The purpose and meaning of the Second Commandment
The Second Commandment goes to the heart of our relationship with our Creator. What is the proper way to worship the only true God?
“You shall not make unto you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 You shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my Commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6
The Second Commandment goes to the heart of our relationship with our Creator. It deals with several crucial questions: How do we perceive God? How do we explain Him to ourselves and to others? Idols are representations of false, nonexistent gods but may we use pictures or other images that represent the true God? Above all, what is the proper way to worship the only true God?
In the First Commandment we learned that it is wrong to allow any created thing, including a human being, to become more important to us than our Creator. The Second Commandment differs from the First in that it explains that in our worship, we must not reduce God to a likeness of a physical object. Doing so is unquestionably unacceptable to God. This Second Commandment explicitly forbids the use of any type of inanimate or lifeless imagery, “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath,” in the worship of the living God. Yet God did create on earth a likeness of Himself in humans. He specifically tells us that He “created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Genesis 1:27
Human beings and descendants of Adam and Eve and are living images of the living God. We of all God's creatures are fashioned in His likeness. “…In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; 2 Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.” Genesis 5:1-2
Our Creator is a living God, not an inanimate statue, figurine or picture. To make any representation of Him distorts and limits our perception of what He is really like and so damages our relationship with Him. Of all things on earth or in the heavens, only living human beings realistically reflect a reasonable likeness of the living God. In the same way, as a human, Jesus Christ was in the image of His Father. Not only did God make humans in His image, He created us to become even more like Him. Being like God and developing His own character in us is what our existence is all about. That is why a clear understanding of the purpose of the Second Commandment is so important.
Only God can reveal what He is like
In one sense, in the Second Commandment God tells mankind: “Don't try to tell Me what I am like. I will tell you what I am like! It is important that you correctly understand that I will accept no representations of Me.” We need a realistic understanding of how we are like God in our present state. We also need to know how we are destined to become even more like Him. God gives us creative and leadership abilities that parallel His own, although on a vastly smaller scale. We alone of His material creation have real mind power. Our minds can reason, analyse, plan and visualize the future. We create literature, art, music and poetry. We design and build. We can organize, manage and supervise things, creatures and people. We are, in limited ways, much like God.
But in other areas we as humankind are far from being like Him. Our character tends to weakness. Our relationships with each other leave much to be desired. Our spiritual understanding is limited and often flawed and distorted. Our perceptions are often inaccurate. We are biased in our opinions. We harbour prejudices and are quick to engage in conflicts. In all these spiritual areas, we fall far short of being like God. Though God has given us limited abilities and characteristics similar to his own, we need much development and fine tuning before we become like Him in nature and character.
The perfect example
However, we are not without a perfect pattern of God's character. Jesus Christ as a human being so perfectly represented what God is like that He told His disciples, “He that has seen me has seen the Father…” John 14:9
Paul describes Jesus Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.” Colossians 1:15. He describes Christians as those who “have put off the old man with his deeds; 10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” Colossians 3:9-10
God wants to change the spiritual nature of mankind. Just as Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” so does God the Father want to recreate our character in His image. The time is coming when God will transform those who have become like Him in heart and mind from a physical to a spiritual existence. Paul described to the church in Corinth how this will happen. “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” 1 Corinthians 15:50-53
That is how God will complete the marvellous transformation of humans becoming like Him. John described the same ultimate transformation when he wrote, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2. Being like God is our destiny providing we surrender our lives to Him in obedience to His Commandments.
