“Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”
1 John 5:21
THIS is the conclusion of one of the most mysterious, most simple and yet most sublime of all the Divinely-inspired Books. And we may naturally expect that the closing verse of the Epistle will have great weight in it. This seems to be the practical conclusion of the whole matter upon which John had been writing, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” This Epistle is specially perfumed with love. As you read it, you cannot help realizing that it was written by a very tender, gentle hand and yet, when this loving writer is giving has last words in this Epistle, the admonition with which he closes is this, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” As love thus speaks in its fullness, let us be ready to give earnest attention to the message which it utters. John has, in this Epistle, written much concerning the love of Jesus, as well he might, for he knew more about that love than any other man knew. And yet, when he had written concerning love to Jesus, he was moved to an intense jealousy lest, by any means, the hearts of those to whom he wrote should be turned aside from that dear Lover of their souls who deserved their entire affection and, therefore, not only love to them, but also love to Jesus, made him wind up his letter with these significant words, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
- My first observation shall be concerning THE TITLE UNDER WHICH WE ARE HERE ADDRESSED–“Little children.”
I do not think that John meant, literally, to address little children. Nor do I think he merely referred to a certain class of Believers who are very little in Grace and, therefore, are called “babes” in contrast to those who are men in Christ. I think he addressed himself to the whole body of Believers to whom he was writing and, through them, that he addressed the whole Church of Christ when he wrote, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
This is, first, a title of deep affection. The Christian Church is the home of Christian love. When it is what it shouldalways be, it is a family–it is “the household of faith,” of which God Himself is the Father, the Lord Jesus is the Elder Brother, and all the members are Brothers and Sisters–all equal, all one in Christ Jesus, all seeking to serve the rest, laying themselves out to be servants to the whole band of Brothers and Sisters in Christ. It seems most appropriate that an aged Apostle, such as John doubtless was when he wrote this Epistle, should have looked round upon the younger members of the Lord’s family and should have called them, “little children.” And when we recollect how much he knew and, above all, how much he had seen of Jesus, how he had fallen at the feet of his glorified Lord as one who was dead, and then had had the pierced hand of Jesus laid upon him to raise him up–when we remember how he had heard the blowing of the seven trumpets and seen the pouring out of the seven vials, how he had beheld a door opened in Heaven, how he had counted the foundations of the glorious City and gazed within its streets of gold, and heard the music of the celestial harps–I do not wonder that such a man with such a mind and heart, so full of God, must, as he looked upon the rest of his brethren, have regarded them, without any egotism, as still remaining as “little children.” It is a familiar, endearing mode of speech such as I think should often be coming from the lips of aged saints. At any rate, if our expressions are not exactly the same as John’s, the love to which the expression was thus given should burn in each one of our hearts. Like as a father loves his children, so should the pastor love his flock, so should the teacher love his class–and he may speak to them in such terms as these, “My little children.”
Mark, next, that in this title there is much that indicates good. John calls those to whom he wrote, “children”–children of God, he means and he calls them “little children.” Now, it is a good thing to be even little children in Christ,for this is an indication that the new birth has taken place! If this is the case with us, we are not now men or women in sin, but children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. What a priceless privilege it is to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit! There is a so-called “regeneration” by a priestly ceremony which leaves the man or the child as unregenerate as he was before the ceremony had been performed! But the regeneration by the Holy Spirit entirely changes the nature of the peason concerned and bestows upon him or her a new heart and a right spirit. To have this high privilege is to have one of the choicest gifts of Heaven–indeed, it is that which is essential to the enjoyment of all other blessings! So, however humble the title, “little children,” may be, it is an indication of much good, for it is no small thing to be a little child in Christ Jesus and to be able even to lisp, as a little child might, “Abba, Father,” and to say, with all the rest of God’s family, “Our Father, who are in Heaven.”
