(Delivered Sunday, July 13, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
I was watching a news report the other day of a man whose house had been lost in the recent fires in Arizona. His home - like the homes of many in that region - was utterly destroyed; and when he was asked how he managed to cope with such a horrible loss, he said that it was his faith that helped him endure.
I'm always excited when I hear someone say something like that after having gone through a terrible crisis, aren't you? But as the interview progressed, and as the reporter and the man examined the burnt remains of his home together, my excitement turned - frankly - to disappointment when I discovered the nature of the man's faith. The man pointed to the one thing that remained from his home - a large statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He made the observation that the statute had survived the fire with nothing but ashes on its shoulders, "as if she were holding up the house."
Now I don't want to minimize the fact that the man's loss is a genuine tragedy - as is true of the many other homes that were lost in that recent wildfire. And I'm sure that, if we were to ask him personally, he would profess a sincere belief in the one true God. But even so, it would be correct to say - as shocking as it may sound to say it - that the man's worship of God as he communicated it on that program - is impure and corrupted by something sinful. In fact, it would be correct to say that the way in which he seeks to worship God is actually something that provokes God to anger and is unacceptable to Him. As harsh as that may sound, I believe we MUST say that because that's what God Himself says in His word. He says it very clearly in our text this morning. The second commandment says;
You shall not make for yourself a carved image - any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).
Our hearts should go out to the man because of his loss. But that news item served as a vivid reminder of just how relevant this commandment is.
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This is our second week in studying the second commandment. Last week, we considered how this commandment relates to the first one. They both address a very similar theme - that of not worshiping anything or anyone else but the one true God. But as you may remember, we stressed that there is an important difference between these two commandments.
I might never had thought that what the man in that news report had done was something sinful had it not been for the second commandment. After all, in the first commandment, God speaks personally and says, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:2-3); and I'm certain that the man would insist that he worships no other god than the one true God. I'm sure that he would say that, in the way he worshiped God, he was simply following a tradition that he had been raised to follow, or that he was following a practice that he'd been taught to observe as a part of his spiritual history. He was doing something that very many people within "Christendom" do every day - that is, approaching the worship of God through a veneration of one of the saints as symbolized in a statute. What's more, I'm sure that he would insist that the statue was nothing more than a tool that he used to help draw his attention to God. I have no doubt that he is very sincere and reverent in this practice. This, he would say, is simply the way to God that he has chosen - simply the way he had learned to follow.
But the point of the second commandment is that we are forbidden from taking this approach as a way to draw near to God. While the first commandment forbids us from worshiping a false god; the second forbids us from worshiping the true God in a false way. It forbids us from creating an image or likeness to aid us in our worship of God, and then bowing down to it as if in worship of God. God has told us not to do it; and if we do what He has told us not to do, then what we are doing is turning from God in order to follow after a "way" to God that is of man's creation - and not God's. In the end, then, what we will have done is to have bowed to something that is not God, and to have fallen short of worshiping the one true God. Thus, our disobedience to the second commandment will have led us to a violation of the first one as well.
Last week, we focused our attention on the reason God gave this commandment as it's found in the second half of this passage - that reason being His holy jealousy. "For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God," He says. God calls us to worship Him, not through "things" or "places", but in "spirit and truth" (John 4:24); and to do otherwise is to provoke Him to righteous jealousy. He will not tolerate our giving His glory to any other thing - even an image that we intend to direct our attention to Him. He even warns that to turn from Him in order to bow to an image instead is to express hatred for Him as He truly is - to dislike Him as He has expressed Himself to be in the Scriptures, and to manufacture a different version of God that is more to our liking. We may not think we are "hating" Him when we prefer an image over simple worship in spirit and truth; but He reveals to us that that's exactly the case. And He tells us that He brings punishment on anyone who expresses such a hatred for Him. Indeed, the Bible warns that "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Heb. 10:31). It asks, "... Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?" (1 Cor. 10:22).
We sought first to lay the groundwork for this commandment by exploring God's reason for giving it. And now, this morning, we turn our attention to the first half of this passage, and to the commandment itself.
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Look at what the commandment says. "You shall not make for yourself a carved image ..." The word being used here speaks of a physical carved object - a thing that can be "made", such as a statue or figurine. It's expressing the sort of idea that is referred to later in this chapter when God told Moses, ""Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: 'You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make anything to be with Me - gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves'" (vv. 22-23). And God also says that they shall not make "any likeness ..." This second word seems to speak of something more abstract - a likeness or a pictorial representation that is imagined; something that might serve as the inspiration for a physical carved image, or that might serve as a model for our thinking and conceptions of God.
