I am an artist, so my field does not often overlap with theological issues. In this case, however, it has caused me to evaluate what it means to live in light of the second commandment.
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4–6)
Too often, believers skim over the Ten Commandments. We think to ourselves, “I have not murdered anyone—check! I have not cheated on my spouse—check! I was pretty nice to my mom this week—check!” etc. If you are what the world considers to be a good person, it is tempting to think, even if unconsciously, that the Ten Commandments are fairly easy to keep. In my experience, however, very few people in wider evangelical circles consider how the second commandment should play out practically in their lives. For many, on the surface, the second commandment seems simple enough to follow: “Well, I have not carved an idol of God (or anything else for that matter)—check!” But what does carving mean in our modern context? What is making a “likeness of anything that is in heaven above,” and why does it matter?
Consider what it means to carve an image. I do not believe that God was so offended by woodworking generally that he made an entire commandment to ban the creation of his face only in wood, as many interpret the commandment. The carved image of Christ is everywhere—movies, television, shirts, nativity scenes, books (including some Bibles), magazines, children’s Sunday School material, and the list goes on. Even though carved is the word used, we should understand that, at the time of the giving of the commandments, it was the way in which images were created. Further, we should understand the intent of what God said, knowing that even though it does not say, “Do not draw a picture of Jesus on your iPad,” or, “Do not paint a giant mural of Jesus’ face on the side of a building,” we understand that the commandment applies to modern ways of creating representations as well. For those who try to skirt the issue by saying, “Well it only says carving,” I ask, what if the commandment had said, “Do not make a printed image of God,” would you not understand that it would be entirely inappropriate to create an image of God digitally and not print it? We have to respect the intent of the commandment, which is a principle that holds true throughout all of God’s Word.
We then reach the question, why does it matter?
Aside from the fact that Christians should abide by God’s law, which should be obvious to any Christian, we should recognize why this law has been set in place. The Lord did not tell us not to murder, steal, or cheat on our spouse arbitrarily. No, he put his law in place to protect us, guard us from evil, help us grow in Christ, and help us love him more deeply. His laws are a reflection of who God is. As parents, we set rules in place for our children out of love, and the second commandment is put in place for the same reason.
When I first started to become convicted of what the second commandment entails, I was not thinking about it as an act of love by God, rather, I thought of the commandment as an obstacle in my life. How would I remove images of God? I love and studied art history, and now there was a lot of art I could no longer view in good conscience. How would I teach young children about God? Could I never see another nativity play in my life? It seemed almost impossible to live in Christian culture without being confronted with images of God or Jesus in some way. Nonetheless, I realized that my concerns were focused entirely inward. What was God trying to teach me about himself through making this commandment?
For starters, God makes a clear distinction between himself and his creation. We are created, finite, visible beings. He is the infinite, invisible God with no beginning—having never been created. Why should I, as a created, finite, visible being, feel that my lowly skills could capture an uncreated, infinite, and invisible God? Many seek to create images of God in order to honor him in some way. They say that they are not worshiping the created image itself but that it only encourages them to worship God. On the other hand, is it not more honoring to recognize that God is, in fact, uncreated? I can comprehend creatures, but he is incomprehensible. He is nothing that my hands or mind could ever wrap themselves around or fully express. Why should I try to reduce the God of the universe to what my Crayola colored pencil could create? Should not the ordinary means of grace be enough to know, love, and honor my God without my self-made visual prompts?
Again, for those that try to skirt the intent of the commandment, this issue includes images of Jesus and the Spirit, not just the Father. We may feel that we have more liberty to imagine how Jesus appeared, since he is true man, but even though he is true man he is also true God. In our attempt to create an image of Jesus, we are also attempting to create an image of God. The two natures of Christ are inseparable. Several years ago, my husband, Harrison, preached on this topic and mentioned some ways people try to use an image of Jesus to honor him (e.g., they keep an image of Christ in their homes as a reminder to keep their minds on him). Harrison used this example: imagine your mother calls you and tells you that she commissioned a giant picture of you to hang over her mantel and every time she looks at it, she is reminded how much she loves you. First, you might think this is kind of an odd way to be remembered. Second, you go to visit because you must see this picture, only to find that there is a picture of someone of a different ethnicity, hair color, face shape, eyes, etc. that looks absolutely nothing like you.
This example points out what should be glaringly obvious: we have no idea what Jesus looked like. The images that the modern world has created are completely fabricated and based on nothing more than our imaginations. Since the Christian life is about looking ahead and longing for the day in which we meet our Savior face-to-face, why do we try to diminish that moment by cherishing a second rate, inaccurate version of him now? The absence of a picture of what God looks like should drive us all the more to long to see his real and accurate face. It should drive us to love him more and seek our future in heaven all the more.
Jesus could have easily come to earth during a time of cameras and more advanced art supplies, but he did not. He chose the time in which he came, and I for one am thankful. My sinful heart would probably have scrolled past him on a TikTok video without giving him proper regard, letting the thousands of videos and pictures of him diminish his glory.
Some argue that images are acceptable for teaching young children about the story of Christ. Most holding this objection are adamant that they are not ascribing any sort of religious value to these images, but that the images are simply to point the child to Christ. What if, however, one of the young students scribbled all over the image and cut it into pieces? Would not your gut reaction be one of horror? Would you not think, “Why on earth is she doing that to God?” It is impossible to create an image of anyone in the Godhead without ascribing some religious value to it, if only on a subconscious level. After all, how can you show God to me and expect me not to worship? All images of God are some sort of idol, which is in direct violation of the commandment that is so clearly laid out.
My question to those who believe that showing inaccurate portrayals of God to children is this: Why should we insult the intelligence of our children? Why do we believe that they can only understand the Word of God with these visual prompts? The Westminster Shorter Catechism was written for children to memorize and learn. Children are wonderfully capable of reaching whatever bar we set. Let us make sure to not set it too low, thereby robbing them of the opportunity to engage with the Word of God in a deep and meaningful way through the means of grace instituted by Christ. All the more, why should we underestimate the power of God’s Word to be able to teach our children without the help of commandment-breaking images? Faith comes by hearing for people of all ages.
When we reflect on what the second commandment means and why it matters, let us not first consider our own feelings about how it may inconvenience us to cut out these images from our lives, but let us instead recognize and enjoy the reality that we serve a God who is so great and powerful that no image could contain him. Let us remember that one day, on the day of God’s choosing, for those that are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, we shall see his face in all of his glory, and his face will look nothing like the meager attempts that our sinful hands could create.
©Sarah Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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