And we know [full knowledge by precept] that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know [through experience] Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true [genuine] God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from [mount a guard against] idols. Amen. (1 John 5:20–21—NKJV)

We always associate idols with paganism, and rightly so. Paul explains how idolatry started among men in Romans 1:21–23: “Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile [devoid of force, truth, success] in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.” From the day of man’s creation, he has known that God is. Our forebears knew Him and fellowshipped with Him.

With the advent of sin, rebellion and separation from God became the normal state of every unregenerate man. Some have said that there is a “God-shaped void” found within the unsaved conscience which every man is driven to fill with something, whether a god of wood and stone, or of earthbound imaginations, both of which serve as poor substitutes of the true and only God, the Creator.

The Greek word for idol is a word which means phantom or likeness. Our word idol is defined as an image of a god used as an object or instrument of worship, ardent and excessive devotion or admiration, something without substance but can be seen, as a shadow or an image in a mirror. The Hebrew word for idol denotes vanity and a “thing of naught.”

The pagan mind (the one with which you were born), in the absence of knowing the Authentic God, is naturally bent to fear what he does not know and to respect powers that are outside his control. Since his life is full of uncertainties, coincidences, decay, and disasters, both large and small, it is no wonder that superstitions and suppositions find a home in his malleable mind. No man can see what is just around the next corner or what evil lurks both within and without. Lost men either approach life with stoicism (like a practical atheist or agnostic) or with paganistic superstition. Both approaches are found to be at home in most churches today.

It never ceases to amaze me that this pagan mindset, no matter what culture, always settles on the grotesque representations of man or nature around him for his anemic and poor substitutes for the real God of the Universe. Somehow he finds intellectual, moral, spiritual, and comforting satisfaction from his own phantasmic creation. He constructs legends, myths, and theological instructions based on his own representations that are supposed to be an antidote to all the powerful evils beyond his immediate control. It is interesting that the Greek word for idolater is a compound word made up of idol and hireling, someone who is paid to serve—idol worship becomes his livelihood and life.

Idolatry may seem to be a thing from the distant past to us “enlightened people” of the twenty-first century, as if relegated to stone-age cultures and ancient tales. John’s words were extremely relevant to believers in the Roman world surrounded by gods and their devotees of all sorts. But John’s warning is fresh, even today. Believers, we must labor to keep ourselves guarded from idols. How does one recognize modern-day idols?

First, and foremost, get to know the authentic article, the God of the Bible. Let His revelation of Himself cleanse your pagan leanings with the plain truth found in Scripture. This is the point of John’s words found in verse 20. Get to know the true God well, walk with Him, in order to be able to recognize all the poor substitutes that surround you. Find His sufficiency for all of the uncertainties and the forces within and beyond your immediate control.

Second, identify those things which have taken the rightful place of God in your life. While we may idolize people, teachers, family, church, etc., real modern day idols are those things to which you look for aid, succor, interpretation, meaning, guidance, and protection in place of leaning on Almighty God. In short, you become a hireling of them. False gods may take the form of fame, peer approval, a retirement plan, a government program, a job, a hobby, a relationship, a celebrated doctor, physical exercise, and myriad other poor, earthbound substitutes we allow to commandeer the throne in our heart which rightfully belongs only to our God, our heavenly Father! Trust and obey.