The Second Commandment: What Is God Like?
"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 on 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).
The Second Commandment goes to the heart of our relationship with our Creator. It deals with several crucial questions: How do we perceive God? How do we explain Him to ourselves and to others? Idols are representations of false, nonexistent gods, but may we use pictures or other images that represent the true God? Above all, what is the proper way to worship the only true God?
In the First Commandment we learned that it is wrong to allow any created thing, including a human being, to become more important to us than our Creator. The Second Commandment differs from the First in that it explains that, in our worship, we must not reduce God to a likeness of a physical object. Doing so is unquestionably unacceptable to God.
This Second Commandment explicitly forbids the use of any type of inanimate or lifeless imagery—"any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath," in the worship of the living God.
Yet God did create on earth a likeness of Himself—in humans. He specifically tells us that He "created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27).
Human beings—descendants of Adam and Eve—are living images of the living God. We, of all God's creatures, are fashioned in His likeness. ". . . In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created" (Genesis 5:1-2).
Our Creator is a living God, not an inanimate statue, figurine or picture. To make any representation of Him distorts and limits our perception of what He is really like, and so damages our relationship with Him.
Of all things on earth or in the heavens, only living human beings realistically reflect a reasonable likeness of the living God. In the same way, as a human Jesus Christ was in the image of His Father. Not only did God make humans in His image, He created us to become even more like Him. Being like God—developing His own character in us—is what our existence is all about. That is why a clear understanding of the purpose of the Second Commandment is so important.
Only God can reveal what He is like
In one sense, in the Second Commandment God tells mankind: "Don't try to tell Me what I am like. I will tell you what I am like! It is important that you correctly understand that I will accept no representations of Me."
We need a realistic understanding of how we are like God in our present state. We also need to know how we are destined to become even more like Him.
God gives us creative and leadership abilities that parallel His own, although on a vastly smaller scale. We alone of His material creation have real mind power. Our minds can reason, analyze, plan and visualize the future. We create literature, art, music and poetry. We design and build. We can organize, manage and supervise things, creatures and people. We are—in limited ways—much like God.
But in other areas we, as humankind, are far from being like Him. Our character tends to weakness. Our relationships with each other leave much to be desired. Our spiritual understanding is limited and often flawed and distorted. Our perceptions are often inaccurate. We are biased in our opinions. We harbor prejudices and are quick to engage in conflicts. In all these spiritual areas, we fall far short of being like God. Though God has given us limited abilities and characteristics similar to his own, we need much development and fine-tuning before we become like Him in nature and character.
The perfect example
However, we are not without a perfect pattern of God's character. Jesus Christ, as a human being, so perfectly represented what God is like that He told His disciples, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . ." (John 14:9).
Paul describes Jesus Christ as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (Colossians 1:15). He describes Christians as those who have "put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him" (Colossians 3:9-10).
God wants to change the spiritual nature of mankind. Just as Christ is "the image of the invisible God," so does God the Father want to recreate our character in His image.
The time is coming when God will transform those who have become like Him in heart and mind from a physical to a spiritual existence.
Paul described to the church in Corinth how this will happen. "Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).
That is how God will complete the marvelous transformation of humans becoming like Him. John described the same ultimate transformation when he wrote: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2).
Being like God is our destiny—providing we surrender our lives to Him in obedience to His commandments. (For more information write for our free booklets What Is Your Destiny? and The Road to Eternal Life.)
God requires accountability
This brings us to the latter part of the Second Commandment: "For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on 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 20:5-6).
God holds us accountable for our words and deeds. Bowing before an idol to pay homage to one's own image of God may appear to be an act of great devotion if one is ignorant of God's great purpose for human beings. But God expects those who worship Him in truth and understanding to demonstrate their love for Him by keeping His commandments from the heart, not by going through useless rites in front of any object.
Jesus made this clear when He said, "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). We are not to worship God with images and meaningless rituals. Jesus explained that "the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him" (verse 23).
