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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 Exodus 20:4-6 4 You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor 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 fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 5:8-10 Deuteronomy 5:8-10 8 You shall not make you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth: 9 You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor 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 fourth generation of them that hate me, 10 And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
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).

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 John 4:23-24 23 But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
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). 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 Deuteronomy 4:1-2 1 Now therefore listen, O Israel, to the statutes and to the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers gives you. 2 You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish ought from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
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, 12-19, 23-24; Isaiah 40:25 Isaiah 40:25To whom then will you liken me, or shall I be equal? said the Holy One.
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).

Truth—ultimate truth—is defined by God’s Word (John 17:17 John 17:17Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth.
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). God’s Word tells us how to worship God and it forbids worshipping with any non-biblical practices (Deuteronomy 12:1-4 Deuteronomy 12:1-4 1 These are the statutes and judgments, which you shall observe to do in the land, which the LORD God of your fathers gives you to possess it, all the days that you live on the earth. 2 You shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which you shall possess served their gods, on the high mountains, and on the hills, and under every green tree: 3 And you shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and you shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. 4 You shall not do so to the LORD your God.
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, 28-31). In addition, God demands that we not “add to” or “take away from” His Word (Deuteronomy 4:2 Deuteronomy 4:2You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish ought from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
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; 12:32; Revelation 22:18-19 Revelation 22:18-19 18 For I testify to every man that hears the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add to these things, God shall add to him the plagues that are written in this book: 19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.
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). 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 Matthew 22:37Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
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) and is best done by those who have “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 Acts 2:38Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
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; Romans 8:13-14 Romans 8:13-14 13 For if you live after the flesh, you shall die: but if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live. 14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
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; 1 Corinthians 2:9-14 1 Corinthians 2:9-14 9 But as it is written, Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him. 10 But God has revealed them to us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knows no man, but the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. 13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
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).

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 Exodus 20:5You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor 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 fourth generation of them that hate me;
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).

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 Isaiah 44:6-20 6 Thus said the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. 7 And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I appointed the ancient people? and the things that are coming, and shall come, let them show to them. 8 Fear you not, neither be afraid: have not I told you from that time, and have declared it? you are even my witnesses. Is there a God beside me? yes, there is no God; I know not any. 9 They that make a graven image are all of them vanity; and their delectable things shall not profit; and they are their own witnesses; they see not, nor know; that they may be ashamed. 10 Who has formed a god, or molten a graven image that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his fellows shall be ashamed: and the workmen, they are of men: let them all be gathered together, let them stand up; yet they shall fear, and they shall be ashamed together. 12 The smith with the tongs both works in the coals, and fashions it with hammers, and works it with the strength of his arms: yes, he is hungry, and his strength fails: he drinks no water, and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches out his rule; he marks it out with a line; he fits it with planes, and he marks it out with the compass, and makes it after the figure of a man, according to the beauty of a man; that it may remain in the house. 14 He hews him down cedars, and takes the cypress and the oak, which he strengthens for himself among the trees of the forest: he plants an ash, and the rain does nourish it. 15 Then shall it be for a man to burn: for he will take thereof, and warm himself; yes, he kindles it, and bakes bread; yes, he makes a god, and worships it; he makes it a graven image, and falls down thereto. 16 He burns part thereof in the fire; with part thereof he eats flesh; he roasts roast, and is satisfied: yes, he warms himself, and said, Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire: 17 And the residue thereof he makes a god, even his graven image: he falls down to it, and worships it, and prays to it, and said, Deliver me; for you are my god. 18 They have not known nor understood: for he has shut their eyes, that they cannot see; and their hearts, that they cannot understand. 19 And none considers in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yes, also I have baked bread on the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree? 20 He feeds on ashes: a deceived heart has turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?
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). 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 Acts 19:23-41 23 And the same time there arose no small stir about that way. 24 For a certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana, brought no small gain to the craftsmen; 25 Whom he called together with the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, you know that by this craft we have our wealth. 26 Moreover you see and hear, that not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: 27 So that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nothing; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worships. 28 And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. 29 And the whole city was filled with confusion: and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, men of Macedonia, Paul’s companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre. 30 And when Paul would have entered in to the people, the disciples suffered him not. 31 And certain of the chief of Asia, which were his friends, sent to him, desiring him that he would not adventure himself into the theatre. 32 Some therefore cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused: and the more part knew not why they were come together. 33 And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward. And Alexander beckoned with the hand, and would have made his defense to the people. 34 But when they knew that he was a Jew, all with one voice about the space of two hours cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. 35 And when the town cleark had appeased the people, he said, You men of Ephesus, what man is there that knows not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter? 36 Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, you ought to be quiet, and to do nothing rashly. 37 For you have brought here these men, which are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess. 38 Why if Demetrius, and the craftsmen which are with him, have a matter against any man, the law is open, and there are deputies: let them accuse one another. 39 But if you inquire any thing concerning other matters, it shall be determined in a lawful assembly. 40 For we are in danger to be called in question for this day’s uproar, there being no cause whereby we may give an account of this concourse. 41 And when he had thus spoken, he dismissed the assembly.
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; 1 Timothy 6:10 1 Timothy 6:10For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
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; 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 Exodus 20:2I am the LORD your God, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
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as the preamble to the Ten Commandments, Judaism regards it as the First Commandment and Exodus 20:3-6 Exodus 20:3-6 3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor 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 fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
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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 Exodus 20:3-6 3 You shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make to you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor 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 fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And showing mercy to thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
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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 Colossians 1:15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
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; see also 2 Corinthians 4:4 2 Corinthians 4:4In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine to them.
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; Hebrews 1:3 Hebrews 1:3Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high:
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). 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 Romans 8:29For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
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; also Romans 12:1-2 Romans 12:1-2 1 I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And be not conformed to this world: but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
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; 2 Corinthians 3:18 2 Corinthians 3:18But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD.
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).

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 Exodus 20:5You shall not bow down yourself to them, nor 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 fourth generation of them that hate me;
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)? It does not mean that God punishes children for the sins of the parents, as God’s Word forbids that (Deuteronomy 24:16 Deuteronomy 24:16The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
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; Ezekiel 18:20 Ezekiel 18:20The soul that sins, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him.
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). 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 (Psalms 97:10 Psalms 97:10You that love the LORD, hate evil: he preserves the souls of his saints; he delivers them out of the hand of the wicked.
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; Matthew 6:24 Matthew 6:24No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
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; 7:21-27; John 14:15 John 14:15If you love me, keep my commandments.
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; 15:18-25; Romans 9:13 Romans 9:13As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.
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; 1 John 2:4-5 1 John 2:4-5 4 He that said, I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps his word, in him truly is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
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; 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” (Psalms 19:5 Psalms 19:5Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoices as a strong man to run a race.
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; Malachi 3:2 Malachi 3:2But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appears? for he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap:
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). The Bible uses metaphors when it calls God “a consuming fire” and “a sun and shield” (Deuteronomy 4:24 Deuteronomy 4:24For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.
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; Psalms 84:11 Psalms 84:11For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.
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). 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 John 6:35And Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger; and he that believes on me shall never thirst.
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; 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 Isaiah 11:9They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
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).

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 John 4:24God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
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; Matthew 5:14-16 Matthew 5:14-16 14 You are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. 15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it gives light to all that are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
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; Philippians 2:15 Philippians 2:15That you may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the middle of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom you shine as lights in the world;
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). 

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 .