Images of God?
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2002, 2010
This article about the Second Commandment is the 34th study in the series on the Life of Moses by Pastor Bob Burridge. It was presented at Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA, Pinellas Park, Florida) on August 4, 2002. It is re-edited here as a general article for the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies.
Images of God?
In the world today, few people want to be thought of as idol worshipers. We’ve seen pagan rituals made to look even more sinister, fanatical, and bizarre by Hollywood. The movie industry loves visual clichés that make religion seem ignorant and dangerous. At the same time movie-makers promote their own agenda of quirky beliefs and immoral life-styles.
By attacking religion in the form of pagan ritual idolatry the film industry finds a politically safe way to show its prejudice against all who believe in a God who doesn’t prefer alternate life-styles, the deification of nature, or brave but foul-mouthed violent agitators.
So most ritualistic religions now try to distance themselves from anything resembling idol worship. They deny that what they are doing when they bow before images is really the same as idolatry. For example:
Hinduism has many images and statues that appear to be part of its worship. But they say they are not idols because the images are not god’s in themselves. One recent Hindu writer explains it this way, “… Hindus invoke the presence of great souls living in higher consciousness into stone images so that we can feel the presence of God.” The point is that idols aren’t gods to them. They say they just represent the presence of god.
Buddhism is well known for its meditation before the familiar Buddha statues. But they also deny that it’s a form of idolatry. Buddha isn’t thought of as a god. He was an enlightened man. Their reverence before the statues of him is to remind them of the human dimensions of his teachings about the middle way of enlightenment.
Some Christian sects are well known for their prayers in front of statues, crucifixes, and symbols. But they have always denied that their images are idols. Some may represent God, but the likenesses are not thought of as Gods themselves. And they remind us that their statues of Mary and of the Saints are venerated, not worshiped.
With all these explanations, the Second Commandment might seem almost unnecessary. These religions may want to get rid of the stigma of being idol worshipers. But the Second Commandment isn’t that easily explained away. It is not just a warning to remote primitive pagans who imagine a rock to be their god. It was addressed to Israel.
The Second Commandment
In summarizing the basic principle about how God is properly worshiped, the Second Commandment puts it this way:
4. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
5. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,
6. but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
This commandment reminded Israel that no one should make any visible representations of God. God is the only one who fully comprehends his own nature. Only he can possibly know how he should be revealed, represented, and worshiped.
Question #8 in the Children’s Catechism asks, “What is God?”. The answer puts it into very simple words: “God is a spirit, and has not a body like men.”
The answer quotes Jesus who said to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:24, “God is spirit.” For us to presume how God ought to be represented in our physical world is foolishness.
Imagine our defense department selecting a person at random to go home tonight and draw up an illustrated booklet for our engineers to use in assembling a new line of nuclear submarines.
The more creative among us might come up with something impressive looking. But I don’t think we would sleep well if we knew our brave sailors were going to submerge in such a thing and attempt to defend our nation. We prefer that our defense equipment be designed by those who know how things work.
Since only God knows his infinite, eternal and unchangeable spirit nature we are fools if we attempt to design ways of representing him or of worshiping him based upon our own good intentions, feelings, and limited knowledge. Only God himself knows what he is, and how he is most accurately to be represented.
God has adequately revealed himself in our physical world. He created all things as a general revelation of his own glory and nature. It is there generally for all to see, even though many don’t appreciate it.
Psalm 19:1-2 “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, And night to night reveals knowledge.”
Romans 1:20 “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
The Bible tells us that God made all things to declare what he truly is. We should see in everything around us the wonder stamped upon it by its Maker. But no one is ever to bow to created things to worship God by them.
There was more detail given through Moses in Deuteronomy 4:15-19.
“So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. And beware, lest you lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.’
Of course this passage isn’t meant to condemn art. It doesn’t forbid drawing a tree, taking a picture of a sunset, or illustrating a nature text book. It is not offensive to God for us to make images of natural things. The context makes it clear what he is warning about: Verse 15 begins with the reminder to Israel that when Jehovah spoke from Mount Sinai they saw no form. Therefore they shouldn’t imagine his form.
When we try to visualize God in created or man made things we sin against him. Though the physical world should stir us to worship the Creator we are not to worship him in or through the individual objects he made.