The title, “little children,” also indicates the humility of those who are rightly called by that name. A little child isnot proud. He meddles not with high things. He is content to sit at his father’s feet or to lie in his mothers bosom. And Christians, being born-again–born from above–become as little children, otherwise they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They were very great people once, but they are very little now. They thought, at one time, that they were really growing as they grew bigger in their own estimation, but now they understand that they are growing in the best fashion when they are growing smaller! Growing Christians reckon themselves to be nothing. But full-grown Christians count themselves less than nothing! And when we feel ourselves to be “less than the least of all saints,” then we are indeed making good progress in the Divine Life. To grow less and less in your own esteem is the right kind of growth. Naturally, we grow up from childhood to manhood but, spiritually, we grow down from manhood tochildhood–yet it is not really growing down, but growing up as we increase in humility.
Moreover, this title denotes teachableness. A little child will go to school. A little child is not above learning itsletters. We cannot often get men to do this, especially in spiritual things. They are so crusted over with prejudice that they think they know all they need to know, yet it is little that they do know, and even that little is wrong, yet it is enough to keep them from being willing to be taught what they really need to learn! Truly blessed is the man who is a little child in relation to God. I believe that very often great knowledge and more especially great pretensions toknowledge of science and philosophy, stand in men’s way and prevent them from learning what is most worth learning. God forbid that I should say anything in praise of ignorance! Yet I think that I might, in spiritual things, give it greater praise than I could give to “philosophy” or “science,” falsely so-called. Happy and wise were the shepherds to whom the angels came and sang and spoke concerning the birth of Jesus, for in their simplicity, they went straight away to Bethlehem and found the newborn King! But the wise men (happy, too, for a star came to guide them), in their very wisdom seemed to make mistakes, for they went to Jerusalem and enquired, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?” And so, for a time, they lost their way–and caused Herod to seek the life of the Holy Child Jesus! Well did Augustine say, “Shepherds and artisans often enter the Kingdom of Heaven while wise men and scholars are fumbling to find the latch.” Know all you can that is really worth knowing but, with your knowledge, mind that you have the child-like spirit without which all your knowledge will be of little service to you! After all, there is not much difference between those who are called wise men and those who know but little, for the wisest of men really know but little–and if they are truly wise, they know that they know but little.
There are some, nowadays, who think themselves to be such wise men that they even pretend to know more than God knows, or has revealed to us in His Word. They sit upon the throne of judgment and call God, Himself, before them and arraign Him, rejudge His judgments and profess to be the god of God! Such “wise” men are the most credulous fools of the age! I pity the poor creatures who believe in popish miracles, but I have now learned to think that those who can believe in such frauds are not half such idiots as the men who try to teach us that inanimate matter has fashioned itself into those marvelously beautiful shapes in which we see it all over this wondrous world which God created “in the beginning.” Set these “wise” men up on a pinnacle in the center of the court of fools and let the biggest fools' caps thatwere ever made be placed upon their heads! When they sneer at the credulity of Believers in Christ, we can tell them to look at home, for there are none who are so credulous as they are! And let us still come to God’s Book as little children who are willing to be taught by God’s Spirit all that God’s Son has to say to our hearts.
And little, children, too, have
faith. What a great deal of faith they usually have and how wicked it is for anyone ever
to trifle with the faith of little children! It is really scandalous when nurses and others tell little children idle tales and foolish stories which the children believe to be true. We should be very careful and jealous concerning the faith which a little child has in its elders and never do or say anything to weaken their belief. Little children have a very beautiful faith, especially when the word of their father is concerned. They know that what he says is true. They laugh at the idea thattheir father would ever tell a lie. Let us be little children of that sort towards God, unquestioningly believing whatever He says to us–not asking how or why it is so but, being quite prepared to be told that we cannot yet understand everything and that all we have to do is implicitly believe all that our Heavenly Father says. If it is God who speaks, believe what He says and say with the confidence of a little child, “My Father cannot lie.”
So far, we see that it is a good thing to be called little children. But I think there is another view of the matter which we must not forget, for the title also implies weakness. “Little children”–that is all we are at the very best–littlechildren are very apt to be led astray and so are we. We all of us feel the influence of others and we sometimes feel it more than we would like to confess. And it is a singular thing that probably there are no persons who are so much influenced by others as those who themselves influence others. The leaders are often those who are most led and, therefore, we need to be extremely cautious. Surrounded as we are by hosts of idolaters, we are all too apt to be swayed by their example, so John says to us, “Little children, do not be led into evil by those who are around you. Try to be men in this respect and dare to do right even if you stand alone. Stand fast and quit yourselves like men. Be not carried about by every wind that blows, but stand like a mighty rock that is immovable.”
