1 John 5:21
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.
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1 John


1 John 5:20-21So the Apostle ends his letter. These words are probably not only the close of this epistle, but the last words, chronologically, of Scripture. The old man gathers together his ebbing force to sum up his life’s work in a sentence, which might be remembered though much else was forgotten. Last words stick. Perhaps, too, some thought of future generations, to whom his witness might come, passed across his mind. At all events, some thought that we are here listening to the last words of the last Apostle may well be in ours. You will observe that, in this final utterance, the Apostle drops the triumphant ‘we know,’ which we have found in previous sermons reiterated with such emphasis. He does so, not because he doubted that all his brethren would gladly attest and confirm what he was about to say, but because it was fitting that his last words should be his very own; the utterance of personal experience, and weighty with it, and with apostolic authority. So he smelts all that he had learned from Christ, and had been teaching for fifty years, into that one sentence. The feeble voice rings out clear and strong; and then softens into tremulous tones of earnest exhortation, and almost of entreaty. The dying light leaps up in one bright flash: the lamp is broken, but the flash remains. And if we will let it shine into our lives, we shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.

I. Here we have the sum of all that we need to know about God.

‘This is the true God.’ The first question is, What or whom does John mean by ‘this’?

Grammatically, we may refer the word to the immediately preceding name, Jesus Christ. But it is extremely improbable that the Apostle should so suddenly shift his point of view, as he would do if, having just drawn a clear distinction between ‘Him that is true,’ and the Christ who reveals Him, he immediately proceeded to apply the former designation to Jesus Christ Himself. It is far more in accordance with his teaching, and with the whole scope of the passage, if by ‘ this’ we understand the Father of whom he has just been speaking. It is no tautology that he reiterates in this connection that He is ‘ true.’ For he has separated now his own final attestation from the common consciousness of the Christian community with which he has previously been dealing. And when he says, ‘This is the true God’ he means to say, ‘ This God of whom I have been affirming that Jesus Christ is His sole Revealer, and of whom I have been declaring that through Jesus Christ we may know Him and dwell abidingly in Him,’’ this’-and none else-’ is the true God.’

Then the second question that I have to answer briefly is, what does John mean by ‘true’? I had occasion, in a previous sermon on the foregoing words, to point out that by that expression he means, whenever he uses it, some person or thing whose nature and character correspond to his or its name, and who is essentially and perfectly that which the name expresses. If we take that as the signification of the word, we just come to this, that the final assertion into which the old Apostle flings all his force, and which he wishes to stand out prominent as his last word to his brethren and to the world, is that the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and with whom a man through Jesus Christ may have fellowship of knowledge and friendship-that He and none but He answers to all that men mean when they speak of a God; that He, if I might use such an expression, fully fills the part.

Brethren, if we but think that, however it comes {no matter about that}, every man has in him a capacity of conceiving of a perfect Being, of righteousness, power, purity, and love, and that all through the ages of the world’s yearnings there has never been presented to it the realization of that dim conception, but that all idolatry, all worship, has failed in bodying out a Person who would answer to the requirements of a man’s spirit, then we come to the position in which these final words of the old fisherman go down to a deeper depth than all the world’s wisdom, and carry a message of consolation and a true gospel to be found nowhere besides.

Whatsoever embodiments men may have tried to give to their dim conception of a God, these have been always limitations, and often corruptions, of it. And to limit or to separate is, in this case, to destroy. No pantheon can ever satisfy the soul of man who yearns for One Person in whom all that he can dream of beauty, truth, and goodness shall be ensphered. A galaxy of stars, white as the whitest spot in the Milky Way, can never be a substitute for the sun. ‘This is the true God’; and all others are corruptions, or limitations, or divisions, of the indissoluble unity.

