I’ve always been fascinated with history, especially history associated with places such as battlefields and buildings. Growing up, my dad drug us to Civil War battlefields or San Antonio to visit the Alamo. As a child standing in front of that famous facade, I imagined what it must have felt like on that day to see thousands of Santa Ana and his soldiers scaling the walls of that old mission.
As an adult, I’ve had the honor of visiting the most famous house in America, the White House. I’ve walked through the East Room, where the first couple to occupy the house, John and Abigail Adams, hung laundry while the building was still under construction. I’ve sat in the Oval Office, where presidents have made decisions that shaped the future of our nation and world.
But my favorite historical sites are in Israel—and I’m not alone. During the 40 years I’ve traveled to the Holy Land, I’ve heard the same expression from those who visit for the first time—“this has done more to bolster my faith than anything I’ve ever experienced.”
To sail on the lake Jesus walked on, to sit on the steps where Jesus taught, to pray near the spot where Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, to look across the Kidron Valley to see Jerusalem and think that one day on that same hill, the Mount of Olives, Jesus will descend as King of kings and Lord of lords somehow makes our faith seem more real.
I’ve never read the Bible the same way since my first trip to Israel in 1980. Locations and events from the Bible that I had only read about for the first 25 years of my life suddenly moved from the realm of the mythical and theoretical to concrete truths on which I could build my life.
However, our desire for a visual object or location that represents our faith can overshadow the God that the object or location represents.
As finite human beings, it’s only natural to want a tangible expression of our faith: something we can touch, something we can feel, something we can see. And that explains why through the years, Christian pilgrims have searched for relics of the faith, such as supposed pieces of the cross or the nails that supposedly were driven into Christ’s hands.
The danger is that we begin to worship objects associated with God or even images of God rather than God Himself. And it is that danger that the second commandment warns us against.
1. Two Commandments That Sound Like One (Exodus 20:1-6)
I think there’s good reason to see two separate commandments in these verses. The first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before Me” (v. 3)—is concerned with whom we are to worship. It forbids us from worshipping a false god instead of worshipping the only true God.
The second commandment—“You shall not make for yourself an idol” (vv. 4–6)—is concerned with how we are to worship. Specifically, it tells us we shouldn’t worship God with the aid of man-made images that could turn into idols.
The second commandment forbids us from making and worshipping a visible image of God. However, it doesn’t prohibit the creation of art or aesthetic considerations.
Like most of the Ten Commandments, the second commandment is stated negatively. The Lord outlined false ways to worship, as well as the punishment for disobedience. But He quickly turned the tables and gave us a positive motive for worshipping Him truly.
2. False Ways To Worship God (Exodus 20:4-5a)
Idolatry is loving and worshipping anything or anyone more than you love and worship God. That’s not news to anyone who’s familiar with the Bible. The Bible is filled with idol worshippers—some were pagans, and some were supposedly faithful Jews. However, idolatry is more than the worship of false gods; it also involves the worship of the true God in a false way. And that’s what the second commandment prohibits.
Specifically, the commandment forbids creating images or likenesses to represent God, as well as creating images or likenesses of heavenly, earthly, or sea creatures as objects of our worship and our service. That last phrase is important because, as I mentioned earlier, the painting of pictures or the carving of statues isn’t prohibited. The command is against viewing these images as spiritually significant and necessary in our worship of God.
What’s wrong with images of God? This strong negative command is reason enough not to create images that might become objects of worship or is considered necessary to help us worship. But there are two specific reasons that God prohibits making images.
3. Why Worship God Only?
Now that we’ve gained a better understanding of what it means to worship the true God in a false way, we need to understand the consequences of doing so. The Lord warned of His judgment if we disobeyed the second commandment. However, He also promised to be generous to those who worship Him truly. Both God’s warning and His promise serve as motives for true worship.
- He Is a Jealous God (Exodus 20:5b; Isaiah 42:8)
- He Is a Generous God (Exodus 20:6; Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
4. How To Obey The Second Commandment
- Don’t Diminish God through Images of Worship
- Don’t Define God by Yourself (Psalm 50:21)
- Don’t Downsize God by Traditions of Worship
5. How To Worship God (John 4:24)
In John 4:24, Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
In this verse, Jesus was saying three things. First, God is spirit—that is, He cannot be worshipped through tangible means. Second, God has to be worshipped in truth, not worshipped or defined by our own prejudices and traditions. Third, we need to make sure we’re worshipping the true God, not some shadow of God that is found in music or in the church. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must do so in spirit and in truth.
True spiritual worship is Christ-centered. It is Jesus who shows us the Father in all His glory (14:9). To look on Christ is to see the face of the one who couldn’t be seen on Sinai. That’s the mystery and the majesty of the incarnation. We don’t make or worship images because we have the only image we’ll ever need: Jesus Christ, who is the icon (eikon)—the image—of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). True worship occurs when we, the people of God, hearing the Word of God, submit to the Spirit of God in order to do the will of God.
This is the worship that fulfills the second commandment.
Full Passage: Exodus 20:4-6