'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?


6 Answers 6


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.


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?


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 idols.

  • Except they wrote εἰδώλων which relates to a physical object not εἰδωλολατρίας (idolatry) which might encompass Mack's position. Jul 25, 2016 at 15:42
  • @RevelationLad Thanks for correcting me (not Mack - these weren't his words verbatim). I have corrected in line with your feedback. Jul 25, 2016 at 21:12

In the contemporary application both "Be careful not to end up in the local pagan temple" and "Avoid spiritual idolatry of the heart" would apply. However at the the time it was written the meaning is to avoid temples and all other physical objects used in the worship of any false god. Also given the widespread existence of idols in every city and the use of idols in everyday life, it is improbable that a first century reader would have understood a "spiritualized" meaning and not the obvious: avoid the physical objects.

The actual Greek is Τεκνία, φυλάξατε ἑαυτὰ ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων. The language is the idols (both the article and idols are plural) as Young's Literal Translation states:

Little children, guard yourselves from the idols! Amen.

The New Testament use of the word is everywhere else used to mean physical objects. For example:

And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol (εἰδώλῳ) and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. (Acts 7:41 ESV)

but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols (εἰδώλων), and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:20 ESV)

The writer of the letter ends saying: "guard yourself from the idols," repeating what James announced to the apostles and elders who had gathered in Jerusalem to consider the issue of Gentile believers, "...abstain from things polluted by idols..." Both address the same concern.

Also, it would mean more than just avoiding the pagan temples. Personal gods and household idols were widespread. Acts attests to a riot provoked by those who made idols of Diana. Archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum include household shrines used for worship. The Christian should avoid and guard themselves from any and all types of idols. The instruction is given to "little children." Obviously the writer uses the term metaphorically; yet there is a specific application. If the father or family member kept objects in the house others, espcially children would be exposed.

In addition, the early church was faced with the problem of emperor worship:

"We have clear evidence for the pervasive presence of the imperial cult in the provinces of Asia Minor where we find all of Revelation's seven churches. Significantly, emperor worship in these provinces had grown dramatically under Vespasian's second son Domitian (d. 96). In the context of the popularity of the emperor cult in Asia Minor at this time, John interpreted conditions in his own churches in western Asia as rank compromise with Rome and intolerable."1

Emperor worship was a serious threat to the existence of the Christian church; failure to participate meant expulsion from the trade guilds, economic loss, often accompanied by physical persecution, and death.

Pliny the Younger wrote in his letter to the emperor Trajan that he would test people who had been reported to him as being Christians:

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statutes of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ - none of which those who are really Christians, it is said can be forced to do. Others named by the informer declared they were Christians, but they denied it, asserting they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as many as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statutes of the gods and cursed Christ.[Pliny and Trajan]

Pliny's test invloved physical objects used to represent the emporer and "the gods."

As Joseph shows in his answer, idols have the potential to expose a person to the evil one. Any object which becomes the focus of attention exposes a person to the evil one; so the writer ends by saying guard yourself from the objects which are everywhere in the city and possibly in the houses of family and friends.

1. Revealtion, Gerald L Stevens p, 22

  • What, in 1 John do you think is about emperor-worship? And what physical objects were involved in his worship?
    – user10231
    Jul 25, 2016 at 21:42

According to BDAG there are two main usages of the word εἴδωλον. The first has to do with "figures" and the second with false conceptions. It is this second usage that is suggested by the context (as BDAG suggests):