God requires accountability
This brings us to the latter part of the Second Commandment: “You shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my Commandments.” Exodus 20:5-6
God holds us accountable for our words and deeds. Bowing before an idol to pay homage to one's own image of God may appear to be an act of great devotion if one is ignorant of God's great purpose for human beings. But God expects those who worship Him in truth and understanding to demonstrate their love for Him by keeping His Commandments from the heart, not by going through useless rites in front of any object. Jesus made this clear when He said, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” John 4:24. We are not to worship God with images and meaningless rituals. Jesus explained that “the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” John 4:23
Knowledge and understanding of the truth of God are essential for developing the holy, righteous character He desires to create in us. That means that we have to learn and grow (2 Peter 3:18). We read, “My son, if you will receive my words, and hide my Commandments with you; 2 So that you incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; 3 Yes, if you criest after knowledge, and liftest up your voice for understanding; 4 If you seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; 5 Then shall you understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.” Proverbs 2:1-5
Once we gain an understanding of God's revelation, He holds us accountable for what we know. We must apply this revealed knowledge in our lives. Only those who do what they learn they should do are true worshipers of God (Romans 2:13; James 1:22-25). The apostle John was clear, “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his Commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” 1 John 2:4
Obeying God is worshiping Him by emulating Him, by thinking and living as He would. It is becoming like Him internally. We allow Him to spiritually fashion us into His likeness. We honour and praise Him by the way we live.
Idolatry's insidious affects
A physical image, painting or picture of a deity has neither life nor power. Even if we knew exactly what God looks like, which we do not know, we could not design icons that would portray the many facets of His character revealed to us through His Word. At some times God acts with gentleness and mercy and at others with great wrath and power. He does not want us to perceive Him as frozen in one trait of personality or character to the exclusion of His many other traits. He asks that we read about Him, learn what He is like and emulate Him.
After writing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, God explained why He wanted no images used in worship of Him. “Take you therefore good heed unto yourselves; for you saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: 16 Lest you corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, … 19 And lest you lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when you seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD your God has divided unto all nations under the whole heaven. 20 But the LORD has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as you are this day.” Deuteronomy 4:15-20
God wanted the Israelites to remember that they were to worship the living God, not an idol, and always to direct their worship toward their Creator and never toward objects within His creation. He commanded them, “Take heed unto yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the LORD your God has forbidden you.” Deuteronomy 4:23. Depictions of deities engraved and painted on walls, pottery and other articles are included among the forbidden and idolatrous objects (Numbers 33:52)
Idolatry and immorality
In the idolatrous religions of the ancient world, the worship of idols was intricately linked to the fertility of animals, land and plants. By associating human fertility with the natural forces their idols represented such as the sun, rain and soil, they developed fertility rites that included sexual orgies and temple prostitution. Immorality became the focus of their temple worship. They initiated young females into womanhood by enlisting them to serve as honoured temple prostitutes. Males were expected to frequent the temple brothels in worship of their local deities. Immorality and degeneracy were dressed in religious garb and considered virtues. This is why idolatry and immorality are so frequently linked in the Bible. Paul wrote about the problem: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Colossians 3:5
Peter linked self gratifying behaviour to idolatry. “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries: 4 Wherein they think it strange that you run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you.” 1 Peter 4:3-4
The power behind the scenes
Idolatry in any form is soundly condemned in the New Testament as well as the Old. Paul praised Christians who had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;” (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and warned others, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.” 1 Corinthians 10:14
Far more important, the same apostle explained why using images of deities as aids in worship is so wrong. “What say I then? That the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? 20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that you should have fellowship with devils.” 1 Corinthians 10:19-20
Buried deep within icons and the other imagery of idolatry, the unseen hand of Satan is at work. “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: 4 In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.” 2 Corinthians 4:3-4
Satan conditions people to visualize in their mind's eye even the Son of God as a lifeless, inanimate image. Satan's object is to divert attention from Jesus Christ as the vibrant and perfect living image of the living God described in the four Gospels. By blinding most of mankind (Revelation 12:9) to the importance of God's Commandments, Satan has successfully deflected much of the Christian world's professed adoration for Christ toward icons and pictures contrary to the clear instruction of the Second Commandment.
Remember why we were created
The Second Commandment is a constant reminder that we only, of all created things, are made in the image of God. Only we can be transformed into the spiritual image of Christ who came in the flesh as the perfect spiritual image of our heavenly Father. This Commandment protects our special relationship with our Creator who made us in His likeness and is still moulding us into His spiritual image. The Second Commandment reminds us that God is far greater than anything we can see or imagine. We must never let that knowledge be pushed aside by the use of some image or likeness in our worship of God.