Then, are men to go for ever and ever with ‘the blank misgivings of a creature, moving about in worlds not realized’? Is it true that I can fancy some one far greater than is? Is it true that my imagination can paint a nobler form than reality acknowledges? It is so, alas! unless we take John’s swan-song and last testimony as true, and say:-This God, manifest in Jesus Christ, on whose heart I can lay my head, and into whose undying and unstained light I can gaze, and in whose righteousness I can participate, this God is the real God; no dream, no projection from my own nature, magnified and cleansed, and thrown up first from the earth that it may come down from heaven, but the reality, of whom all human imaginations are but the faint transcripts, though they be the faithful prophets.

For, consider what it is that the world owes to Jesus Christ, in its knowledge of God. Remember that to us orphaned men He has come and said, as none ever said, and showed as none ever showed: ‘Ye are not fatherless; there is a Father in the heavens.’ Consider that to the world, sunk in sense and flesh, and blotting its most radiant imaginations of the Divine by some veil and hindrance, of corporeity and materialism, He comes, and has said, ‘God is a Spirit.’ Consider that, taught of Him, this Apostle, to whom was committed the great distinction of in monosyllables preaching central truths and in words that a child can apprehend, setting forth the depths that eternity and angels cannot comprehend, has said, ‘God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.’ And consider that he has set the apex on the shining pyramid, and spoken the last word when he has told us, ‘God is Love.’ And put these four revelations together, the Father; Spirit; unsullied Light; absolutely Love; and then let us bow down and say, ‘Thou hast said the truth, O aged Seer. This is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us. This-and none beside-is the true God,’ I know not what the modern world is to do for a God if it drifts away from Jesus Christ and His revelations. I know that it is always a dangerous way of arguing to try to force people upon alternatives, one of which is so repellent as to compel them to cling to the other. But it does seem to me that the whole progress of modern thought, with the advancement of modern physical science, and other branches of knowledge which perhaps are not yet to be called science, are all steadily converging on forcing us to this choice -will you have God in Christ, or, will you wander about in a Godless world, and for your highest certitude have to say,’ Perhaps’? ‘This is the true God,’ and if we go away from Him I do not know where we are to go.

II. Here we have the sum of His gifts to us.

‘This is the true God, and eternal life.’ Now, let us distinctly and emphatically put first that what is here declared is primarily something about God, and not about His gift to men; and that the two clauses, ‘the true God,’ and ‘eternal life,’ stand in precisely the same relation to the preceding words, ‘This is.’ That is to say, the revelation which John would lay upon our hearts, that from it there may spring up in them a wondrous hope, is that, in His own essential self, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and brought into living fellowship with us by Him, is ‘eternal life.’ By ‘eternal life’ he means something a great deal more august than endless existence. He means a life which not only is not ended by time, but which is above time, and not subject to its conditions at all. Eternity is not time spun out for ever. And so we are not lifted up into a region where there is little light, but where the very darkness is light, just as the curtain was the picture, in the old story of the painter,

That seems to part us utterly from God. He is ‘eternal life’; then, we poor creatures down here, whose being is all ‘cribbed, cabined, and confined’ by succession, and duration, and the partitions of time, what can we have in common with Him? John answers for us. For, remember that in the earlier part of this epistle he writes that ‘the life was manifested, and we shew unto you that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us,’ and ‘we declare it unto you; that ye also may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son.’ So, then, strange as it is, and beyond our thoughts as it is, there may pass into creatures that very eternal life which is in God, and was manifested in Jesus. We have to think of Him because we know Him to be love, as in essence self-communicating, and whatsoever a creature can receive, a loving Father, the true God, will surely give.

But we are not left to wander about in regions of mysticism and darkness. For we know this, that however strange and difficult the thought of eternal life as possessed by a creature may be, to give it was the very purpose for which Jesus Christ came on earth. ‘I am that Bread of Life.’ ‘I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.’ And we are not left to grope in doubt as to what that eternal life consists in; for He has said:’ This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.’ Nor are we left in any more doubt as to that bond by which the whole fullness of this Divine gift may flow into a man’s spirit. For over and over again the Master Himself has declared, ‘He that believeth hath everlasting life.’

