READ : Exodus 20:4-6
We make our own images for worship; God gives us his image in Jesus Christ.
Welcome to this second in our series on The Ten Commandments! Last week we focused on these opening words, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” We noticed the background of grace, how God does wonderful things for his people before he calls them to respond to his will. He calls himself “the Lord your God.” There’s a covenant relationship here to which God is appealing. Then comes the charge: “no other gods.” This is the fundamental conviction of biblical faith – the total claim of Israel’s God upon the people’s loyalty. The Lord will tolerate no rivals for Israel’s devotion. He’s the father of astonishing love. No father will ever be indifferent to the affection, obedience and confidence of his beloved children. He cares, and this first command, like all the others, is for our good always. God knows what is for our best, and he makes it known to us in his loving will.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
Other Gods – Then and Now
Now let’s think about the other gods in the world in which the early Israelites lived. You may be familiar with the word Baal which can mean “lord,” “possessor,” or “husband.” The worship of Baal was a great challenge to the people of God in those days. It apparently originated in the belief that every tract of land owed its productivity to a supernatural being that lived there. From these Baals, farmers believed, came the increase in crops, fruits and cattle. From the earliest times in Canaan until the captivity, Baal worship was a threat in Israel, accompanied with lascivious rites, kissing the image of Baal. Bowing down was another expression of Baal worship. Assigning the yield of the earth to another rather than to the Creator of all was a challenge to Israel’s faith.
Then there were the Ashteroth. Near a place of Baal-worship there was often an Asherah, a pole with branches lopped off, a symbol of fertility. Astarte, a goddess of sexual love and fertility, was behind this symbolism. Within the worship of this goddess, prostitution was often a part of the religious rites. God was warning them against such false religion as an attack on their sexual standards and their marital faithfulness.
Then there was the god Molech, an Ammonite deity who called for the sacrifice of children by their parents in the flames – a burnt offering to this god. Apparently this act was viewed as a way of worship, perhaps of atonement. Micah suggests that interpretation in his famous passage about “acting justly and loving kindness and walking humbly with God.” God looks for this ather than offering up our children as sacrifices to Moloch.
The Images We Make
What about “other gods” in our time? Martin Luther said once that “whatever your heart clings to and trusts in, is really your God. Whatever you value most highly, whatever you want most, whatever is your life-prayer – a kind of a longing that rises up from your life all the time, your chief focus of attention, your source of security, your hope of true happiness.
In some cultures and in some times that supreme value is the state. Remember Jesus when he talked about what should be rendered to God and what should be rendered to Caesar? (Mt. 22:21). In Rome the worship of the Caesars was a very powerful thing. In Revelation this state power is the beast. In our recent history, the Nazi regime and the communist state have claimed absolute loyalty. These powers seek to stamp out any worship of God that conflicts with their claims. The state demands total loyalty – dictators, shahs, generals, all claiming utter allegiance and promising security. In our culture, being a Democrat or Republican is sometimes treated as the ultimate loyalty.
And then there’s “mammon” (money) (Mt. 6:24). Jesus talked about that as our imagined security. Where our hearts are, that is where our treasure is. Jesus told us that we cannot worship God and wealth.
“Mammon” – wealth – claims human worship. People bow down to this altar, making it their supreme value in life. The worship of wealth shows itself in hoarding, in finding our money as our source of security. In 1 Timothy 6:9-10 spells out vividly what the worship of this god does to us. All kinds of foolish, hurtful and deadly desires are awakened in us by the worship of mammon.
Then there’s the pursuit of pleasure, power, and popularity. You remember these words in 2 Timothy 3:2-4 where people will be “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” Any kind of love that rivals our ultimate devotion to God becomes a kind of idolatry.
And then there’s self worship – the cult of personality. That false worship is what the apostle Paul encountered in Corinthians. He spoke to the people about their being committed too much to earthly leaders (1 Cor. 1:12). “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’ or ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ or ‘I belong to Christ.'” It’s a tendency in all of us. Self worship is ultimately a form of idolatry. We adore ourselves, or an extension of ourselves, in say, a nation or a race or a political party or a team. We set up heroes and bow down at their shrines – entertainers, athletes, political leaders, religious gurus, and in this 1 Corinthians passage we understand how utterly wrong that is. We see better in Peter’s action when Cornelius wants to bow down to him as a god. Peter says “No, I’m just a man” (Acts 10:25-26). Also Barnabas and Paul, when the people in Lystra want to worship them, run out in the crowd desperately trying to keep them from doing this, because any human being exalted in that way becomes a kind of idol and a rival to God (Acts 14:11-15, niv).
Now what is this commandment talking about when it says we shouldn’t bow down to images? What isn’t forbidden is art, sculpture and the celebration of beauty. In Israel’s worship there were ornate robes for the priests, a breastplate with jewels, figures of cherubim facing each other on the mercy seat. Pictures for the teaching of children and nonliterate peoples are certainly appropriate.
What is forbidden is the making of images as objects of worship. The key phrase is, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them or serve them” – any images of things in heaven and on earth which become objects of religious reverence, which attract devotion. All over the ancient world natural powers were personified and statues of them, either animal or human, were worshiped. This takes from God what belongs to him alone.
By contrast, in the Holy of holies of the tabernacle and in the temple, God is the unseen God. Its image-less worship of the Lord made Israel’s faith unique. Think of the tabernacle and the later temple. There are decorated hangings. There are statues of the cherubim, angelic beings, but never a picture or image to represent God. Within the inmost sanctuary, the Holy of holies, we find only the ark containing God’s commandments. On the mercy seat above the ark was God’s invisible presence. God wants to be known and worshiped, not through material objects but through his Word.
The golden calf in the wilderness was not so much another god as a material object on which people focused their worship rather than on the living God. The same thing happened with the brazen serpent which had been used in a marvelous way to deliver people in a time when they had been bitten by snakes. It later became an object of worship and thus an abomination. When you take any thing, any symbol, and make it sacred and give to it worship, that is when this commandment is trespassed.
The Image God Gives
The New Testament has a telling phrase: the image of the invisible God. That image is Jesus Christ. Remember how I said at the outset that I would seek to relate the commandments to the whole message of Scripture, and especially to the Lord who is their fulfillment? God didn’t want images made by human beings to represent him because he purposed to give us his own image. That’s what Paul says in Colossians 1:15. “He is the image of the invisible God.” Jesus is the image God has given of himself. Paul writes to the Corinthians about “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
All Things in Jesus
He is God’s image in the words he spoke (John 12:49-50). He didn’t speak his own words but the Father’s words. He is God’s image in the works he did, “I do not do my own works but the works which the Father is doing” (John 5:30, 36). In the compassion he showed to the least and the lowest – to women, the poor, Samaritans, lepers, sinners, we see God’s heart. Supremely in his self-giving, self-sacrificing love we see God’s great love for sinful people. Look at Jesus, and you see God. Here the image does not distract from the reality. The image is the reality. And when you direct faith, devotion and worship to Jesus, you are giving it to the living God.
Remember what John writes (John 1:18)? “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father. He has made him known.”
It’s in the light of Christ that we see false gods for what they really are. When the love of Christ grips our hearts they lose all their power over us.