Exodus 20:1-6: Images and Idolatry

I want us to try and answer three questions in this sermon:
1. What is Idolatry?
2. Why is Idolatry Popular?
3. Why is Idolatry Forbidden?

1. What is Idolatry?
What does the word "idolatry" suggest to your mind? Savages grovelling before a totem pole? Cruel faced statues in Hindu temples? Sacred cows and smiling Buddah's. These things are certainly idolatrous, but we need to realise that there are more insidious forms of idolatry nearer home. Read the second commandment again. (Exodus 20:4)

If it stood alone, it would be natural to suppose that it refers to the worship of images of gods other than the One True God. In its context the second commandment can hardly be referring only to this kind of idolatry, for if it were it would simply be repeating the thought of the first commandment without adding anything to it. That is why the second commandment has always been understood as teaching the principle that idolatry consists not only in the worship of false gods, but also in the worship of the true God by images. If the first commandment points to the one true object of worship, then the second commandment limits the form of that worship. I believe there are three specific kinds of idolatry covered by this ban.

1.1 Molten Images - Obvious Pagan Idolatry
It was out of the Egyptian world of pagan idolatry that the Lord saved Israel, purified in the desert by these commandments. It was into a Promised Land full of pagan idols, 70 years later, that the Lord brought His people, fortified by these commandments. It was into a Roman and Greek world of pagan idolatry that the Apostles were sent with the Gospel. Paul wrote in his letter to the Church in Rome,

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:22-23)

In the nineteenth century, the missionary Henry Martyn, travelled to India to share the gospel with people prostrating themselves before grotesque images. On one occasion he heard someone tell of a vision of Jesus bowing before Mohammed. Martyn wrote later, "I was cut to the soul at this blasphemy. I could not endure existence if Jesus was not glorified, it would be hell to me if He were always thus dishonoured." Such obvious pagan idolatry is hard to find outside a Buddhist or Hindu temple, although I have to say that some churches and Cathedrals come close.
Molten Images - Obvious Pagan Idolatry.

1.2 Materialist Images - Odious Secular Idolatry
In the Scripture anything carved from wood or stone or metal could become a graven image. Today we might add such things as a car or yacht, house or football team. You may have heard the story recently about the unfortunate Newcastle football supporter who had the portrait of his idol Andy Cole tattooed on his thigh. Unfortunately a week later Andy Cole was transferred to a Manchester club. Apparently it cost him £50 to have the tattoo put on, but will cost him £10,000 to have it removed. It would perhaps be cheaper to transfer his loyalty to Manchester.

We are literally surrounded by secular idols, secularised substitutes for the One true God. In Ephesians 5:5-6 we are warned of three in particular that are a constant temptation to us.

"For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."

I wonder whether you regard immorality, impurity or even greed as idolatry? God does. Images become idols when they're worshipped or when they become the focus of our time and energy. For when they become our centre of attention, they usurp the place of God alone.

That means anything or anyone can become an idol. Molten Images - Obvious Pagan Idolatry. Materialist Images - Odious Secular Idolatry.

1.3 Mental Images - Ominous Spiritual Idolatry
Just as this commandment forbids us to manufacture images of God, or substitute secular mediators, so it forbids us to dream up mental images of God also. And here the temptation is most insidious and therefore ominous. Frankly I am very worried by the current practice of visualisation advocated even by some Christians. There is a world of difference between imagining the scene portrayed in a gospel narrative to help us understand what Jesus said or did, and imagining Jesus is here with us today, seated next to us smiling and saying something reassuring. That use of the imagination for what ever counselling reason, I believe is forbidden us, because it is not true. "He is not here." said the angels at the tomb. That is because He was not there. Nor is He here in that physical sense. Yes, of course God is everywhere, and yes, He indwells us by His Spirit, but Jesus is in heaven seated at the right hand of the Father, from where He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Jim Packer says, "Imagining God in our heads can be just as real a breach of the second commandment as imagining him by the work of our hands... to follow the imagination of one's heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol worshipper... Negatively it is a warning against ways of worship and religious practice that lead us to dishonour God and to falsify his truth. Positively, it is a summons to us to recognise that God the creator is transcendent, mysterious, and inscrutable, beyond the range of any imagining... and hence the summons to us to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of him, and to let him teach us what he is like and how we should think of him."

The prophet Isaiah says most emphatically, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Sir Frederick Catherwood was once invited to a dinner at which the new headmaster of Eton was speaking. Most of the audience seemed to be Old Etonians. They were outraged at the changes the new headmaster had made. Among other things he had changed the "field game", without consulting "The Committee". One old man got unsteadily to his feet, his whole body trembling with rage. He had been a member of "The Committee" in 1909, and reminded the audience that since that date, no important changes had been made without consulting "The Committee".

