God could’ve handed Abraham something pocket-sized with a face on it and said “This trinket will represent me from now on. Adore it.” But God didn’t do that. He knew all too well what we’d do with such a thing. We’d worship it instead of Him. Centuries later when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments He connected law #1, “You shall have no other gods before me,” to #2, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below” (Exodus 20:4), so there’d be no misunderstanding. Context is crucial here. God isn’t saying visual art has no place in this world. On the contrary, sculptures and paintings are gifts from God and it’s fine for us to enjoy and admire them in places where they belong. But the church shouldn’t be an art museum. There’s no need for distracting “religious furniture” or symbols in God’s house. Alistair Begg wrote when believers gather, “God alone is to be worshiped without any visual symbols of Himself.” One can’t read the 2nd commandment and not get that. I reiterate; God’s not trying to deprive us of beauty but in church He wants us to focus on His beauty exclusively. Alec Motyer said, “The first commandment forbids the worship of any false god, and the second demands we do not worship the true God in an unworthy manner. It’s not enough to worship the correct God. We must worship the correct God correctly!” God knows our sinful nature better than we do. The minute humankind constructs an idol, genuine religion gets corrupted. Every time.
Some may protest, “But gazing at a picture of Jesus helps me feel closer to Him.” That may be, but God warns against doing that because, good intentions aside, it’s not in accordance with His will. He does invite us to draw near to Him and we should strive to do so. But we must grasp that, by labeling certain images sacred, whether metal or mental, we’re in danger of going astray. I’m not implying church sanctuaries should be drab and sterile. Inspiring architecture and appropriate interior design can enhance worship. In other words, colorful stained glass windows serve a worthy purpose as long as the congregation doesn’t consider them holy. God wants his children to be spiritually uplifted and strengthened by the preaching of His Word, not through ogling inanimate replicas of His supposed visage. I realize this might offend those who kneel before and pray to statues of the Virgin Mary but God’s second commandment is crystal clear and there’s no loophole. God’s basically saying, “Don’t seek me in shrines or figurines or anything material. I’m not there. Look for me in the Scriptures I’ve provided for you. That’s where I am.” Idols, even if they’re supposed to represent the One True God, inevitably lead us away from His healing light and He was trying to keep us from doing that. John Calvin wrote, “When you prostrate yourself in veneration, representing to yourself in an image either a god or a creature, you are already ensnared in some superstition. This is foolish in the extreme.”
The Bible teaches “To whom can you compare God? To what image can you liken him?” (Isaiah 40:18). Begg opined, “Since all things were created by God and are subject to Him, it makes no sense at all to think of fashioning anything that could ever represent the Creator of the universe.” It’s an act of disobedience to casually ignore God’s second commandment merely for convenience’s sake. God is invisible yet we want Him to be visible. I’ve seen folks bowing before a crucifix. Now, the cross of Christ does remind us of His suffering on our behalf and it’s no sin to solemnly reflect on His supreme sacrifice. But our worship of a replica of our Savior hanging on the old rugged cross is limited to the sorrow it reliably wells up in us. It conveys nothing of His power and glory and the victory He achieved over death when He walked out of the tomb three days later. A crucifix signifies only part of the redemption story. Yes, I realize this is tricky territory to tread. Don’t get me wrong. There’s absolutely nothing blasphemous about wearing crosses around our necks or having one on the mantle but we mustn’t let it cause us to overlook the supernatural miracle of Christ’s resurrection. Our Lord rose from the grave and He’s not only alive but He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. The bottom line is that our conception of God should always be defined by His revelation of Himself in the Bible. Any deviation from what The Word tells us will eventually steer us into false idolatry.
