Can you imagine yourself going home today, chopping down a tree in your backyard, carving out an image of a divine being, decorating it, then placing it in your lounge room and bowing down to it? For most of us, it’s probably not an idea that has entered our mind recently, it’s not exactly a burning temptation. We know there are others throughout the world who do have images in their homes, or in their shops that they burn incense to or pray to, so it could be easy for us to think – this commandment is for them, but it’s not really for me.
This second commandment is one of the most difficult, for a number of reasons: Firstly, there’s some dispute over whether this actually is the second commandment. Roman Catholics and Lutherans say vv8-10 are not the second commandment, they are still part of the first commandment. For them the second commandment is the one we’ll look at next week, about misusing God’s name. (They get their tenth commandment by splitting up the final commandment on coveting into two). Yet most Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and some Jewish sources like the Talmud see these verses as the second commandment.
Secondly it’s difficult because even among those who agree that this is the second commandment there are a variety of views of exactly how it applies to Christians today. Didn’t we talk about idols as we looked at the first commandment? How is this commandment different from the first?
A third difficulty is the language of God being jealous and punishing future generations. We read it and think what’s that all about?
But the hardest thing is the issue I started with – it can be easy to think, this command is not relevant for me, making or bowing down to images isn’t a temptation I face, let’s just move on to the next one.
But this second commandment actually points to a deeper issue than sculptures or paintings. This commandment addresses the temptation we all face to obscure God’s glory and worship him in our own way, rather than His way. If the first commandment is about worshipping the right God, the second commandment is about worshipping the right God, in the right way. It’s about worshipping God as he is in the way he tells us to, not as we imagine him to be. As we think about this commandment, let’s consider two things:1. Some problems with worshipping images 2. Worshipping God His way
1. Problems with worshipping images
If you look at vv8-9 you see this commandment has to do with images (NIV 2011). An image here doesn’t mean just a picture, it means an object made by humans to represent a divine being. You can see three verbs or action words this commandment forbids in relation to images: You shall not make an image, you shall not bow down to them, you shall not worship them. God’s not saying we can’t make any sculptures or art, artistry and skilled workmanship is actually seen as a gift of God in the Bible. He is saying we can’t make and worship objects to represent divine beings.
In Exodus 32 Moses is up on the mountain receiving the ten commandments, the people get restless, and ask Aaron to make them an image. He makes them a golden calf, and said: This is your god who brought you up out of Egypt (v4). The people then had a festival and offered sacrifices to the LORD (vv5-6). This image then, isn’t of another god, it is an attempt to represent the true God using in image. That is breaking the second commandment. What’s the problem with images?
a) God is invisible yet speaking
If you turn back one chapter, to Deuteronomy 4 you’ll read Moses saying to the people: You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air (Deuteronomy 4:15-17)
When God revealed himself to the Israelites at Horeb or Mt Sinai, there was no visible form of God, there was a thick cloud, an earthquake, lightning, a voice that sounded like thunder, but there was no visible form to see. God is a Spirit, he is invisible, you can’t make an image of the invisible God.
God is invisible, yet he speaks. An image or idol is the opposite. An image is visible, yet mute, it can’t speak.
God does not invite us to gaze on him as a thing, but rather to listen to his voice. He has spoken, he has revealed himself, and he has defined himself by his perfections(Al Mohler). We can never properly represent God through an image. God is invisible yet he speaks, we need to listen to him.
b) Obscure God’s glory
An image or an idol is finite, it has limits. God is infinite, he has no limit. An image is created, but God is the Creator, an image needs someone, but God needs no one, he is self-sufficient. God is everywhere, and image can only be in one place, God knows all things, an image knows nothing, God hears everything we say, an image hears nothing, God is all-powerful, and image has no power. You can never convey the majesty and glory of God in an image.
‘With whom will you compare me or count me equal? To whom will you liken me that we may be compared? Some pour out gold from their bags and weigh out silver on the scales; they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god, and they bow down and worship it. They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Even though someone cries out to it, it cannot answer; it cannot save them from their troubles. (Isaiah 46:5-7).