Little children, too have this weakness, that they have need, as a rule, of something to see. You cannot teach them so well in any other way as you can by pictures and models. That tendency is also manifest in us spiritually–we have acraving for signs and symbols. The great mass of people–even Christian people–need something or other that they can see. Like Israel in the wilderness, they say, “Make us gods which shall go before us.” If they cannot have a god in some visible shape, then they need some ceremony, some ritual, something or other that is not purely spiritual. As the girl wants her doll and the boy his rocking horse, so those who are little children in spiritual things seem to need some article which they can see and touch. Oh that we were men enough to believe in the spiritual–to be content with God’s Revelation without needing anything symbolical except the two grand symbols which Christ has given us in His two ordinances–and never putting even those out of their proper place, much less wishing to overlay them with any adornments of our own, but worshipping Him, who is a Spirit, in spirit and in truth and yielding ourselves up to the guidance of His gracious Spirit, who will teach us how to worship God acceptably!
Little children also have a very bounded range. Put a little child down with a few broken platters and a little dirt, and he will amuse himself by the hour together! It does not seem to strike him that he may grow up to be a man and have to work for his living, or manage big business like his father does. It is, under some aspects, a great blessing to be such a child as that, but it is a pity that we are so prone to be thus childish spiritually. We are so much engrossed in the present that if we have a little trouble we fret over it as if that trouble would last for years! If we meet with a little discouragement, we are worried by it and seem to forget the Heaven that is awaiting us, the God who rules over all, the Divine Comforter who is always near us and the unerring Wisdom which will bring good out of evil. Our sphere of observation is too confined–we are too much taken up with the present and do not turn our eyes across the gulf of time to that fair Glory Land where the day has broken and the shadows have forever flown away. Little children, it is because of this special weakness of yours that the Apostle has said, “Keep yourselves from idols.”
II. This remark brings me to the second part of my subject which is this–THE WARNING WHICH IS DIRECTED TO US. “Keep yourselves from idols.”
I hope that I need not say to you, dear Friends, Keep yourselves from all sorts of visible idols, for I trust that youabhor them as much as I do. Yet in this present age, idol temples are being set up almost everywhere by our Ritualistic clergy! And a form of idolatry that is on a par with the fetishism of ignorant Africans has come back to this land, for they make a god out of a bit of bread. And after worshipping their idol, eat it up–a process which can only be fitly described in such sarcasm as Elijah would have poured upon it if he could have stood in the midst of these modem priests of Baal as he stood among their prototype of old! Keep yourselves, Beloved, from all their idols! Pay no reverence to them, nor to their so-called “priests.” It is strange that now, when men have open Bibles and can read them, there should come back to us the old idolatry which our fathers abhorred and which even in the days of dim religious light, their ancestors could not endure. Do not endure it for a moment, but make your protest against it every day in the most earnest possible manner! Let the cry ring out to any Christians who are mingled with the idolaters, “Come out from among them, and be you separate, says the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.” God will surely punish this land and every other land where these or any other idols are set up!
But to you, dear Friends, I must speak concerning other idols. First, keep yourselves from worshipping yourselves.Alas, how many fall into this gross sin! Some do it by indulgence at the table. How much of eating and especially of drinking, is there which, correctly speaking, is nothing better than gluttony and drunkenness! There are professing Christians who, perhaps, never are regarded as intoxicated, yet they sip, and sip, and sip until if they do not lose the control of their brain, they cause observers to raise the question whether they ever had any at all! It is almost a pity for some professing Christians that they can thus indulge themselves at home , for if like working men, they had to go homefrom the tippling-shop, it would soon be discovered that they were scarcely able to walk straight and the evil habit might be cured! It is a scandalous thing when there is such a sin as this in the Church of God. And as it has been known, I urge all of you , Beloved, to see to it that you offer no sacrifices to gluttony, nor pour out libations to Bacchus–for if you do,you prove that you are idolaters worshipping your own bellies and that God’s love dwells not within you.