The Scriptures provide a prime example of what happens when people worship as they please. In Exodus 32 the camped-out Israelites start thinking Moses must’ve flown the coop or become a carnivore’s dinner on Mount Sinai so they gang up on his brother Aaron, demanding he supervise the manufacture of a god they can see and worship. Gutless Aaron doesn’t even bother to argue with the mob. Instead, he pools everybody’s gold earrings, melts them down and then fashions a calf out of the metal. He unveils the idol and God’s chosen loudly exclaim, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). That response should’ve alerted Aaron the whole shebang stunk to high heaven but he made things even worse by building an altar and hiring a caterer. The next day all the Israelites indulged in a drunken feast and then danced and caroused into the wee hours. The fact it wasn’t a golden calf that parted the Red Sea for them never came up, evidently. They demanded a God they could touch and, by golly, they were going to have one come what may. The Bible shows us via this true story that when humans worship what we prefer to worship, chaos ensues. If not for Moses’ pleas for mercy God would’ve wiped the earth clean of the whole bunch. Instead, He “…gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:24). God didn’t kill them off but there were consequences to deal with for their disgusting behavior. After a serious purge they were sentenced to wander the wilderness for the next four decades. Sadly, I look around and see a lot of golden calves being worshiped today. The Apostle Paul told us we’re to only worship the Son of God, Jesus Christ, for “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). When we surrender our lives to the Lord we’re set free from strange imaginings, weird superstitions and unholy, inadequate views of God, enabling us to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
It’s also vital we pay attention to the rest of the second commandment. Still referring to man-made idols, God said, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6). In law #2, as in #1, God’s demand is based on who He is, and He’s informed us He’s a jealous God. A Christian husband will adamantly refuse to share his wife’s love and affection with anyone else. In the same way, God adamantly refuses to share our love and affection with any other god. He created us. He deserves our fidelity and rightly so.
No man or woman can fake out God. He knows if our worship is sincere or just a front. As the above passage in Exodus reveals, God won’t tolerate disrespect from an individual. Nor will He tolerate it from a nation. Motyer wrote, “Each generation stands in a place of mounting guilt, under the accumulating sins of the fathers.” Now, before we start crying “foul” we must keep in mind God states in Ezekiel 18:20 He won’t punish an innocent person for the transgressions of another. This particular issue, though, is different and bigger than that. Begg wrote, “Fathers and mothers are here called to count the cost of the effect their sin will have upon their families. One generation turns its back on God, and the next grows up without Him. All sin has a ‘domino’ effect, and parents ought to ponder the punishment their children will face for their own sins, which they’ve learned from the sorry example of their parents.”
God’s punishment can, indeed, span generations. It’s a truth I had to wrap my tiny brain around. I’m an aging white American male. I grew up in an era when segregation was the norm. When I questioned the discrimination I witnessed firsthand as a kid, Dad would say “That’s just how things are, son.” Since then I’ve seen major improvements made in guaranteeing civil rights for all yet it still astounds me it took over a century after the civil war for a clarifying amendment to get passed. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I have Christ-like love for everyone. But for some reason I frequently think I have license to gripe about the current state of race relations and start thinking God should take my advice, step in and clean this mess up. I get caught up admiring my own know-it-all “logic.” I’m ashamed to admit I too often muse African-Americans should “get over it already,” leave our country’s shameful past behind and move forward. But to think the solution is that simple flies in the face of what the Bible – the book I so revere – tells me. The ugly reality is the founding fathers of our nation sinned against God by allowing slavery to flourish. The consequences of their blatant refusal to obey Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) has repercussions that’ll continue to resonate throughout society for generations to come. Though they knew them by heart our ancestors transgressed the laws of God in order to worship at the altar of the almighty dollar and, as God warned, their great-great-great grandchildren now have to contend daily with the distrust, fear and discord their disregard for basic moral decency instigated. We may not like it but the price of their egregious sin is being paid by us. It’s not karma; it’s God keeping His Word.