Thus, then, there is a life which belongs to God on His throne, a life lifted above the limitations of time, a life communicated by Jesus Christ, as the waters of some land-locked lake may flow down through a sparkling river, a life which consists in fellowship with God, a life which may be, and is, ours, on the simple condition of trusting Him who gives it, and a life which, eternal as it is, and destined to a glory all undreamed of, in that future beyond the grave, is now the possession of every man that puts forth the faith which is its condition. ‘He that believeth hath’-not shall have, in some distant future, but has to-day-’everlasting life,’ verily here and now. And so John lays this upon our hearts, as the ripe fruit of all his experience, and the meaning of all his message to the world, that God revealed in Christ ‘is the true God,’ and as Himself the possessor, is the source for us all, of life eternal.

III. Lastly, we have here the consequent sum of Christian effort.

‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols,’ seeing that ‘this is the true God,’ the only One that answers to your requirements, and will satisfy your desires. Do not go rushing to these shrines of false deities that crowd every corner of Ephesus-ay, and every corner of Manchester. For what does John mean by an idol? Does he mean that barbarous figure of Diana that stood in the great temple, hideous and monstrous? No! He means anything, or any person, that comes into the heart and takes the place which ought to be filled by God, and by Him only. What I prize most, what I trust most utterly, what I should be most forlorn if I lost; what is the working aim of my life, and the hunger of my heart-that is my idol. We all know that.

Is the exhortation not needed, my brother? In Ephesus it was hard to have nothing to do with heathenism. In that ancient world their religion, though it was a superficial thing, was intertwined with daily life in a fashion that puts us to shame. Every meal had its libation, and almost every act was knit by some ceremony or other to a god. So that Christian men and women had almost to go out of the world, in order to be free from complicity in the all-pervading idol-worship. Now, although the form has changed, and the fascinations of old idolatry belong only to a certain stage in the world’s culture and history, the temptation to idolatry remains just as subtle, just as all-pervasive, and the yielding to it just as absurd. You and I call ourselves Christians. We say we believe that there is nothing else, and nobody else, in the whole sweep of the universe that can satisfy our hearts, or be what our imagination can conceive, but God only. Having said that on the Sunday, what about Monday? They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water, and hewed to themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water.’ ‘Little children’-for we are scarcely more mature than that-’little children, keep yourselves from idols.’

And how is it to be done? ‘Keep yourselves.’ Then you can do it, and you have to make a dead lift of effort, or be sure of this-that the subtle seduction will slide into your heart, and before you know it, you will be out of God’s sanctuary, and groveling in Diana’s temple. But it is not only our own effort that is needed, for just a sentence or two before, the Apostle had said: ‘He that is born of God ‘-that is, Christ- ‘keepeth us.’ So our keeping of ourselves is essentially our letting Him keep us. Stay inside the walls of the citadel, and you need not be afraid of the besiegers; go outside by letting your faith flag, and you will be captured or killed. Keep yourselves by clinging ‘to Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless.’ Make experience by fellowship with Him who is the only true God, and able to satisfy your whole nature, mind, heart, will, and these false deities, the whole rabble of them, will have no power to tempt you to bow the knee.

Brethren! Here is the sum of the whole matter. There is one truth on which we can stay our hearts, one God in whom we can utterly trust, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. If we do not see Him in Christ, we shall not see Him at all, but wander about all our days in a world empty of solid reality. There is one gift which will satisfy all our needs, the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. There is one practical injunction which will save us from many a heartache, and which our weakness can never afford to neglect, and that is to keep ourselves from all false worship. These golden words of my text, in their simplicity, in their depth, in their certainty, in their comprehensiveness, are worthy to be the last words of Revelation; and to stand to all the world, through all ages, as the shining apex, or the solid foundation, or the central core of Christianity. ‘This’-this, and none else- ‘is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.’