That is what the commandment says about the thing they were not to make. And then, God speaks of the content of that thing itself. They were not to create either a physical or imagined image or representation of anything either in the heavens (meaning the physical sky), or in the earth, or in the water below. This obviously covers all of the created realm. They were being forbidden from making any images of any aspect of the created realm.
Now with respect to those among us who are artists, we might be concerned that this is forbidding us from making any artistic images - any sculptures, or drawings, or paintings. I worked for many years as a graphic artist and illustrator; and so, if that's what this commandment is forbidding, then I have obviously worked in a very sinful occupation. But it's important that we notice how God qualifies this commandment concerning those images: "You shall not bow down to them nor serve them ..." And this speaks of the purpose of those forbidden images and likenesses. Here, you can see that God is not forbidding creations of artwork per se. (After all, God commanded that the images of two angels be constructed for His tabernacle, to overlooked the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant).
Rather, what God is forbidding is images of artwork as representations of spiritual realities which are made specifically for the purpose of being bowed down to and served as if to Himself. To "bow down" to such an image or likeness meant to show reverence to it - or perhaps, as may have been in the mind of the worshiper, to show reverence to some aspect of God that the image was supposed to represent. And to "serve" such an image is to present acts of worship to it - such as prayers, sacrifices or religious ceremonies - that are only fitting to render unto God Himself.
So, to summarize: The second commandment forbids the making of any physical carved image or representational likeness of any created thing for the purpose of being bowed down to and served as if to God. He is forbidding the creation of images and likeness to serve as aids in our worship, or as a means of worshiping Him through means that originate from our own imaginations.
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When we first began to study the specific commandments, we stated an important principle that needed to kept in mind. This principle is that, whenever a commandment gives us a specific and explicit duty to perform, it is also implying that the opposite of that duty be avoided. And the reverse is true: Whenever a commandment prohibits a specific and explicit sin, it is also implying that the opposite of that sin be performed. If, for example, we are instructed in the first commandment to have no other God's before the one true God, then the same commandment is by implication instructing us to positively "have" God as our God.
The same principle applies to this commandment. It is commanding us to avoid a sin - that is, the sin of making images or likenesses and bowing down to them and worshiping them. The one true God is, in other words, telling us how NOT to worship Him. But the implied opposite duty is also required of us - that is, that we ARE to worship Him as He commands us to worship Him.
This morning, I'd like us to consider both of those aspects of this commandment. Let's begin by considering that ...
1. IT EXPLICITLY COMMANDS US WHAT WE'RE NOT TO DO IN WORSHIPING GOD.
The first and most obvious thing is that we are not to manufacture or make use of any images or likenesses of any created thing, and bow to them or serve them as if it were an aid to our worship of God. This aspect of the commandment is very plain; but if you think about it for a moment, you'll realize how dreadfully often this very basic command is disobeyed - even within "Christendom". Think of all the figurines, statues, alters, shrines and icons that are daily bowed down to or served, all around the world, as if in the name of the living God - things that God Himself never commanded to be done! Think of all the images of Jesus, or angels, or the saints, that people pray to every day! To put it another way, think of all the times in which the adoration and worship and trust that is God's rightful due, and which He alone should receive, is robbed from Him and given instead to a mere created thing - and all in the name of worshiping Him! And make no mistake: this command teaches us that He doesn't merely think of that worship as merely being redirected to Him second-hand. He lets us know that He considers that it is being robbed from Him; and it provokes Him to jealousy!
I suppose the most horrible example of this in all of Scripture occurred while Moses was on the mountain receiving these very commandments from God Himself on tablets of stone. The Bible tells us;
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him. And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a golden calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" So when Aaron saw it, he built an alter before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD" (Ex. 32:1-5).
Do you remember how the people first received all that gold? It was from the spoil of the Egyptian people that God Himself gave them when He delivered them from their bondage (Ex. 12:35-36). And do you remember how He introduced Himself in the first commandment? He introduced Himself as "the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage". And look at the horrible thing they did! They took the gold God gave them and pounded it into the image of a calf - degrading God's image of the invisible God into that of a calf!! Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" And just so there's no confusion as to what was happening, were told that Aaron built an alter in front of this horrible idol and declared a feast to the LORD (that is Yahweh)!
