January 29, 2022 - 2nd Commandment

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Today we’re going to take a look at the 2nd Commandment: “Thou shalt not make a graven image.” There’s more to this command than meets the eye.


Perhaps you saw the pictures on the news back in 2001 when the Taliban used their heavy artillery to destroy large statues of Buddha in Afghanistan carved out of the mountainside. I would have preferred that they had invited someone to move those statues to another country, and while I have nothing good to say about the Taliban, in this one case I can say that I at least admired their motive. They took God’s commands against idolatry with the utmost seriousness.


Perhaps the Afghan Buddhas were no threat to anyone’s faith. But we know that idols were a powerful threat to the hearts of ancient Israel. That’s why God takes the drastic measure of commanding Israel several times in the Law of Moses to destroy all foreign objects of worship in their land. God tells them in Deuteronomy 7 to “destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their [sacred] groves, and burn their graven images with fire.” We find the same command in Exodus 34. We who pride ourselves on our tolerance may need to ask ourselves whether we are smarter than the people of ancient Israel.


Today we tackle an issue that goes beyond sinister-looking statues in the jungle or in Oriental restaurants. Idolatry happens whenever we try to reduce the real God down to a distortion. It is only natural for us humans to try to reduce God down to a form we can see or touch, a character we can tame or control. But reducing God to a distortion blinds us to reality. We mean well, but we end up getting shortchanged. What a bummer when we find that the God we’ve been worshipping, the God we’ve been counting on, turns out to be a distortion!


God begins the command by saying, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Then God extends that by saying, “OR any likeness of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth.” It sounds like God is saying “No artwork whatsoever,” and many in the past 3000 years have understood this command exactly this way. Artwork was forbidden in many churches at the time of the Reformation (early 1500’s). Also, the Muslims in their mosques have no pictures whatsoever, only geometric designs. The Muslims make no pictures of Mohammed. Some Muslims will sell you picture postcards, but others won’t even let you take their photograph, so strongly do they believe in this principle.


I do not believe that God is trying to forbid all use of pictures. Otherwise, why would God command Israel to make 2 golden cherubim for the Ark of the Covenant, or to decorate the Temple with carved bells and pomegranates? Why would God allow palms and flowers to be carved on the doors of Solomon’s Temple? No, what God has in mind is stated in verse 5: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” It is not artwork that God condemns; it is art created to be an object of worship.


God forbids the use of visual aids as objects of worship. That goes for images of a foreign god such as Baal. That even goes for pictures of the God of Israel. God utterly refuses to allow pictures of God, even the real God. That’s what the people were trying to do when they made the Golden Calf. They weren’t trying to make another god. They were trying to make an image of the real God. The people thought, God won’t be offended if we picture God as a young, strong, and powerful bull. But God was offended.


Picturing God as an animal is no worse than picturing God as a human. In his letter to the Romans, Paul has equally tough words for those who “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal humans” (our favorite way of picturing God). Both ways of picturing God are an insult to God’s holiness. We are forbidden to picture God as a great bearded heavenly man. It’s just as bad to make God a man as it is to make God a woman. Both of these images are idols, as far as God is concerned.


God cannot be glorified by any human image of God. God is too great, God is too glorious to be captured by human artwork. One might just as well picture God as a donkey or a rock. If that sounds repugnant to us, then we can see how God feels about being pictured as a sinful human, which is no better.


How many of you have pictures of you on your driver’s licenses that make you look ugly compared to the real you? Some people don’t photograph well, and God appears to be one such person. No picture we could ever draw or paint can ever do God justice. Such a picture could only be a distortion at best. Such a picture could also never nearly be accurate, given that God does not even have a physical body of flesh, as we discussed on our program “Does God Have a Bod?” last March 28th.


The same principle also applies to Jesus Christ, even though Jesus actually did come in visible human flesh. Our pictures still can’t do him justice. The apostle John tried his best to describe what he saw when Jesus appears to him in Revelation 1, but even here, we can hardly picture exactly what Jesus looked like when John saw him. Actually, it’s pointless for us today to make pictures of Jesus if we don’t really know what he looked like. If God had thought it was important to know, God would have told us what we needed to know. One of the dangers of making pictures of Jesus today is that we end up making Jesus in our own image.