It gradually dawned on Sir Catherwood that, for the Old Etonions, this was not merely a school, it was a religion. Its rights had to be respected and preserved. The headmaster who had abandoned certain rituals was committing sacrilege. Nobody saw him out after the dinner. He left alone. Not long afterwards he resigned. D.L. Moody once wrote,

"I believe that Satan is willing to have us worship anything, the more sacred the better, the Bible, the crucifix, the Church, if only we do not worship God Himself."

So a graven image can take many forms.
God is not the person we are; His wisdom; His aims; His values, differ so vastly from our own that we cannot possibly guess our way by intuition or infer them by analogy with our imagination. We cannot know Him unless He speaks to us and tells us about Himself. What is idolatry? As we have seen, idolatry takes several forms. From the obvious pagan shrines via the secular materialist veneration of power, wealth and beauty, through to the insidious use of the imagination in ministry and worship.

2. Why then is Idolatry so Popular?
Think about the relationship between the first and second commandments. If you are to insist on the worship of one God, then the possibility of graven images will be a constant temptation. The old insurance instinct soon prevails. Sooner or later the crops will fail.

Was it because Jahweh wasn't big enough. Maybe he wasn't interested in farming. Perhaps they needed to look for a consort to share the shrine with him who might specialise in abundant crops. And what of fishing? procreation? prospecting? war? sickness? Maybe we need a specialist, a patron saint who can put in a good word for us. And when new territory was occupied, the temptation arose to appease the local gods.

Better still incorporate them too to keep everybody happy. People the world over are enslaved to such fear and covetousness and superstition. There is a god-shaped vacuum in the heart of every human being and if people refuse to allow the Holy One, the Lord God His rightful place on the throne of their lives, they will seek a substitute more tolerant and permissive. A god they have created in their image. What idolatry is and why idolatry is so popular. Now lets consider,

3. Why Idolatry is so Wrong
What harm is there, we ask, in the worshipper surrounding himself with statues and pictures, if they help to stimulate me in worship? Is it not a matter of personal taste or personality, or temperament? If our desire is to worship God, what is wrong in using our imagination or images if we feel closer to God with them. Isn't the commandment just dealing with paganism and superstition. No, I'm afraid its not.

It is the very wording of the commandment which rules out such limitations. God says quite categorically "you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything..." Anything means anything, whether it be a cheap rabbit foot trinket or a beautiful and costly work of art depicting the Lord Jesus Christ. Why such a prohibition? Because, first of all,

3.1 It is Insulting to Represent God.
Images dishonour God, they obscure His glory. It is degrading to represent the most High God, Uncreated Creator, king of the Universe in any created form. The Lord God had already explained through Moses,

"You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully," Deuteronomy 4:15. Images inevitably mislead, and the Lord knew Moses or his friends might be tempted to have a go. Images falsify and corrupt the truth of God in the minds of people. Psychologically, it is a fact that if you habitually focus your thoughts on an image or picture of the One to whom you are praying, you will come to think of Him, and to pray to Him, as the image represents Him. Thus you will in this sense "bow down" and "worship" the image of God you have created, whether molten, material or mental. To the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth.

So deeply rooted in the minds of the Hebrew people was this prohibition that for a people who have contributed so richly to the culture of the world by way of musicians, mathematicians, poets and scientists, it is notable that there are very few Jewish sculptors or portrait painters.

Imagine applying to the College of Heralds for a family coat of arms. How would you feel being offered the choice of a snake, a fly or a worm? Beneath you? Degrading? Then you know how God feels about idols. When Moses came down the mountain from his meeting with God he brought with him two tablets of stone. God has chosen to reveal Himself by His Word. The task of communicating the reality of God was entrusted to prophets and teachers not artists and craftsman. Images are wrong because they obscure the one they are supposed to represent. It is insulting to represent God.

3.2 It is Impertinent to Represent God
Read 20:4. It is impertinent because God has forbidden it. Sadly, some of our forebears saw things differently. Pope Gregory 1st, for instance, at the end of the 6th Century took the first step towards the toleration of images. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 sanctioned a modified form of image or picture worship. By the time we reach the 13th Century we find Thomas Aquinas insisting,

"The Cross and Image of the Cross and of Christ must be worshipped with the self same supreme worship, with which Christ Himself is worshipped."

The Council of Trent, meeting in 1545 with the express purpose of reversing the Reformation, insisted, "By the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover the head and bend the knee, we adore Christ and venerate the saints whose image they bear."

