As we come to the end of our study of 1 John, I find myself thinking about famous last words.
Some last words are anything but profound. On his deathbed, P.T. Barnum, the great circus impresario, asked, “How were the circus receipts in Madison Square Gardens?” Prompted for some final words of wisdom, the hotelier Conrad Hilton said, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub.”
Other last words are tragic. One thinks, in this regard, of what Julius Caesar said after being stabbed by a friend: “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”)
Still other last words are heroic in their resistance to death. As he was being burned to death for his faith, Saint Lawrence mocked the savagery of his persecutors and exclaimed, “Turn me! I’m roasted on one side.” As he was about to be hanged for espionage, the American patriot Nathan Hale said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” And then there are the magnificent (albeit fictional) words of Sidney Carton that conclude Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done: it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
Why are we so captivated by last words? I think it’s because we believe that last words reveal their speaker’s priorities in life. In the case of Barnum and Hilton, the priorities pertained to business. In the case of Lawrence, Hale, and Carton, they were spirituality, patriotism, and moral heroism, respectively.
According to 1 John 5:21, John’s last words—in this letter, not in life—were “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” Those words certainly reveal John’s priorities, and in two ways.
First, they reveal the priority he placed on relationship. Throughout this letter, John has referred to the members of his churches as “dear children.” As the founder of those churches, he has a warm, fatherly love for the souls under his care. He does not think of them as numbers to be counted or students to be lectured or sinners to be disciplined. (I think we’ve all had run-ins with pastors who treated their congregations so egregiously!) Rather, he thinks of them as his own sons and daughters. He cares for their wellbeing; he desires their spiritual growth.
Second, John’s last words reveal the priority he placed on truth. In verse 20, John writes, “He (Jesus) is the true God and eternal life.” If Jesus is the “true God,” then following anyone other than Jesus is idolatry. In the ancient world, of course, idols were concrete objects. They were made of metal and marble, they resided in temples, and their worshipers prostrated themselves before them. In our day, however, idols are more like ideologies. We are not tempted to bow down to Zeus or Diana or Moloch, but consumerism and materialism and hedonism do have their allures. If John were writing today, he’d say to us, “Dear children, keep yourself from isms!”
Ancient idols crumbled and rusted. Modern ideologies fail to deliver on their promises. But Jesus and the life he gives are eternal.