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The Ten Commandments Series: The Second Commandment

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The Ten Commandments Series

The Second Commandment

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“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; Deuteronomy 5:8-10).

Yes, this absolutely is the Second Commandment. It has a meaning very different than that of the First Commandment, stated in the previous verse. Remarkably, many Bible-believing people think these two commandments are just one commandment—like part A and part B. Others accept them as two commandments, but are quite confused about the differences. This confusion tends to water down the importance of both of those commandments.

Truth—ultimate truth—is defined by God’s Word.

So what is the difference in meaning of the first two commandments? If someone worships anything other than God, including any image (like a statue or painting), that is breaking the First Commandment. And if someone is worshipping the true God, but is physically, visually or mentally portraying Him with images, that is breaking the Second Commandment.

The First Commandment forbids false gods. The Second Commandment forbids false worship.

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Therefore, it is absurd and even blasphemous to portray Him with anything physical—a human being, animal, bird, fish, “creeping thing,” sun, moon, stars, etc. (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 12-19, 23-24; Isaiah 40:25).

Truth—ultimate truth—is defined by God’s Word (John 17:17). God’s Word tells us how to worship God and it forbids worshipping with any non-biblical practices (Deuteronomy 12:1-4, 28-31). In addition, God demands that we not “add to” or “take away from” His Word (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19). God forbids us to invent a religious practice or copy a pagan practice.

Furthermore, to “worship in spirit” means to worship and love God with one’s mind and heart (Matthew 22:37) and is best done by those who have “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:13-14; 1 Corinthians 2:9-14).

The Second Commandment is not a criticism of art, artists and decorating. God’s temple was decorated with designs of flowers, palms, pomegranates, lions and oxen (1 Kings 7). The artwork and images forbidden by this Commandment are those used to represent, remember or revere God (see Exodus 20:5).

What Is an Idol and What Is Idolatry?

Here are three definitions of the word “idol:” “A false god. A representation of a false god. A physical representation of the true God.” For this Ten Commandments series, “idol” refers to the first two definitions. Thus “idolatry” refers to breaking the First Commandment, but breaking the Second Commandment is likewise a great sin.

People who use images in their worship of God generally have good intentions. They often think they are honoring God and are using the image to feel closer to God and as an aid in their worship. In actuality, they have separated themselves from God by inserting something physical between them and God. And people tend to confuse image with essence, so breaking the Second Commandment often eventually leads to breaking the First Commandment.

Human Nature Craves a God Who Can Be Seen!

Human beings are by nature uncomfortable with trying to relate to a God who is invisible, infinite, immortal, transcendent, intangible and humanly incomprehensible. (The literal meaning of tangible is touchable.) As a result, people want to reduce and humanize God so He is less heavenly and more down-to-earth.

What people have chosen to represent God has often been ridiculous. God derisively laughs at this irrationality! (see Isaiah 40 through 46, especially Isaiah 44:6-20). Today our images are more sophisticated but are blasphemous nonetheless.

The Second Commandment is unique because every other religion makes images of their gods! Paganism is very visually oriented. People of other religions feel sorry for those who literally obey the Second Commandment! “How can you believe in a God when you don’t even know what He looks like?”

In contrast, the Bible emphasizes the mind—factual and rational thought, knowledge, understanding and wisdom. God gave us a book to read and contemplate. We must listen to God rather than look at pictures.

Another reason pagan practices are popular is that they are financially profitable! See Acts 19:23-41; 1 Timothy 6:10; and the article “Paganism Is Popular Because It Is Profitable” at ucg.org.

Views of Other Religions and Churches

Most Protestant churches have the same numbering of the Ten Commandments as United Church of God. But whereas we regard Exodus 20:2 as the preamble to the Ten Commandments, Judaism regards it as the First Commandment and Exodus 20:3-6 as the Second Commandment. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church follow the teaching of Augustine and combine the first two commandments into one and divide the Tenth Commandment (against coveting) into two commandments.

Those churches use a lot of physical imagery and visual symbolism in their worship. They teach against worshipping images, but by believing that Exodus 20:3-6 is only one commandment—forbidding the worship of idols—they feel justified in using the images and symbols in the worship of the true God. Thus they transgress the Second Commandment.

Picturing God With an Image Is Blasphemous!

