To Whom Will You Liken Me? The Biblical Prohibition of Images (Part 1)

To Whom Will You Liken Me? The Biblical Prohibition of Images (Part 1)

God attaches to the second commandment is His sovereignty over us. This is affirmed in Exodus 20:5, “For I, the LORD….” He is the Mighty King, the Creator of all things both visible and invisible. All things were created through Him and for Him. He holds all things together by the word of His power.[28] Because He is sovereign, He is free to speak, govern, and ordain as He pleases. He has commanded that we should not make any graven images or bow down to them.

The history of the visible church is fraught with temptation to know God through images made by human hands. During the Reformation and for most of the 500 years following, the use of images would be an obvious differentiator between Reformed Protestants[1] and Roman Catholics. In recent decades, images “of all or of any of the three persons”[2] have been introduced to Reformed churches. This two part series of articles first lays out the positive Biblical view of the second commandment in the Old and New Testament. Relying heavily on the 1981 Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) report “On Images of Christ”[3] the second article proceeds to lay out three arguments commonly used in favor of images. Responding to the modern arguments, these articles find that the Bible rejects images “of all or of any of the three persons,” and calls all people to worship God in Spirit and in Truth.  

The Return of Images

The history of the visible church is filled with examples of image making and idolatry. The Israelites had not left Sinai before they made a golden calf and called it their God who delivered them from Egypt (Exodus 32). From the time of the judges through the exile, idol worship was a regular sin among the people of the God.[4] The New Testament church was susceptible to idolatry through the superstitions of the Jews and the idolatry of the nations surrounding them.[5]

God did not leave men to wonder concerning images, idolatry, and worship but rather revealed His will by speaking in His Word. God gave the second commandment at Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20 to direct the pure worship of God and forbid all idolatry.[6]  God asked questions concerning images to which no one could respond.[7] As John concluded his first epistle he did so with this positive command, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”

Nevertheless, 500 years after the Reformation, images of the second person of the Trinity have found resurgence in Reformed churches and homes. For example, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Florida displays a stone statue of Jesus in front of the church building with the words, “Come Unto Me.”[8] Sunday School materials are filled with images of Christ and Christians now widely accept their use.[9] The Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (RPCES) position report “On Images of Christ” gave encouragement to the use of images of Christ in certain contexts.[10] Many professing Christians give little thought to movies and popular tv shows with actors pretending to be Jesus.

Should images of Christ be used in any context? Prior to addressing some contemporary arguments for images of Christ from the Reformed tradition, it is helpful to consider the second commandment from Scripture.

Biblical Overview of the Second Commandment

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 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; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:4-6

What Is Required?

The second commandment builds on the first by addressing the manner of God’s worship. In the first commandment God gives instruction concerning the object of men’s worship.[11] In the second commandment, God gives instruction concerning the practice of men’s worship.[12]

Whereas God gives the second commandment in a negative form, “thou shalt not make… thou shalt not bow,” a positive duty is required.[13] The Psalmist cries out, “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker (Psalm 95:6). Jesus said, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

God requires all His worship and ordinances to be pure and complete as instituted in His Word alone.[14]

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