Scripture Reference: Exodus 20:3-6, Deuteronomy 4:15, Psalms 50:21
Ensnared By ImagesDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | March 9, 1986
Selected highlights from this sermon
The issue of using images and objects in worship has been controversial throughout the history of the church. You may not realize that these images distort our concept of the true God, stealing away our allegiance and undermining the very act of worship itself.
Whether it be a cross or a bronze serpent, idols can be made from the most innocuous of forms. Even in our thoughts, we enjoy forming a false god who is more like us than the God of the Bible. That is why God commanded: “you shall not make for yourself a carved image.”
When Jesus was speaking to the Woman at the Well he said these words. He said, “God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” If there is anything that God wants from men it is worship. I mean, that is the desire of his heart. God seeks worshippers, Jesus said, and if there is anything that is important to God it is that our worship be done in the right way. But you know, Murphy has a law that says if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, and given the perverseness of the human heart, and the desire of Satan to interrupt and to interfere in genuine worship that God accepts, we can therefore expect that there would be some stumbling blocks and some problems that would enter into Christianity with regard to fewer unadulterated worship of God. And throughout the history of the Christian Church there has been a debate as to whether or not images can be used in the process of worship.
What is known today as the Eastern Church (the Eastern Orthodox Church) there was a great emphasis for example on icons and those who were brought up in that tradition find that they put up icons oftentimes in every room of the house. You find, for example, in the Western Church that the idea of statues and the ideas of various artifacts, and physical representations of God or saints have been used in worship. And all of this comes about (that is our discussion of it) because I’m giving a series of messages on the Ten Commandments, and today we happen to come to the second commandment.
I want you to turn with me to Exodus 20 (where it is stated there explicitly) where the Lord, first of all in verse 3 gives the first commandment – You shall have no other gods before me. Commandment number one says you must worship only the true God, and then commandment number two says you must worship the true God in the right way, and that begins in verse 4. “You shall not make for yourself an idol or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.”
There you have it. You shall not make for yourself an idol or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or earth beneath. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have pictures or art generally, but what the text says is that you cannot use these kinds of objects in worship. “You shall not worship them.” That’s verse 5. The Hebrew word actually is, “You shall not bow down to them.” The King James Version I think translated it correctly here. “You shall not bow down to them or serve them for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”
And so, in the history of the Christian Church, the question that has been raised is “Can various objects be used in worship?” Yes or no? Theologians who have argued that objects can be used in worship have said that there is a difference between worship and veneration. Strictly speaking the argument goes like this. If someone bows before a statue (say a statue to the Virgin) they are really not bowing to the statue. They are bowing to the Virgin and ultimately to God. And so it is not bowing to something that is made of stone. If someone bows before an icon he is really not bowing before the wood and the paint of course. He is bowing to the God or the saint that this icon may represent, and again, he is not worshipping the saint. He is worshipping God but this is a channel or a means of grace and blessing the argument goes.
The problem, of course, is that all religions, even in paganism, say that they do not bow before the idol that is made of wood and stone. They are actually bowing to the god that the idol represents. In fact, did you know that in Exodus 32 the children of Israel were making the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain getting these commandments, which is rather interesting? He’s up there getting the word from God and they’re disobeying God because he’s taking too long to get the message straight. You’ll notice that the text says that when they made the golden calf they weren’t going to worship that golden calf. Aaron said, “Tomorrow we’re going to have a feast to the Lord, a feast to Jehovah.” What these people were saying is, “We’re not worshipping the golden calf. We are going to worship Jehovah, but we are going to do it by this physical representation, because having this physical representation before us helps us in the act of worship. We are weak. We need a crutch. We need some representation of Jehovah.” That was back at the golden calf.
So the question isn’t whether or not you are bowing to the images or to the god behind the images. We grant that! The question is whether or not images like that should be used at all, and what are the difficulties and the prohibitions and the warnings that are given in the Bible about that?
Now today, folks, I realize of course that I am walking through a minefield, and I suppose that when you walk through a minefield you always take some risks. There’s a possibility of getting some shrapnel, and I think that I am prepared to take some. I think that that’s the occupational hazard of being a minister. And if you are preaching the Bible, you have to come across certain topics and certain themes, and to be fair to the Scripture and to those themes we must say what we believe God says about them.
Now I want to preface my remarks, however, by saying that here at the Moody Church we are well aware that many of you have come from say a Roman Catholic or a Greek Orthodox tradition, and you know the history of that tradition, and many of you were reared in that tradition. And today we might have visitors who are Roman Catholic, and we want you to know that we love you and we are glad that you are here. But at the same time we think that some things have to be said for the purpose of clarity and consistency and that we might know God’s mind regarding certain issues.
