Skip to content

The second commandment

Church as we know it can sometimes be a bit weird and jarring. A few weeks ago at church, we heard an encouraging sermon on the second commandment (Exod 20:4-6). We heard that God cannot and must not be represented by or worshipped through images because images can only ever distort and misrepresent God. Yet the sermon was preached in a 150-year-old Cathedral building containing a plethora of accumulated religious imagery. As we listened to the sermon with our ears, our eyes were easily drawn towards a wooden statue of St Michael the archangel holding a gilded Bible, numerous large stained-glass windows depicting Jesus, a banner sewn with Mary and the baby Jesus, various crosses, and other striking images. Understandably, a few questions were raised after the sermon about the seeming disparity between what was heard and what was seen by the congregation.

The second commandment does not seem to be a blanket ban on the use of any concrete image in the spiritual life of God’s people. Just five chapters after he utters the second commandment, God himself commands that golden statues of angels be made to cover the ark (Exod 25:18-22). A little later, he commands that a fiery serpent be made so that people who were afflicted with a plague of snakes could look at it and live (Num 21:8-9). In the New Testament, water baptism and, perhaps, the Lord’s Supper also appear to involve a kind of imagery.

So what do we make of the second commandment? I offer here four principles about how we can honour the intention of the second commandment when it comes to our use (or abandonment) of images in Christian gatherings, and in Christian worship and obedience more generally. These aren’t intended to be comprehensive, but they may serve as a starting point for discussion.

The first principle is that God’s word must always be given pride of place in our worship, no matter where and when. God is known through what he says, not through any pictures we may make of him (e.g. Deut 4:9-19). It follows that, as we speak and obey his word, God will make himself known to us in his glory and splendour. The clear proclamation of God’s word, by itself, will go a long way towards relativizing the importance of images, and will remove many of the problems that we might otherwise encounter when God’s word is not spoken clearly. Who, having tasted the pure delight of knowing God truly through his word, would desire to go back to a bland and futile attempt to apprehend his glory through mere images?

The second principle in evaluating the use of images in our Christian lives is to consider their purpose. Why is an image being used? The cherubim in Exodus 25:18-22, for example, seem to have been used to show that God’s glory in the tabernacle and ark was essentially hidden. They actually discourage, rather than encourage, worship of God through created things. In our own lives, we should be discerning about the purpose of any particular image in the Christian life. For example, if we use children’s Bibles or drawings for the illiterate that depict Jesus, why are we doing it? Are the images there in order to represent God for the purpose of worshipping him through the image? This would be wrong. Or are the images there to illustrate the reality that Jesus was a human (because he is drawn just like the other human beings in the story)? Or is it just a quick illustration to guide the readers towards focusing on God’s word—such as the images from Two Ways to Live that I often use to explain the gospel? Then it could be all right. One way to determine what the purpose of something is to ask what would be lost if we took it away. The more upset somebody is at the idea that a picture could be removed, the more likely it is that the image is being used for an idolatrous purpose.

The third principle is related to the second: it concerns the context of the image. The bronze snake that God commanded Moses to make, for example, later had to be destroyed because it had become an idol to which the people of Israel were making offerings (2 Kgs 18:4). An image that was necessary in one context became unacceptable in another. The same is true today: we may accept the argument, for example, that in medieval times, stained-glass windows were good and right because they used a common pictorial symbolic language to depict events in the life of Jesus. But even if we do accept this argument, all we have gained is interesting knowledge about medieval history. The question that matters is what do the stained-glass windows achieve in our context? Are they merely there for educational purposes? Or are people using them as a way of gaining access to God somehow? Has there been that (some say, inevitable) ‘leakage’ where a simple image ends up actually representing God to the hearts and minds of God’s people?

The final principle follows from all the above. It is the principle of love. Those who are Christians—who are gripped by the gospel of God’s love to us in Jesus’ death—will want to do everything for the sake of others, not just ourselves. This applies to what we do with images. We could use Romans 14, for example, to argue that those who tend towards an auditory learning style (that’s you, if you like to learn through listening and discussing) should take into account people like me who learn a lot better with diagrams and pictures. However, 1 Corinthians 8-10 pushes us towards another important application of the principle of love in Christian fellowship. There, we learn that love is expressed when we curtail our own freedoms in order to help a Christian brother or sister by removing any temptations towards idolatry. So from 1 Corinthians 8-10, the onus of love may well be on us visual learners to strip away and remove images from our lives and fellowship. Even though the images may hold no temptation for us (we’re merely using them for an entirely innocent purpose), we may decide to get rid of them for the sake of our brother who struggles against the tendency to turn those images into idolatrous worship of God.

Published inExodusThe Briefing

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor