SGBC Modesto

The 2nd Commandment

February 26, 2024 by

William Heinrich

It is interesting that the two commandments of the greatest length are the most debated in the church.

Ex 20:4-6  “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;  you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me,  but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Are all images always bad?  Does the commandment forbid the making of any and all images of anything? Of course not for God commanded Moses to make and place two cherubim of gold for each end of the mercy seat. Solomon’s temple was embellished by engraved figures of cherubim, palm trees, etc. God commanded Moses to make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole and called the people to look at it for healing.  The context of the 2nd commandment explains and answers this question.  We must not make an image for the purpose of bowing down to them and serving them (CF Lev 26:1).  A good illustration of this point is in 2 Kings 18:4 where King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent that Moses made, because the people had begun to make offerings to it.  So the image was legitimate but worshiping it was sinful. 

It should be clear that the worship of the image as a god in itself or as a sacramental conduit to the god it represents (a representation of the divine) is equally forbidden in this commandment.  This is equally true of a false god and the true God.  When Israel made a golden calf and called it Yahweh (Jehovah) and said it represented the god that brought them out of Egypt they not only sinned by worshipping an image but by worshipping the true God by means of an image.  The worship of false gods is forbidden by the first commandment and the worship of the true God by an idol is forbidden in the second. 

Why does God disapprove of the worship of images or of Himself by means of an image?  Some say the invisible God should not be worshipped in visible form for it would distort Him.  However this is weak because Christ said if you have seen me you have seen the Father and He received the worship of angels and of Thomas.  Others say idol worship is wrong because they are impersonal and dead but the true God is personal and alive.  The second commandment not only guards the dignity of God but also of man made in his image.  For a man to bow to an idol is not only to worship something less than God, but also to worship something less than himself.  Only Jesus Christ fulfills the image of God and to this image of God we bow. 

Should we allow pictures in our place of worship? If so what kind? God had images of Cherubim, trees, flowers, etc. in the tabernacle.  No doubt they were there as teaching tools. There is always a danger when we place an image in church that it will soon be worshipped or someone will bow down to it.  Nevertheless, many symbols are not worshipped in protestant churches like a cross, the Christian fish, doves, decorative banners, and so on.  Today we have better methods to teach than images.  Better teachers, comfortable pews, Christian book stores, easier to read versions of the Bible.  It seems wise to remove all teaching images that could cause some weak, unlearned soul to fall before it. 

What about an image of Jesus. Since Jesus is to be worshipped being in the true and perfect image of God, is it not right?  The disciples saw Him and worshipped Him.  If cameras were in that day we would have his picture.  It is true that the pictures we have of Him are not likely Him.  Does that make it wrong?  In reality when we read the gospels, we picture Him in our mind do we not?  I often picture God as a triangle with its three sides but one triangle.  Do I sin when I do that?  Cornelius Van Til pictures God with a smaller circle (creation) placed under a larger circle (God).  Neither look like God but no one calls it idolatry. If we take pictures of Jesus out of our Sunday school material will we teach our children the disciples were there but Jesus wasn’t? 

So how can it be wrong to have pictures of Jesus as our teaching tool?  Yet it is advisable to be careful for people prone to worship images will be inclined to bow before a picture of Jesus as well.