So with that backdrop what I’d like to do today is to give you three Scriptural reasons why we should not use objects in worship – so-called worship helpers. Why is it that people should not bow down before images regardless of whether they are bowing before the image or the god behind the image? Why is it that there is always danger involved whenever you are involved in the process of worship and you have various representations or artifacts before you? Let me give you three reasons.
The first reason is because of the distortion of the concepts of God. It distorts our concepts of God. Now in order to see this I want you to turn with me to Deuteronomy 4 where God gives some more explicit instructions regarding this commandment. In Deuteronomy 4:15 the Lord is giving a rationale now as to why there should be no representations of God, or no representations of anything in worship. It says, “So watch yourself carefully since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire.” He’s saying that when you were at Mount Sinai you did not see any form of God, so you wouldn’t know how to represent God if you began to make some kind of an image. But then someone may say, “Well I’m not going to make an image of God. I’m going to make an image of a saint or an image of some animal and we’re going to use that in worship.” But notice verse 16. “Lest you act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of a male or a female, the likeness of any animal that is upon the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth,” and on and on it goes.
What God is saying is, “You did not see a form at Sinai. Therefore, since God is spirit, don’t ever try to represent him in any way by a physical object of any kind because your representation is going to be off the mark. It is going to distort what God is like.”
Now let me give you an example. Let’s take for an illustration the crucifix. All of us have seen a crucifix. It’s a figure of Jesus Christ, of course, on the cross, in great agony, writhing in the midst of the pain that he endured on behalf of mankind. Now the crucifix portrays a certain picture of Jesus Christ, but it is certainly an incomplete and a distorted picture because it shows Jesus Christ in his weakness. It shows him in his agony. It shows him almost as being helpless on the cross, but that’s only a little part of Jesus Christ, isn’t it? It doesn’t show the empty tomb. It doesn’t show the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t show the exalted Jesus Christ in heaven. It shows only a Christ in agony, and if you looked at that alone you’d think that he was a victim of circumstances much like we are in the tragedies of life.
But now let me say a word about the Protestant version of the crucifix – namely the empty cross. When I became the pastor of Moody Church here - I don’t think I was the pastor for more than a month - someone took me aside and gave me a little bit of advice. He said, “You know what you ought to do as pastor? The thing that Moody Church needs is a good big cross somewhere.” And he said, “You ought to have crosses in your church.” Well, you know, if we had a cross here at the church I’m sure that it would not be used in worship. I mean nobody would bow down to it. Nobody would want to touch it. Nobody would stand in line to see it. We wouldn’t have a time of prayer just immediately in its vicinity as if to say it were to make the location somewhat holier. We wouldn’t do that.
But let’s take the empty cross. It also is an incomplete picture of Jesus Christ. Certainly we all admit that the centrality of what Jesus Christ did for us is the cross, but if we are going to use a cross, why not a manger to celebrate his incarnation? If we’re going to use an empty cross, why not an empty tomb to remind ourselves of the resurrection and its power over death? If we’re going to use an empty cross who not an ascended Jesus Christ in his glorified body? The point is that any representation or God or even Jesus Christ is a distorted representation. It doesn’t say everything and it sometimes conveys a wrong picture of what Jesus Christ did if you consider the totality of what he did.
So what God is saying is that since it cannot convey a complete picture, and no representation can, don’t bother with it. It may become a snare to you, which leads me to say there is no representation that can ever capture God. And no representation of any saint or any artifact should ever be used in some way making contact with God or being blessed by God. So the first thing is it gives us a distorted picture of God.
There’s a second reason and that is that it produces distorted allegiance or a wrong allegiance. Now you mark my words very carefully and you will know that when I am speaking this I am speaking truth because you can see this every day of your life if you want to. Whenever you begin to tell people that through some icon or statue that they should in some way use it for worship, immediately that particular object becomes very sacred. We can understand that.
And along with it becoming very sacred what you have is people beginning to latch on to that object as if it has special power. It is almost looked upon as a good luck charm, and that’s why you sometimes find in every room of a house one of these artifacts or statues or icons. It is looked upon as means by which God gives his grace, his blessing and his healing, and the thing itself detracts from the centrality of our focus on God alone, because as human beings we want to quantify God. We want to be able to take God and put him in our pocket or hang him up in our bedroom. In some way we want something that enables us to get in contact with God.