5:18-21 All mankind are divided into two parties or dominions; that which belongs to God, and that which belongs to the wicked one. True believers belong to God: they are of God, and from him, and to him, and for him; while the rest, by far the greater number, are in the power of the wicked one; they do his works, and support his cause. This general declaration includes all unbelievers, whatever their profession, station, or situation, or by whatever name they may be called. The Son leads believers to the Father, and they are in the love and favour of both; in union with both, by the indwelling and working of the Holy Spirit. Happy are those to whom it is given to know that the Son of God is come, and to have a heart to trust in and rely on him that is true! May this be our privilege; we shall thus be kept from all idols and false doctrines, and from the idolatrous love of worldly objects, and be kept by the power of God, through faith, unto eternal salvation. To this living and true God, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.Little children - This is a favorite mode of address with John, (see the notes at 1 John 2:1), and it was proper to use it in giving his parting counsel; embracing, in fact, all that he had to say - that they should keep themselves from idols, and suffer nothing to alienate their affections from the true God. His great object had been to lead them to the knowledge and love of God, and all his counsels would be practically followed, if, amidst the temptations of idolatry, and the allurements of sin, nothing were allowed to estrange their hearts from him.

Keep yourselves from idols - From worshipping them; from all that would imply communion with them or their devotees. Compare the notes at 1 Corinthians 10:14. The word rendered "idols" here (εἰδώλων eidōlōn) means, properly, an image, specter, shade - as of the dead; then any image or figure which would represent anything, particularly anything invisible; and hence anything designed to represent God, and that was set up with a view to be acknowledged as representing him, or to bring, him, or his perfections, more vividly before the mind. The word is applicable to idol-gods - pagan deities, 1 Corinthians 8:4, 1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 10:19; Romans 2:22; 2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; but it would, also, be applicable to any "image" designed to represent the true God, and through or by which the true God was to be adored. The essential things in the word seem to be:

(a) an image or representation of the Deity, and,

(b) the making of that an object of adoration instead of the true God.

Since one of these things would be likely to lead to the other, both are forbidden in the prohibitions of idolatry, Exodus 20:4-5. This would forbid all attempts to represent God by paintings or statuary; all idol-worship, or worship of pagan gods; all images and pictures that would be substituted in the place of God as objects of devotion, or that might transfer the homage from God to the image; and all giving of those affections to other beings or objects which are due to God. why the apostle closed this Epistle with this injunction he has not stated, and it may not be easy to determine. It may have been for such reasons as these:

(1) Those to whom he wrote were surrounded by idolaters, and there was danger that they might fall into the prevailing sin, or in some way so act as to be understood to lend their sanction to idolatry.

(2) in a world full of alluring objects, there was danger then, as there is at all times, that the affections should be fixed on other objects than the supreme God, and that what is due to him should be withheld.

It may be added, in the conclusion of the exposition of this Epistle, that the same caution is as needful for us as it was for those to whom John wrote. We are not in danger, indeed, of bowing down to idols, or of engaging in the grosser forms of idol-worship. But we may be in no less danger than they to whom John wrote were, of substituting other things in our affections in the place of the true God, and of devoting to them the time and the affection which are due to him. Our children it is possible to love with such an attachment as shall effectually exclude the true God from the heart. The world - "its wealth, and pleasures, and honors - we may love with a degree of attachment such as even an idolater would hardly shew to his idol-gods; and all the time which he would take in performing his devotions in an idol-temple, we may devote with equal fervor to the service of the world. There is practical idolatry all over the world; in nominally Christian lands as well as among the pagan; in families that acknowledge no God but wealth and fashion; in the hearts of multitudes of individuals who would scorn the thought of worshipping at a pagan altar; and it is even to be found in the heart of many a one who professes to be acquainted with the true God, and to be an heir of heaven. God should have the supreme place in our affections. The love of everything else should be held in strict subordination to the love of him.

