Recently I had the privilege of teaching from 1John at a university Christian Union conference. During the conference the students were also working hard at a clean manuscript of the text of 1John free of sub-headings, chapter and verse markers and paragraph spaces. Each group read through the whole book again and again in order to come to the text of Scripture with fresh eyes, and develop an understanding of the message of 1John from the ground up. By the end of the week there was a strong consensus concerning John’s themes of walking in the light and in the way of love as the beloved children of God (who is light and love).

But another common finding in these groups proved to be puzzling. This came in the form of the apparent non-sequitur of John’s clunky closing exhortation:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (5:31)

Why does the Apostle of love end his letter like an Old Testament prophet?

1. The Way of Love

John’s clear message is that loving God leads to obeying him.

Jesus—by dying for our sins—frees us to love God without fear of judgement. Love is meant to be our way of life; our defining characteristic

Jesus—by dying for our sins—frees us to love God without fear of judgement (1John 2:1-2cf.4:18). Simultaneously, God the Father by “[sending] his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” establishes a new standard for love (1John 4:9-10). Love is meant to be our way of life: our “new commandment” (John 13:34; 1 John 2:8); our defining characteristic that shapes the way we relate to our Christian family, and even our enemies.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving and carrying out his commands. And his commands are not burdensome. (1John 5:1-3)

2. The Victory of Faith

John also teaches us that faith in Christ is the victory which overcomes the world. Jesus has already overcome our sin, the world and the devil by His death and resurrection for us (cf. John 14:27-31; 16:33) and we share in that victory:

… for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1John 5:4-5)

This means we can overcome the world, not through political pressure groups or the force of arms in a misguided holy war, but by refusing its dictates. The world would (if it could) snuff out the light and finally choose death over love and life, and it would like to snuff out believers too—as so many of our brothers and sisters have discovered through the ages. Even so, following Jesus all the way to the cross is the way to victory:

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Revelation 12:11).

3. A Contest of Loves

So who will we choose to love? Jesus and his love (and suffering) or the world with its threats and bribes? John is clear that we can’t remain neutral:

Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lusts of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. (1John 2:15-16)

Loving the world takes us down the path of idolatry—a fruitless fantasy than leads nowhere.

Loving the world takes us down the path of idolatry—a fruitless fantasy than leads nowhere. But the path of Jesus’ love is very different

But the path of Jesus’ love is very different: passionate, rugged, determined, servant-like, costly and sacrificial—a path that follows Christ himself:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in them? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1John 3:16-18)

John challenges us to examine our love allegiances and Love priorities. For we are what we love; and true love gives birth to active service. Every day we find ourselves in a battle between competing affections and priorities; a battle we fight against our deep-seated preoccupation with and love for self, which the world and the devil reinforces and fuels. The English Puritan poet John Donne makes the point dramatically:

Batter my heart, three person’d God…
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.[1]

This must be the prayer of every true follower of Jesus Christ: ‘God capture my heart. We need God to enthral us with his love or we will fall for idols.

A Perfect Ending

So “dear children, keep yourselves from idols” turns out to be the perfect ending for this letter. With the coming of Christ love itself has appeared to us, making our choice stark and clear (cf. 1Jn 1:1-4). When John tells us to “keep yourselves from idols” he draws together all the threads of his letter. He’s saying:

“Don’t be seduced by false views of God and of Christ: don’t let your heart be captured by the idol of self and the trinkets and trivialities of the world. Reject the phony intimacies of sexual immorality. Reject the false promises of empty riches. Reject the vain boasts of self-promotion and the lustful craving for fame. Reject the superficial relating and fair weather friending and easy enemy making that too often passes for friendship in the world. Reject the half-baked, flat tyre, anaemic versions of Christianity offered up by a theological liberalism that has man rather than the Lord Jesus Christ as its centre. Choose Christ. “Remain in his love.” (cf.1Jn 2:15ff)

A prayer

Heavenly Father, through your great love for us please help us to surrender our puny dreams, and the puny dreams of godless Australian culture; all the myths of our aspirational upbringings, our endless consumption and our worthless worship in the cult of the new. Enable us to continue to receive, enjoy, remain in and share your love for us in your Son Jesus through your Spirit, and so live out now and forever the eternal life you have won for us: To be known and to know; to be loved by and to love you forever. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[1] John Donne, Sonnet XIV.