The television commercial interrupts your favorite show. The announcer has a deal for you that you can’t refuse! His product can slice, dice, and chop better than anything out there on the market. And not only that, “if you will act now, you will receive a second product absolutely free! This brand item is not sold in stores, so act now, while supplies last! Do not be fooled by imitations that are inferior. Accept no substitutes!” he warns us with a raised voice.

Though I have never purchased any item so advertised, I can attest to what happens when I’m sent to the store to buy a can of this or a carton of that, and I return home with an off-brand, just to save a little money. [Think Andy Dufresne’s line to Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption, – “How can you be so obtuse?”] Coming to grips with my own stupidity, I discover that, sure enough, an off brand of cream of mushroom soup is just not as good as that name brand. I should have accepted no substitutes. 

It may seem a bit strange to our twenty-first century ears that John would end his letter with this short, terse, puzzling command “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Was he late in getting this letter to the post office for the daily collection? Surely no one in any civilized country would worship an idol!

Yeah, right.

“American Idol” is more than a popular TV show that swept America by storm in 2002.

Sometimes our idols can be a conglomeration of metal and plastic, circuits and rubber, upholstery and glass, otherwise known as a car. Sometimes our idols can be flesh and blood, as in a spouse, child, grandchild, or parent. Sometimes our idols are less tangible but nonetheless real things such as fame, position, or popularity.

Ezekiel got it right when he said concerning some of the leaders of his day: “These men have set up their idols in their hearts” (Ezek. 14:3). Maybe the existentialist philosopher Nietzsche was right when he said: “There are more idols in the world than there are realities.”[1] The human heart is indeed an “idol factory” as Calvin said.[2]

Ironically, we have little difficulty identifying idolatry in other cultures, but are often blind to the idolatry rampant in our own back yard.

What is an idol? Whatever you cling to for ultimate reality and security is your idol. Whatever you give your heart to other than God is an idol. John Wesley pictured God as forever saying to us: “My son, give me thy heart! And to give our heart to any other is plain idolatry. Accordingly, whatever takes our heart from him, or shares it with him, is an idol.”

At the 2007 Emmy Awards, comedian Kathy Griffin won an Emmy for the show she produced and starred in called “My Life on the D-List.” Griffin walked to the stage, accepted the award, blasphemed the name of Jesus, and then concluded her little speech by holding up her Emmy statuette and saying “This award is my God now.”

The early Italian Reformer Savonarola once saw an elderly woman worshiping at a statue of the Virgin Mary. He observed her daily trek to pay homage to the statue and was impressed with her devotion. A fellow priest, however, warned Savonarola that things are not always as they appear. He learned that this woman in her youth had been the model for the artist’s sculpture of Mary. She had worshiped at the statue ever since.  

Savonarola is well known for his desire to cleanse Florence of materialism and immorality. On February 7, 1497, he led the city in casting their material possessions tempting them to an immoral lifestyle in the famous “bonfire of vanities.”

Christians need a “bonfire of vanities” in our hearts. All idolatry begins in the heart and must be exterminated there first.

Last words stick. “Keep yourselves from idols.” This is one practical injunction which will save us from many a heartache. These golden words in their simplicity, in their depth, in their certainty, in their comprehensiveness, are worthy to be the last words of John’s letter.

Another famous John, with the last name of Wesley, also spoke about idols in a one-sentence pray we all should pray: “And as the shadows flee before the sun, so let all my idols vanish at thy presence!”[3] God has three words for your idols: tear them down. Don’t get high on anything but God! Accept no substitutes!


Excellent resources for the preacher on the subject of idolatry include Richard Keyes, “The Idol Factory,” No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of our Age, eds., Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 29–48; Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods: the Empty promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton, 2009). Don’t miss Keller’s succinct list of the key categories of idols in our lives followed by brief definitions on pp. 203, 204. Footnote 5 (pp. 178, 179) contains helpful bibliography of significant works on the subject of idolatry over the past twenty years. Another good read would be Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship: a Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), especially his conclusion on pp. 284–311.

[1]Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 3.

[2]John Calvin, “. . . man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols,” Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. by Ford L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), I.XI.8, 108.

[3]Wesley, First Series of Sermons (40–53); Second Series Begun (54–86), Volume 2, in The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 reprint), 444. This is from Wesley’s sermon on 1 John 5:21.