We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not; but he that was begotten of God keepeth himself, and the evil one toucheth him not. We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the evil one. And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. My little children, guard yourselves from idols (1 John 5:18-21).
Thus John concludes his first letter– perhaps not in a way we would expect, and certainly not according to conventions of the day. Yet the letter began in unconventional ways, and it should not surprise us that it would end in a similar way.
John continues to discuss matters of sin as he began in verses 16-17. Those who are born of God do “not sin,” are kept by God, and the Evil One does not touch him (1 John 5:18). But did not John say in 1 John 1:8 that we all continually sin? Are we not to be wary of the Evil One (1 Peter 5:8)?
We must not create contradiction in Scripture by making false inferences based on 1 John 5:18. Christians are not to be in the habit of sinning– thus, “does not keep on sinning,” as in the ESV.
The Scriptures make a distinction between the believer who seeks to follow God and stumbles occasionally and those who sin without any inclination toward true repentance or change (1 John 1:7-9 vs. Hebrews 10:26-31, etc.). We saw such a contrast in 1 John 5:16-17: the “sin leading to death” and the “sin not leading to death.” Christians may be guilty of the latter; if they are guilty of the former, they demonstrate that they are not truly “born of God.” Furthermore, Christians who are God’s obedient servants are justified in Christ and there is none to condemn (Romans 8:31-34), yet the danger of being tempted and to fall into sin remains (James 1:14-15, 1 Peter 5:8).
We must remember that John is attempting to encourage his fellow Christians. As part of God’s redeemed new creation, they are distinct from the world, for they know that the world is entirely in the hands of the Evil One (1 John 5:18-19; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 John 2:15-17). They have been transformed by the renewal of their minds, and are born of God, kept by God, and from God (Romans 12:2). Thus John summarizes a main theme in his letter: believers are born of God, should cease from sin, and are not of the sinful world (1 John 1:5-2:6, 2:12-17, 2:28-3:10, 3:19-24, 4:4-6, 5:1-5, 16-18).
John continues by summarizing what has been said about Jesus the Son of God– He has come and given us understanding so we may know the One True and Eternal God, and we who believe in Him are in Him (1 John 5:20). John has spent much time making known how Jesus is God’s Son in the flesh, opposing the Gnostic teachings advancing in those days, and how believers abide in the Son (1 John 1:1-4, 2:16-25, 4:1-6, 5:1-15).
John concludes his letter with what, on the surface, seems to be a puzzling exhortation: “little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). “Little children” has been one of John’s favorite expressions for believers (1 John 2:1, 12, 28, 3:7, 3:18, 4:4).
But why warn them to stay away from idols? There has been no previous discussion of idolatry per se in 1 John. Is John really concerned that believers are going to start straying from the One True God and go serve idols in the pagan temples in their midst?
While such might be a concern for a few it is not John’s primary meaning. Throughout the New Testament the concept of idolatry is expanded beyond prostration and service done before an image. Jesus speaks of “mammon,” or money, in “god-like” terms, declaring that man cannot serve both it and God (cf. Matthew 6:24). Paul twice equates covetousness with idolatry (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5). The idol that one serves, therefore, may not be an image of gold or silver. It may be an abstract concept, a lust of the flesh, or any number of things.
This is John’s final concern for his fellow Christians. They must place their emphasis in life on doing God’s commandments and abiding in Him. They must not be distracted by the world and its idols– false teachings, the lusts of the eyes and flesh, the pride of life, and so on. We have received life through the love of God manifest in Jesus Christ His Son, and the world cannot provide anything of such quality and duration. Let us be strengthened and encouraged by John’s first letter, abide in God, and keep ourselves from idols!