Simon Bowkett's Podcast

1 John 5:20b-21 Pt 2 The True God and Eternal Life

July 30, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Simon Bowkett's Podcast
1 John 5:20b-21 Pt 2 The True God and Eternal Life
Show Notes Transcript

1 John 5 :20b-21

John is not one for theology divorced from reality so he’ll be addressing the question:

‘What is the implication of that for these people in these few troubled and tested house churches around the great Asian city of Ephesus?’

John 5:20 - “He is the true God and eternal life.


         •        So you need to do this, v. 21

John 5:21 “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”


Let’s talk for a minute about Ephesus.

WHAT do we know about Ephesus, and what do we know about the churches in that region?

        •          The founding of the Church at Ephesus

The church in the centre of Ephesus came into being in Acts 19.

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”


They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”


3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”


“John’s baptism,” they replied.


4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.”

Ephesus was a place where ideas ended up … but it was very much a part of the Graeco-Roman thought-world over there in the province of Asia.

But somehow the teaching of John the Baptist had got there well ahead of the teaching that came out of Pentecost.

So when Paul rocked up there after Corinth, he found these guys who only knew about God’s impending judgement and the need to demonstrate repentance publicly in baptism.

That’s a bit odd in itself, because many of the disciples of John knew about Jesus, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world … but that’s by the by.

The people Paul discovered at Ephesus needed Bible teaching and Paul was the guy to give it, and then when he HAD given it there were twelve spiritually born again guys there that he could have formed a synagogue of their own with, perhaps.

It was the requisite number for that and they could have had a lovely time of it … being a good bunch of lads together there keeping themselves to themselves and looking after each other’s interests, just like the pagan trade and business guilds that we know flourished in that city.

But they didn’t do that.

Let’s consider …

        •          The growth of the Church at Ephesus

Those newly born again disciples all went with Paul into the main synagogue in the city (Acts 19:8 ff) where Paul “spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 

9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 

10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.”

These house church believers John is addressing in this book may well have benefitted from the spread of the message along the trade routes leading out of Ephesus and into the hinterland, which that last verse there describes for us.

It was a really fruitful time of ministry, when Paul really set some fire to the blue touchpaper of the Gospel across a large swathe of Roman Asia.


The welcome at Ephesus from many of the population was always going to be HOT and fiery rather than warm and cosy.

The Gospel was spreading and astonishing miracles were happening that accredited the Gospel to these pagan townsfolk but …

Acts 19:23-27 “About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

A HUGE riot broke out, with the whole city in uproar.

But the church had really grown at the Lecture Hall of Tyrannus, and was a strong and thriving centre of mission at the heart of the port city of Ephesus and so it went on being for a good while.

        •          The multiplication of the Church from Ephesus

Now here’s the thing.

It wasn’t an easy place to be a Christian and paganism and idolatry were firmly rooted there.

They were rooted in 

·       the multi-culturalism of the place (because it was a port with lots of immigrants trading here from across the Roman Empire), 

·       the civic identity of the place (because Ephesus was famous throughout the whole world as the home of the goddess Diana also known as Artemis) and in 

·       the economy of the place (because its silversmiths like Demetrius who started the big riot made a fortune from selling statue of their goddess).

But the social, geographical and trading features of the place that brought the paganism in, also took the Gospel out … along the same trade routes to the entire region beyond.

Here’s the key to that:

What Acts 19 tells us Paul did was to go into the lecture hall of Tyrranus (Tyrannus means ‘ruler’ or ‘sovereign’), so when the snagged turned against him  (Acts 19:11) “he left them and took the disciples with him, addressing them every day in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”

What’s going on there?

Let’s take one example of an individual who was there learning from Paul as he taught … there was a guy called Epaphras.

Epaphras - a man from nearby Colossae who had come down to the big commercial centre of Ephesus - had come to believe the Gospel, then he trained up in it with Paul in the lecture hall of Tyrranus at Ephesus, but then he went back and set up the church at Colossae (Colossians 1:7) … and after that kept on working on the Gospel’s Asia Minor team because we find him later working alongside side on various campaigns (Colossians 4:12) even spending time imprisoned for his faith alongside Paul (Philemon 1:23).

And that’s how, as Acts 19:10 tells us, “all who lived in the province of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.”

Here is a church that was well founded, well-taught and that knew what rapid growth looked like in a really very ethnically and religiously diverse environment.

It was a superb and a prolifically sending church!

And even in that fantastic church with such a fantastic history and fantastic record there were problems because people were throwing their weight around to undermine Biblical theology … but mainly the ETHICS  that spring from good theology, and when it comes to John summarising what the need was for this set of churches, the need was a very basic, startlingly ‘square one’, basic, ‘you really ought to know this’ sort of need …

        •          Keep yourselves from idols


John - don’t you realise - this is the church of all churches with its mix of deities drawn from both Asian and Graeco-Roman cultures at the meeting point of those influences in the geographical nexus of their influence in the commercial centre of Ephesus …

This church of ALL churches is going to be the church to repulse the lure of the shrine prostitutes, the commercial guilds that oiled the wheels of trade (dedicated as they were to religious rituals around these pagan cults) and to stand away from all the apparatus of the shrines, their images and their artefacts?!