When it comes to the second commandment we should also note there’s a positive “up” side to it. While God’s law #2 forbids us to worship Him in any unworthy manner, it strongly encourages us to worship Him in the proper way. All who love God should want to worship Him right, right? The truth is we were made to glorify and praise Him. In His conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well Jesus told her the Father seeks “…true worshipers” (John 4:23). Thus we must distinguish between true worship and what I call “idle worship.” Worship involves a lot more than showing up for church Sunday mornings. Paul said, “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). We’re to worship God with everything we are, all the time. “…Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Our root problem is tunnel vision. Begg wrote, “Instead of viewing worship as a lifestyle, we’re tempted to think of it as an event, something that takes place in certain buildings at prescribed times.” We must remember that, having been appointed royal ambassadors of the Gospel message, we are the church; we are God’s priesthood. Unbelievers should be able to see Christ in the way we act, what we say and how we treat others. If we’ll live that way 24/7 when we do come together as the body of Christ our worship will be righteous, indeed. We won’t need to worry about whether a curious church visitor is greeted correctly or hears the right song. Our only communal task is to praise God. The Holy Spirit will do His work on the visitor’s heart, thank you very much.
If our worship is focused on sound biblical principles and if we trust God completely, the visitor will be intrigued by what he/she experiences. On their way home they’ll be wondering “Why did those folks sing with such enthusiasm?” and “Why did they listen to the sermon so intently?” Or “Why did I not detect even a hint of a holier-than-thou attitude in there?” and “Is it possible for me to be as content as they are?” If Christians aren’t in church for the sole reason of worshiping God in a manner that pleases Him then the unmoved visitor will probably race out the door, never to return. I’m not saying there should be a world-wide, standardized procedure put in place for all churches everywhere. The style of worship will, of course, be different in Ireland or India than in New Zealand or Kenya. But the common denominator in a church service, wherever it may be held, should be the calling of Christ’s followers to worship in spirit and in truth. All churches should gauge the quality of their worship upon two criteria. Firstly, is what’s being preached true to Scripture and does it focus the minds of the people in the pews on who God is and what He’s done for us? Secondly, do the hymns and praise music being sung by the congregation contain lyrics that not only glorify God but encourage faith and instill hope? If both questions are answered in the affirmative then it’s mission accomplished. (By the way, what’s with this “traditional service” at 9am and “contemporary service” at 11am business? God doesn’t care whether a song’s old or new and neither should we. It’s the content that matters. There’s not a “traditional” God and a separate “contemporary” God, is there? Just sayin’…)
The best way to prevent our worship from becoming “idle” is to keep it fundamentally and soundly Trinitarian. That simply means we’re to come before God the Father through God the Son and in God the Spirit. If our worship is truly and sincerely Christ-centered then we’ll know without a doubt we’re standing on holy ground. The troubles and heartaches of the outside world will not be allowed inside and all will be “well with our soul.” Our hearts will be energized and our burdens lightened as we stand in awe of our majestic, loving God. In Him we’ll find the strength and courage to face with more confidence and vigor those troubles and heartaches that’ll be waiting just outside the door to assail us again. We won’t be naïve dreamers. We’ll be rational and realistic followers of Jesus. We won’t suddenly expect the world to change into a realm resembling heaven. We won’t entertain illusions life will turn out the way we want it to. But we will be refreshed. We will be emboldened to share the Good News with all who’ll pause to listen to the truth being told. And we will love others as Jesus loves us. J. I. Packer wrote, “To want to love someone Christianly does not of itself tell you how to do it. Only as we observe the limits set by God’s law can we really do people good.”
Just as we connect our phones to a charger else our battery dies, we must connect to God through proper worship of Him else our spirit will die. And if we lose our spirit, of what use are we to our precious Savior who shed His blood so we may have eternal life? I quote Begg again: “We aren’t listening to the choir. We are the choir. We’re not spectators. We’re participants. We come asking god to help us set aside every idolatrous thought so we might be the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” We’ve been blessed with the privilege of being able to worship and build a relationship with God, the One who created and governs the far-flung universe we exist in. The very same God who loves us so much He thinks we’re to die for. May we who belong to Him never take that miraculous blessing for granted.