We are studying the Ten Commandments that were given by God to Moses, to the children of Israel, and to all of us. These commandments are intended to guide us to godliness and then to fulfillment and true joy. The commandments are given to us so that we will avoid the pitfalls that can damage or destroy our lives.
Last week we looked at the first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me”. We saw that the commandment is telling us that we should have nothing in our life that influences us more than the Lord does. And anything that does influence us more than Him is an idol.
In the second commandment we see additional guidance. Not only are we told that we should not worship other gods, it is important that we worship the true God in the right way.
UNDERSTANDING THE SECOND COMMANDMENT
The second commandment is stated simply:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” [Exodus 20:4-6)
When we view the second commandment in light of the first we see that it is not just telling us to avoid idols, we are to avoid things which will hinder our worship of the true God. We are to avoid and visual or pictorial representation of God.
Now it may seem like God is making a big deal about a little thing. But J.I. Packer helps us understand why this is important. There are two reasons for this commandment. First, Images dishonor God because they are a perversion of His Glory. “The heart of the objection to pictures and images is that they inevitably conceal most, if not all, of the truth about the personal nature and character of the divine Being whom they represent.” [Packer p. 40]
While Moses was on the mountain the people cried out for a tangible, visible God. So Aaron took their jewelry, melted it down and made a golden calf. If we give Aaron the benefit of the doubt, (and I don’t know if we should) perhaps he thought that a calf would serve to represent the strength of God. But what he didn’t realize is that to say that God is powerful like a calf is to make Him far less than He really is. God is much more powerful than anything we can conceive of. We would be just as wrong to say that God has the power of an atomic bomb . . . . but even that image diminishes Him. His power is far greater than anything man can make or imagine.
Let’s look at an example from daily life. Suppose there was a news report on the number of stay-at-home moms today. And suppose the graphic accompanying the story was a woman sitting in a chair, curlers in her hair, watching television, chocolates on her lap, with a harried look on her face. In the background the children are tearing up the house behind her. Now, if you were a stay at home mom, would you be offended by this picture? Sure you would. It may accurately depict how you feel at times, but it is a caricature of what a stay at home mom really does. A mother who chooses to stay at home with her children is not there because she is lazy, she is there to impart values to their children, to provide her children with a sense of security and well-being. She is trying to provide her child with opportunities, good nutrition, appropriate discipline and far more. The Caricature feeds a harmful stereotype that severely diminishes what is true.
Caricatures diminishes what is real. The minister who “only works one day a week”, the teacher who “has nine months of material they teach over and over”, the farmer who “only works a couple of months a year”, the factory worker who “gets paid really well for doing mindless work” are all caricatures and stereotypes. They are offensive to us because they diminish our true work. In the same way, when we picture God in some earthly form we make a caricature of Him. It is offensive because it is a distortion.
But second, images mislead men. To use the illustration of Aaron, surely Aaron may have been well-meaning in what he did. However, as the people bowed down to the calf they began to see God in that calf. I know it is silly. How foolish to create something and then to bow to it as your Creator! But people do it. People pray to statues and pictures. They believe a particular form or particular words will get them what they want (they are “magic words”). Come on, haven’t you ever had a good luck charm or been superstitious. We’ve all viewed lifeless things as if they had some power. It is not a stretch to think that we would begin to view the symbols of God as if they were God.
But this command does not only apply to pictures, statutes and other trinkets, it also applies to our thoughts. Theologian J.I. Packer writes,
Imagining God in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining Him by the work of our hands. How often do we hear this sort of thing: ‘I like to think of God as the great Architect.’ ‘I don’t like to think of god as a Judge; I like to think of Him simply as Father.’ We know from experience how often remarks of this kind serve as the prelude to a denial of something that the Bible tells us about God. It needs to be said with the greatest possible emphasis that those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment. [Packer, KNOWING GOD p. 42]
The point is simple, we must take our conception of God from what God tells us about Himself. God is greater than any representation. He is beyond any mental image. Therefore we are to understand God by His Word and His commands and nothing else.
WHY WE SHOULD OBEY THIS COMMANDMENT?
Because God is jealous
for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,
These words surprise us. The idea of God being jealous is something we have a hard time with. The reason is because we view jealousy as a negative trait. To us jealousy is to be suspicious, distrustful and wrongly envious of the accomplishments of others. We think of a jealous person as one who squeezes the life out of another.