Oh yes … John knows that.

But he also knows that while that is the sort of awareness of idolatry that is current in the Old Testament Law and prophets … along with the immorality that often accompanied pagan practices … the New Testament brings a much deeper and profound level of both understanding and analysis of what human idolatry at root IS.

Just as, in the sermon on the Mount during the ‘you have heard that it was said to the people long ago’ section, Jesus runs through sins they would all never condone (murder, adultery, divorce …) then lays bare the roots of this offences as their more serious counterparts, so the New Testament lays bare the roots of idolatry and condemns them in folks who were missing the point …

The Old Testament speaks, of course, of the high places, the Asherahs and the Baals.

But the New Testament probes the more fundamental, underlying roots of the problem and in so doing exposes the idolatrous heart of things … things that a big, thriving, successful church with a great reputation like the church in Ephesus and its surrounding district might glance away from.


Paul helps expose the problem in Romans 1:25, of course:

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

Did you get that?

There are, of course, many ‘born in battle’, theologically correct, morally strict, culturally distinct from the world churches about in our day too that when you lift the lid what you find underneath is a seething pot … because the culture and the ministry and everything else in that congregation that looks so great outwardly has allowed – has even sometimes tacitly encouraged - the materialistic or pride-driven worship of created, naturally talented, successful looking things and people - humanly made things - rather than the Creator God Who is above all forever praised.

·       No doubt middle class values have a number of cross-over points with the values of the Kingdom of God … but they are not the values of the Kingdom of God and to enshrine them becomes idolatry.

·       No doubt working class values have a number of cross-over points with the values of the Kingdom of God … but they are not the values of the Kingdom of God and to enshrine them becomes idolatry.

·       No doubt environmental values (are you getting the point here?) have a number of cross-over points with the values of the Kingdom of God … but they are NOT the values of the Kingdom of God and to enshrine THEM also becomes idolatry.

We have been dealing here in 1 John with the obedient, loving and sound doctrinally based values of the Kingdom of God as authentic indicators of the genuine conversion and subsequent God-following of real live Christian believers … and the key thing that underlies and drives all that John has been advocating for in this book is summarised in THIS way … you most fundamentally cannot serve both God and idols.


What then ARE idols?

There are certainly no statues around in OUR church, thank you very much!

Hang on there!

Idolatry is worshipping created things rather than the Creator God Who is above all, forever praised.

What are your church’s idols?

And what are yours?

What are the created things that you in practical reality are wedded to every day, in place of devoting yourself, your time, your love and your resources to the Creator God Who is above all and FOREVER praised?

The absolute starting point EVERY DAY for the Christian life is the lesson that people living in a city, worshipping in a congregation like Ephesus should most certainly have been very clear on:

1 John 5:21 “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”

         •        Conclusion

You know, the churches of Ephesus actually appear again on the stage of God’s revelation in the final book of His Word to humanity.

The things that so characterised the culture at Ephesus, of course, are also excluded specifically from the list of things excluded from the city of God in Revelation 21, but the CHURCHES in Ephesus pop up again at the opening of that book.

And they don’t appear with a wholly creditable citation there.

Do you remember what it is the Spirt has to say to the Ephesian church there?


Revelation 2:2-7 “ I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.


4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6 But you have this in your favour: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.


7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, 

{Hello! There’s that God having and giving life theme again!}

which is in the paradise of God.”


Now I reckon it’s very probably a big mistake to read and understand the challenge about abandoning their first love (which was for the Lord) without reference to 1 John 5’s appeal to them to keep themselves from idols.

Oh yes, these Ephesians hated the PRACTICES of the Nicolaitans … always easy to condemn other people’s ethical behaviour … 

But their HEART for God seems to have been lost in their fascination with this wretched idolatry of created things rather than the Creator, which everyone around them was doing anyway, but which the Ephesian church was doing in a far more obviously ‘Christianised’ way!

Such things have consequences.

If we were meeting in a building at this point, I’d probably show you a photograph of the ruins of Ephesus … God really isn’t messing with us on this issue.

He IS the true God.

He is the REAL (and Living) God

And it is painfully true that your practices may be thoroughly divorced from the practices of the pagans, which you detest, while your heart remains wedded to your idols.

The Ephesians SURELY thought that given their history and their background they of all people were on top of this renouncing of idolatry  issue.

Yet after all that carefully written, rhetorically nuanced and skilfully developed rhetoric that we discover as we read through 1 John, comes the punchline. And hard a punch to the soft anatomy is what it comes to us as:

“Dear Children, keep yourselves from idols.”

And, oh yes, all of the people very definitely said … ‘Ouch!’