Now you just take as an illustration in the book of Numbers the people who were experiencing disease that was sweeping throughout the people as the judgment of God. And the Lord said, “Moses, I want you to take a bronze serpent and I want you to put it on a pole, and whoever looks at the serpent is going to live.” Now in this case Moses was doing that at the request of God. So even there we cannot take that passage and judge from it the general acceptance that God might have, or the general judgment that God might have with regard to artifacts because that was a very special case where God says, “Moses, set this brass serpent apart for that reason.” All right and it worked! The people looked at it and they were healed.
What do you think the people ended up doing? They began to honor that brass serpent. They kept it for centuries and centuries, and because there is a little bit of idolatry in all of our hearts, do you know what the people began to do? They began to honor that brass serpent and they began to take care of it, and they ended up burning incense to it. And when Hezekiah became king (This is in Second Kings 18 and you might like to look at this in your Bibles.) he was an iconoclast, that is, he was a smasher of idols.
In Second Kings 18 we have this remark in verse 4. Speaking of Hezekiah it says, “He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah (that is the different shrines at which people came to worship). He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days, the sons of Israel burned incense to it.” Notice that they were burning incense. And so what did Hezekiah do? He took and he smashed that serpent because it had become a snare and a stumbling block. People began to attach special significance to it and they began to burn incense to it, and God hated that.
Now I told you that I was prepared to get some shrapnel today so we’ll just keep moving ahead through the mine field. Back in 1968 I spent ten days in Rome. You’d be surprised as to what my two eyes have seen in my short life. For example, while I was there I saw the chains that were used for Peter and John when they were placed in prison. The chains were there in Rome under a glass case. I saw a part of a garment that was worn by Jesus Christ. I was a part of an archeological group. We had an archeological dig in the bottom of the Vatican. We put on our old clothes and we were taken to the various tunnels in the Vatican and heard a two-hour lecture (those of us who were involved in archeology) regarding the finding of the bones of St. Peter. They were found that summer of 1968, by the way, and I saw them with my own two eyes in little white cubicles. We saw, for example, pieces of the true cross found in many of the churches in Rome. And all the way through the city you’d see people bowing down before these things. I saw hundreds of people standing in line (many of them American tourists with cameras slung over their shoulders) to kiss statues that exist there in the city of Rome.
Now I know what you are saying. You are saying, “Pastor, give us a break. Okay? Give us a break. Since Vatican II people don’t believe these superstitions anymore. People don’t do that kind of thing. We are enlightened. You are not understanding the tremendous changes that have taken place in the last fifteen or twenty years.” Well, I want to say this. First of all, it is not true that people no longer believe in these things because you can see that in Rome. We were back three years after that and saw the very same thing. And a number of years ago I was in the Shrine of the Guadalupe in Mexico and there were young women going on their knees on concrete for perhaps a quarter of a mile at least with little babies in their arms. Their knees were bleeding as slowly over a period of hours they made their way on their knees to the Shrine of the Virgin, the Shrine of the Guadalupe there in Mexico, all the while somehow believing that intrinsically there is something that that shrine represents that enables them to get to the true god.
The text of Scripture says, “Thou shall not bow down to them. Thou shalt not serve them.” But you see, in the minds of many people today that is still happening. People have attachments to certain images and certain icons by which they think that God’s blessing will be received and that God is approachable.
So a second reason is that there are distorted concepts of God, and distorted allegiance where people begin to become associated with the various artifacts that they think are important, and believe that through this means the blessing of God comes about.
There’s a third reason and that is distorted worship itself. Now for this we have to go back to Exodus 20, the passage that gives us the commandment, and I’m going to read again the first five. It says, “You shall not worship 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 generations of those who hate me, but showing loving kindness to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
This is a passage of Scripture that I am so often asked about. But I want to make certain observations regarding it. First of all, notice that it says that God judges those who hate him, and whom is he talking about? He’s talking about those who hate him. He’s talking about idolaters. Do you see how idolatry gets people confused in their minds? They think they love God. They think that they are doing this to serve God, but the text says that God judges those who hate him, and he is speaking about idolatry. If there’s anything that God hates it’s idolatry. I mean you look at the sins of the Old Testament and you’ll find out that the Israelites committed every sin known to man, but the one sin that God judged them for the most severely (the one he hated the most) was idolatry – bowing before images, somehow trying to represent God or thinking that God can be localized in some way because of some representation. And so it says that those who do these things actually hate God. That’s his interpretation.
