September 23, 2018
In the Roman Empire you could worship as you pleased except for one thing. Everyone had to offer incense to the image of the Roman Caesar. You could identify as a Christian and live to tell about it as long as you offered incense to the image of Caesar. Christians refused to do this little thing. And many were persecuted and martyred. Why did they refuse? They refused because idolatry is a serious matter that compromises a person from deep within.
Today we are looking at the 2nd commandment. The 2nd commandment speaks to the question of how we worship God. Can we use an image in our worship of God? Well not if you are a Christian. In the 2nd commandment God says, “Flee from idolatry that you may worship God wholeheartedly.”
I. THOSE WHO MAKE IDOLS DIMINISH GOD. Ex.20:4
In Ex.20:4 we read, “You shall not make for yourself a carved 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.”
Some take this command to mean that we should never make any representation of any kind. According to Wikipedia, there is a proscription in Islam against the creation of images of conscious, feeling beings. “The most absolute proscription is of images of God in Islam, followed by depictions of Muhammad, and then Islamic prophets and the relatives of Muhammad, but the depiction of all humans and non-human animals is discouraged.” And so Islamic art is dominated by geometric patterns and calligraphy. Some Jews have the same understanding of this prohibition.
That said, in Ex.25 we find that when God gives instructions for the tabernacle, he tells Moses to make two cherubim that would sit on either side of the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. Again in Ex.25 we read that the lampstand was to be adorned with sculpted flowers. In Ex.28 we see that the priest’s robe was to have pomegranates embroidered on the hem. In addition to this, in Num.21 it was God who told Moses to make the image of the bronze snake. When Solomon built the temple he made much use of representational art. I mention this to suggest that the Lord is not ruling out artistic imagery. He is ruling out imagery for the purpose of worship and by extension we should take this as a warning concerning the use of imagery in worship.
In Dt.4:15-19 Moses gives additional instruction on this. He says, “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth. And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.”
What I want us to see is that Moses emphasizes the fact that when God spoke to the people they saw no form. They heard a voice. What’s the point? The point is that any representation of God diminishes God. It reduces God into something of our own making. Since God is the Creator of all things, he cannot be represented by anything he created since he is over all that he created. Sometimes we describe a person as being larger than life. We look at a picture of the person, but it doesn’t really capture that person because they are bigger than that picture. Well God is bigger, more complex, more powerful, more magnificent and majestic than anything we can make or see. If we could see God it would be our undoing. He dwells in unapproachable light.
But while that is the truth about God, there is something in us that seeks to bring God down to our own size. I have a few objects on the communion table. Potentially they could be idols. David Baker points out that, typically in the Ancient Near East, elaborate rituals were used to transform an image so it became the ‘pure epiphany of its god.’ “The material image was understood to be animated by the divine essence…manifesting its presence…[and] believed to be alive and able to eat food, drink the water, listen to the music, and smell the incense brought by worshipers…the god was the reality embodied in the image.”
II. THOSE WHO WORSHIP IDOLS REJECT GOD. Ex.20:5
Verse 5 says, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.”
We must not forget that Israel was surrounded by nations in which many gods were worshiped through idolatry. Idolatry was a constant temptation. When Jacob left his uncle Laban to go back to Canaan, Rachel stole the household gods of her family. They were small enough to hide in a saddle bag. Moses made the bronze snake. Later, in 2Kgs.18 we learn that the people worshiped the snake. Gideon made a garment out of gold, an ephod, and we read that the people worshiped it.
In v. 5 God prohibits bowing down in worship to an idol because he is a jealous God. Really? God is jealous! What is that all about? Well, the idea has to do with being in an exclusive relationship. In my understanding of the Old Testament, the nation of Israel came into being because God established a relationship with Abraham and promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation. But more than this, when Israel found itself helplessly enslaved in Egypt, it was God who redeemed Israel through his powerful hand. God cared for Israel, miraculously providing food and water, eventually bringing his people into a land flowing with milk and honey. It was God who entered into a covenant with Israel in which God promised to establish Israel and its throne forever.
Again and again in the Old Testament the relationship between God and Israel is described in terms of a marriage covenant. This helps us see that the relationship between God and Israel was not just based on power. It was rooted in love. God commanded Israel to worship him not because God is on some big ego trip, but rather because God is God and worship is the only appropriate response to the love and goodness of God.
But like an unfaithful spouse, Israel committed spiritual adultery. When a person commits adultery, they turn away from their spouse and yield themselves into the hands of their lover. They cede power over to their lover. The lover has his or her way with the person. The marriage covenant is broken and many marriages do not survive.
In Rm.1:21-25 Paul writes, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
It is clear in Romans that the root problem behind all sin is the failure to worship God alone. N.T. Wright writes, “The priestly calling of all humans was then to honor God, to thank and praise him. Instead, however, humans ‘swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans, and of birds, animals, and reptiles.” Later he writes, “When humans worship parts of creation or forces within creation, they give away their power to those aspects of the created order, which will then come to rule over them.” This is why it is so difficult to abandon sin. We let it rule us
Back in Ex.20:5, God says that the impact of spiritual adultery is lasting. He says that the iniquity that results from idolatry is visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations. In his book, “The Ten Commandments,” Dr. Rooker points out that, “Idolatry has never been connected to ethical behavior. In fact, sexual immorality often has accompanied the practice of idolatry.” That is exactly what we see in Rm.1. Think about it. If you saw the 4th generation from yourself, that would be your great, great grandchild. It’s possible. If you live a life of idolatry it will only bring disorder and sinful behaviors into your family. God says, your iniquity will be visited upon your family. And that is all too true.
Now again, most of us do not worship images, although many throughout the world do. But even Christians can be idolaters. Think of all the things we can worship. We can worship our family (ancestors), money, sex, pleasure, power, position, success, reputation, intelligence, and other things. In Col.3:5 Paul likens greed to idolatry. Idolatry is ultimately self-worship. Where you find idolatry you find fear, anxiety, immorality, disobedience, shame, deceit, division, addictions, anger, abuse, unforgiveness, and sadness. God has been rejected. The love that God has for us has been spurned. We think we know better than God and we pay a terrible price.
III. THOSE WHO WORSHIP GOD LIVE IN HIS LOVE. Ex.20:6
In v.6 we read, “but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
Before I say anything more, I think it is important to recognize that all of us are probably guilty of idolatry to one degree or another. Perhaps some would disagree with me on this. But my sense is that few of us know ourselves so well as to be able to make the claim that we never participate in some form of idolatry. We live in old creation bodies that are passing away and bear the brunt of sin.
At the same time we have been given new creation life in Christ. We have received the Holy Spirit of God. I believe that the Holy Spirit continually seeks to make us aware of the various kinds of idolatry that we struggle with. Hopefully, as Christians, we embrace the truth about ourselves and bow before the Lord in confession and worship.
That said, what we read in this verse is marvelous. While the iniquities of idolatry are passed on through the 4th generation, those who love God and keep his commands, those who worship God in this way, discover that his faithful, steadfast, covenant keeping love is conveyed to thousands. When we live in love, obedience, and worship of God, his love is in us and he expresses his love to others through us.
But look! God’s love is most clearly displayed in Jesus Christ, who Paul tells us, is the image of the invisible God. No need for idolatry. We have Jesus Christ and we worship him. For to worship Jesus is to worship God. To fix our eyes on Jesus is to fix our eyes on God.
And that leads me to put this question to you. Do you worship God with your whole heart? Have you entered into a life-giving relationship with God through faith in his Son, Jesus. Have you repented of your sins and called upon the name of the Lord to save you? Do you worship God alone? Amen.