In the comment thread of a recent post (which has since been removed), some comments were posted concerning the varied exegeses of Exodus 20:4-6 that have been offered over the years. One such interpretation says that the passage should be read (to paraphrase),
Do not make images. Do not bow down to them or serve them.
The other position says the passage should be read (again, to paraphrase),
Do not make images in order to bow down and serve them.
Having just completed a survey of the book of Exodus (which I may be posting here in a short while), here is the conclusion I have come to. I believe the second interpretation (Do not make images of God in order to worship the images.) to be the proper one. I hope to show, by way of Scripture, why I feel this to be so.
I will say, however, at the outset (and will expound on this in due time) that one must be careful with said pictures. One can fall into one of many errors:
- They can wind up worshipping the image (as the Romanists do).
- They can wind up thinking that having a picture of Christ on their wall makes them a Christian, even though their hearts are far from Him (as many Americans do today).
- They can wind up thinking that said depiction of Christ is what He actually looked like (as the Mormons believe that He had milky white skin, rather than being [more likely] a darker-skinned Semite, He being a Jew of that time. We will also leave aside the brown-haired, blue-eyed Jew of the Jesus of Nazareth TV-movie).
- Or they may simply see Him as being a man, and not God in the flesh (as the Emergents and liberals do).
While we cannot depict the glory of God (for it was always hidden, either within a cloud, or a pillar of fire, or within the bush that burned), we can depict the humanity of Christ. Treated carefully enough, and used in the proper context, I believe that pictures of Christ in the flesh are not necessarily sinful.
First, let’s begin with the idolatry committed by the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, in Exodus 32:1-6—1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 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.
The people wanted gods to worship–“gods” that they could see with their eyes and touch with their hands; “gods” who would let them unleash the sin that burned within them. And rather than serve the true YHVH, they created a false “yhvh” that was more to their liking. So, when Moses returned to the foot of the mountain, God commanded that the calf be ground to powder and the people drink down their iniquity. Then, God commanded that the sons of Levi take their swords, go through the camp, and slay all those who did not repent of their idolatry (Exodus 32:25-28). (The many blatant inaccuracies in Cecil B. DeMille’s landmark film may be addressed in another post). Paul uses this event to call the Corinthians away from their own idolatry (1st Corinthians 10:5-7).
Now, here’s the question: if the people had simply fashioned a calf out of gold, would God have commanded them to be killed? No. What was their sin? They made this calf in order to worship it. “Come, make us gods that shall go before us…This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” They had fashioned a figure of an animal, yes–but the real sin was ascribing to that statue the name of YHVH and dancing around and calling it “our god.” This was the force of the Second Commandment–making a graven image in order to worship it.
We see another example in Judges 17:1-6. The mother of Micah (not to be confused with the prophet Micah, which book bears his name) had statues made for him to put in his house to reside with the other idols. Again, is the sin the making of the statue–or the ascription of deity to that statue?
I say all this by way of introduction, since it seems that the crux of the debate resides in whether or not the picturing of Jesus by painter or sculptor is sinful. On this, the prophet Moses said, from the LORD–
Deuteronomy 4:15-19—“15 Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, 16 lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, 17 the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18 the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. 19 And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage.”
In Deuteronomy we find, as it were, sermons (expositions and applications) of the various commands found in that first covenant. This passage is an exposition and application on the Second Commandment in the Decalogue. Now, in this passage, is this–
- A command from God to not carve images of animals or bugs or birds or or fish or humans? Or…
- A command about carving images of animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans in order to worship them?
There is a difference. If this is a command to not carve images of animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans–and if you feel that making pictures of Christ is idolatry–then, to be consistent, you must remove any figures and pictures of any animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans from your house, because you are guilty of idolatry. If you wear a shirt or a hat or any article of clothing that contains any picture of any “likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth” then you must get rid of it to be consistent in your beliefs. Take down any paintings of any animals you have on your walls, for it is idolatry. Don’t watch sports–ANY sports–for every sport has teams that are depicted by some kind of animals or bugs or birds or fish or humans. If you are in the Army, don’t become a colonel, since they wear an eagle as their insignia.
If your children have dolls, or action figures, you must get rid of them. We must also condemn any statues or pictures of any human being. If you live in St. Louis, and your kids have posters of Albert Pujols on their wall, take them down. Go to Philadelphia, PA, and petition the city to get rid of the statues of George Washington and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Go to your local city council and beseech them to take down any statues of any significant figure of that city’s history, for it is idolatry.
- That scrapbook filled with pictures from your wedding? Get rid of it.