εἴδωλον , ου, τό (Hom. et al. ordinarily in the sense: form, image, shadow, phantom; cp. Ath. 27, 1; Hippol., Ref. 4, 50, 2; AcJ 28 [Aa II/1] 166, 13 used by a Christian of his bodily appearance as opposed to his real Christian self; LexGrMin 53, 20–24). In the LXX εἴδωλον bridges two views: the deities of the nations have no reality, and so are truly the products of fantasy; and they are manufactured by human hands (cp. the satire expressed, e.g., 3 Km 18:27; Jer 2:27f; Is 44:12–17). ① cultic image/representation of an alleged transcendent being, image, representation (cp. Chaeremon Fgm. 25 Db p. 38 H.: the falcon as εἰ. of the sun signifies a deity; Is 30:22; 2 Ch 23:17; Tob 14:6; EpJer 72; Just., A I, 64, 1 τὸ εἰ. τῆς λεγομένης Κο͂ρης; Ath. 15, 1; Orig., C. Cels. 3, 15, 15 [w. ἀγάλματα]; cp. Polyb. 30, 25, 13 θεῶν ἢ δαιμόνων εἴδωλα ‘images of gods or demi-gods’; Vett. Val. 67:5; 113, 17; Cat. Cod. Astr. VII p. 176, 22; OGI 201, 8; PStras 91, 10; PSI 901, 13 and 22). Sacrifices were made to it (Nicol. Dam.: 90 Fgm. 13, 23 p. 407, 31 Jac. p 281 πρὸς τῷ εἰδώλῳ ἀποσφάττεσθαι; Num 25:2; 1 Macc 1:43; cp. Orig., C. Cels. 1, 36, 32 ἀπὸ τῶν εἰ. μαντείαν λαβεῖν; since Mosaic law forbade material representation of God, all references in our lit. to a divine image, usu. transliterated ‘idol’, relate to polytheistic Gr-Rom. depiction) Ac 7:41; gold and silver (Ps 113:12) Rv 9:20. εἴδωλα ἄφωνα images that cannot speak 1 Cor 12:2 (but s. 2 below; cp. Hab 2:18; 3 Macc 4:16; JosAs 3:10 πρόσωπα τῶν εἰ.; 8:5 εἴ. νεκρὰ καὶ κωφά al.; Ar. 13, 1 θεοποιούμενοι τὰ κωφὰ καὶ ἀναίσθητα εἴ. ‘making gods out of mute and insensible images’.—Polytheists also know that the images of the gods are lifeless: e.g. Artem. 4, 36 ταῦτα οὐ ζῇ; for Ancient Near East s. MGruber, DDD 240. τούτων εἰδώλων τῶν πλάνων ‘these deceptive [deified] images’ ApcPt Bodl. ἵνα μηκέτι εἰδώλοις λατρεύῃς καὶ κνίσαις ‘so that you might no longer devote yourselves to images and sacrificial smoke’ AcPl Ha 2, 32. Cp. εἴδωλα, ἔργα χειρῶν ἀνθρώπων Theoph. Ant. 2, 34 [p.184, 25]). ② through metonymy the image and the deity or divinity alleged to be represented are freq. associated in such manner that the image factor is less significant than the component of unreality or spuriousness of what is represented (cp. Is 44:6–20; 46;1–7; Wsd 13–14) fabricated/imaged deity, idol (oft. LXX, also Philo; Jos., Ant. 9, 273; 10, 50; TestReub 4:6; TestSol; TestJos 4:5; 6:5; JosAs; Just., A I, 49, 5 al.; Iren. 1, 15, 4 [Harv. I 153, 7] al.; Orig., C. Cels. 5, 43, 11 [w. δαίμονες]) βδελύσσεσθαι τὰ εἴ. abhor idols Ro 2:22; cp. B 4:8. … ὅτι εἴ. τί ἐστιν; (do I mean to say) that an imaged deity is anything? 1 Cor 10:19 (i.e. the cult object as alleged image is evident, but its subject has no real existence as a god; Paul means that if any transcendent reality is at all to be assigned to an εἴδωλον, its status is not that of a god but of the lesser beings known as δαίμονες 1 Cor 10:20). Cp. 1 Cor 12:2 (s. 1 above). Contrasted w. the temple of God, i.e. God’s people 2 Cor 6:16. Contrasted w. God (cp. θεοὶ δὲ οὐ τὰ εἴδωλα ἢ δαίμονες Did., Gen. 248, 6) 1 Th 1:9. ἀπὸ τῶν εἰ. ἀποσπᾶν tear away fr. imaged deities 2 Cl 17:1; οὐδὲν εἴ. ἐν κόσμῳ (in wordplay w. οὐδεὶς θεός) no idol has any real existence in the universe (Twentieth Century NT) 1 Cor 8:4 (cp. the contrast between humanity as being οὐδέν and heaven that abides for the immortals Pind., N. 6, 3). τῇ συνηθείᾳ (v.l. συνειδήσει) because of their consciousness, up to now, that this is an imaged deity vs. 7; Ac 15:20; ἱερεῖς τῶν εἰ. priests of the imaged deities B 9:6. φυλάσσειν ἑαυτὸν ἀπὸ τῶν εἰ. keep oneself fr. deified illusions or ghosts (i.e. views of God that are divorced from the truth of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ; in contrast to this ἀλήθεια, the εἴδωλα are but phantoms in the Gr-Rom. sense of the term) 1J 5:21. JSuggit, JTS 36, ’85, 386–90. TPodella, Das Lichtkleid ’96, esp. 164–85.—B. 1491. DELG s.v. εἶδος. DDD s.v.‘AZZABIM and GILLULIM’. M-M. TW. Sv.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., pp. 280–281). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Only when complete context, and perspective of the Law get combined, can understanding of the reason for the comment about Idolatry Become understood.

