John’s first letter ends with the simple admonition, ‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.’ (1 John 5:21) It’s tempting to dismiss that as irrelevant in modern society, since in many countries, we no longer worship statues or images made of wood, stone or metal in the way that used to happen. However, when we realise that an idol is anything we substitute for God (and that fame, wealth, power, sex, food, alcohol, drugs, parents, spouse, children friends, work, recreation, television and possessions – even church, religion and Christian service – can all be idols), John’s warning does not seem so bizarre.
In Acts 17:16-34, we find Paul in Athens, in a city surrounded by evidence of idolatry (it was ‘swamped’ by idols). Deeply distressed by this fact, Paul attempted to reason and debate with Jews, God-fearers, ordinary people and philosophers alike in order to show them that they should turn from idols to the living God. He spoke of God as the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Father and Judge of the world and debunked the myth that people can make and control God, either by confining him within limits which we impose (such as beautiful buildings) or by domesticating him (making him dependent on us.) All idolatry ultimately tries to bring God under our control and instead of humbly acknowledging that God has created and rules us, presumes to imagine that we can create and rule God.
We may feel that idolatry is not a Western problem, but the reality is it’s a very human problem. People don’t like to submit to God; we prefer to make our own rules and worship a safe, tame god of our own making. Paul reminded the people in Athens that they needed to repent. (Acts 17:30) His message still stands for us today, and John’s warning still applies, even to those who are already following Christ.