He should reign in our hearts; be acknowledged in our closets, our families, and in the place of public worship; be submitted to at all times as having a right to command and control us; be obeyed in all the expressions of his will, by his word, by his providence, and by his Spirit; be so loved that we shall be willing to part without a complaint with the dearest object of affection when he takes it from us; and so that, with joy and triumph, we shall welcome his messenger, "the angel of death," when he shall come to summon us into his presence. To all who may read these illustrations of the Epistle of the "beloved disciple," may God grant this inestimable blessing and honor. Amen.

21. Affectionate parting caution.

from idols—Christians were then everywhere surrounded by idolaters, with whom it was impossible to avoid intercourse. Hence the need of being on their guard against any even indirect compromise or act of communion with idolatry. Some at Pergamos, in the region whence John wrote, fell into the snare of eating things sacrificed to idols. The moment we cease to abide "in Him that is true (by abiding) in Jesus Christ," we become part of "the world that lieth in the wicked one," given up to spiritual, if not in all places literal, idolatry (Eph 5:5; Col 3:5).

i.e. From those idolatrous communions with the Gentiles in their worship and festivals in their temples, which these pseudo-christians had latitude enough for, as appears by the apostle St. Paul’s discourses, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 10:14 (especially if any danger did urge); wherein, instead of that communion with the Father and the Son, which {1Jo 1:3} he was inviting them to, they should have

fellowship with devils, as that other apostle tells his Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 10:20,21. And he might also have reference to the peculiar idolatries, which this sort of men are noted to have been guilty of towards their great sect master.

Little children, keep yourselves from idols, Amen. From Heathen idols and idolatry, into which the saints in those times might be liable to be drawn, by reason of their dwelling among Heathen idolaters, and being related to them, and by the too great freedom used in eating things sacrificed to idols in their temples; and from all other idols that might be introduced by some who went by the name of Christians, as the Gnostics, who worshipped the images of Simon and Helena; and the passage may be an antidote against the worshipping of images, afterwards introduced by the Papists. Moreover, errors and false doctrines, which are the figments of men's minds, and what they are fond of, may be called idols, and should be guarded against, and abstained from; as also the lusts of men's hearts, and all the evil things that are in the world, which are adored by the men of it; and even every creature that is loved too much is an idol; hence covetousness is called idolatry; nor should any creature or thing be loved more than God or Christ: the one only living and true God, Father, Son, and Spirit, he is only to be worshipped, feared, and loved. {19} Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.

(19) He expresses a plain precept of taking heed of idols: which he contrasts with the only true God, that with this seal he might seal up all the former doctrine.

1 John 5:21. If believers have come to the true God through Christ, they have to take care that they do not lose this eternal and highest good by giving themselves up to any vain idol. In this train of thought John closes his Epistle with the short exhortation, so impressive, however, in its brevity: τεκνία φυλάξετε ἑαυτοὺς ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων. In the address τεκνία we may see the depth of the feeling with which John utters these concluding words.

εἴδωλα are properly images; this signification is retained here by many commentators (Tertullian, Oecumenius, Lyranus, Lorinus, Salmeron, Lücke, Baumgarten-Crusius, Erdmann, Düsterdieck, etc.), whilst some of them, however, extend the idea to that of “false, heathen gods;” others, again, refer the expression to the arbitrary self-made representations of God which the false teachers had—thus Bede, Rickli, Sander, Thiersch (Versuch zur Herstellung, p. 241), etc.

Others combine both views, and understand by εἴδωλα here all sorts of images which men arbitrarily make for themselves of God (Ebrard, Braune). If the warning is not to be regarded as a detached appendix, foreign to the contents of the Epistle, we cannot rest satisfied with the first interpretation. As the apostle, just in the antithesis to the false teachers, who belong to the κόσμος, has so decidedly referred to the ἀληθινὸς Θεός, he certainly has in view in this warning, if not altogether, yet principally, the untrue mental images of those teachers.[337] It is only if so taken that the warning to keep themselves from idols forms the appropriate conclusion of the whole Epistle.