Pastor Bill Hybels points out how back in the 1950’s, Jesus was portrayed as “meek and mild, a pale faced, delicate-looking man who always had a mysterious glow encircling his head. The Jesus of the 60’s looked like a campus radical, a fitting leader for a revolutionary age. In the 70’s we had a macho Jesus, perfectly proportioned and well groomed, the obvious creation of a narcissistic society.” What does our Jesus look like today? Does he look like an executive or entrepreneur, or a professional therapist, or a hip, fun-loving guy straight out of a TV sitcom? What image of Jesus is most guaranteed to make us feel good?


The other danger we must beware of is that a picture of Jesus too easily becomes an object of worship in itself. Put a picture of Jesus in front of a group of believers, and it’s easy to end up worshipping the picture instead of the person, to get the 2 confused. Don’t worry, I have no plans to get rid of anyone’s pictures of Jesus (even if I could). Even I have a few such pictures. But we need to recognize the downside of trying to picture even the Son of God by means of a visible symbol. By doing so, we run the risk of idolatry. We must not confuse the symbol with the reality.


Think of other ways where we run the risk of transferring our worship of the invisible God onto visible objects. What about the cross? I believe that the cross of Jesus is absolutely central to our faith, but even a cross can become a mistaken object for our worship. We can end up worshipping a block of wood instead of the One who died on that cross. We must not worship the empty tomb, but the One who rose there. There are all sorts of sacred places around the world where God has showed up or has done mighty deeds in the past. There is a fine line between treating those places as sacred and lapsing into worship of them.


What about the Bible? Can one worship the Bible? Those like myself who get excited about the truth of God’s word need to avoid the mistake of worshipping this book. This book is not to be worshipped. The God who spoke these words is the One we should worship. I’m glad God destroyed the original manuscripts of Scripture and left us only copies. Otherwise, we probably would have worshipped the originals as holy relics.


For some reason, we humans seem to require images or symbols to focus our attention on. We want objects we can touch or feel. The Romans were flabbergasted when they barged into the Most Holy Place in the Temple in 63 BC – and found no statue there! It is hard to concentrate on an intangible God, and it is so easy to be distracted by an object we can see. Our worship is so easily misdirected. Visual aids hinder rather than help our worship.


Idols are continually criticized in the Bible as the “work of human hands.” How ironic to think of a god being created by human hands! Isaiah 44 pokes fun at those who make idols. Isaiah pictures the blacksmith hammering out a molten god, getting hungry and thirsty and faint. He pictures the carpenter designing the idol, using a stylus and compass to mark out a figure with the beauty of a man. Isaiah pictures the idol maker planting a tree nourished by the rain (idols need good soil and rain to make them grow). The guy uses part of the wood to bake bread, part of it to warm himself, and the rest he makes into a god; he falls down and worships it and cries, “Deliver me, for thou art my god!” And never does the idol maker ask, “Shall I fall down before a block of wood? Is there not a lie in my right hand?” The Apocrypha tells us how we know that idols are not real gods: because cats sit on them.


Making a statue may sound silly, but one novel way we can practice idolatry is by creating a God to suit our own beliefs, a God who is all love and approval, a God who will magically protect me from all pain, a God who makes no demands on my life. Today it is popular among those who reject the God of the Bible to worship products of their own imagination, to create their own “designer god.” Garrison Keillor called it “Bob-ism,” a god created by Bob who looks very much like Bob.


The problem is that our designer god exists only in our mind. God is not whatever you imagine God to be. To be of any meaningful value, our God must correspond to reality. The God we worship must do justice to all of God’s personal self-revelation. Creating our own private image of God is no better than worshipping a block of wood.


A God who is not the real God is guaranteed to let us down. It has been said that idols will dominate us, disappoint us, deform us, and ultimately destroy us if we remain devoted to them. Greg Beale wrote a book called We Become What We Worship. We are shaped by whatever we love or value. Romans 8:29 says that those who love the one true God will become conformed to the image of Christ (God in the flesh). But if we worship some being or object other than God, we will become like what we love or value. Psalm 115 says about idols, “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.”


