November 04, 2008

Q and A 2.0 Revisited: #5--Graven Images


Doesn't the Old Testament and New Testament talk about making images to worship God? If so, then why do we have so many pictures and symbols that "resemble" Christ?


A few years ago, The Passion of the Christ movie debuted while I was doing college ministry in Virginia. A few college guys I knew refused to see the movie because they thought that any image depicting Jesus was a graven image, and therefore sinful. Knowing these guys as well as I did, I think their motives were a little suspect. I actually think that they thought of Jesus as more of "theirs" and didn't like that His story was now available to a much wider audience...without their approval.

So, are pictures of Christ graven images? Can we have artistic depictions of Jesus without displeasing God?

How many of you grew up with this picture of Jesus hanging in your church:


My non-scientific polling would suggest A LOT of you did. So, were all of our churches being sinful? Let's see what the Bible says.

Exodus 20:4-5—“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.”

Is the second commandment meant to stifle artistic expression of God?

The OT uses 14 different words for idols. The word used here, “pesel”, means a statue; a literal, carved statue is what it is describing. It tells us not to make a statue “in the form of anything”. The word “form” applies to real or imagined pictorial representations.

But remember, context is always key.

This is not a prohibition of creating art. This is a discussion about worship.

This commandment speaks to the issue of using images that would rival God. The actual commandment is “you shall not bow down to them, or don’t make an idol and then bow down to them in worship”. Even if that image is to represent God, don’t do it. Don’t create something concrete in order to represent something that is infinite and indescribable. Plus, remember that Israel was to be set apart from the rest of the nations surrounding them. Worshipping idols would resemble too much what the Egyptians were doing, the country they had just left. Egyptians worshipped the sun plus images of fish, birds, cows, etc.

So, the Israelites were not forbidden from making images of these things. Instead, it was forbidden for them to make a likeness of God to be used as a part of worship. When God instructed the building of the tabernacle, he included representations of the created order in its structure and decoration, so clearly it was permitted.

Bottom line, it’s not wrong to have artistic depictions of Jesus, the cross, God, etc. It would, however, be wrong to worship them. If you need to see a cross, or a picture of Jesus to worship, then that’s a problem, too.

Idolatry, whether it is overt (such as worshiping statues, etc.) or covert (putting things ahead of God in your heart and priorities) is always wrong.

Tomorrow, we'll look at whether God expects us to be in church every Sunday, or not. You can find all of the Q and A series here.

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