question asks about idols in the context of 1 John, rather than for a broader opinion about idolatry. And we will find that the author of 1 John has a very specific purpose of mentioning idols at the end of a long epistle that does not otherwise mention idols or pagan ideas.

W. Hall Harris III ('3. The Author’s Opponents and Their Teaching in 1 John') says 1 John 2:19 provides good reason for thinking that a split has taken place in the Johannine community and the author’s opponents now constitute a community of their own, just as thoroughly committed as the author’s to spreading their understanding of who Jesus is. Throughout this epistle, the 'elder', author of the three Johannine epistles (see 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1) speaks pejoratively of their attempts to convert the members who remained loyal to the community.

Burton L. Mack says, in Who Wrote the New Testament, pages 215-218, that the author of First John accuses his erstwhile brothers and sisters of hating those who remain with the community, and therefore both of being liars and of not loving God, even referring to them as the antiChrist. Since the departing members are known to those to whom this epistle is addressed, he can not directly accuse them of idolatry, but achieves this effect in 1 John 5:21 by implying that to follow them is to risk following idolatry. Keep yourselves from these apostates; keep yourselves from idolatry.

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