The Expression of Love vs. the Selfishness

Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. 11 Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the Lord of hosts. 12 “All the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:8-12 NASB)

Its important to make the distinction between the church as the location, and the temple as the body. For most New Testament concepts must be looked at from the perspective of the temple as the body.

We must observe the command, do to others as we want done to ourselves

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. (1 John 5:1-2 NASB)

Summary: The proof that one has been born of God: Observing the commands.

The world vs. God's command

For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. 4 For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (1 John 5:3-4 NASB)

Lets choose a need. Getting a drink of water. In the standard of the world, the person goes and gets the drink for the self. This act of stealing from God is normal behavior. This concept defines what is the standard of the world. Now those that first ask the person with them, "Do you want anything to drink?" Has made the offering and now stands acceptable in God's eyes, regardless of whether God wants to accept the offering or not. If God says, "No, thanks though", feel free to go get a drink for the self, for jealousy has been pleased. If God says, "Yes, could I have a drink of water". Go get God his water first, then get your own drink.

The testimony Jesus walks the Law the way God wants

Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. 9 If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. 10 The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. 11 And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. (1 John 5:5-12 NASB)

The name defines the characteristics God requires

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (1 John 5:13-15 NASB)

In what ever we offer to another we allow access to ourselves, for the perfection of the expression of Love that's our Lord Jesus, and the Father does for Jesus as a Father does for a Son.

Did I grab the world for myself, and ignore God again?

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. (1 John 5:16-17 NASB)

Now while in the world, and looking at others, perhaps you have seen a person grab the world without offering to God. And perhaps Jealousy gets aroused, and even in his meekness, asks politely for his portion. At these times it's good to Be on God's side! For example, say a woman decides to do her makeup in the car, and begins to put on her mascara. And lets say the other woman in the car receives the Lord's jealousy, and asks, "Can I use that as well?" Nothing stands more noble then asking for God, for example saying, "Can she use some of that as well?". Indeed to the one that has loved the one next to them, the gates of blessings will Be poured out upon.

Those that give to God first do not sin

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. (1 John 5:18-20 NASB)

Always choose God over the world

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

In this expression, my John explains that one should guard themselves from loving the world more then the Love of God. For Idolatry occurs when anything stands in the place of God. When we take the world without considering God it makes us a thief. When we make our offerings we choose God. Therefore this could also have been written as, "Little children, guard yourselves from fulfilling your fleshly desires without first offering to please God."

Paul also explains it

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:16-26 NASB)

Therefore let both accounts given by John and Paul give the correct perspective together. For indeed a person gets thirsty, God does indeed give the water to drink, and God has made it that the drinks a necessity. God simply wants to be thought of first, and that gets accomplished when we love others, and think of their needs first.

Then even as the Law states:

However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your gates, whatever you desire, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and the deer. 16 Only you shall not eat the blood; you are to pour it out on the ground like water. 17 You are not allowed to eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or new wine or oil, or the firstborn of your herd or flock, or any of your votive offerings which you vow, or your freewill offerings, or the contribution of your hand. 18 But you shall eat them before the Lord your God in the place which the Lord your God will choose, you and your son and daughter, and your male and female servants, and the Levite who is within your gates; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God in all your undertakings. (Deuteronomy 12:15-18 NASB)

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