God has actually given us an image of his own design. He made humans in his own image. Very specifically, humanity was to represent God’s holiness and authority here on earth. Certainly no one believes that we look like him. He is a spirit and is infinite, unbounded by our physical limitations.
It means we are to represent him on earth in all that we say, think, and do. But we dare not let the image become confused with the object itself. We only reflect the glory of our Maker generally. We only finitely and imperfectly bear his image in very specific ways. Humans, as image bearers of God, are never to be visual aids in worship.
God at times commanded certain objects to represent particular things about him. In Numbers 21:9 God commanded that a brass serpent should be made to show his mercy and power. When Israel looked upon it, trusting in God, there was healing of a particular sort.
Later when Israel attempted to worship the brass serpent God became very angry. When Hezekiah became king he brought about reforms. 2 Kings 18:4 tells us that he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, “for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan.”
The Ark of the Covenant was used by God to mark out where he would supernaturally show the light of his presence in the tabernacle and temple. It was always to be moved and placed where God directed. When Israel superstitiously moved it into battle to manipulate God’s presence and help, their abuse brought defeat to Israel in God’s fierce judgment. They had perverted that limited symbol into an idolatrous object.
The elements of the Lord’s Supper represent the body and blood of our Savior. When administered as God directs, and when partaken in faith, we receive the blessing God attached to it covenantally. But if we parade the elements around as some religions do, and bow before them, or imagine they carry some blessing outside of the worship setting, we make them into an offensive idol.
All these are things specifically designed by God to teach us about particular aspects of his work. They were to represent specific truths in a particular setting only. To make them into objects of worship is to usurp God’s glory which they were made to represent.
God sometimes revealed himself in human forms we call Theophanies. These are a whole study in themselves. No one was to preserve these appearances to become objects to receive or to aid worship.
The ultimate and most perfect revelation is the incarnation of Jesus. God took on a real human nature (body and soul) when he was born over 2000 years ago. Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ promised in the ancient Scriptures. In that body he was specially and perfectly the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Later in Colossians 2:9 Paul said, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.”
Unlike the created things that represent God indirectly and imperfectly, Jesus was God in human flesh directly. His followers saw a physical form prepared by God himself. They rightly worshiped him and it wasn’t idolatry.
Since Jesus had a real body, is it acceptable to have pictures of him?
Though Jesus had a real body its appearance was not preserved for us. There is no written record describing any of his features. All we have are figurative descriptions in the Book of Revelation. If those are taken literally he would look both like a lamb and a lion as well as a man. His features are described in emblematic language only. They are of no help in building a physical description of him in any way.
God didn’t call the skilled artists of his day to make statues or drawings of him. He didn’t inspire the authors of Scripture who had seen Jesus to record descriptions. From coins and statues we know what Julius Caesar looked like, but God did not authorize the image of Jesus to be preserved along with his words.
The modern ideas about what he looked like are based on generalizations and speculations. Those who imagine to see the face of Jesus in clouds, nebula, rocks, and stains can have no credibility. We don’t know enough about his features to recognize him. No police sketch artist could even approximate his face from what information we have.
That great Bible scholar Dr. John Murray warns us, “In view of the profound influence exerted by a picture, especially on the minds of young people, we should perceive the peril involved in a portrayal for which there is no warrant, a portrayal which is the creation of pure imagination.”
Some ask, “What harm can it do as long as we don’t worship images of Jesus?”
First: we need to remember that there are three forbidding verbs in this commandment: we are not only told not to worship or serve images. we are first warned not even to make such images. Since Jesus Christ was God incarnate, the 2nd person of the eternal Trinity, making images of the physical form he took would be directly forbidden.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, in question 109, summarizes this biblical principle. Among the “The sins forbidden in the second commandment … it says … “the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshiping of it, or God in it or by it…”
Second: Tampering with God’s revelation, or replacing it with imagination, is absolutely evil. The physical body of Jesus, his every feature, expression, gesture and action, was a direct and immediate revelation of God.
The Apostle John explained how Jesus was the perfect revelation of God in John 1:18, “No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.”
