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What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘idolatry’?
– Wild uncivilised people worshiping a totem pole?
– Fierce-faced idols in Hindu temples?
– The ecstatic ritual dancing of the priests of Baal around Elijah’s altar?
No doubt, these things are all idolatrous in a very obvious way, but we need to realise that there are more subtle forms of idolatry as well.

Take a look at the Second Commandment. What is it talking about?

Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God . . . (Exodus 20:4-5)

If this commandment stood alone, then naturally, we can understand it to be talking about the worship of images of gods rather than Jehovah. We can find examples of such idolatry in the Bible.
-Babylonian idol-worship, which Isaiah mocked.

He cuts down cedars for his use . . .
He burns half of it in a fire,
and he roasts meat on that half.
He eats the roast and is satisfied.
He warms himself and says, “Ah!
I am warm, I see the blaze.”
He makes a god or his idol with the rest of it.
He bows down to it and worships;
He prays to it, “Save me, for you are my god.” (Isa 44:9-20)

The gods cower; they crouch together . . . they themselves go into captivity.(Isa 46:1-2)

-Paganism of the Graeco-Roman world, which Paul wrote about to the Roman church:

and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, birds, four-footed animals, and reptiles.
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.(Rom 1:23, 25)

But taken in context, the Second Commandment cannot be referring to this sort of obvious idolatry, because if that were the case, it would be repeating the thought of the first commandment, without adding anything to it.

So we understand the Second Commandment to be speaking of more than just worshiping false gods. Charles Hodge, Presbyterian theologian and principal of Princeton Theological Seminary between 1851 and 1878, said it well:

Idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images’.

The Christian application of this commandment would mean that we should not use visual or pictorial representations of the triune God or of any of the Persons of the Trinity for the purpose of worship.
The second commandment is not talking about the ‘object’ of worship but about the manner of worship. Simply put, it is saying: Do not use statues and pictures of the God we worship even if you feel they help you worship Him better.

The Dangers in Images

It can seem strange that this rule, which seems to be saying: ‘Do not use statues and pictures of the God we worship even if you feel they help you worship Him better,’ should find a place in the Ten Commandments—the ten basic principles of biblical religion. Is it really that important? What harm can it do if worshipers surround themselves with statues and pictures if they help us lift their hearts to God?

Everyone is different, and everyone’s taste is different, isn’t it?
– Some have crucifixes and pictures of Christ in their rooms, and they tell us that looking at these objects helps them to focus their thoughts on Christ when they pray.
– Some claim to be able to worship more freely and easily in churches that are filled with statues and pictures than they can in churches that have no such ornaments.
What is wrong with that? What harm can these things do? If people really do find them helpful, what more is there to be said? What point can there be in prohibiting them?

“Nothing is wrong with that,” is the answer of those who want to defend the use of statues and pictures in worship. They explain away the Second Commandment by saying that only immoral and degrading representations of God, borrowed from pagan cults, are prohibited, nothing more.

But if you look closely at the wording of the Second Commandment, “Thou shalt not make any likeness of any thing,” you can see that:
– It is not ruling out only certain kinds of objects.
– It is not ruling out only objects depicting God as an animal.
– But it is ruling out pictures and statues depicting God even as the highest of created things—a human.
– It is therefore ruling out pictures and statues depicting Jesus as a man, although Jesus was and is a man. Clearly then, using statues and pictures depicting Jesus as a man as an aid in worship is wrong.

Historically, Christians have differed on whether the Second Commandment forbids the use of pictures of Jesus for purposes of teaching and instruction (in Sunday-school classes, for instance), and the question is not an easy one to settle.

But there is no room for doubting that the commandment clearly commands us to dissociate our worship
– both in public and in private
– from all pictures and statues of Christ,
– and certainly from pictures and statues of His Father.

Looking at the way the Second Commandment is worded, one sees that
– the description is elaborate and comprehensive,
– mention is made of God’s jealousy, and
– the consequence of disobedience is very severe.

It certainly looks as if the Second Commandment must be about something that is of crucial importance.
But is it?
The answer is yes.

The Bible shows us that bound up in this matter are two things:
– the glory of God, and
– the spiritual well-being of humans.
And both these things are not really anything to do with the supposed ‘helpfulness’ of images but to what those images really are and do.

1. Images dishonor God, for they obscure His glory. The three categories of things mentioned in the Second Commandment are:
– Likeness of things in heaven (sun, moon, stars)
– Likeness of things in earth (people, animals, birds, insects)
– Likeness of things in the sea (fish, mammals, crustaceans)
None of these things is precisely a likeness of their Creator. So can any of these things possibly represent God?