There are 3 basic idols out there: Baal, Mammon, and Molech, or as we know them Money, Sex, and Power. (Molech is an underworld idol, best known for demanding child sacrifice, but his evil head pops up wherever we find violence, wherever we try to gain power over others by brute force.) Baal is found wherever we worship fertility and pleasure. And Mammon is where we worship wealth and the goodies that money can buy. All 3 are where we take a good gift from God (money, sex, or power) and turn it into an object of worship, where we put that gift on a pedestal and value it above the Creator from whom that gift comes down. Idols are twisted pictures of reality, with the places of creature and Creator turned upside down.


John Calvin said that “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” That is so true. Why do we humans make so many idols? One reason (in the case of physical idols) is that we want to limit God’s presence, to put God in a place where we can know where God is, and get away from God if we want to. Another reason we make idols is to reduce God’s power and size, to change God’s image and make it more likeable, to make ourselves a god who doesn’t require us to change or follow.


One more reason we make idols is so that we can control our god. God’s prophets in the Bible argued that one big problem with idols is that they are powerless: they cannot move, they cannot keep themselves from falling down (as we see in Isaiah 46), and they cannot speak, nor is it in their power to do good or harm. We are the ones who control what they do, which makes them useless when we need someone to help us out.


We must refuse to put God in a box, to reduce God to a distortion. Images cannot convey the glory and power of God, so God says, “Don’t use them! Don’t even try! Images cannot do the job!” God is like the colorful scene whose colors cannot be captured by any camera.


God reminds us at the end of this command that God is a jealous God. That doesn’t mean that God is prone to human temper tantrums or envy. God is like the mother bear protecting her cubs. God has a divine jealousy for us. God wants the very best for us. God doesn’t want to see us get hurt. God wants to keep us faithful, like a husband who dearly loves his wife and wants the best for her. God will not let anything come between us: no pictures, no images, no symbols, and no products of our imagination. God wants nothing material or artificial to get in the way of our undivided worship of God. That’s what God means by being jealous for us.


J. I. Packer says that images dishonor God, plus they mislead humans. Images cannot capture the full greatness or glory of the one true God. Let’s let God chisel away our idols. Let’s be sure not to pass up the real God for a distortion.


Jews and Muslims could easily point the finger at us and say that we are guilty of idolatry because we believe that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ. If God did not do so, we would have to plead guilty as charged. But if God did become a human being, and we reject his claim to be God in the flesh, then to reject the One he became becomes idolatry. None of us wants to be caught dead worshipping the wrong God.


I would argue that it is just as much idolatry to believe that God our Heavenly Father began life as a mortal human with previous ancestors, a man who still has a now-exalted body of flesh. The Bible teaches that the true God has always existed, that God is Spirit and not flesh, that God is invisible and omnipresent, and that in the person of Christ is the only place where “all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).  (We talk about this in our March 21st and March 28th broadcasts.) f the Bible’s teaching is true, then to worship an exalted human who is descended from other previous beings must be idolatry. dolatry is not the unforgiveable sin. To eternally reject the atoning sacrifice of Christ is the sin for which nothing else can atone. But idolatry has the power to lead us eternally astray.


So where have you put your trust? Whom do you trust for your eternal future? Are you trusting in the one true God, or are you trusting in an idol? Are you trusting in a glorified man? And who told you that God is a glorified man? A prophet? Can you trust that prophet to tell you the truth? The Bible says in Deuteronomy that if a prophet arises among you and gives you a sign or wonder (even if it comes to pass) but says “Let us go after other gods,” “you shall not listen to that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.” Jesus says about false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits” – not by the character of the followers, but by the character of the prophet himself. Can you trust this man who claims to be a prophet (whoever he may be)? We talk about this more in my book The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith.


Idols are like counterfeit money. Counterfeit money looks like the real thing. You can buy all sorts of goods with it, but you can’t take it to the bank. And whatever you paid in exchange for it is money down the drain. Trust in a counterfeit God will leave us eternally shortchanged. If you follow the wrong God, you are far less likely to reach the real God.


On our next program, we’ll be taking a look at God’s command not to take the name of the Lord in vain. The central issue is trashing the sacred name of God. By extension, we also include the profaning of other sacred words. But along with the breaking of this commandment, there are other words that also send the wrong message to those who hear them. Jesus says “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” The words we use reveal a ton about who we are. We’ll be talking about profanity and obscenity next time on Biblical Words and World!