Knowledge and understanding of the truth of God are essential for developing the holy, righteous character He desires to create in us. That means that we have to learn and grow (2 Peter 3:18).
We read, "My son, if you receive my words, and treasure my commands within you, so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you cry out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding, if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God" (Proverbs 2:1-5).
Once we gain an understanding of God's revelation, He holds us accountable for what we know. We must apply this revealed knowledge in our lives. Only those who do what they learn they should do are true worshipers of God (Romans 2:13; James 1:22-25). The apostle John was clear: "He who says, ‘I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4).
Obeying God is worshiping Him by emulating Him, by thinking and living as He would. It is becoming like Him internally. We allow Him to spiritually fashion us into His likeness. We honor and praise Him by the way we live.
Idolatry's insidious effects
A physical image, painting or picture of a deity has neither life nor power. Even if we knew exactly what God looks like—which we do not know—we could not design icons that would portray the many facets of His character revealed to us through His Word. At some times God acts with gentleness and mercy and at others with great wrath and power.
He does not want us to perceive Him as frozen in one trait of personality or character to the exclusion of His many other traits. He asks that we read about Him, learn what He is like and emulate Him.
After writing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, God explained why He wanted no images used in worship of Him. "Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure . . . And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the LORD your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage. But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be His people, an inheritance, as you are this day" (Deuteronomy 4:15-20).
God wanted the Israelites to remember that they were to worship the living God, not an idol, and always to direct their worship toward their Creator and never toward objects within His creation. He commanded them, "Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God which He made with you, and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of anything which the LORD your God has forbidden you" (Deuteronomy 4:23).
Depictions of deities, engraved and painted on walls, pottery and other articles are included among the forbidden and idolatrous objects (Numbers 33:52, KJV).
Idolatry and immorality
In the idolatrous religions of the ancient world, the worship of idols was intricately linked to the fertility of animals, land and plants. By associating human fertility with the natural forces their idols represented—such as the sun, rain and soil—they developed fertility rites that included sexual orgies and temple prostitution. Immorality became the focus of their temple worship. They initiated young females into womanhood by enlisting them to serve as honored temple prostitutes. Males were expected to frequent the temple brothels in worship of their local deities. Immorality and degeneracy were dressed in religious garb and considered virtues.
This is why idolatry and immorality are so frequently linked in the Bible. Paul wrote about the problem: "Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5).
Peter linked self-gratifying behavior to idolatry. "For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles—when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you" (1 Peter 4:3-4).
The power behind the scenes
Idolatry in any form is soundly condemned in the New Testament as well as the Old. Paul praised Christians who had "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thessalonians 1:9) and warned others, "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry" (1 Corinthians 10:14).
Far more important, the same apostle explained why using images of deities as aids in worship is so wrong. "What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons" (1 Corinthians 10:19-20).
Buried deep within icons and the other imagery of idolatry, the unseen hand of Satan is at work. "But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them" (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).
Satan conditions people to visualize, in their mind's eye, even the Son of God as a lifeless, inanimate image. Satan's object is to divert attention from Jesus Christ as the vibrant and perfect living image of the living God described in the four Gospels. By blinding most of mankind (Revelation 12:9) to the importance of God's commandments, Satan has successfully deflected much of the Christian world's professed adoration for Christ toward icons and pictures—contrary to the clear instruction of the Second Commandment.
Remember why we were created
The Second Commandment is a constant reminder that we only, of all created things, are made in the image of God. Only we can be transformed into the spiritual image of Christ, who, of course, came in the flesh as the perfect spiritual image of our heavenly Father. This commandment protects our special relationship with our Creator, who made us in His likeness and is still molding us into His spiritual image.
The Second Commandment reminds us that God is far greater than anything we can see or imagine. We must never let that knowledge be pushed aside by the use of some image or likeness in our worship of God.
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