"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" (Ex. 20:4, 5, NKJV)
This commandment, as all commandments (see Larger Catechism Q99), suggests more than a mere surface reading would indicate. Just as the sixth commandment demands not merely avoidance of murder but also the preservation of life, so, too, this ordinance of God demands more than avoidance of idols. There is both a negative and positive side of this law.
The first and most conclusive point is that this commandment forbids any likeness of God-that is of God Triune (God is one), and of God in His several persons, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Each is God and none may be depicted with man-made images. Even pictures of Jesus are only a "half-Christ" since it only shows His humanity and incorrectly at that (did He really have blond hair and blue eyes?). Also, Turretin correctly points out that this law is two-fold: no images and no worshipping of them. It is not simply a prohibition against images if they are worshipped: neither idols nor false worship is accepted. Exodus 32:4ff. states that Israel made the golden calf to represent Yahweh-yet as Aaron said after the image was made, "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." It was not worshipping false gods, but worshipping the True God falsely! God reminds them later that they saw no "form" of the Lord when He spoke at Mt. Sinai, spending several sentences emphatically denouncing any form, likeness or image of God (Deut. 4:15ff.), and this without any reference to worship. The simple making of an image of Yahweh was, and still is, wrong.
Thus our spiritual forefathers clearly wrote the Confessions against images for worship or teaching (Heidelberg Catechism, 96-98; WLC 109):
"Q98: But may not pictures be tolerated in churches as books for the people?
A98: No, for we should not be wiser than God, who will not have His people taught by dumb idols, but by the lively preaching of His Word."
The nature of worship also argues against the making of images to supplant the Word (written, preached or taught). Worship is to give proper and due homage to God in thought, word and deed. Worship has two dimensions. The first occurs in weekly public worship; the second occurs in the life of a believer. The Bible, the Word of God, regulates both. This commandment is the foundation for both. Many in the Evangelical circles know this because they will not allow a statue of Christ to enter their houses for family worship. Why? Because they instinctively know that worship is not merely bowing before an idol (who does that in our "enlightened" age?), but also involves the heart.
Worship is to have a high, proper, holy and correct view of our Lord. Yet, cannot these images (pictures, movies, etc.) be used to stir up "pious feelings" or help us to have better, holy thoughts of God? The Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas and the Lutherans argued such. In contrast, Turretin incisively argues that these uses are still worship indirectly considered because "the sight of them [help] conceive of holy thoughts concerning God and Christ (which cannot but belong to the worship of God, so that thus they really worship God...)." That is, maintaining that these images stir religious feelings is to admit that they stir up worship in our hearts; thus, directly relating their argument to the second commandment. Images clearly impact our thoughts of God and our worship at church and at home.
Let's Look At The Bright Side
The second and no less significant side of the second commandment is the primacy of the Word. One of the main motifs of Scripture is the Word uttered and written-"Oh, how I love Your Word." This, then, means that there is a more powerful motive for avoiding images of God: the promises of His Gospel. And these promises are not presented to the covenant community through pictures or images, but through the living Word read and preached.
It is not as though the Reformed faith is comprised of sour-faced, unloving and negative old men. On the contrary, it is and should be a vibrant faith that expresses its trust in God through loving obedience. And that obedience is expressed every Sunday. It is expressed by listening to the preached Word.
"And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:14-17).
This is the promise of God's Gospel: He will not leave us ignorant of His salvation but will present it to us through the preached Word. Yes, even the Word read daily is a source of strength (Psalm 119). Since the center of our lives is Christ and His Word (for can we really know of Christ apart from the Spirit and the Bible?), should this not emanate through the rest of our lives? Does the heart pump blood only for itself or does it send life throughout the rest of the body? That is how Christ through the Bible is the center of our lives.
The positive side of the second commandment is further illustrated by the history of redemption. God spoke creation into existence; God spoke judgment and salvation to Adam and Eve; God spoke and Noah believed; God spoke and Abraham followed; God spoke His will to Moses, as the great prophet of the Old Testament, and spoke it to all subsequent prophets. Miracles did occur; visual surprises did arise; but these symbols were never suspended in the air, they were explained by the Word. But there is more. The spoken Word, however powerful, was still not enough: God inscripturated His spoken Word. The Old Testament was as a child under age (Gal. 4:1ff.), but we have been privileged to live even beyond that age when the Bible was still incomplete. As even children today first learn through pictures and concrete items and then grow into adulthood-words and abstract thoughts-so the Israelites of old were given many visual signs. But in the New Age these have been vastly reduced to two: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Since God is merciful and knows our frailties, He has given us these visible signs and seals for our infirmities and weakness. Yet, these sacraments are useless without the preached Word. There must still be a passion for the Word. 1 Cor. 1:21 summarizes this truth:
"For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe." Amen.
Hopefully, it has been established that the Bible presents a definite view in favor of words in general and the Word in particular. But how does this apply to the here and now? There are obvious applications: both positive and negative. We should be ever conscious of the moral ramifications of what we watch.
The Word of God at home and at Church should be renewing us day by day...