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The letter of 1 John comes to what seems to be an abrupt ending. Yet in the context of the entire letter is examined, the ending seems to be purposeful :

Chapter 1 - Introudction

My little children (τεκνία), I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (2:1 NKJV)

Little children (τεκνία), keep yourselves from idols. Amen. (5:21 NKJV)

After the general statements of Chapter 1, the writer begins by addressing a specific group, the little children (τεκνία), and ends by addressing the same group.

Throughout the letter, the author directs specific comments to specific groups such as fathers, young men, or little children. "Little children" could be either τεκνία or παιδία. τεκνία is most common being used 7 times (2:1, 2:12, 2:28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4, and 5:21 and παιδία is used only twice (2:13 and 2:18). It is evident from the context that the writer is using the different terms symbolically.1

Since the writer has used different groups fathers and young men and different types of "little children" and has placed one specific group at the beginning and ending of the instructional part of the letter, it seems like the ending instruction to avoid idols is directed specifically to one group and not the others.

What is the characteristic of the τεκνία that has caused the author specifically admonish them to avoid idols?

For the first century church the author is addressing, what would be considered an idol? Would objects such as a cross, crucifix, or statue of Jesus be considered an idol? The subject of food offered to idols comes up elsewhere, does the language include food offered to idols?

Teraphim were household objects with legal significance: the possessor held the right of succession to the family property.2 If a Christian kept these would they constitute idols?


1. The use is symbolic but also correctly describes groups which be found within the church being written to. That is, there would be families and there would be children, young men, and fathers.

2. Teraphim Also The New Bible Dictionary 1962 p.552

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The idols are any thing which is worshiped instead of God. It can even be something which isn't worshiped but takes over your life and you are obsessed with. Little children are God's children (followers) because if God is the father then we are the children of him.

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I think it may be reading too much into the text, perhaps, to infer that John is writing to two distinct groups - τεκνία and παιδία. Greek, like English, has synonyms. It would be strange, for example, that in 2:12 he is addressing one group of "little children" and then addressing an entirely different group in the very next verse. I can't find any Patristic commentary where it was thought that John was writing to two different groups.

I also believe that John's reference to keeping away from idols pertained to pagan worship in general, and not to any prohibition against Christian object. This is borne out in Augustine's interpretation - the first Church Father who seems to have commented on this verse specifically:

Those who know the Christian Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments do not blame the profane rites of Pagans on the mere ground of their building temples, appointing priests, and offering sacrifices, but on the ground of their doing all this for idols and demons.

Lest, moreover, these worshippers should think that our Scriptures intend only to declare that such affections of the human heart spring naturally from the worship of idols, it is written in the plainest terms, “All the gods of the nations are devils.” And therefore, also, the teaching of the apostles ... declares, as we read in John, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols”

Letter CII to Deogratias

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While τεκνία has the sense of "kids"...:

τεκνίον, ου, τό (Epict. 3, 22, 78; Anth. Pal.; PFlor 365, 15 [III A.D.]; POxy 1766, 14; TestJob, ApcMos) dim. of τέκνον; (little) child voc. pl. τεκνία; in our lit. only in the voc. pl., used by Jesus in familiar, loving address to his disciples, or by a Christian apostle or teacher to his spiritual children τεκνία J 13:33; 1J 2:12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21. τεκνία μου (TestReub 1:3; TestJob 5:1 al.; ApcMos 5:30) Gal 4:19 v.l.; 1J 2:1.—DELG s.v. τίκτω C. Frisk s.v. τέκνον. M-M. TW.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 994). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

παιδία (actually, παιδίον) refers to a very young child, up to 7 years:

παιδίον, ου, τό (Hdt., Aristoph.+) dim. of παῖς (Reader, Polemo 274, w. ref. to Hippocr., Sept. 5 and Philo, Op. 105: a very young child ‘up to seven years’; B-D-F §111, 3; Mlt.-H. 345). ① a child, normally below the age of puberty, child ⓐ very young child, infant, used of boys and girls. Of a newborn child (Diod S 4, 20, 3; Just., D. 34, 2 al. [after Mt 2:8f]; Tat. 33, 3) Lk 2:21 v.l. (eight days old, as Gen 17:12); J 16:21. Infants are fed honey, then milk B 6:17 (cp. Diod S 5, 70, 3 αὗται [αἱ Νύμφαι] δὲ μέλι καὶ γάλα μίσγουσαι τὸ παιδίον [τὸν Δία] ἔθρεψαν.—HUsener [at γάλα b]). Those who are born again have ὡς παιδίων τὴν ψυχήν a soul like that of newborn children B 6:11.—Mt 2:8, 9, 11, 13f, 20f; Lk 1:59, 66, 76, 80; 2:17, 27, 40; Hb 11:23 (cp. Ex 2:2f). GJs 20:3f; 21:3; 22:1 v.l. (for βρέφος); 22:2 v.l. (for παῖς). ⓑ w. ref. to age (ApcEsdr 4:33, 35 p. 29, 9 and 12 Tdf. παιδίον … γέρων): Mt 18:2, 4f; Mk 9:36f; 10:15; Lk 9:47f; 18:17; 1 Cl 16:3 (Is 53:2). Pl. Mt 11:16; 19:13f; Mk 7:28; 10:13f; Lk 7:32; 18:16 (on Mk 10:14, 15 and parallels s. JBlinzler, Klerusblatt ’44, 90–96). γυναῖκες καὶ παιδία (Num 14:3; Jdth 7:23; 4 Macc 4:9; cp. Jos., Bell. 4, 115) Mt 14:21; 15:38. παιδία … πατέρες … νεανίσκοι 1J 2:14.—B 8:1ab. Of girls Mk 5:39–41; 7:30. ⓒ w. ref. to relationship; the father is indicated by a gen. (μου as TestJob 39:12; cp. Epict. 4, 1, 141 σου; TestJob 4:5) J 4:49. Pl. Lk 11:7. The child indicated by a gen., w. the father ὁ πατὴρ τοῦ παιδίου Mk 9:24. ② one who is open to instruction, child, fig. ext. of 1 παιδία ταῖς φρεσίν children as far as the mind is concerned 1 Cor 14:20.—W. ref. to their attitude toward the truth (Artem. 2, 69 p. 162, 7: τὰ παιδία ἀληθῆ λέγει· οὐδέπω γὰρ οἶδε ψεύδεσθαι καὶ ἐξαπατᾶν) Mt 18:3. ③ one who is treasured in the way a parent treasures a child, child, fig. ext. of 1 ⓐ of the children of God Hb 2:13f (vs. 13 after Is 8:18, but understood in a NT sense). ⓑ as a form of familiar address on the part of a respected pers., who feels himself on terms of fatherly intimacy w. those whom he addresses (Cornutus 1 p. 1, 1 ὦ π.; Athen. 13, 47, 584c) 1J 2:18; 3:7 v.l. Used by the risen Christ in addressing his disciples J 21:5.—B. 92. M-M. TW.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 749). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The distinction between the two may suggest affection.