Now what about this? “I am a jealous God and I visit the iniquity of the fathers (the text says) on the children to the third and the fourth generation. Listen to me very carefully you fathers. Did you know that you represent God to your family? The earliest conception that your children will have of God is derived directly from you. That’s why fathers pack such a tremendous amount of power in their families.
I can imagine that there is some woman here who is saying, “Oh, not my husband! He doesn’t have anything to do with God or church.” My friend let me say it again. Your earliest conceptions of God are derived from your father, and that’s true of your children, even if they have an absentee father, a rebellious father, a godless father, an atheistic father, and a sinful father who is involved in various adulterous relationships. The father image in the life of a child is overwhelmingly powerful, absolutely determinative oftentimes in the life of a child.
Now that’s why it says that God visits the iniquity of the father upon the children to the third and the fourth generation. It’s because the children pick up the father image, and if they see the father bowing to idols, if they see the father involved in idolatrous worship, that image is carried with children. They are almost imprinted with it. And it is a very difficult thing to get rid of.
Now having said that let me say that of course there are exceptions. I mean I don’t think that this means, for example, that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on every single one of the children. There may be several children in a family and only one has that imprint that is so erasable that the child feels the effects of his father’s idolatry. But God is saying that the sin of idolatry is usually communicated from generations to generations, and that’s why it’s so desperately important that we be free of it.
Now, even in the Bible I might say that there are exceptions to this rule. For example, the text says that Ahaz was an idolater. He had Hezekiah, who was one of his sons. Hezekiah is the man that we referred to who was getting rid of all the idols, and then of course, Hezekiah has a son by the name of Manasseh. Manasseh was the most wicked king, the Bible says, that ever lived. He ruled in Jerusalem for 40 years, and he went back and he re-established all the shrines that his father had torn down. And you can see here the imprint and the impact of a father upon his children.
Incidentally, today we had a reference to a seminar that’s going to be held in March. That’s why there should not be such a thing as a single father or a single husband who isn’t there because the whole purpose of the seminar is to show what a tremendous impact you have on your family, whether for good or for ill, and that it had better be a good effect on your family.
And so what the Lord is saying here is, “I am so jealous, I want absolutely no representations. I don’t want you to bow down before any images. I don’t want you to make anything to represent me. You are to worship me in spirit and in truth, and if not I will judge future generations,” and if you think that God is unusually harsh, notice verse 6. “But I shall love in kindness thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” So even in wrath God remembers mercy.
I want to emphasize again, of course, that if you are from a family in which you were taught wrongly, you don’t have to say you were victimized by your circumstances in your heritage. God is able to deliver you from it, but I want you to notice that the deliverance oftentimes is very difficult because it says in First Corinthians 10 that pagans who offer sacrifices to idols do not do so to God as they claim but they do it to demons. That’s what it says in First Corinthians 10, and oftentimes therefore because Satan is very concerned that God not receive pure worship, sometimes he uses idols as stumbling blocks in people’s lives. But of course God is in the business of delivering his people from their sins.
Now, what I have said to you today is that any artifact, or any physical representation of God causes, first of all, distortion in our concepts of God because it’s very incomplete, a distortion in our allegiance because people begin to gravitate towards the object as a focus of their attention. It also distorts our worship of God. But I want to make a secondary application of this passage of Scripture. Its primary emphasis has to do with physical representations of God – idolatry – but I think that there’s another way that it can be applied in which it applies to every single one of us in a more special way.
If we have within our minds concepts of God that are wrong, that too can become idolatry because if we have concepts of God that demean him or that are unworthy of him, or that are wrong concepts of God, in a sense we can set up a little idol in our mind even if we do not bow before a statue. And that’s why I think it’s so important for us to realize this. When you begin to think about God in your own way you tend to fashion him according to your image.
I’ve asked you to turn to many passages today but let me ask you to turn to one more – Psalm 50. It’s a very interesting Psalm. It’s talking about idolaters here, and actually not idolaters, but idolaters of the mind – not physical idolaters. And God said in Psalm 50:16, “But to the wicked,” God says, ‘What right have you to tell of my statutes and to take my covenant in your mouth? For you hate discipline and you cast my words behind you. When you see a thief you are pleased with him, and you associate with adulterers. You let your mouth loose in evil and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother and you slander your own mother’s son.’” Verse 21 says, “These things you have done and I kept silence.” God doesn’t judge sin sometimes immediately, but he does judge it. Now notice this. “Because God was silent, you thought that I was just like you.” Oh, isn’t that interesting.
