Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Second Commandment

The Command to Worship the Lord Spiritually

Deuteronomy 5:8-10

The covenant Lord, who is also the creator God and whom we now know as the Christ-like God, commands us to worship him exclusively. The next important thing to know, then, is that there is a right way and a wrong way to worship the Lord. It is not only the object of our worship that matters, the means of our worship also matters. It is not only who we worship; it is how we worship. The form that our worship takes matters to God. It matters because there is worship that matches with the nature and character of God, and there is worship which is inherently unworthy of him. It is an affront to him. It demeans him and degrades him. And, in fact, worship which does not match with the character of the true God turns out to be worshiping a false god. That is why this second command of the Ten Commandments is so crucial. It is the command to worship the Lord spiritually.

What is prohibited by this command?

Making any physical representation of God.

The Lord had already made this very plain to Israel (Deut 4:15-19). Carving an image sometimes entails animism. Animism believes that spiritual power is in the material itself. But perhaps the greatest reason humans have for carving a physical representation of deity is because we crave a god that we can see and, to one degree or another, control. You see, that is exactly what making an image of God does. It reduces him to something that we can conceive of, control, and even manipulate. For us to make any kind of representation of God is to exactly reverse the Creator-creature distinction. He is the infinite, incomprehensible God. How can we as mere humans possibly conceive of any adequate way to represent him physically? He is present everywhere. How can we confine him to one place? He is the all powerful God. How can we represent him with a totally impotent carving or painting? He is the God who hears prayer. How can we represent him with a stone that hears nothing? He is the God who is living and active. How can we represent him with some inert object? No created thing can properly represent the great I AM, the Lord.

We sometimes think of this as something that only occurs in uncivilized places with ignorant people, but such is not the case. There are other ways of violating the 2nd commandment.

Making any physical representation of anything for the purpose of worship.

Since God is who he is, not only may we not try to represent him physically, we may not make any kind of physical representation to help us worship him. Paintings, statues, sculptures, and such things should never be used to get us to worship the infinite, eternal God. The greatest violation of this in Western history is the Roman Catholic Church, with its crucifixes, statues, and icons. Here is how they justify this:

The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new ‘economy’ of images: “Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God…and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1159).

Is this biblical thinking? Notice what the apostle Paul preached after the coming of Christ. Acts 17:29 says, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” You see, Jesus Christ was an exclusive representation of God. He was not a human creation. He was God in the flesh. He was God revealing himself. Any other representation of God was idolatrous then, and is still so today.

Yet we still need to be on our guard as Protestants against this kind of thing. It is for this reason that I discourage paintings and statues of Jesus hanging in our homes or especially our churches. I do not believe that it is inherently wrong to make a painting of Jesus in the same way that it is inherently wrong to make a painting of God (ex: Last Supper, The Creation of Adam on Sistine Chapel Ceiling). But I do believe that it is very unwise. Why? Jesus is supposed to be worshiped, and it is very natural for us to begin to use representations of Christ in worshipful ways. That would be a violation of the 2nd commandment.

There is one more way that I believe we can violate this command.

Elevating any created thing to the place of worship in our minds.

This really takes us back to the first commandment and what we talked about there.

The absolute foolishness of idolatry

In Isaiah 40:18ff, the prophet blasts the very thought of comparing the almighty Lord God with anything that can be crafted from gold or wood. You see, the whole system of idolatry works by self-deception. Isaiah says, “Everyone helps his neighbor and says to his brother, ‘Be strong!’ The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith, and he who smooths with the hammer him who strikes the anvil, saying of the soldering, ‘It is good’; and they strengthen it with nails so that it cannot be moved” (41:6-7). Many people have commented on the spate of militant atheist books that have come out in recent years – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. What are these men doing? They are “strengthening it with nails so that it cannot be moved.” Their god cannot do anything so they have to run around trying to prop it up all the time. They are working on an intellectual level, but on a more everyday level, take as an example our culture of immediate consumption. We have built ourselves a whole system of everyone saying “Be strong” and “It is good” - the lender, borrower, producer, consumer, advertiser. And when a bunch of people start defaulting on their housing loans and going bankrupt over credit card debt, what do we get? The calls start coming thick and fast for the government to pound some nails. Do something! Our idol is falling over! You want to know what a person’s or a society’s idols are? Look for where they start pounding nails when things start going wrong. They are propping their idol up.

But Isaiah isn’t done yet. In chapter 44:18-20 he says, “They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” Idolatry takes away all the sense of those who practice it. “Is there not a lie in my right hand?” Sin makes you stupid. We have husbands and wives who can’t figure out why their marriage won’t work, and parents who have no idea in the world how to train up children, etc., etc. I’m not trying to bash everybody here this morning, but I am trying to get you to see that idolatry is totally foolish. It makes you senseless.

God’s zeal for his glory

But there is an even greater reason why idolatry is foolish. It is foolish because it makes you stupid, but God gives an even more compelling reason right in our text this morning. The Lord is a jealous God! This does not mean that he is petty, as we sometimes use the word “jealous” these days. It means that God has a deep-seated, burning, even fiery zeal to maintain the exclusiveness of his covenant relationship. He will not allow any rivals in our worship or in our affections, which means, first of all, that he will punish sin. Those who hate him are those who will not obey his covenant. And they have nothing but judgment to look forward to. God will not trifle with idolatry.

But on the other hand, we who are his people should rejoice at God’s jealousy. That really is what gives us confidence in him. He will not quit, he will not fail, he will not stop until his covenant promises are fulfilled. He will not let us go! He will be faithful both now and forever!

So how are you doing today? Next week we will dig deeper by considering what this commandment positively commands. But don’t ever think that we are free from the temptations to idolatry or to making God into something that we can see, feel, touch – and ultimately, control.

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