There are others who worship themselves by living a life of indolence. They have nothing to do and they seem to do it very thoroughly. They take their ease and that is the main thing in which they take any interest. They flit from pleasure to pleasure, from show to show, from vanity to vanity as if this life were only a garden in which butterflies might fly from flower to flower, and not a sphere where serious work was to be done and all-important business for eternity was to be accomplished. Worship not yourselves by trifling as these indolent people do!
Some worship themselves by decorating their bodies most elaborately. Their first and their last thought being, “What shall we wear?” Fall not into that idolatry!
Then there are some people who make idols of their wealth. Getting money seems to be the main purpose of theirlives. Now it is right that a Christian man should be diligent in business–he should not be second to anybody in the diligence with which he attends to the affairs of this life. But it is always a pity when we can be truthfully told, “So-andSo is getting richer every year, but he has also gotten stingier. He gives less now than he gave when he had only half as much as he now has.” We occasionally meet with people like the man who, when he was comparatively poor, gave his guinea–but when he grew rich, he only gave a shilling. His explanation was that when he had a shilling purse, he had a guinea heart, but when he had a guinea purse, he found that he had only a shilling heart. But it is always a pity when hearts grow smaller as means grow greater. Remember, dear Friends, that it will be only a little while before you must leave all that you have. What is the use of your having it at all unless you really enjoy it and how can you so truly enjoy it as by laying it at your Savior’s feet and using it for His Glory? There is certainly more lasting enjoyment to be gained out of the unrighteous mammon in this way than in any other that I ever heard of–this is the testimony of those who have tried it and proved it to be so. I trust that none of you will worship the golden calf.
Some worship the pursuit which they have undertaken. They give their whole soul up to their art, or their particular calling, whatever it may be. In a certain sense, this is a right thing to do, yet we must never forget that the first and great commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This must always have the first place.
Let me here touch a very tender point. There are some who make idols of their dearest relatives and friends. Somehave done this with their children. I remember reading a story of a good man who seemed as if he could never forgive God for taking away his child. He sat in a Quakers' meeting bowed down and sorrowful. His time of deliverance came when a Sister rose, uttered these words, “Verily, I perceive that children are idols,” and then resumed her seat. Such a message as that is often needed–yet it is a pity that it should be. Make no idol of your child, or your wife, or your husband, for by putting them into Christ’s place, you really provoke Him to take them from you! Love them as much as you please–I would that some loved their children, their husbands, or their wives more than they do–but always love them in such a fashion that Christ shall have the first place in your hearts!
The catalog of idols that we are apt to worship is a very long one. Hindus are said to have many millions of idols and it would take me a very long while to make a list of the various forms which the idolatry of the heart will take, but in a sentence, let me say to you–Remember that God has a right to your whole being. There is nothing and there can be nothing which ought to be supreme in your affections but your Lord. And if you worship any thing or any ideal,whatever it may be, if you love that more than you love your God, you are an idolater, and you are disobeying the command of the text, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” So pray to Him, with Toplady–
“The idols tread beneath Your feet,
And to Yourself the conquest get–
Let sin no more oppose my Lord,
Slain by the Spirit’s two-edged sword.”