That is why you will find in some churches paintings that represent God the Father as an old man. You will find depiction's of God as an eye inside a triangle representing the Trinity. You will find the image of Christ on crucifixes and statues of Mary and Child the focus of worship, and altars containing relics of dead saints. Such practices are plainly, and explicitly condemned. (refer to Prayer Book Article 22)

Jesus is no longer a helpless child in the care of his earthly mother. He is not suffering on a cross. Speaking of the crucifix, D. L. Moody the 19th Century American evangelist wrote,

"It makes our worship and prayer unreal. We are adoring a Christ who does not exist. He is not on the cross now, but on the throne. His agonies are passed for ever. He has risen from the dead. He is at the right hand of God. If we pray to a dying Christ, we are not praying to Christ Himself but a mere remembrance of Him. The injury which the crucifix has afflicted on the religious life of Christendom in encouraging a morbid and unreal devotion is absolutely incalculable. It has given us a dying Christ instead of a living Christ-a Christ separated from us by many centuries instead of a Christ nigh at hand."

Some say images are of value in educating the illiterate. But to use a visible image to worship the invisible God is like keeping a photograph of another woman in my wallet because she reminds me of my wife. What is jealousy? It is the resentment of rivals. Whether jealousy is justified or not depends on whether the rival has any business to be there in the first place. God is roused to jealousy because he regards all images as rival substitutes. Trying to worship God through idols, whether molten or mental is insulting and impertinent. And thirdly,

3.3 It is Idiotic to Represent God
Read 20:5. It is just plain stupid to make images of God, because God promises only one thing. This is the only commandment containing a threat, and it is a threat with devastating consequences. To disobey this command and then believe you can get away with it, is a joke. It is absurd. God warns that idolaters are enemies not only of their souls, but of their own children. Who in his right mind would do something that caused suffering to his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and even his great-great grandchildren. How do people suffer through idolatry? Joy Davidman the wife of C.S.Lewis describes the effect of some modern idols.

"Idolatry lies not in the idol but in the worshipper. It is a psychological attitude that governs his whole life, and a very murderous attitude. Men unconsciously sacrifice themselves and their children daily to the automobile, and the brain consuming furnace of the modern city. The home devours the housewife, the office rots the executive with ulcers, and canned entertainments leave us incapable of entertaining ourselves. The real horror of idols is not merely that they give us nothing, but that they take away from us even that which we have. An idolater is always a spiritual paralytic."

Three reasons why Idolatry is wrong. It is insulting, impertinent, and idiotic. It is insulting to God's Glory. It is impertinent to God's Command. It is idiotic to invoke God's wrath. How then should we worship the one true God?

4. God promises Blessing on those who obey His Word 20:6
It is in His Word that God has revealed Himself. Paul dares to speak of Christ in Colossians 1:15 as "the image of the invisible God".

That was indeed a daring thing for a Jew to say, given the prohibition of images which had so long dominated the life of his people. But Paul was being true to our Lord's own words -"he that has seen me has seen the Father." The only image we are permitted which does not fall under the prohibition of the Second Commandment is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ found in the Scriptures. Through the revelation of the incarnated Word through the God breathed Word, we may form a true notion of God, without which we never can.

The positive force of the second commandment is that it compels us to take our thoughts about God from His Word, and from no other source what so ever. You may be familiar with the famous readings from Mark's Gospel performed by the actor Alec McGowen. He was already a successful actor with a reputation but he felt trapped somehow.

Oddly enough, for one used to learning lines all the time, he decided as a break, to memorise Mark's gospel. It took him a few months to get it word perfect. Then it occurred to him that this was worth sharing, and a courageous theatre management agreed. McGowen appeared on stage dressed in sweater and trousers. His only props were a table and chair, and a paperback version of Mark's Gospel, to which he never referred. It was an instant success and has remained so for over fourteen years. This is what he wrote in a newspaper report soon after beginning,

"Whether or not you are a believer, it is impossible to study St Mark carefully and not know - without any shadow of doubt - that something amazing happened in Galilee two thousand years ago." It was this strange prompting to learn St. Mark's Gospel by heart, that was for Alec McGowen, as he put it "the end of a golden string". God revealed Himself to Alec McGowen, as He does to us all, truly and fully, not through some image, icon or idol, but in a living person, the Lord Jesus Christ revealed through the Word of God.

So let me ask you, would you be prepared to memorise Mark's Gospel? Not to further your acting career. Not as a mental exercise to keep you alert, but as a means of knowing God? Do you habitually look to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ to show you what God is like and how you can know Him, how you can serve Him, how you can glorify Him? Do you see your reading, your study, your mediation on God's word in this light? Does it have your primary attention, the best hours of the day? Your undivided attention, or does it come last after the idols of TV, newspaper and novel? If it is your first priority every day to understand and obey Gods Word, you will need no idols, whether, molten, material or mental. You will have the assurance that you are known and loved by the One true God, and you will grow to know Him in eternity. Lets pray.