[337] That the apostle here also means the res mundariae, inasmuch as man is attached to them (Myrberg), is so much the more improbable as the foregoing contains no reference to them.

1 John 5:21. Filioli, custodite vos a simulacris (Vulg.). The exhortation arises naturally. “This”—this God revealed and made near and sure in Christ—“is the True God and Life Eternal. Cleave to Him, and do not take to do with false Gods: guard yourselves from the idols.” St. John is thinking, not of the heathen worship of Ephesus—Artemis and her Temple, but of the heretical substitutes for the Christian conception of God. τεκνία gives a tone of tenderness to the exhortation. φυλάσσειν is used of “guarding” a flock (Luke 2:8), a deposit or trust (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 1:14), a prisoner (Acts 12:4). φυλάσσειν “watch from within”; τηρεῖν (see note on 1 John 2:3), “watch from without”. Thus, when a city is besieged, the garrison φυλάσσουσι, the besiegers τηροῦσιν. The heart is a citadel, and it must be guarded against insidious assailants from without. Not φυλάσσετε, “be on your guard,” but φυλάξατε, aor. marking a crisis. The Cerinthian heresy was a desperate assault demanding a decisive repulse.

21. Farewell Warning

Little children] As usual (1 John 2:1; 1 John 2:12; 1 John 2:28, 1 John 3:7; 1 John 3:18, 1 John 4:4), this refers to all his readers.

keep yourselves] Better, as R. V., guard yourselves. It is not the verb used in 1 John 5:18 (τηρεῖν) but that used 2 Thessalonians 3:3 (φυλάσσειν); ‘shall guard you from the evil one’. Both verbs occur John 17:12 : comp. John 12:25; John 12:47. Here the verb is in the aorist imperative; ‘once for all be on your guard and have nothing to do with’. The use of the reflexive pronoun instead of the middle voice intensifies the command to personal care and exertion (φυλάξατε ἑαυτά). This construction is frequent in S. John: John 1:8; John 3:3; John 7:4; John 11:33; John 11:55; John 13:4; John 21:1; Revelation 6:15; Revelation 8:6; Revelation 19:7.

from idols] Or perhaps, from the idols; those with which Ephesus abounded: or again, from your idols; those which have been, or may become, a snare to you. This is the last of the contrasts of which the Epistle is so full. We have had light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love and hate, God and the world, Christ and Antichrist, life and death, doing righteousness and doing sin, the children of God and the children of the devil, the spirit of truth and the spirit of error, the believer untouched by the evil one and the world lying in the evil one; and now at the close we have what in that age was the ever present and pressing contrast between the true God and the idols. There is no need to seek far-fetched figurative explanations of ‘the idols’ when the literal meaning lies close at hand, is suggested by the context, and is in harmony with the known circumstances of the time. Is it reasonable to suppose that S. John was warning his readers against “systematising inferences of scholastic theology; theories of self-vaunting orthodoxy … tyrannous shibboleths of aggressive systems”, or against superstitious honour paid to the “Madonna, or saints, or pope, or priesthood”, when every street through which his readers walked, and every heathen house they visited, swarmed with idols in the literal sense; above all when it was its magnificent temples and groves and seductive idolatrous rites which constituted some of the chief attractions at Ephesus? Acts 19:27; Acts 19:35; Tac. Ann. iii. 61, iv. 55. Ephesian coins with idolatrous figures on them are common. ‘Ephesian letters’ (Ἐφέσια γράμματα) were celebrated in the history of magic, and to magic the ‘curious arts’ of Acts 19:19 point. Of the strictness which was necessary in order to preserve Christians from these dangers the history of the first four centuries is full. Elsewhere in N. T. the word is invariably used literally: Acts 7:41; Acts 15:20; Romans 2:22; 1 Corinthians 8:4; 1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Corinthians 10:19; 1 Corinthians 12:2; 2 Corinthians 6:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 9:20. Moreover, if we interpret this warning literally, we have another point of contact between the Epistle and the Apocalypse (Revelation 9:20; Revelation 21:8). Again, as we have seen, some of the Gnostic teachers maintained that idolatry was harmless, or that at any rate there was no need to suffer martyrdom in order to avoid it. This verse is a final protest against such doctrine. Lastly, this emphatic warning against the worship of creatures intensifies the whole teaching of this Epistle; the main purpose of which is to establish the truth that the Son of God has come in the flesh in the Man Jesus. Such a Being was worthy of worship. But if, as Ebionites and Cerinthians taught, Jesus was a creature, the son of Joseph and Mary, then worship of such an one would be only one more of those idolatries from which S. John in his farewell injunction bids Christians once and for ever to guard themselves.