Portraying our supernatural God with something physical is insulting to God! To liken the Creator of the entire universe to a tiny part of His creation is ludicrous, blasphemous and evil!

To some, the Second Commandment may seem relatively unimportant. But read the entire Commandment! It has the strongest warning of all the Commandments! It shows how strongly God feels about actions that falsify His identity and degrade His glory, actions that are demeaning, disparaging and humiliating toward the Almighty Creator God! In spite of that, people imagine all kinds of images of God and Jesus Christ!

There is one “image of the invisible God”—God’s Son! (Colossians 1:15; see also 2 Corinthians 4:4; Hebrews 1:3). Jesus came to earth to reveal the nature, character and plan of God. (Significantly, God did not allow anyone to record anything about the physical appearance of Jesus.) Over time, God will invite everyone “to be conformed to the image of His Son!” (Romans 8:29; also Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Understanding the Rest of the Second Commandment

What does God mean by “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me” (Exodus 20:5)? It does not mean that God punishes children for the sins of the parents, as God’s Word forbids that (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20). First of all, sin often results in children and grandchildren suffering. Secondly, religious beliefs and practices (both true and false), along with their consequences, are often passed on from generation to generation.

In the Bible, “love” and “hate” are generally and primarily not referring to emotional feelings. Usually they are action verbs. Loving God means obeying God and hating evil, and hating God means disobeying God (Psalm 97:10; Matthew 6:24; 7:21-27; John 14:15; 15:18-25; Romans 9:13; 1 John 2:4-5; 5:2-3; 2 John 6).

In this commandment, “thousands” might refer to “thousands of generations.” Notice how the rewards for loving God and keeping His commandments far exceed the penalties for hating God! God is amazingly merciful and generous!

Common “Christian” Violations of the Second Commandment

Using the following visual pictures, symbols and designs to represent Christianity, God or Jesus Christ are violations of the Second Commandment: Paintings and drawings intended to represent Jesus Christ or God the Father. The Latin cross and the crucifix. The outline of a fish or dove. Any three-part design intended to represent “the Trinity.” Relics supposedly related to the life or death of Jesus. A steeple, especially when on a church building. Halos and other circles and disks used to indicate what is sacred. A star used in certain ways, such as at the top of a Christmas tree. Any of the numerous abbreviations of the Greek for “Jesus” and “Christ.” The Greek letters Alpha and Omega written together.

When counterfeit Christianity imitates pagan holidays and rituals—Christmas observance, for example—that reinforces numerous perverted ideas about God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Bible. When Mary and other dead “saints” are venerated as mediators with God, that breaks the Second Commandment. When religious clothing and objects are regarded as sacred, that breaks this Commandment. Even religious music and worship services can be the worship of worship more than the worship of God.

Accurate Analogies, Metaphors and Similes Are Not a Problem

The Bible frequently uses literary analogies and figures of speech to teach us characteristics about God and Jesus Christ, so these do not violate the Second Commandment. When Jesus spoke of a person bearing “his cross,” He meant his sacrifices and suffering. When Paul spoke of “the cross,” he meant God’s plan of salvation made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Bible uses similes when it says God “is like” a “bridegroom” and “a refiner’s fire” and “launderers’ soap” (Psalm 19:5; Malachi 3:2). The Bible uses metaphors when it calls God “a consuming fire” and “a sun and shield” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Psalm 84:11). Jesus used metaphors when He said, “I am the bread of life . . . the light of the world . . . the door . . . the good shepherd . . . the true vine . . .” (John 6:35; 8:12; 10:9; 10:11; 15:1).

We Are Called To Be Lights in a Dark World

Tragically, what has been regarded as “Christian civilization” is increasingly rejecting the Bible as the source of ultimate truth. Thus as we gain secular knowledge, we’re losing wisdom, sanity and godliness. This spiritual darkness coincides with a rising emphasis on images. Ignorance and images usually exist together.

The good news is this: One day Jesus Christ will return and then “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

Those who already have that knowledge must continue to worship God in Spirit and in Truth, thereby being lights in the midst of a world that is once again growing very dark (John 4:24; Matthew 5:14-16; Philippians 2:15). 

This article is part of a series. To read other articles that focus on the Ten Commandments in this series please go to the following website: https://www.ucg.org/tags/the-ten-commandments-series.