You can never represent God’s character in an image, an image will always fail to show the full magnitude of God’s greatness, it will always obscure God’s glory.
c) Provoke God’s loving jealousy (v9)
v9 for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, We often think of jealousy in a negative sense of being insecure or fearful or envious, but the Bible speaks of a good jealousy, an appropriate jealousy. If you’re married and you say to your spouse, I don’t want you to ever talk to anyone else except me, that would be an insecure possessive sort of jealousy. But if a wife said to her husband, why don’t you go out and have an intimate dinner with your old girlfriend, feel free to be emotionally and physically intimate with her, stay over her place if you want, I don’t mind, you’d have to say there’s a problem in that relationship wouldn’t you? If there’s no jealousy, then there’s no love.
God’s jealousy shows his love, and his zeal. He wants what’s best for us. He wants us to love him and worship him in a way that is worthy of him. Worshipping an image, or in our own way will never do that.
d) Impact on future generations (v9-10)
v9 is a hard verse isn’t it? I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. What does that mean? It sounds unfair at first, but we know God is always just. Let’s be clear about what it can’t mean. It can’t mean that God finds children guilty or accountable for something their parents have done – Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. (Deuteronomy 24:16). The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. (Ezekiel 18:20)
God does not punish unfairly. It’s true that children often suffer the consequences of their parents sin. If a parent is lazy, or bad-tempered, or overly harsh, children will often suffer as a consequence, but this verse seems to be saying more than that. A number of commentators point out that the last phrase ‘of those who hate me’ belongs not just to the first generation, but to all of the generations in this verse. God is not punishing unfairly, he is punishing those who hate him, just as their parents have done. To worship an image, to worship God your own way, is to hate God, to turn your back on what he has says. This is tragic enough, but even more so if your children follow you in your sin.
Notice though the huge contrast between the four generations punished by God, and the thousand generations to whom he’ll show love.
This must make us think about the impact our life will have on future generations, whether we are parents or not. If you’re a parent you might be working hard to try to provide for your children materially, but do you ever think about the sort of spiritual legacy you will leave for your children? Will your children learn from you a love for God, that is more obvious than your love for craft, or cars, or career, or sport, or friends?
Imagine a man proposing to a lady. He says: Will you marry me? You’re not all that I’m looking for, but I think you have potential. I’d like you to lose some weight, change your wardrobe, change the way you laugh because it really annoys me, but I want you to marry me, and I’m going to turn you into exactly the person I want you to be. I’m not going to love you quite the way you want to be loved, but I am going to love you the way it suits me to love you. Do you think she’ll say yes? Of course not.
You can’t imagine someone doing that to a person who is imperfect, so why would we try to that with God who is perfect? Why would we say – God I’m going to believe in you, but there are some things about you I don’t like, so I’m not going to believe those things? I’m not going to do everything you say, I’m going to follow you and worship you the way I want to. It just doesn’t make sense does it? It’s foolish to try to worship God our own way, whether that be with images, or any other way.
2. Worshipping God His way
a) Worship the true image of God
The Bible tells us the amazing truth that humans are made in the image of God. There is a sense in which a living speaking, thinking, loving, honest, gracious, kind human can reflect many of God’s characteristics in a way that no image ever can. Yet all humans are also rebels against God, his image in all of us is marred, we don’t reflect God’s character the way we should. Yet there is one human being who does.
The Son is the image of the invisible God… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Colossians 1:15,19). I’ve had friends who were Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, and as they’ve found out that I’m a Protestant, and evangelical, they’ve asked me questions like – why don’t you have statues or images like the Roman Catholics, or icons like the Eastern Orthodox churches? One answer to that question (based on this verse) is: we don’t need them – the word translated image here is ikwn, Jesus is the image of God, the true icon, we don’t need any others. In Jesus the invisible God became visible. Any other images or icons will not display God’s glory the way Jesus did.
In John 14 Jesus’ disciple, Philip, said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)
To see Jesus was to see God. After Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas overcame his doubts and said to Jesus: My Lord and My God. Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (John 20:29). In Jesus the invisible God became visible. Yet we can believe in Jesus without seeing him, because those who did see him wrote down enough of what he said and did for us to be able to know and trust him.
So here’s an issue: since God became visible in Jesus, is it alright for Christians today to use pictures of Jesus? Some Christians, based on this commandment say: No- Jesus is God, a picture can never fully capture his glory and majesty. Other Christians say: Yes – this commandment is to do with worshipping images, so as long as you don’t pray to or worship the picture of Jesus, it’s OK. If you look at children’s books you might notice some Christian publishers have stories from the gospels, but never put Jesus in their pictures because of this commandment, but others do. Both would agree you should never worship or pray to a picture of Jesus. Whichever way you go on this issues, it’s important to notice that Jesus’ physical appearance is never described in the gospels, but what is described are his words, and his works, so they should be our focus.