“A true image of God is not to be found in all the world; and hence. . . His glory is defiled, and His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form. . . Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption His majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is.” [John Calvin]

Why is an image of any created thing an insult to the Creator? Is it because God is spirit whereas these images show God (the Father) as having body and parts? If that were the only objection, then it would be perfectly OK to represent Christ with a body, wouldn’t it—because we know that He has a glorious resurrected body?
But the point really goes much deeper.
The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that—
they inevitably hide most, if not all, of the truth about the God whom they represent—about God’s personal nature and character.
These two illustrations will explain this.

The GOLDEN CALF illustration—Aaron made a golden calf. It was meant as a visible symbol of Jehovah, the mighty God, strong as a bull, who had brought Israel out of Egypt. No doubt the image was thought to honour God, as being a fitting symbol of His great strength.
But it is not hard to see that such a symbol in fact insults Him, because by looking at the statue of God as a bull, you cannot understand anything about:
– God’s moral character,
– God’s righteousness,
– God’s goodness and
– God’s patience
Thus Aaron’s image hid Jehovah’s glory.

The CRUCIFIX illustration—In the same way, the crucifix, with all its sadness and pathos, hides the glory of Christ, because you cannot see any of the following in it:
– His deity,
– His victory on the cross, and
– His present kingdom.

Instead the crucifix displays these:
– His human weakness, but it conceals Christ’s divine strength.
– The reality of His pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of His joy and his power.

In both these cases—the golden calf and the crucifix—the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity.

Maybe you think that art depicting God and Christ are permissible or maybe you don’t. Whatever we may think of religious art from a cultural standpoint, we should not look to pictures of God to show us His glory and move us to worship. Showing us God’s glory is precisely what such pictures can never do.
And this is why God added to the Second Commandment a reference to Himself as “jealous” to avenge Himself on those who disobey Him.

God’s glory is very important to Him, and He makes sure that it is held high. Whenever someone else or something else comes in the way of His glory, God reacts very strongly. Whenever the Bible speaks of God’s jealousy, it is referring to His zeal to maintain His own glory. Images used in worship come in the way of God’s glory, as we have seen, and God’s jealousy is aroused. This is a very serious matter, and that is why the wording of the Second Commandment—about images used in worship—is so strong.

God’s greatness cannot be measured, and in Isaiah 40, after explaining and describing God’s immeasurable greatness, the Scripture asks the following question.

“To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?” Isaiah 40:18

No answer is expected. Like children who have been told off by a parent, we just need to be silent.

This scripture is given to remind us that it is absurd—and insulting and extremely disrespectful to God—to think that an image made to look like some creature could be an acceptable likeness of the Creator.
But this is not the only reason why we are forbidden to use images in worship.

2. Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God. We saw that pictures and statues cannot represent God properly because they DO NOT CONVEY His glory to us, but rather obscure it.  But it is also true that images DO CONVEY something. They DO CONVEY false ideas about God and pervert our thoughts of Him. They plant errors of all sorts in our minds—errors about His character and about His will.
The same two illustrations will explain this.

The GOLDEN CALF illustration—Aaron, by making an image of God in the form of a bull-calf, led the Israelites to think of Him as a Being who could be worshiped acceptably by frenzied debauchery. The golden calf gave the Israelites a false picture of God. Hence the “festival to the LORD” which Aaron organized became a shameful orgy.

. . .  And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (Exodus 32:5-6)

The CRUCIFIX illustration—People who use the crucifix to help them in their prayers come to believe that brooding over Christ’s physical sufferings is a way of showing their devotion to God. Using the crucifix has given them an unhealthy idea that pain has special spiritual value. This has kept them focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus on the cross, and has kept them from knowledge of the risen Savior. Jesus is risen; He is not still on the cross.

These two examples show how images will falsify the truth of God in the minds of men.
Psychologically, it is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are going to pray, you will come to think of him, and pray to him, as the image represents him.
And before you know it, you will begin to “bow down” and “worship” your image. You will fail to worship God in truth to the extent that your image fails to tell the truth about God. As far removed as your image is from God, so far removed will be your worship from true worship.

That is why God forbids you and me to make use of images and pictures in our worship.

Molten Images and Mental Images

We have just seen that images and pictures affect our thoughts of God.  This takes our application of the Second Commandment to another level. So we now have two levels of application.
– First level of application: Do not have molten images and pictures of God.
– Second level of application: Do not have mental pictures of God by dreaming them up.
Breaking the rule at the second level of application is as real as breaching the rule at the first level.

