John's Strange Ending

by J. Randal Matheny, editor


“Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”
1 John 5:21 NET

It seems a strange phrase with which to end a letter about love.

Especially considering that in his letter John never mentions idols or idolatry. So why end it where the last word is “idols”?

With his message on love, John wrote to alert his readers against false teaching.


Man becomes enamored of his ideas and inventions. Instead of recognizing God’s truth and submitting himself to the divine revelation, man raises up his thoughts as the philosophy or teaching that ought to be followed.

He creates an image of God and of Jesus. The image isn’t made of wood, stone or metal, but a mental picture. Or, as R.W. Orr put it, “the gods constructed out of human speculation.”/1

His own ideas become his god.

Hence the need for John to call the false teaching for what it was, idolatry. John leaves this term of abomination in the ears of his friends as his last word, so that the seriousness of the false teaching will stay with them.

Idols in themselves are nothing, but idolatry is the most grievous of sins.


The action to be taken: “guard yourselves.” The verb means to keep or guard. Taken with the preposition “from” this imperative means to stay away from idols (so NLT: “keep away from”).

While the false teachers evidently were shutting out the Christians from their midst, unless they adopted their doctrine, John seems to say to the saints: instead of you being shut out by them, close yourselves to their influence.

So John’s instruction is a pro-active step. Rather than letting something happen to them, they are to close the doors on this false teaching and on those who push it.


To assure them of his concern, John again uses what had been a nursery term to express his deep affection and concern for them, “little children.” He writes in their best interest. Indeed, the purpose of his writing had the highest motive:

“I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

To gain acceptance, a new doctrine has to present itself as the true way of salvation. Those who don’t follow it are lost. The false teachers had by this means created doubt in the minds of John’s readers. But he wants them to know that by staying with the teaching they had received from the apostles, they could be sure of their salvation.

The tenderness John showed them was also a sign of the true love between brethren that he insisted on his letter. The false teachers likely had little love for the saints, beyond using them to build their own little religious empires.


Idols today line the shelves of bookstores, run the airwaves and lurk on Internet sites. John’s strange ending carries as much force today as it did when he wrote it.

“Little children, guard yourselves from idols.”

What are your thoughts about God and Christ?

1/ “The Letters of John,” in International Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce, ed., 1586.

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