“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. 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, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Ex. 20:4-6; Dt. 5:8-10).
The Second Commandment in modern terms1
Introduction: The First and Second Commandments are so closely related that, unlike Jews and Protestants, Catholics and Lutherans teach that they are both part of the First Commandment. In the Fifth Century, St. Augustine merged the first two Commandments together and divided the Tenth Commandment against coveting into two separate Commandments. The Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther and later the Lutheran Church adopted the Augustinian method of counting. Both the First and Second Commandments prohibit the worship of other gods. This includes both alleged deities and things of the world that you depend upon. Jesus also spoke of these two commandments together. He advised that the desire to follow both Commandments will be a natural outgrowth of your walk with God if you “love the Lord God with all your heart, and all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:35-38; Dt. 6:4-9; 10:12-13; Ex. 20:1-8). Yet, despite their similarities, the Second Commandment has a separate and distinct role in our worship. In addition to addressing who you worship, it also addresses how you worship God. As set forth below, sometimes even well-meaning worship of God can go astray when we seek to create physical images of God. The first part of this study will provide a historical overview of how Christians have struggled with the role of religious icons over the centuries. The second half of this study deals with areas where all believers struggle to comply with this Commandment. The Apostle Paul also directly linked the Second Commandment with the Tenth Commandment against coveting. The struggle against coveting and the things of the flesh is something where all believers must remain vigilant and repent when temptation overtakes us.
A central dividing line between Protestants and Catholics is whether the use of images for God the Father, Jesus and / or the saints is idolatrous.
a.) An overview of the historical Church divisions regarding the use of religious images. Dating back to the earliest believers, the Church has gone back and forth between whether to embrace or reject religious images in worship. From the Catacombs of Rome, pictures left behind from the first believers show that they used pictogram symbols like the fish and the Lamb of God to represent Jesus. Over time, early believers began to use religious images in worship more freely. In 313 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine I proclaimed in the Edict of Milan that all religions throughout the empire would be tolerated. He converted to Christianity and began the state-sponsored building of large churches with mosaics of Jesus and the saints. Yet, in 726 A.D., 415 years later, Emperor Leo III decreed that the use of religious icons violated the Second Commandment. Between 730 and 787 A.D., a period referred to as Byzantine iconoclasm, the Church destroyed religious images. But this was not the last word on the matter. In 787 A.D., 61 years later, a counsel of religious leaders called the Second Council of Nicaea reversed Emperor Leo’s decree. But that again was not the end of the controversy. In 815 A.D., 28 years later, another religious counsel reversed the 787 A.D. ruling and banned the use of religious icons. Yet, the controversy would simply not go away. In 843 A.D., after another 28 year-period, another counsel met to reconsider the subject. It decided that it was permissible to venerate religious icons. For the next 680 years, the debate largely subsided. Both the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches extensively used religious icons as part of their regular worship. The two churches, however, drew slightly different lines in deciding what is and is not permissible. The Roman Catholic Church adopted a slightly more liberal approach. It taught that a person could use the “likenesses” of any religious object or person for worship so long as the object itself is not worshiped. Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church taught that images of Christ in His human form were not prohibited. Yet, it differed from the Roman Catholic Church in prohibiting images of God the Father. Thus, it never would have permitted Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam with God the Father reaching out to Adam. Beginning in the 1530s, the Protestant reformers shattered the truce that existed regarding the use of religious icons in worship. John Calvin argued that the use of religious icons in worship violated the Second Commandment. Martin Luther also pushed for changes. Yet, he was less opposed to the use of publicly displayed religious images than Calvin. Luther’s main objection was to the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of using religious images to evoke the saints. Thus, while Calvinists removed all religious images from worship, Lutherans did not. The Amish are the only Christian group that forbids the use of images in secular life. To answer where we are to draw the line today, we must look to Scripture.
b.) Examples of well-meaning religious images that crossed God’s line. The best example of how the well-meaning use of images can turn to idolatry comes from the Jews’ decision to build the golden calf at Mount Horeb. When Aaron built the golden calf, he did not intend to create a new god. He instead tried to use a golden calf to depict Yahweh so that the people could touch and look upon the deity that delivered them from Egypt. ‘He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’” (Ex. 32:4). God did not accept the well-meaning but misguided attempt to worship Him. He told Moses that the Jews’ worship of Him had become corrupted: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them.” (Ex. 32:7). Even though well meaning, their corrupt acts resulted in their deaths (Ex. 32:27). The Jews later misused the bronze serpent in a similar way. In a foreshadowing of Jesus, the bronze serpent symbolized God’s power to heal those afflicted from their own sins when they looked upon it in faith (Nu. 21:8; Jo. 3:14). Yet, the people later began offering incense (a symbol of prayer) to the symbol and not directly to God. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, King Hezekiah ordered his men to destroy this symbol of faith that had become idolatrous (2 Kings 18:4). Although that symbol has been expunged from Jewish worship, it can still be seen today as the symbol used for the medical profession in many parts of the western world.