These people here put up with all kinds of sins and because God wasn’t slapping their wrists immediately they thought that God was winking at sin just like they were winking at sin. God says, “You thought I was like you,” and ever since that time man has always thought about fashioning God after his own image, after his own likeness, after the kind of god that we want. So someone who is living perhaps immorally or someone living with all kinds of deceit in his business says to himself, “Surely God is allowing me to get by with this. God must approve of cutting corners. He isn’t the harsh God that Pastor Lutzer sometimes talks about him as being. He’s actually a very lenient God.” So a person like that may say, “Well, you know, my god (oh, I am just so amused when I hear this). They’ll say, “My god would never judge anyone and allow him to go to hell. Don’t you get it? You know God and I have this thing going and my god….” And it’s probably true. His god wouldn’t, but he doesn’t have the right god in his mind.
Whenever I travel on a plane, almost always (not always but almost always) I like to witness to the person next to me about Christ. And I get this so often that it’s just remarkable. People will say things like this to me. “Well, I believe first of all that God will never allow anyone to go to hell.” That’s what they’ll say. And then they’ll say, “You know I think that all the religions of the world are right and it really doesn’t matter so much what you believe as long as you are sincere.” Now when anyone says that to me I have a routine that I go through. I try to almost drop whatever it is I am reading. I mean I’ll let it fall on the floor, and I’ll say to that person, as I look him in the eye, “Do you know that what you said is just incredible – absolutely incredible. Do you realize that you are saying things that are so important that the entire world ought to hear them?” In fact, it’s almost a sin that I should enjoy these conversations so much but I once even said to a person, “You know, I am an author. I write books.” I said, “If you are right, we have to get this message out. I’ll write it up. We’ll publish it. We’ll send it throughout the United States so people know that there is no hell and all the religions of the world are right because that’s dynamite.” But then I say to them, “But I have only two questions that I have to ask you. The first question is how do you know this? Have you received it as a revelation from God? I assume you have because only God would know as to whether or not there’s a hell and whether or not he sends people there, and whether or not all of the religions of the world are right. I mean obviously you are privy to knowledge that is not accessible to the average human being. So tell me first of all, please, is this a revelation from God that you’ve received? Has he told you this? And secondly, if he has, can you prove to me that indeed it was God? Who showed this to you?”
You know, at that point the guy is saying, “Oh, why doesn’t this guy go outside and take a walk?” You see, what he has done is he’s set up a conception of God in his own mind, and he has bowed before it and said, “My god doesn’t allow people to go to hell. My god isn’t harsh. My god allows all the people in the world to go to heaven. My god – my god.”
Well, where is he getting this information? It’s idolatry and sinful, and God says, “I hate idolatry. For you to think that I am like unto you! You think that I was just like you. You thought that because you wouldn’t allow anyone to go to hell, because you would allow all the religions of the world to be right, you have made me into your image,” and that too is idolatry.
I want to read in closing a poem. It’s not a poem. It’s a prayer by Tozer. A. W. Tozer said these words.
Oh Lord God Almighty, not the god of the philosophers and the wise, but the God of the prophets and the apostles, and
better than all, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They that know thee not may call upon thee as other than thou art, and so not worship thee but a creation of their own fancy. Therefore enlighten our minds that we may know thee as thou art, so we may perfectly love thee and worthily praise thee.
You say, “Well, what about that guy on the plane?
“Do you have a special revelation from God?” he usually says to me.
“No, no special revelation from God at all.”
“Well, then, how do you know that God sends people to hell. How do you know that all the religions aren’t right?”
“It’s because there is a person who had a special revelation from God and had the credentials to prove it, who spoke with unquestioned authority about these matters, and his name was Jesus Christ, and this is what he said about eternity and heaven and hell, and the way to heaven.”
That’s the answer. Anything less than receiving that revelation from God, anything less than understanding that we must be submissive to what God has said, anything less than that is idolatry and rebellion whether we bow before a statue or not.
Shall we pray?
Oh Father, we ask that in these moments you might purify our minds so that we might have a right conception of you. We pray that we might be willing to worship you in spirit and in truth and ask, Lord, that you shall give us the freedom to do so with confidence because we come in the name of Jesus, and we come through the prescribed way of his sacrifice for us on the cross.
And there may be those are here today who have never received you as Savior, people with wrong conceptions of God. They have made him into their own image. Oh we ask that you will enable them to receive in faith today Christ, to acknowledge their need to depend upon him, and that they might believe you, and you alone. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.