Now, it's not just by making images and likenesses that we can break this commandment. We can avoid breaking it literally; and yet still be breaking the spirit of it. For example, we're also not to bow down to and serve superstitions. A superstition is when we award ominous significance or unusual power to a thing, or a situation, or a chant. The one true God alone is to receive our fear, our reverence and our trust. But we rob Him of these things when we allow ourselves to be ruled by things like rubbing our lucky rabbits foot, or fearing to step on a crack (lest we break our mother's back), or not stepping under ladders, or dreading Friday the Thirteenth, or checking our horoscopes before making a decision. This can even be manifested in "Christendom" by people resorting to substitutes for trusting in God directly - that is, by making sure that they wear a particular cross, or praying over a particular Bible, or by repeating a particular prayer a certain number of times - as if these things have power in and of themselves to give us help.
We must be very careful to make sure that our trust is in the power of God alone; and not in superstitious beliefs in the supposed power of inanimate things.
We're also not to place ourselves in bondage to human traditions and rituals. Such traditions and rituals can easily become "images and likenesses" that we bow down to and serve. Many people give certain religious dietary laws, holiday observances, or ceremonial rites almost divine authority - even though they are things that originate in the imaginations of man and are things that God never commanded. The Bible says, "Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines. For it is good that the heart be established by grace, not with foods which have not profited those who have been occupied with them" (Heb. 13:9).
You might remember that the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of wrong-doing because His disciples transgressed "the traditions of the elders", and didn't wash their hands before eating in accordance with ceremonial custom. Jesus shot back at them by quoting Isaiah 29:13; saying, "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:8-9). We must be sure that we don't attempt to worship God in vain through traditions and rituals that originate in the imaginations of men, and that were never commanded by God.
And we're also not to bow down and serve our own speculations. We're not to create or our own perceptions of what God is like, and bow down to Him as we ourselves have imagined and preferred Him to be. This too would be bowing down to and serving an image of our own making. This would be to worship a "made-up" god and call it "God"; and then think we were holy because we were worshiping "God" as we think He ought to be worshiped - when, in fact, we're only worshiping our mere imaginations of God. God revealed how He felt about such things in Isaiah 65. He expressed how He longed for His people; and said,
I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; a people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face; who sacrifice in gardens, and burn incense on alters of brick; who sit among the graves, and spend the night in the tombs; who eat swine's flesh, and the broth of abominable things is in their vessels; who say, 'Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am holier than you!' These are a smoke in My nostrils, a fire that burns all the day (Isaiah 65:2-5).
These are the kinds of things people are often trusting in rather than in God. They are images and likenesses - both literal and figurative - that people bow down to and serve; and thus provoke God to jealousy. But the apostle Paul points our attention to Jesus Himself and says,
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the traditions of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power (Col. 2:8-10).
Paul is assuring us that, if we have Jesus, we have all we need. We need nothing else besides Him to have complete favor with God; because Jesus alone is an all sufficient Savior. We are made "complete" in Him. Paul then says;
So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations - "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using - according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:16-23).
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So, God does not want for us to follow after Him through paths of our own creation. Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, told the people, "Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (Deuteronomy 4:1-2). We are not to create our own images and likenesses and bow to them; but rather worship God as He has clearly directed that He be worshiped, and serve Him as He has commanded that He be served.
This leads us, then, to the second great aspect of the second commandment ...
2. IT IMPLICITLY CALLS US TO FAITHFULLY WORSHIP GOD AS HE HAS DIRECTED.
How then has He commanded that He be worshiped? I would suggest that the very first thing we should know is that we must cease from our efforts to earn God's favor through our works and religious deeds, and come to God through faith in Jesus Christ alone. This is absolutely essential to worshiping God as He has directed. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). He told Nicodemus, during his night-time interview, "Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3); and later added, "... As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (3:15).
When you think about it, God Himself could not have made it plainer. At Jesus' baptism, the heavens opened up; and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and rested upon Jesus; and the voice of the Father Himself came from heaven saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:16-17). And how wonderful it is that He accepts all who come to Him through Jesus as those also with whom He is "well pleased". If they trust in Him, they are immediately accepted by Him - no rituals are necessary, no sacrifices need to be offered, no penance needs to be performed. We're immediately invited to openly, freely enter into fellowship with God; "since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus" (Heb. 10:19; NASB). Nothing else but the blood of Jesus is necessary; and the blood of Jesus alone is sufficient.