c.) Avoid all symbols or statutes for prayers to the saints or Mary. If a Christian offers prayers directly to a statue of a saint, Jesus’ mother, or some other physical sign, the Christian’s sin is no different than that which King Hezekiah condemned. Jesus taught that worship should be directed to only God alone (Matt. 4:10). There is also only one mediator between man and God, Jesus Christ: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim. 2:5). Thus, praying or petitioning to Mary, the saints, or any other person usurps the role that God the Father has appointed exclusively to Christ. It also most likely violates the Second Commandment.
d.) Religious symbols that God found acceptable. Although some might feel that the rules on this subject are black and white, the Bible is clear that not all religious images are prohibited. God, for example, told Moses to add cherubim figures on the curtain which separated the tent of meeting from the Holy of Holies (Ex. 26:31). Jesus also stated that because His disciples had seen him, they had seen God the Father (Jo. 14:7-9). Paul also referred to Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” (Col. 1:15). Thus, we need not recoil simply because someone has created an image of Jesus.
e.) Worship Jesus in spirit and truth. Where should we draw the line today? We should first note that everything God does is done for a reason. Jesus could not have come earlier than He did. The time of his exact crucifixion had been prophesied by Daniel. Moreover, the Jews had to learn of their need for a savior through their inability to comply with the Law. It is also important to note why Jesus did not come later. In addition to coming at an exact time to fulfill Daniel’s prophecy, Jesus also came at a point in history when His image could not be captured in an oil painting, a picture, or by video. We can infer from this that Jesus did not mean for us to know or worship His image. The definition of faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1). Jesus never wanted us to know if His skin was dark or light. He did not want us to know if He had dark eyes or green eyes. He did not want us to know if He had a large nose or missing teeth. Jesus also never wanted us to know if He became muscular working as a carpenter or if he was skinny. He also never wanted us to know what His hair and beard looked like. Jesus is much bigger than any image that we can create of Him. Most attempts to portray Jesus today also show Him in a more charismatic human form than He most likely had: “He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” (Is. 53:2). Oddly, in paintings or depictions of Jesus, almost none show Him wearing phylacteries or tassels. Yet, because Jesus kept the Law, He would have worn both (Dt. 6:8; 11:18; Nu. 15:38). Jesus did not criticize those who wore them as being misguided. He instead criticized those who wore excessively long phylacteries or tassels merely to be noticed by others (Matt. 23:5). Jesus said that we should worship God the Father in His spirit form: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, . . . true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.’” (Jo. 4:21-24; Dt. 4:12-19). Because we don’t know what Jesus looked like and because most historical depictions showing Him without Jewish attire are most likely wrong, worshiping Him in spirit is also the safest way to avoid misrepresenting what He really looked like on Earth.
When the Apostle Paul lived, the use of idols to worship other false deities was widespread. For example, he created conflict when he preached against the pervasive use of idols in Ephesus (Acts 19:26). Yet, Paul was also clear that the Second Commandment is not limited to the worship of other gods. It also addresses any desire for something physical that is not Holy, including the things of the flesh and greed: “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” (Col. 3:5). “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Eph. 5:5). David also warned against turning your job and the things that you can create with your God-given talents into idols: “The idols of the nations are but silver and gold, the work of man's hands.” (Ps. 135:15; same 115:4). Jesus also warns that you must choose between a love of the world, or the flesh, or money, and a love of God: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24). Would you give up your wealth or some worldly passion if Jesus called you to do that? Or, would you be saddened by such a request like the rich seeker who loved his money more than God? “But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.” (Matt. 19:21-22; Mk. 22:21-22; Lk. 18:22-23). Commentator Herbert Schlossberg once said: “anyone with a hierarchy of values has placed something at its apex, and whatever that is is the god he serves.” Likewise, commentator Adrian Rogers once said: “Anything you love more, fear more or serve more than God is an idol.” When we deny God and exalt ourselves, we commit a form of idolatry. Isaiah warned against those who proclaimed: “‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’” (Is. 47:8-10). Sadly, self-worship, promoted through popular culture, has become a pervasive form of idolatry today.
Although many people chase after idols, especially money, fame, or power, they only create fleeting or momentary joy for those who obtain these things. The reason for their fleeting pleasures is that they are all spiritually dead with no power to sustain our souls: “There you will serve gods, the work of man's hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.” (Dt. 4:28; 28:36; 28:64). “They have mouths, but they do not speak; they have eyes, but they do not see.” (Ps. 135:16). “They have ears, but they do not hear, nor is there any breath at all in their mouths.” (Ps. 135:17). Paul also believed that idols were fake: “We know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one.” (1 Cor. 8:4). Because an animal sacrifice had no real power, Paul had no problem if a believer ate one without worshiping it: “we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better off if we do eat.” (1 Cor. 8:8). His only warning was for believers not to eat food sacrificed to idols if the perceived power of the idols caused another believer to stumble (1 Cor. 8:8-12). The lure of an idol is also based upon a lie and deception: “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.” (Ro. 1:25). The idols of mankind are all death and dumb: “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk.” (Rev. 9:20). It is often said that money cannot buy happiness. The reason why this is true is that the money is spiritually dead. If either a rich person seeks to hoard their money or if a poor person becomes obsessed with accumulating it, the person will eventually become miserable. That is why Solomon, the richest man in the world once prayed that he would never be in a position to obsess about money: “Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me. Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, who is the Lord? Or, lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.” (Prov. 30:8-9). Do you fantasize about the lure of wealth and power? Or, do you long for the things that are of God?