But when used of God the word jealousy portrays the depth of emotion that God feels for us. God is jealous to protect His honor. God loves us. When we give the attention He deserves to someone or something else He is offended. His passion ignites. God is not petty in his jealousy (like we often are). His jealousy is not based in His insecurity but in His love for us.
Because not obeying bears consequences for our children
punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Once again these words trouble us. It sounds as if God intends to punish our children for the evil things that we do. And we cry out that this is unfair. To complicate matters, in Ezekiel 18 we read that “God will NOT punish children for Father’s sins.” Is this a contradiction in the Bible? I don’t think so.
Ezekiel 18 is an extensive discussion of this issue. And one rule of Biblical interpretation is that you always interpret the brief passage in light of the more extensive explanation. Ezekiel was saying that God punishes those who follow the example of their forefathers. Those who turn away from the sin of the forefathers will be blessed. The punishment then comes because our disobedience makes it more likely that our children will follow our example and also sin.
I think Edith Schaeffer explains it well,
Human beings who pattern themselves after false gods or false concepts about who they are give false patterns to the next generation. This occurs in every area of life until even the basic concept of what a mother or father is, what a family is, what a boy or girl is, is twisted and bent like a piece of faulty metal. [Schaeffer, LIFELINES p.50]
I’m sure you have heard this piece,
If a child lives with criticism, He learns to condemn.
If a child lives with hostility, He learns to fight.
If a child lives with ridicule, He learns to be shy.
If a child lives with shame, He learns to feel guilty.
If a child lives with tolerance, He learns to be patient.
If a child lives with encouragement, He learns to live with confidence
If a child lives with praise, He learns to appreciate
If a child lives with fairness, He learns justice
If a child lives with security, He learns to have faith.
If a child lives with approval, He learns to like himself.
If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, He learns love in the world.
Let me continue this thinking by applying it to faith.
- If a child lives with superficial faith he learns to view faith as insignificant
- If a child lives with a faith focused on experience, He will seek experiences rather than God
- If a child sees parents bowing to representations of God, they will conclude that the representations ARE God.
- If a child grows up in a home where worship is not a priority, worship will be an option they seldom choose
- If a child grows up in a home where God gets our “leftovers” our children will give God even less
- If a child grows up in a home where faith is separated from daily life that child will conclude that faith is irrelevant
God will punish the children of those who disobey because they will more than likely walk in the footsteps of their parents! But the opposite is also true. Those who are faithful will bring blessing to their children by giving them a good example to follow.
Because we need real help for living . . . not the pretend help of false beings
There is one more practical reason for obeying this command. We need more help than a symbol or representation can give us . . . we need the real God. Life is hard. At time we need real help
- when the Doctor gives us bad news
- when several unexpected expenses come at once
- when we’re suddenly laid off
- when a spouse tells us they are leaving
- when a false gossip destroys our reputation
- when we make a terrible mistake that severely affects others
In each of these situations the gods of our imagination will not help us. We need more. We need a God of substance. We need the Lord. When we limit God by our images and devices, we also limit the resources we have in times of need. We cut ourselves off from the true God. Our hope and our strength will not be found in statues, pieces of jewelry, or in crazy superstitions. Our hope is found in the Lord and only in the Lord.
CONTEMPORARY APPLICATIONS OF THIS COMMANDMENT
Let’s think about applying this commandment in our lives. We break this commandment,
- when we pray to saints
- when gifts are offered or prayers are made to Mary
- when we set up little “shrines” (perhaps with a picture of Jesus) for personal worship
- when we meditate on images of God rather than scripture
- when we become preoccupied with and start trusting angels
- when we take part in foolish superstitions
But there is another dimension to this problem we don’t usually think about. We live in a very visual society. And we are bombarded with visual images all the time. Neil Postman in his great book AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH contends that we are becoming a society that are moved more by stimuli and feelings (the superficial) rather than by words and ideas.