God the Father has directed all who would wish to worship Him to come to Him through His Son; and in Jesus they are immediately and completely accepted. This is the first thing God directs us to do in worshiping Him. So then, have you trusted Him as your Savior? If not, then this is the absolutely essential place that you must begin.
Second, we must worship Him according to the Scriptures. We must submit to the word of God as the God-given rule of our faith and conduct. God once spoke to Israel through the prophet Isaiah and said, "And when they say to you, 'Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,' should not a people seek their God?" And how are they to do this? God says, "To the law and the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isa. 8:19-20). It is by studying, believing, and living in accordance to the word of God that we are to worship God.
The apostle Paul presents the Holy Scriptures to us as those "which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15). We start by faith in Jesus as He is presented to us in the word; and as we do, we are immediately accepted by Him. But we are then to go on to grow in our relationship with Jesus through continually conforming our lives to what God says in the word. There is no worship of the one true God apart from obedience to and instruction in His word. Paul says, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Are you reading and studying the Bible regularly and faithfully? Are you obeying its instructions in your life?
Now, let's not confuse this with a legalistic approach to fellowship with God. We do not obey the word in order to earn God's favor, or to maintain God's favor; because we already have His favor in Christ. Rather, we are to obey the instruction of the word because we already have His favor poured out upon us by grace, and out of loving gratitude desire to obey Him. "If you love Me," Jesus said, "keep My commandments" (John 14:15).
But consider what happens if you do indeed obey His word out of love for Him. Consider what such a life of worship will look like. Among other things, you'll worship Him by faithfully fellowshipping with your brothers and sisters in Christ; because He has commanded that we not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:24-25). You'll worship Him by regularly submitting to the ministry of the preaching of the word; because God commanded that His word be preached and obeyed (2 Tim. 4:1-2). You'll worship Him by submitting to the ordinances of Christ, because He commanded that they be performed and observed - that is, you'll testify to your faith in Christ publically through being baptized (Matthew 28:19), and you'll faithfully observe the Lord's Supper with your brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Cor. 11:23-26). You'll worship Him by submitting to the discipline of the church, because you'll recognize it as an authoritative practice that Jesus gave to His church for it's holiness, and that the church is to exercise it faithfully (Matthew 16:19; 18:15-17). You'll worship Him by doing good deeds and sharing with others in their need, because God Himself has said that that's the sort of sacrifice He's pleased with (Heb. 13:16). And you'll worship Him by submitting to the authority of the church leaders, because you'll recognize them as duly appointed by the Lord for your good (Eph. 4:11-12; Heb. 13:7, 17).
Another thing we must do if we would worship God faithfully is to pray in the name of Jesus. We're to make sure that our whole approach to God is in Jesus.
In the Old Testament, God commanded, "You shall fear the LORD your God and serve Him, and shall take your oaths in His name" (Deut. 6:13). God directed the people to reverence Him by making Him the God they swear by. And since there is no greater authority by which we may approach God with our requests, Jesus has called us to pray in His name - that is, under His authority and as if on His behalf. It's a matter of praying what Jesus would pray; and asking in order to receive what He would want.
He told the disciples,
These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God (John 16:25-27).
He promised, "And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it" (14:13-14). God is pleased with us when we pray in a manner that is in accordance with Jesus' will and purpose, and ask in His name. Do you pray and turn to God for all your concerns? And when you do, do you approach God's throne in Jesus' name? Or do you come in your own name? Do you ask what Jesus would ask; or do you merely ask God to fulfill your own wishes? We must come to God in the name of Jesus if we would worship Him as He wants us to worship Him.
These are just some of the things that are involved in obeying the implication of this commandment, and of worshiping God as He would have us worship Him.
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Do you remember the man I told you about at the beginning of our time together? Many folks like him have sought to worshiped God through an image - but not in spirit and truth. Such people are, no doubt, very sincere in what they do; but when they make for themselves and image or likeness - whether literally or figuratively - and bow down to it and serve it as if they were serving God, what they do is sincerely wrong. Such people attempt to worship the one true God in a false way; and in the end, they fall short of worshiping the one true God in spirit and truth. They give their worship to something that is not God; and this provokes God's jealousy! Such a thing is a violation of God's standard for us in the second commandment.
What a loving God we serve. He does not want us to come to Him through intermediaries or through things. He wants our worship and fellowship to be "direct"! May God examine us in this; and may we worship Him as He desires.
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