As stated above, idols are deaf, blind, and mute (Dt. 4:28; Ps. 135:16-17; Rev. 9:20). For those who trust in them, they eventually become spiritually deaf, blind, and mute like their idols. “Those who make them will be like them, yes, everyone who trusts in them.” (Ps. 135:18, same 115:8). Is it any surprise that Hollywood marriages almost always end in divorce? Should it surprise anyone that the most common thing to happen to couples who win the lottery is to get divorced? Likewise, the highest rates of depression and suicide are found in the richest countries in the world. The Western world has become rich in material things. Yet, it has become spiritually deaf, blind, and dumb from its material idols. The American writer and philosopher David Henry Thoreau said in 1854 that “the mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation.” The Bible offers a path that does not involve a quiet life of desperation. The Bible instead offers a life of joy. Yet, you must first leave behind the idolatrous pursuit of the things of the flesh and instead seek after God.
Although idols like money have no real power by themselves, the unbridled desire for these things causes addiction and puts a person in communion with demonic forces: “What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons.” (1 Cor. 10:19-20). God will never leave or forsake a believer (Heb. 13:5; Dt. 31:6). Yet, God cannot stop you if you choose to give into an addiction by listening to the demons over the Holy Spirit. Ask yourself what you desire most in life. If your answer is something material or the flesh, you are receiving the counsel of demons, not the Holy Spirit.
Jesus met with sinners to heal them. We should follow His example by helping those who have either strayed from God’s light or those who have never sought it out. Yet, you must be careful that your ministry to help others trapped in darkness does not become a snare in your own walk. A believer who hangs out on a social basis with another believer gripped with an addiction can easily be pulled off his or her walk. “But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler-- not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Cor. 5:11). “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” (1 Cor. 15:3). You can also cause others to stumble in your walk through your own idolatry. You must: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor. 8:9). Do you hang out with people who love the Lord and enjoy reading and following the Word? Or, do all your close friends love most things in the world? If the latter is true, should it be any surprise if you become addicted to the worldly idols of the flesh around you?
God repeatedly commanded the Jews not to turn to idols (Ex. 20:4; 20:23; 34:17; Lev. 19:4; 26:1; Dt. 4:16, 23; 2 Kings 17:12; Ps. 78:58; Ez. 20:7). This prohibition is repeated in the New Testament. “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” (1 Cor. 10:7). The prohibition against idolatry is one of the three prohibitions from the Old Testament mentioned in the Apostolic Decree: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell.” (Acts. 15:28-29; same 21:25). Paul lists it as one of the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). Although God has given you a mind to overcome temptations, you are not to reason with something that tempts you to be idolatrous. Instead, just like sexual temptation, you are commanded to flee from anything that tempts us to be idolatrous: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.” (1 Cor. 10:14). The apostle John warns you to be innocent like little children: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” (1 Jo. 5:21). Thus, if watching something, reading something, being somewhere, or with someone makes you stumble in an addiction, you must flee from these things or persons. Are you leading a double life in any area of your walk?
As part of the Second Commandment, God warns that He will punish both idolaters and their descendants to the third and fourth generations: “[F]or 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 . . .” (Ex. 20:3-6; Dt. 5:7-10). ‘“Cursed is the man who makes an idol or a molten image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.”’ (Dt. 27:15). This can be seen in countless families today. If a man or woman lets drugs, alcohol, or lust become an addiction in their lives, their children will suffer. Many times, the damage inflicted upon children is played out again upon the children’s children. The curse that God refers to is frequently the removal of His hedge of protection. When you embrace idolatry instead of fleeing from it, you may inflict damage upon your children and sometimes even your children’s children.
An idolater who has not repented and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior is not only cursed to struggle and lead a life of desperation, that person is also disqualified from entering heaven (Ex. 22:20; Dt. 13:6, 10). “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). “For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Eph. 5:5; see also Rev. 2:14; 2:20).
Through the study of the Second Commandment, any honest believer will recognize that he or she has sinned (Ro. 3:20; 7:7). We all at times put worldly lives above God. Our God is “jealous” of anything that draws us from Him (Ex. 34:14; Dt. 5:9; Ex. 23:24). Your study of the Second Commandment should again make clear you can never fulfill it on your own. Only through our redeemer Christ is your salvation possible (Ro. 3:9-12; Gal. 2:16; 2:21; 3:23-24). Is there any worldly thing in your life that you use to get through the struggles of life? If you are seeking comfort and protection through the things of the world, the things of the world have become a source of idolatry in your life.