The Bible truly is an amazing book. No surprises there. It is God's word. One of these amazing things is the way that everything ties together and builds on itself. There are no contradictions, although it may seem that way at first glance. Last week we started looking at the Ten Commandments by digging into what it means not to have any other gods. Inherent to understanding the first commandment is the understanding that there are no other gods, and anything attempting to take the Lord's place can only be an imitation. This is something that we, in our sinful nature, are masters of. In his seminal work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote, "Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Shortly after, he explains what he means by saying, "Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity." What is truly astounding about the Ten Commandments is how they confront the very essence of our sinful nature. In the first commandment, the Lord commands that we have no other gods, and in the second, he commands that we make no images. Today we are going to look at the second commandment and how it relates to the first.
The Heidelberg Catechism gives us a helpful place to start in understanding what the second commandment requires. It says;
"That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word."
This goes beyond what someone might normally think of when we come to the second commandment. This is probably partially due to how we quote the short version. If you are able to quote the Second Commandment, the odds are that you can quote only a shortened version. Perhaps something like, "You shall make no graven images." If you are like me, it is even in old English courtesy of the King James translation of the bible. But the command as it is given in Exodus 20:4-5 goes beyond not making statues. It also gives a further reason for why we should not have any images, "for I the Lord your God am a jealous God." The Lord is protective of his glory and worship. He has given us specific instructions on how it is to be carried out, and we are not free to change that. We are not to have standings for God. We are not to make representations of the Lord in any way because created things cannot display the infinite God. This is why the Catechism takes the explanation a step further in question 97.
"God neither can, nor may be represented by any means: but as to creatures; though they may be represented, yet God forbids to make, or have any resemblance of them, either in order to worship them or to serve God by them."
A Recurring issue
Throughout the history of the church, and even in scripture, the issue of images and representations as aids to worship has come up. In scripture, we have the incident that follows closely on heals of receiving the law, when Arron, Moses' brother, makes for the people the golden calf as a representative of God. Later on in the history of Israel, when the kingdom splits into the north and south, the north makes two golden calves for the people to worship. In the history of the church, it has usually not been as brazen as that but comes in more subtle forms. Churches began to be adorned with paintings and statues to "help" the common people relate to God better. When the Heidelberg Catechism was written, they were often referred to as books to the laity since many of the people who attended church were unable to read. But all this comes down to who knows what is best. Do I, as a pastor or someone else as a teacher, know better than God? Many people do indeed benefit from images. Being able to see something gives depth to the words of the teacher. But God knows better than any teacher or pastor and has given instruction on how to teach his people. We are to make no images of God. I believe that this includes the Godman, our Lord Jesus Christ. There has been disagreement in this area throughout the history of the church. Many today see nothing wrong with having paintings of Christ or watching movies where someone pretends to be Christ. I think this is a grave error. Do we think we know better than God? Are we wiser than he? He has commanded that we have no images of him, and even if we were to say that a painting of Christ falls into a gray area because we do not worship them, would it not be better to lean away from gray areas? Our sinful nature already makes everything an idol. We put all kinds of things before God. Why do we think we can suddenly stop doing this when it comes to pictures or tv?
One thing that has saddened me over the last several years is how people who call themselves Christians act toward someone seeking to obey all that Christ has commanded. We see someone seeking to live a life of holiness, and we call them names such as fundamentalist or Puritan. But should we not be attempting to do the same? We say we love the Lord and that we are his, but the gospel accounts tell us that those who are Christ know his voice and obey his commands. It tells us, from the mouth of Christ no less, that if we love him, we will obey him. The great commission tells us to make disciples and teach them to obey all that has been commanded. Who are we to say otherwise? We know that obedience does not save us and that grace abounds for sinners who come to repentance, but we should not seek to continue in that sin. In conjunction with the first, the second commandment tells us that we are to have no images of God and to put nothing before God. We are not to worship him in our own way but in the way that he has commanded. This means we should be careful with what we watch and the images we have around us. They influence us more than we realize. If you have ever seen a movie before reading the book on which that movie is based, you will understand better than most. You will see the actors' faces and hear the words in the actors' voices. No actor can portray God as he is, and no image can show us who he is. I encourage you to worship in the truth of God's word and not to seek shortcuts.
Soli Deo Gloria