In John 14:9 Jesus said to Philip, “… He who has seen Me has seen the Father …”
The whole purpose of creation, providence, and redemption is to declare the true nature and wonder of God. If we change this revelation or add to it from our own speculations we distort God’s truth.
If our drawings, paintings, stained glass windows, films, skits, or plays read our impressions into his mannerisms and expressions we have become unwitting partners in the war of evil against God’s purpose. So if our worship and hope rest in a distortion of God, a limited and edited version of truth, then our spiritual enemy succeeds in obscuring the message God declares in all things.
We might as well make up new parables or sayings of Jesus and base them merely upon what we think he would have said or meant. Distorting truth is the great objective of Satan and all evil in its attack against God
If we imagine we can picture Jesus as a mere human without understanding that he was at every moment and in every expression on his face, a revelation of God, then we horribly divide the union between the human and divine in Jesus.
To see Jesus was not to see a merely human face with eyes, eyebrows, nose, and lips. No actor or graphic artist, no theologian or archaeologist could know enough by the most informed speculation to go beyond what is revealed.
Third: we can’t imagine a believer beholding a representation of Jesus and not worshiping. Those who believe they have pictures which represent Jesus, yet they sense no divine awe in his person, no desire to worship what he is, should be alarmed that there is something wrong with them spiritually.
Jesus in his human body was a revelation of God. No one beholding Jesus could resist worshiping him in some sense.
John Murray writes, “We cannot think of him without the apprehension of the majesty that is his. If we do not entertain the sense of his majesty, then we are guilty of impiety and we dishonor him.”
The policy adopted in 1981 by the Great Commissions Publishing house says, “Any concern with Christ as he is revealed to us by his word and Spirit which is not fundamentally worship is sinful.” “our worship must be informed by what Scripture does reveal about Christ as well as limited by what Scripture does not reveal.”
What about pictures of Jesus as teaching tools for our children? Do children need to see a physical form? Obviously God didn’t think so. In fact the penalty in verses 5 and 6 for violating this commandment specially mentions its negative effect upon the children for generations to come.
We can understand the actions of Jesus in all the detail described in the Bible. There is no need to add visual details which God did not see as necessary.
The Great Commissions Publishing house policy said, “conceptualization does not require visualization”. Our visualizations in Sunday School material should be limited to the infallible word God gives us. Illustrations for teaching can show generalized forms without adding details beyond the basic fact that Jesus was a Jewish male entering his public ministry at the age of 30.
We should not make, have, or use pictures or representations of what Jesus looked like or how he behaved, acted, or reacted.
Jehovah tells us that he is a jealous God, one who is serious about holiness. His wrath is poured out in severe judgment upon all who dare violate this sacred and eternal law. The children are effected to the third and fourth generation. Those growing up with images of God of any kind will suffer the consequences in their own distorted and sinful conceptions of God and of Jesus. They will find it hard to think of Jesus without those mental images so indelibly imprinted while they were growing up. On the other hand, those generations growing up without images of that sort will be blessed.
This is not just theological theory. It is God’s direct statement here in the Second Commandment.
The Gospel is necessary to enable us to see God as he intends. To know God as spirit requires renewed hearts informed by God’s word. True worship is done by eyes opened by grace through the applied work of Christ. It occurs when the redeemed soul responds to the accurate revelation God has given.
Long ago St. Augustine was challenged by a man who proudly showed him his idol. The man said, “here is my god, where is yours?” Augustine answered, “I cannot show you my God. Not because there is no God to show, but because you have no eyes to see him.”
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Rather than pictures, God gave us the thousand words, actually a lot more words than that. In the Bible we have a whole slide show of wonderful words. God makes himself known to us by his Word and Sacraments, and he is to be seen at work in us his image-bearers. God has communicated into our physical world all we need to know about him.
This is an eternal principle. There could never be a time when it would be acceptable to represent God by any visible form designed by the imagination of a human being.
We must not be discontent with that. God’s redeemed children should guard against the sin of depicting him in ways he has not prescribed. That would be a violation of his holy law and a distortion celebrated only in the kingdom of evil.
When God’s word is treasured for all that it is, and his boundaries respected, adding nothing, subtracting nothing, and loving all of it, we and our children will be blessed for many generations to come.