How often do we hear this sort of thing:

“I like to think of God as the great Architect.”
“I like to think of God as the great Mathematician.”
“I like to think of God as the great Artist.”
“I don’t think of God as a Judge; I like to think of Him simply as a Father.”

We find that people who say things like this usually go on to then deny something that the Bible tells us about God.

So, we need to say this to such people with the greatest possible emphasis:
If you feel that you are free to think of God as and how you wish—then— YOU ARE BREAKING THE SECOND COMMANDMENT.

At best, these people can only think of God in the image of man
– as an ideal man, perhaps, or
– as a superman.
But God is not just any sort of man.

We were made in His image, but we must not think of Him as existing in ours.
To think of God in such terms is to be ignorant of Him, and not to know Him.

On matters concerning God, we have no license to guess and speculate. It makes no sense for people to guess or decide something about God and then come up with their own reasons for believing it. This kind of speculative theology is useless, faulty and wrong. Whatever can be known of God is known only because He has revealed it to us through the Bible. That should be our only source for information about God.

Paul tells us that clever, guesswork theology leads no where:

“The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor 1:21 KJV)

If knowing more about the true God is your goal, then it is foolish to follow the imagination of your heart in matters to do with God. By dreaming up your own ideas, you are not going to learn anything new about the real God, are you? You will be as ignorant as ever about Him. In fact, if you imagine God to be this way or that, you become an idol worshiper, and the idol in this case is the false mental image that you have imagined in your mind.

When you look at the subject of God in this way, the positive teaching of the Second Commandment becomes clear.
We already know what the negative teaching is:

  • It is the warning against the ways of worship—the use of statues and pictures and the carrying out of religious practices—that hide God’s true glory or show false ideas about God.

The positive teaching of the Second Commandment that becomes clear is:

  • It is a stern order (like a court summons) to recognise that God the Creator is someone who is
    • transcendent—beyond the realm of human experience,
    • mysterious,
    • inscrutable—impossible to understand or interpret, and
    • beyond the best of our imagining, guesswork, or reasoning.
  • And so it is an order
    • to humble ourselves,
    • to listen and learn of Him,
    • to let Him teach us what He is like, and
    • to let Him teach us how we should think of Him.

God tells us through Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” for “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).

Paul speaks along similar lines:

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom 11:33-34).

God is not the sort of person that we are:
– His wisdom,
– His aims,
– His values, and
– His methods

All of these things differ so much from our own.
– So, we cannot possibly guess and find these things.
– We cannot know them intuitively.
– We do not even have a correct idea of what a perfect man is supposed to be, so – we cannot even properly imagine Jesus as a perfect human being.
The conclusion we come to is that—Unless God speaks and tells us about himself, we cannot know anything about Him.

But in fact GOD HAS SPOKEN.
– He has spoken to His prophets and apostles, and
– He has spoken through His prophets and apostles, and
– He has spoken in the words and deeds of His own Son.
– He has spoken and it has been recorded for us in the holy Scriptures—the Bible.
– Through this revelation, we may form a true notion of God; without it we never can.

So we can now explain the positive teaching of the Second Commandment better.
– We had said that the positive teaching was that we are to humbly let Him teach us about Himself.
– Now we can explain it further by saying that we are to humbly let Him teach us about Himself from His own holy Word, and from no other source whatsoever.

The evidence that this is indeed the positive teaching of the Second Commandment is in the way the Second Commandment is worded.
– First, worshiping of images is forbidden,
– Second, God declares Himself jealous, and
– Third, punishment is declared for all who hate Him.

Notice how the Commandment does not say that God will punish the image users, but that He will punish “all who hate Him.” The natural and expected thing in the context would be a specific threat to image users. Why, instead, is God’s threat generalised?

Surely this is in order to make us realise that:
– Those who make images and use them in worship, are those who will allow the images to influence how they think of God, and these people will in fact tend to neglect God’s revealed will at every point.
– The mind that is taken up with images is a mind that has not yet learned to love and attend to God’s Word.
– Those who look to man-made images, material or mental, to lead them to God are not likely to take any part of His revelation as seriously as they should.

In Deuteronomy 4, Moses himself explains why images are forbidden in worship, and his reasons are along exactly these lines

Moses sets the making of images in opposition to the heeding of God’s word and commandments, as if these two things were completely exclusive of each other.

He reminds the people that at Sinai,
– though they saw tokens of God’s presence,
– they saw no visible representation of God Himself, but
– they only heard His word.

And Moses exhorts them to
– continue to live, as it were, at the foot of the mount,
– with God’s own word ringing in their ears to direct them, and
– with no supposed image of God before their eyes to distract them.