Amen] Here, as at the end of the Gospel and the Second Epistle, ‘Amen’ is the addition of a copyist. אAB and most Versions omit it. Such conclusions, borrowed from liturgies, have been freely added throughout N. T. Perhaps that in Galatians 6:18 is the only final ‘Amen’ that is genuine; but that in 2 Peter 3:8 is well supported.

1 John 5:21. Φυλάξατε ἑαυτοὺς, keep yourselves) in my absence, that no one deceive you. The elegance of the active verb with the reciprocal pronoun is more expressive than φυλάξασθε, be on your guard. See on Chrysostom de Sacerd. p. 423.—ἀπὸ τῶν εἰδώλων, from idols) and not only from their worship, but also from all communion and appearance of communion with them: Revelation 2:14; Revelation 2:20.[27]

[27] Bengel, J. A. (1866). Vol. 5: Gnomon of the New Testament (M. E. Bengel & J. C. F. Steudel, Ed.) (W. Fletcher, Trans.) (111–154). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Verse 21. - Keep yourselves from idols; or, guard yourselves from the idols. In verse 18 we had τηρεῖ; here the verb is φυλάξατε. The aorist, rather than the present imperative, is used to make the command more forcible, although the guarding is not momentary, but will have to continue (Compare μείνατε ἐν ἐμοί, John 15:4; τὰς ἐντολὰς τὰς ἐμὰς τηρήσατε John 14:15). What is the meaning of "the idols" τῶν εἰδώλων here? In answering this question it will be well to hold fast to the common canon of exegesis, that where the literal interpretation makes good sense, the literal interpretation is probably right. Here the literal interpretation makes excellent sense. Ephesus was famous for its idols. To be "temple-keeper of the great Artemis" (Acts 19:35) was its pride. The moral evils which had resulted from the abuse of the right of sanctuary had caused the Roman senate to cite the Ephesians and other states to submit their charters to the government for inspection. Ephesus had been the first to answer to the summons, and had strenuously defended its claims. It was famous, moreover, for its charms and incantations; and folly of this kind had found its way into the Christian Church (Acts 19:13-20). As so often happens with converts from a religion full of gross superstition, a good many of the superstitious observances survived the adoption of Christianity. With facts such as these before us, we can hardly be wrong in interpreting "the idols" quite literally. The apostle's "little children" could not live in Ephesus without coming constantly in contact with these polluting but attractive influences. They must have absolutely nothing to do with them: "Guard yourselves and abjure ἀπό them." Of course, this literal interpretation places no limit on the application of the text. To a Christian anything is an idol which usurps the place of God in the heart, whether this be a person, or a system, or a project, or wealth, or what not. All such usurpations come within the sweep of the apostle's injunction, "Guard yourselves from your idols."

1 John 5:21Keep yourselves (φυλάξατε ἑαυτὰ)

The exact phrase is not found elsewhere in the New Testament. See 2 Peter 3:17. Rev., rightly, guard. See on 1 Peter 1:4.

Idols (εἰδώλων)

Strictly, images. The command, however, has apparently the wider Pauline sense, to guard against everything which occupies the place due to God.

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