Often overlooked and misunderstood, the 2nd commandment is of utmost importance, just as are the rest of the 10 Commandments. But, I feel it is not nearly talked about enough nor portrayed as important. Do we understand what is means?
First, we must ask ourselves, what does idolatry mean? When you imagine it, does it illicit thoughts of bowing to statues in Hindu or Buddha temples? Perhaps people worshiping before a painted totem pole? These things are idolatry, but we must realize that there are more subtle forms of it as well.
The full length Second Commandment is as follows:
Exodus 20:4-5 (KJV):
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee 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 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy 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;
It would be natural for someone to think that it refers only to the worship of gods other than the God, our Creator, Jehovah. But in reality, we must understand the full command of the 2nd Commandment, and the part that often gets “lost in the mix” is where we are also to be wary of worshiping God by use of images. This means we are not to make use of visual or pictorial representations of God, or any part of the Trinity for that matter, for the purpose of worshiping it.
The 2nd Commandment deals not with the object of our worship, but with the manner of it - in other words, it tells us that man made statues and pictures of God, whom we worship, are not to be used as an aid to worshiping Him.
What harm is there, you may ask, especially if someone likes using man made pictures of Jesus and God to help them worship?
We often get accustomed to treating this question as a matter of personal taste. After all, some people claim to worship better in churches covered with painted images of Jesus, or holding the crucifix, etc. versus churches that are bare of them.
What harm is there in this? This question often leads some back to the 2nd Commandment and thinking that it applies only to degrading representations of God, such as those found in pagan religions, and nothing more. But, the very wording of the commandment rules out this limiting factor. God clearly says, “Thou shalt not make any likeness of any thing” for the use of worship.
This categorical statement rules out depicting God as an animal such as a big lion, or showing Him as the highest thing created that we know - a human - and also rules out the use of pictures and statues of Jesus as a man or still hanging from the Cross, because the former would be created after His “likeness” of ideal manhood as we conceive it, and the latter would represent what He is not today (dead).
This is definitely not an easy question to answer, and often causes debates among Christians, but I feel if we take the Word of God serious, and take it for the Truth that it is, then it is impossible to misunderstand the 2nd Commandment.
So, what is the critical importance of the 2nd Commandment? The Bible shows us that the grace and glory of God and the spiritual well-being of humans are bound up together as important. The latter is improved by the former. In other words, we are better when we listen and do what God commands.
For the 2nd Commandment, this goes back to the truth of these images, and what they do to God. For one, they obscure His glory. A true image of God cannot be found in the world, and any attempt by a man to draw or recreate what they think God looks like ultimately defiles His glory and His true image is corrupted. We simply cannot fathom how Holy and beautiful God is enough to draw it, because anything we relate it to on earth will always fall short of His perfect, divine nature.
Have you read the story in the Bible of Aaron making a golden calf to represent God, who had pulled them out of Egypt? The image no doubt was made to honor God, but it ultimately did the opposite because those who saw it likened God to a mere animal on earth, which defiles His Glory.
Isaiah 40:18 (KJV): 18 To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?
This verse in Isaiah did not intend to be a question answered. Images like this also convey false ideas about God. Again, going back to the statue Aaron made, we read in Exodus that the bull-calf image led the Israelites to think of God as a Being who could be worshiped by frenzied, frantic behavior, and it ultimately angered God, because they held a festival around the statue, though in His name, but they acted crazy and defiled themselves and did things unpleasing to Him.
Exodus 32:5-10 (NKJV):
5 So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.”
6 Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves.
8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ”
9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people!
10 Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”
Likewise, when it comes to the crucifix, as in the image of Jesus’ dead body on the cross hanging from a necklace of sorts, the same idea that God commanded of us can be applied. I am in no way saying that we should not think about the pain and suffering Jesus went through with what I am about to say. That is definitely something we should always remember. But, I think God, as He knows all and can see the beginning and the end, knew that this commandment would be needed. It has been shown as a historical fact that people who equate their devotion to heavily mourning of over Jesus’ bodily sufferings by staring at the crucifix with His body hanging on it has made them morbid about the spiritual value of physical pain, and kept them from devoting just as much time to the knowledge of the risen Lord and Savior, along with the fact that it represents Jesus as dead, not what He is now, which is alive.
In writing this, I also remembered back to the first time I watched the movie The Passion of the Christ. When they depicted Jesus being whipped and beaten, it was horrific. The image of blood and flesh flying off of Him as the whips made contact with His back were burned into my imaginative mind for days after watching it. I was therefore stuck in a state of semi-depression, focusing soley on the pain they depicted that He suffered portrayed by actors. Though I was young at the time, even today it would have the same impact on me, and I would have to make extra effort to get my mind out of that depression. Perhaps, this is why the Bible and recounts did not go into such gory details about when Jesus was "sent by Pilate to be flogged", and perhaps this is partially why the 2nd Commandment was given as well, so that we don't lose sight of the most important factors, which in this case, was that Jesus died for our sins on Calvary then rose and is alive today.
These are examples of how images will falsify the truth of God in men and women. It is certain that if you habitually focus your thoughts on a man made image of God, you will come to think of Him, and pray to Him, as the image represents Him. Essentially, you are bowing down to your image, and to the extent that this image fails to represent God, so do you fail to worship God in truth. That is why God forbids us to create images of Him for worship - we cannot fathom and accurately recreate, on earth, His Holiness and beauty in an image; we can only imagine.
Realizing that this is so - we must also be careful of how we imagine God in our heads. How often have you heard someone say, "I think of God as a great Architect." Or, "I think of God simply as a Father, not a judge of all things." Often times, remarks like the serve as a prelude to things people deny that the Bible tells us about God.
It needs to be understood that those who choose to think about God in any manner without studying His Word serve the risk of breaking the Second Commandment. At best, we can only imagine Him in the likeness of a man or maybe a bright, Holy light - but God is not any sort of man we know, and we cannot be sure of what He actually looks like for certain.
God tells us in Isaiah 55:8-9 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways...as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts."
In this, we find the beauty in the 2nd Commandment. It compels us to get our ideas of God and what He looks like from His Holy Word, the Bible, and from no other source at all.
The Bible also tells us that to see Jesus' face was to see the Father. John 14:9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
Again, we can only imagine what Jesus may have looked like, being that we have no real photographs, only artist renditions from Biblical explanations and recounts, therefore it is also impossible to know for sure what God's face looks like.
As long as we are in accord with the Word on our thoughts and actions, then we won't run the risk of breaking any of the 10 Commandments. That is the beauty of the Word of God. That is the beauty of His Son, Jesus, our Lord and Savior. They won't ever steer us wrong! Admittedly, I too have often imagined what God looks like, and I've kept them in line with Biblical explanations of times that He revealed Himself (though no man ever saw His face). But I certainly avoid imagery as we discussed earlier, and when I pray and worship, I'm not really thinking of any face or image, just thoughts OF God as our Creator and Jesus as His Son and our Lord and Savior.
This is a touchy subject for some, but it needs to be examined, and certainly God gave us the Second Commandment for a reason. Keep your eyes on the Lord and His Word.