I would say to you, Beloved, in closing my observations upon this point–in the matter of your faith, be sure to keepyourselves from the idol of the hour. Some of us have lived long enough to see the world’s idols altered any number of times. Just now, in some professedly Christian churches, the idol is “intellectualism,” “culture,” “modern thought.” Whatever name it bears, it has no right to be in a Christian church, for it believes very little that appertains to Christ! Now, I have some sort of respect for a downright honest infidel, like Voltaire or Tom Paine, but I have none for the man who goes to college to be trained for the Christian ministry and then claims to be free to doubt the Deity of Christ, the need of conversion, the punishment of the wicked and other Truths of God that seem to me to be essential to a full proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. Such a man must have strange views of honesty–and so has the minister who goes into a pulpit and addresses people when he knows that he does not believe any of the Doctrines that are dearer to them than their own lives! Yet the moment he is called to account for his unbelief, he cries out, “Persecution! Persecution! Bigotry! Bigotry!” A burglar, if I found him outside my bedroom door and held him till the Policeman came, might consider me to be very bigoted because I did not care to have my property stolen by him and because I interfered with his liberty. So, in like manner, I am called bigoted because I will not allow a man to come and assail, from my own pulpit, the Truths which are dearer to me than my life! I am quite willing to give that man liberty to go and publish his views somewhere else, and at his own expense, but it shall not be done at my expense, nor in the midst of a congregation gathered by me for the worship of God and the proclamation of His Truths as they are revealed in the Scriptures! Keep yourselves from this idol of the times, for it is the precursor of death to any church that gives it admittance.
Unitarianism, to which this so-called liberality of thought always goes, is a religion of a parasitical kind. It flourishes by feeding upon the life of other churches, just as the ivy clings to the oak and sucks the life out of it. Let us tear this ivy down wherever we find it beginning its deadly work! Believe me, my Brothers and Sisters, that the Church of Christ, if not the world, shall yet learn that the highest culture is a heart that is cultivated by Divine Grace! That the truest science is the science of Jesus Christ and Him Crucified! That the greatest thought and the deepest of all metaphysics are found at the foot of the Cross! That the men who will keep on simply and earnestly preaching the oldfashioned Gospel–and the people who will stand fast in the old paths are they who will most certainly win the victory! When those who are sailing in a frail boat–which they or their fellow sinners have constructed without a rudder and without a pilot at the helm–when, I say, they shall drift away and be dashed to pieces upon the rocks–they who trustin the Lord and have Him as their Pilot shall be kept clear of the rocks on which others have made shipwreck, and shall be safely steered into the haven of peace–and there be at rest forever!
Many of us are about to gather around the Communion Table to celebrate the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This ordinance should help us to keep ourselves from idols, for if there is any place where idols disappear, it is at the foot of the Cross! Look, by faith, at your Lord and Savior as He hung upon the accursed tree–
“See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did ever such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
Can you give your heart’s affection to any idol after that? Has not Christ so engrossed your warmest love that no earthly charms have any power to allure you away from Him? Are you not, as it were, fastened up by His nails? Is not your heart pierced with His spear? Are you not so crucified with Christ that the world is dead to you and you are dead to the world? Do you think Jesus lived for self? What provision did He make for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof? Was not His whole life one of self-denial and self-renunciation? What idol did He ever set up? To what objective did He devote His life? Did He seek fame? Did He labor for earthly honor and glory? Did He hoard up wealth? Did He say to the man of the world, “Applaud Me”? Was He turned aside from His purpose by either the frowning or the fawning of men? You know that itwas not so! Then you who have been washed in His blood, follow Him! O you who are called by His name, do not blaspheme that name among the Gentiles by idolatry of any kind! Bring out your idols if you have hidden them as Rachel hid her father’s images in the camel’s furniture–bring them all out and let them be broken in pieces at the foot of the Cross, or be ground to powder as Moses treated the golden calf that his brother Aaron had made! O Jesus, where You are, who can worship any but You? If He came and lodged in your house, that child of yours would not be adored as it now is. If He always dwelt there, you would not pamper yourself as you now do. If you could see Him as He is, you must admit Him to reign within your heart. Well, let it be so as you now, by faith, gaze upon Him. And as these dear memorials of His broken body and His blood are fed upon by you and you remember Him, do with all your idols as the Ephesians did with their magical books–bring them out and let them be burned–a blessed holocaust in honor of Him who “has loved us, and has given Himself an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor.” Sing with Cowper, and let the prayer ascend to your Lord from the very depths of your heart–
“The dearest idol I have known,
Whatever that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Your Throne,
And worship only Thee!
So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame,
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.”
God bless you. And if any of you are living without Christ, perhaps it is some beloved idol that is keeping you from Him. If so, may you be delivered from its thralldom by coming to Jesus right now, for His dear name’s sake! Amen.