No Images for Worship
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” (Ex. 20:4-5)
The 2nd commandment probably doesn’t receive very much attention from modern Bible readers. This prohibition of carved images seems to be antiquated or applying only to people in pagan lands where statues and idols are commonplace, even in the 21st century, but we would do well to ask how it might apply to us today. First of all, it must be more than simply a restatement of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It must mean more than just not worshiping gods other than Yahweh, the only true God. In fact, it is a prohibition of the making and use of images of the true God in worship. Packer restates it as “we are not to make us of visual or pictorial representations of the triune God, or of any person of the Trinity, for the purposes of Christian worship.” It is not simply that we are only to worship God, but that we are to do so without the help of visual aids.
Why would it be such a concern to God to prohibit the use of any sort of depiction of him in worship? Well, Packer gives 2 primary reasons for the Biblical prohibition of the use of art to render the God of heaven.
Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory.
Just think about the popular depiction of God as a white-haired grandfather in a rocking chair. While this picture might convey some of the gentleness and mercy with which God abounds, it in no way displays his awesome power and terrible hatred for sin. Rather than revealing God’s glory, images conceal it.
Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God.
Is God really a doddering, old grandfather, who just laughs at the misdeeds of his errant children, saying something to the effect of “boys will be boys”? Actually, no. This popular image not only obscures the reality of God, it actively teaches a wrong view of God.
Packer reminds us, “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 to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth.” And this is just as true of our mental images of God as it is of material ones. We like to think of God as our loving Father, or our great Provider, but we seldom like to think of God as our ultimate and perfect Judge, or as the Destroyer of the wicked, yet those are also ways that the Word of God describes him. Packer is certainly correct when he says that “those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment.”
So, what is to be done about all this? Should we gather up any and all artistic representations of God and burn them? Well, that may be one possible way for us to respond, however, I think there is a more important application for each of us. As Packer puts it, “it appears that the positive force of the second commandment is that it compels us to take our thoughts of God from his own holy Word, and from no other source whatsoever.” If this means that you must get rid of a picture above your mantle or by your door, which leads your thinking about God, then so be it. If this means that you must avoid watching movies or television shows which depict Christ according to the artistic vision of the director, then so be it. If this means that you must cast yourself headlong into the Scriptures to discover a more accurate and full view of God as he has revealed himself, then you will be all the better for it. You can test yourself by asking these questions: “Do I look habitually to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ as showing me the final truth about the nature and the grace of God? Do I see all the purposes of God as centered upon him?”