In Mark 9 Jesus is up on a mountain with three of his disciples. Moses and Elijah appear talking with him. A cloud appeared and covered them, just like a cloud appeared over Mount Sinai in the time of Moses, and just like then a voice spoke from the cloud, the voice of God the Father, who said: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
We don’t need any other images or icons, because in Jesus God has spoken and still speaks. We don’t have to imagine what God would be like, we can know what he is like, he has shown us in Jesus teaching, in Jesus miracles, in Jesus death and in Jesus resurrection. We worship God his way by worshipping Jesus the true image of God.
b) Love and serve God’s visible church
How do we see the invisible God at work in our world today? The Bible’s answer is: the ordinary, local church. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23) The church is Jesus’ body, it’s described here as his fullness, living as his representatives here on earth.
His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known (Ephesians 3:10) How is the wisdom of the invisible God to be made known? Through the church. It’s common to hear people say, I don’t need to go to church to worship God. It’s true that God wants us to worship him with our whole lives, but if Jesus’ church isn’t important to you, you should ask yourself how well you really know God. Do you realise how much God loves the church, how central it is to his plans?
We see that Paul does when he charges the Ephesian elders: Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. (Acts 20:28) He’s referring to an ordinary local church, the church at Ephesus, and he calls it, God’s church, the church he bought with his own blood. He tells them to give themselves to shepherding and serving that church which Jesus loves.
It’s easy to come up with excuses for why we shouldn’t go to church isn’t it? The music’s not really my style,some of the people are a bit strange, , the preacher goes on a bit, I’ve got lots of other things to do. Yet it’s through the ordinary, sometimes strange people in the local church, that God is choosing to display his wisdom and glory, as we seek to love and encourage each other, and grow more like Jesus.
One of the things I’ve appreciated about serving in a team, is that we have the opportunity to talk over ideas for sermons with each other, and give each other feedback. One time, our senior pastor, Rog was giving me feedback, and he said, Kevin, I’d like you to keep using humour in your sermons. Not too much, he wants me to take God’s word seriously, but he thinks where it’s natural and helpful, I should use it. I said to him, I’ll try Rog, but I’m not really that funny, I haven’t got that many jokes, the one thing that seems to really work is when I tease you and Steve, people seem to like that. So Rog said, that’s fine, go ahead, keep doing it. I’m telling you this so you know, that when I tease Rog and Steve it’s not because I want to, I’m just the associate pastor here, I’m just doing what I’m told!
As you may know one of the things I like to tease Rog and Steve about is our age difference. Although it might seem we’re a similar age, we’re actually from different generations. Not only are we born on different sides of the moon landing, but they both have at least two kids in high school, and I’ve got a one year old. So that puts them in the older parents category, and me in the young parents category right? At least that’s what I try to tell them!
Whether you’re an older parent like Rog and Steve, or a younger parent like me, a good question to ask is, what are you teaching your children about church, by your lifestyle choices? This commandment makes us consider the impact we are having on future generaons. If you’re not a parent, you can ask the same question, what sort of example do your lifestyle choices set for others when it comes to church?
For a lot of Australian parents, if our kids are in a sporting team, sport becomes a non-negotiable, you’re there every week for the team no matter what. I wonder if you ever think of church that way, a non-negotiable. You’re there every week, not because you have to be there, but because you want to be there. You’re there because you love God, and you see how valuable the church is to God, the church he gave his blood for, it’s where his wisdom and glory are on display. As ordinary as it, it’s a place where God speaks each week through his word, and God acts in the life of his people, as they seek to love others, as Jesus has loved us. Give yourself to the church. You that are members of the church have not found it perfect … Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us… the church is not an institution for perfect people, but a sanctuary for sinners saved by grace, who, need all the help they can derive from … their fellow believers. The Church is…the fold for Christ’s sheep—the home for Christ’s family. (Charles Spurgeon)
How do we worship an invisible God? Not by making an image of him, not by making a god that suits us, a god of our imagination, but by recognising him as he is, listening to him as he speaks through his Son and through his word, confessing to him our real sin against him, putting our trust in his forgiveness, serving him in the local church where the power of the invisible God is on display in the lives of his people.
(Edited transcript of sermon preached at MEC 19 May 2013. You can listen to or download the sermon here )
 Al Mohler, Words from the Fire, chapter 2.