- The paintings of your grandparents or great-grandparents? Gone.
- Got pictures of your children in your wallet? Goodbye.
- Get rid of any books or magazines or any other publication that has any picture of any human being.
- Lose the camera.
- Don’t buy your children pens, pencils, markers, paint, or any other thing by which they may make a picture of any living creature lest they commit the sin of idolatry.
These are the things one must do to be consistent. For all of these–images of animals or bugs or birds or or fish or humans–are grouped together with images of “things in heaven”.
So then, the sin is not in depicting the “likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth”. The sin is in in depicting the “likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth” in order to worship it. Ascribing some power to it that belongs to God and God alone.
Just as the mere act of looking up at the stars in the sky is not idolatry. For God also commanded Moses to tell the people, “And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them…” If looking up at the stars is a sin, then God commanded Abram to sin, since He told him to “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them” (Genesis 15:5). To be consistent, never look at the stars or you are guilty of idolatry.
In both of these, the sin is not carving images of animals or birds or bugs or even humans; nor is the sin in simply looking up into the starry skies. The sin is ascribing to animals, bugs, birds, stars, moon, etc the attributes and power that belongs to God and God alone.
Now, I know the counter-argument. “OK, fourpointer, you’re saying it’s OK to have pictures of Christ, are you then saying it’s OK to make images of God the Father or God the Holy Spirit?” No, I’m not saying that at all. Did God the Father take on human flesh? Did God the Holy Spirit take on human flesh? Obviously, the answer to both questions is “No” (leaving the arguments of the Sabellians and Modalists for another day). Christ, however, did take on human flesh. He did take on the nature of man and was, in fact, a man. He did not simply look like a man; He did not simply appear as though He was a man. He was–A MAN. Philippians 2:8—And being found in appearance as a man… 1st timothy 2:5—For there is…one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus. And it is that humanity that is is captured in pictures.
But is simply having a picture of Christ idolatry? Is having a picture of any human being idolatry? In order to be consistent, one must answer each of those questions in the same manner as the other. And if having pictures of human beings is not a sin, then to be consistent, having pictures of Christ–who was Himself of two natures, one of those natures being a man, being human (albeit without sin)–should not be considered idolatry. Unless one ascribes to the picture itself some power or attribute that belongs to Christ alone. Such as the Romanist who believes that bowing before a statue of Christ (or, even worse, Mary His mother) can bring them some benefit–as though the statue itself possessed the power to grant forgiveness or heal infirmities.
In conclusion, allow me to summarize these many words with an illustration. If I pull a piece of paper out of my wallet–a piece of paper with ink of varying colors and hues and shades–and I tell you “This is my wife.” Am I trying to say that I am married to that piece of paper and those inks and hues? Or am I saying “This is a depiction of my wife”? If I mean to say that I am married to a piece of paper, then something’s wrong with my thinker. But if I mean to say “This is a depiction of the woman I am married to” then I have a proper sense of things and I am speaking correctly. Much the same thing is involved with depicting scenes from the ministry of Christ while He walked the earth. Is one in sin if they do so? Only if they carry the depiction too far and ascribe power and deity to the depiction. (If, when they say, “this is Christ”, they are actually saying that the picture or statue is, indeed and in fact, Christ). Or if they value the humanity of Christ at the expense of giving Him the worship he deserves. Or if they declare “this is what Christ looked like.” We do not know what He looked like.
But we can say “This is a depiction of The Sermon on the Mount” or “This is a depiction of what it might have looked like when Christ called Zacchaeus” without crossing the line into full-fledged idolatry. (I will say this: The vast, overwhelming majority of pictures/paintings/sculptures depicting the crucifixion deserve to be thrown in the fire for the fact that they do not come close to giving an accurate description of what it looked like. But that’s for another day).
Thus Moses said in Deuteronomy 4:23-28—“23 Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you…25 When you beget children and grandchildren and have grown old in the land, and act corruptly and make a carved image in the form of anything, and do evil in the sight of the LORD your God to provoke Him to anger, 26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish from the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess; you will not prolong your days in it, but will be utterly destroyed…28 And there you will serve gods, the work of men’s hands, wood and stone, which neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell.” If a person makes for themselves “a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden”–that is, an image of something made for the purpose of worshipping the image–then God will indeed give that person over to that idolatry (see Romans 1:22-32). And in fact, by depicting the humanity of Christ, we rebuke the heresies of the Docetists, the Gnostics, and the Valentinians who all denied the humanity of Christ, refusing to believe that He actually had flesh and bone.