As to "idols" I suggest that what he has in mind are not stone figures and such but rather mental constructs. That is, his concern in writing the letter is with those who construe Jesus as being almighty God. We see him damning those who deny Jesus' humanity:

ISV 1Jn 4:2 This is how you can recognize God's Spirit: Every spirit who acknowledges that Jesus the Messiah has become human—and remains so—is from God. 1Jn 4:3 But every spirit who does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist. You have heard that he is coming, and now he is already in the world.

This "God-Man" was also the idol that Paul predicted and decried here:

2Th 2:3 Do not let anyone deceive you in any way, for it will not come unless the rebellion takes place first and the man of sin, who is destined for destruction, is revealed. 2Th 2:4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship. As a result, he seats himself in the sanctuary of God and himself declares that he is God.

So to "abstain from idols" one must concur with "John" that Jesus arose from humanity and is not himself God and concur with Paul and not embrace the God-Man (who is a mental construct, not a real being).

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  • Hey WoundedEgo, you may find L. Ray Smith's interpretation of the man of sin interesting: bible-truths.com/lake15.html. I may not agree with a lot of what Ray (or Paul) says, but I definitely agree that a freewill is impossible. I like your interpretation too. Words like "god-man" give me shivers. Sometimes I wonder if Paul was predicting his own demise. "And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I YHVH have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel." Ezekiel 14:9 – Cannabijoy Jul 22 '16 at 20:51
  • "free will" is not in scope on this question but if there is a related hermeneutic question then it would make a good question so I hope you'll post it. – user10231 Jul 22 '16 at 20:55
  • @RevelationLad I'm afraid I was working from memory and confused παιδίον with παιδός, usage 3, "one who is committed in total obedience to another, slave, servant Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 750). Chicago: University of Chicago Press." – user10231 Jul 23 '16 at 5:44
  • @RevelationLad Every false deity exists only in the imagination. – user10231 Jul 24 '16 at 0:28
  • @RevelationLad From 1 John, where the author speaks of falsehoods as "antichrists". Also, I think Baal was worshiped in festivals and such: jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2236-ba-al-and-ba-al-worship – user10231 Jul 24 '16 at 2:54
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I agree with The NonTheologian it may be reading too much into the text to infer that the author is writing to two distinct groups (τεκνία and παιδία) because Greek, like English, has synonyms. It would be strange if, in 2:12 he is addressing one group of "little children" and then addressing an entirely different group in the very next verse. The 'elder', author of the three Johannine epistles (see 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1), is simply referring to his followers as "little children" in the same way as some modern priests would do.

Malcolm Coombes ('A Different Approach To The Structure Of 1 John') says the elder uses a wide range of rhetorical techniques, of which two are most relevant to us here - synonymy, and repetition for amplification and emphasis. His use of synonymy certainly explains his use of τεκνία and παιδία ("little children"), both of which can only be diminutives for adult members of the elder's flock, but also his parallel reference to fathers and young men. The author shows “a marked preference for grouping material in threes" and this (and synonymy) is what we see in his references to little children, fathers and young men. Coombes explains (page 6):

As one reads 1 John 2:12–13, one cannot help but notice the three-fold structure surrounding the repetition of graphō hymin (“I write to you”) followed by a vocative ("children", "fathers" or "young ones") followed by a hoti clause. This pattern is repeated in verse 14 with slight changes and developments. This significant passage provides a clue that the author is not averse to using structure in this writing (and also simultaneously and importantly that patterns are not tight)


This brings us to what the idols are, in the context of First John. Normally we would think of idols as statues or icons used in pagan religions, but there is no hint of a reference to pagans anywhere in this epistle. It would be hard to explain why the author would refer to idols, simply as an afterthought at the end of the epistle, if paganism had not justified a mention elsewhere in the epistle. Nor was this a likely reference to teraphim, as the Jews had ceased possessing them centuries earlier. The reference can, however, be explained as hyperbole as part of a diatribe against a different group of Christians.

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 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 will be read, 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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