You only have to think of a Presidential election to see what we mean. You will hear people say, “they have a good feeling about a candidate” or “I don’t know what it is . . . I just don’t like that man”. It is not what the men propose it is how they present their proposals. So we often vote on the basis of our feelings rather than the issues. We are governed by the surface and superficial. Chuck Colson calls this focus “junk food”. He writes
there is a danger in a steady consumption of junk food… Popular culture easily becomes addictive, destroying our taste for more substantial fare. It may become so handy to let the kids watch cartoons and videos that we no longer discipline ourselves to read classic literature to them. We may get so used to hearing a steady backdrop of popular music on the radio that we no longer put on CDs of Bach and Mozart and learn to appreciate classical music.
Worse, popular culture can break down even our ability to tackle more challenging mental tasks. By focusing on immediate experience, it erodes the skills needed for sustained attention. By offering easy consumption and emotional gratification, it discourages us from analyzing what we see and hear. [Colson, How Now Shall We Live p. 467]
This raises entirely different issues when we get to faith and our relationship with God. You may not agree with Postman’s words but hopefully they will make you think,
I think it is both fair and obvious that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he [the speaker], not He [God], who must be worshipped. I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it to be so; only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf. . . Jimmy Swaggart plays better than God. For God exists only in our minds, whereas Swaggart is there, to be seen, admired, adored. Which is why he is the star of the show. And why Billy Graham is a celebrity, and why Oral Roberts had his own university, and why Robert Schuller has a crystal cathedral all to himself. If I am not mistaken, the word for this is blasphemy. [Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH p. 122-123]
I am concerned when television preachers ask viewers to place their hands on their television (who are they praying to), or send their viewers a “prayer cloth” or genuine “holy water” or a “piece of the cross” that has been blessed (is the blessing of the speaker of more value than the God to who they are speaking?) These are contemporary trinkets that become a barrier before God.
Please understand, I’m not saying (nor is Colson or Postman) that we should not take advantage of contemporary technology to reach people with the Gospel. I’m not saying that we should avoid ministry through television. But we must be aware of the dangers. We must not embrace contemporary culture simply because it is contemporary culture. We must not adopt the ways of the world simply because this is what people are used to. We must look at the implications of our methods.
We have to be on guard when we worship.
- We must beware of using only contemporary choruses because simple songs can lead to simple theology and an inability to think deep thoughts about God.
- We must beware of how we use drama and the arts lest we become more focused on form rather than substance.
- We must be careful how we promote the church. . . we must point people to God and not the personalities that make up the church. We must focus on faithfulness not gimmicks.
- And we must constantly be on guard for those who will tell us that a certain object brings “good luck” or a “special blessing”. Every week I receive at least one Internet mailing that says, “pass this story on and you will receive a blessing”. Blessings do not come from passing on stories on the Internet, blessings come from the God revealed in Scripture.
I know we have covered a wide range of topics this morning. Perhaps you feel your head is spinning. That’s the way I have felt this week. It seems to me that there are several responses you can have this morning. First, some will be defensive. They will feel a sense of conviction and seek to push that conviction away with justifications and rationalizations rather than to deal with the Spirit’s whispers with repentance. Please try to hear what God is saying in His word. It is for our good, not our harm.
Some will over-react. They will be against any form of creativity, they will reject art and beauty, they will scorn all aspects of technology. These people will conclude that the only things that are good are the old ways of doing things. And they will miss out. God does not speak against art and beauty. God is not telling us that we cannot be creative in our proclamation of the gospel. He is warning us to be careful and to not embrace things simply because they are new and popular.
Others will heed the warning. They will ask the hard questions of their life. They will work to weed out those “things” which tend to get in the way of an accurate understanding of the Lord. They will accept the fact that we cannot and should not try to beat the world at its own game. They will understand that it is God’s truth that is powerful. God’s Word is what transforms. They will come to see that If we proclaim His Word people will be changed. We don’t have to entertain. We don’t have to be “slick”. We just have to be faithful.
Our God is a great God. He has saved us by His grace. He changes us by His Spirit. He is leading us to a life in His presence that is beyond the description of words. It is our job to let Him shine. It’s our job to keep the way clear so that others are not distracted by our techniques or our forms. Let me conclude with a very good paraphrase of the second commandment written by Philip Yancey.
I desire a wonderful thing: a direct, personal relationship between Myself and each of you. You don’t need inferior representations of Me, such as dead wooden idols. You can have Me. Value that. [Fearfully and Wonderfully Made p. 84]