The second commandment must have come as an even greater culture shock to the Israelites than the first one. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything… you shall not bow down to them or worship them.” For all the gods that they had ever heard of had images, and worship without an image of some kind must have been – literally – unimaginable. But Yahweh was to be worshipped without any such ‘visual aids’ (Deuteronomy 4:15,16). This was (and is) to protect the loyal believer from being led astray from the truth.
Our God is so unimaginably great, so beyond our comprehension, that there is nothing in this world – or even in our imaginations – that can adequately represent Him (Isaiah 40:18). Therefore any man-made image, however well-intentioned, can ultimately only be dishonouring to Him and misleading to us.
Images, ancient and modern
Aaron’s golden calf is a good example. It was presented to the Israelites as an image of Yahweh: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4) It might have been labelled with God’s name, but it was a gross mis-representation of His nature and character. And the same error was repeated by King Jeroboam, when the kingdom of Israel broke away from Judah (I Kings 12:26-30). In theory, his golden calves were an “alternative” (and more attractive) means of worshipping the same God. In practice, it was the start of a slippery slope towards idolatry and the beginning of the end for his kingdom (II Kings 17:21). For whenever we make something to represent God, there is a very real danger that it will end up replacing Him.
The use of images in Christian worship has had a similar unhappy history. The most pervasive image of all is the “madonna and child”. Few of us would object to seeing such a picture on a Christmas card – it is, after all, a Biblical image: “They saw the child with His mother Mary.” (Matthew 2:11) But if it dominates one’s vision, all year round, it can have a distorting effect. Quite apart from concentrating one’s mind on a very brief period in Jesus’ life (one on which the Gospel writers do not dwell), the mere fact that Mary is much bigger (naturally!) in the picture than Jesus can have the unintended (and totally subconscious) effect of making her seem more important than Jesus.
Do we think ourselves too sophisticated to fall into such an error? “Men may make to themselves gods in other ways besides in statues, and pictures, and in visible forms.” (Calvin) We can make false mental ‘images’ by focussing on one aspect of God’s character to the exclusion of others. Such a personal image can actually become more real to us than the God revealed in Scripture. Thus we may end up worshipping and following the image of our own making, rather than the living God. In the book, “Your God is Too Small”, J B Phillips lists over twelve such modern ‘idols’ – all frequently confused with the real God.
Then there are sacred objects and places. Moses made a bronze snake at God’s command (Numbers 21:4-9), in order to teach the Israelites an important truth (John 3:14,15). But after a few hundred years, the Israelites began to treat this ancient relic as if it had divine powers of its own – and so Hezekiah had to destroy it (II Kings 18:4). The Temple itself, which God had told the Israelites to build as a symbol of His presence among them, became more important to many of them than God Himself – and so it also had to be destroyed (Luke 21:5,6)
Watch out for false prophets (Matthew 7:15)
The promoters of such false gods are the false prophets. False teaching sets up a false god in place of the true one (e.g. a ‘soft’ god who doesn’t judge anyone – Ezekiel 13:1-16), or promotes a false gospel (such as ‘salvation by works’ – Galatians 1:6-9). They are presented to us as if they were the truth; and superficially the differences may be very subtle. The generation that first embraces a slightly off-beat doctrine may not suffer any adverse consequences – but each succeeding generation will develop it a bit further, until it becomes definite error. A debased form of Christianity (“good” people go to Heaven, “bad” people go to Hell) has become part of our Western culture: millions of unbelievers think that they know what Christians believe (or even think that they are Christians!).
These things can be very insidious. Church history shows that, once false teaching becomes ‘traditional’, it is very hard to challenge. But we have a standard by which all preachers and teachers must be judged. What matters is not their status (even bishop or pope) or their academic qualifications, but their fidelity to what the original apostles preached and taught (Galatians 1:8,9). This is why the New Testament, not the Church, is our supreme authority for Christian belief.
Worship in spirit and in truth
Some of the bitterest divisions between Christians have been over such issues as the use of images and the ‘proper’ way in which to worship. Such arguments are nothing new (John 4:19-24). The Jews and Samaritans had a long-running (and often violent) dispute over the correct place of worship. But Jesus did not take one side or the other; instead He declared that both sanctuaries were already obsolete. “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23) The Shekinah glory was no longer dwelling in a Temple but in the person of Jesus – and it is on Him that our worship must be focussed. “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name.” (Hebrews 13:15)
The image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)
To ‘see’ God, we have only to look at Jesus Christ. “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) Yet the apostles left us no ‘artist’s impression’ of Jesus, nor even a description of His physical appearance – just a record of His words and deeds. Jesus’ life and character showed His disciples exactly what God is like; it was the ‘correction’ to all the false ideas that the Jews had built up over the centuries. And the Gospels are still the touchstone for Christian belief today. “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true – even in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (I John 5:20,21)