The point is clear.
– God did not show them a visible symbol of Himself, but spoke to them.
– So, they are not now to seek visible symbols of God, but simply to obey His Word.

If people sneeringly say that Moses was afraid that the Israelites would borrow designs for images from the idol-worshiping nations around them, to this we say: Yes exactly so! Moses was afraid of this very thing.

All man-made images of God, whether they are of the molten kind or the mental kind, are borrowed designs from a sinful and ungodly world. Because of this, they are bound to be out of sync with God’s own holy Word.

To make an image of God is to take one’s thoughts of Him from a human source, rather than from God Himself. And this is precisely what is wrong with image-making.
Image making may be:
– making of molten images by humans—which in turn give worshipers false ideas about God or
– dreaming up of mental images by humans— based on their own ideas of God.

Looking to the True God

The question we need to ask ourselves is: How well are we keeping the Second Commandment?

– the church we attend has no bull-images.
– probably we do not have a crucifix in the house (though we may have some pictures of Christ on our walls that we ought to think twice about)

– are we sure that the God we seek to worship is the God of the Bible—the triune Jehovah?
– do we really worship the one true God?

Or have we actually put our faith in some other god—instead of the Christian God—just as the Jews today or the Muslims or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Maybe you are asking: How can I tell whether I am actually worshiping the Christian God or not?
Well, the test is this.
The God of the Bible has spoken in His Son.

. . . the light of the knowledge of the glory of God is given to us in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6)

So ask yourself these questions:

– Have I made it a habit to pay attention to Lord Jesus Christ and what He has done for us?
– Do I believe that in Jesus, I am shown the final truth about God— about God’s nature and about how God blesses us with what we do not deserve (grace).
Do I see all the purposes of God as centering upon Jesus?

If I have been enabled to see Jesus in this way,
and if I go to Calvary—acknowledging that Jesus died for me—with all sincerity of mind and heart,
and take hold of the Calvary solution—believing that an amazing transaction happened there where Jesus took my sin on Himself and covered me with His own perfect righteousness—so that now I can approach a holy God,
I can know
that I truly worship the Christian God,
and that He is my God,
and that I am even now enjoying eternal life,
according to our Lord’s own definition:

“Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

Additional Note (1993)

I have received a steady trickle of letters over the years from people who’ve wanted to tell me that they do not agree with what I have said about:
– the use of images of God for teaching purposes and for devotional purposes.
They say that my view is too extreme. Is it really?

They bring three arguments supporting the use of images:

Argument #1.
The worship of God requires both of the following equally:
– Christian aesthetic expression through the visual arts
– Christian moral expression through family love and neighbor love.

Packer’s answer to Argument #1.
I agree with this argument in principle, but I struggle to see how it can be applied correctly.
We have to deal with the following statements, which are both true:
– Symbolic art can serve worship in many ways
– The Second Commandment forbids anything that will be thought of as a representational image of God.

I do not see any harm in having pictures and statues of Jesus that are always culture-specific symbols of perfect manhood. This means that Caucasian groups use a white-faced Jesus symbol, those in Africa, use a black-faced one, and those in China use a yellow-faced one, and so on. But practically, this will not work, because it requires a level of ‘sophistication’ to understand the reasons for this. Neither children nor simple-minded adults will understand the necessity of sticking with culture-specific symbols in this way. So, in my opinion we will be wiser to do without images at all.

Argument #2.
God gave Imagination as part of our human nature, and so, when we communicate with our Creator:
– imagination should be sanctified and expressed.
– imagination should not be stigmatized and suppressed.

Packer’s answer to Argument #2.
The principle of the second argument is also right, but the biblical way to apply it is different. God wants us to use our imagination to appreciate the drama and wonder of God’s historical doings. Don’t we see the Bible writers themselves use the gift of imagination under inspiration in the prophetic books, in the Psalms, and in the book of Revelation? It is better to channel our imagination in this way rather than to fly in the face of the Second Commandment by creating static images of God—images that are meant to represent Him.

Argument #3.
Images actually do trigger devotion, and without images, our devotion would be weaker.
(Images include crucifixes, icons, statues, pictures of Jesus)

Packer’s answer to Argument #3.
Hypothetically speaking, if someone can consider an image as a symbol of God, maybe as a cue for some aspect of prayer, it may be alright. But in reality, what ends up happening is that images do not remain as mere symbols or cues. They start to represent God to the worshiper. So, the devotion they trigger begins to be corrupted, because we have already seen that images can never represent the true God.
Since it is hard for us humans to avoid this pitfall—and images start to represent God to us—the wisest advise to be given is that the better and safer way is to learn to do without images at all.
Some risks are not worth taking.