On Icons: The Second Commandment

It is my usual habit to deal first with the text rather than dealing with arguments because once I establish my argument from the text, I can pretty much rebut the responses based on what the text is saying. But sometimes there is so much theological grid-work set up that an argument from the text will only slam into the theological foundation before making any leeway into Scripture. So I dealt with the common arguments first, the strongest theological grid-work second, and here I’d like to deal with a ramification of the Christological argument in regard to icon usage and the repealing of the second commandment.

The argument in short: In light of the revelation of the incarnate God the invisible forms have become visible and accessible to the material. Whereas in the Old Testament trying to depict the invisible forms was an exercise in futility, now, with the revelation of the incarnate God those things are not only allowed: they are to be applauded. The partition that separates the world of the Real from our material wall has broken down: God, who is Spirit, has become flesh; rejoice. Therefore the second commandment finds no application for the believer for it is God who has removed the mandate regarding Himself. Of course, the mandate still applies to idolatry, but in making icons of those in heavenly places, people aren’t making idols, they’re building windows into the invisible realm under the purview of what God has made clear. In like manner, the Church now meets on Sunday instead of the Sabbath because of God’s self-disclosure; similarly icons are now allowed in light of God’s self-disclosure.

Here’s the textual support:

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them…” (Ex 20:4-5a // NASB95)

It’s pretty clear that God doesn’t want any images made of himself or the heavenly things. His reasoning is also pretty clear:

“So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, (Deut 4:15 // NASB95)

Because people haven’t seen his form. They didn’t know what He looked like. The clash comes in at the fact of John 1 when we see in verse 14 that:

the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14 // NASB95)

This creates a problem for the believer because, unlike the Israelites of old, they have seen a “form” of God—a real form—Jesus Christ. Not an intangible thing speaking from the fire, but a God who “we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.” (1 John 1:1) God surely knew what he was doing with such self disclosure and in so doing he allowed, at the very least one image is possibly allowed to be created.

Does The Law Apply?
No one will like this first argument, by the way. But I’m convinced it’s a strong one so I have to list it.

If the Law is repealed, does it mean that there is a universal taking away of the second commandment? I mean, the revelation of Christ wasn’t limited to followers; plenty of unbelievers (both Jew and Gentiles—John 12) saw him as well, even if from afar. If Christ establishes that icons of God are okay then it should conceivably apply to Jews and Gentiles as well. Of course we know that Jews or Gentiles won’t bow down to Jesus, but this is a thought experiment right now.

Let’s imagine the unbelieving Jew: Is it okay for him to now make icons of anything in the heavenly places because God has, say the Christians, revealed Himself as a man?

Well, for the Jew, not really: the commandment still stands. Just as much as the Sabbath commandment. Because they believe that no one has seen God therefore creating the image is still wrong. What they find themselves under is non-repealed Law that still holds them in needs of bringing them to Christ (Gal 3:19). This is evident in Christ’s words when He says to the Jews on the mount:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17 // NASB95 )

And what about the unbelieving Gentile; does the mandate against making images of heavenly beings still stand for them? I don’t think so. After all, the giving of the Law was to stipulate the rules and markers that defined the Jewish covenant community, not the rules that defined the entire world (Exodus 19:6 is addressed to Israel). An unbelieving Gentile made images of heavenly things all the time (Acts 17:23), even if he didn’t know he was doing it, just as much as he worked during the Sabbath. So I’m not even sure the second commandment technically applied to the Gentiles as part of the Law (don’t worry, I have a second argument below that does draw upon universals).

What about the believing Gentile (and believing Jew), the one who is incorporated into the same olive tree which supplies the nutrients and life to the Jewish branches (Rom 11)? Well, Paul would tell them that they are not under Law but under grace (Romans 6:14). They find themselves as part of another system altogether which is not defined by the mandates of The Law of Moses but under the purview and image and mandates of Christ. So for these people, does the second commandment apply?

Well, technically, not even the first commandment applies. Wait! Don’t go yet; come back!

These people are a people who are to live in the image of Christ (who is the image of God—Heb 1) with a calling that reaches beyond the Law in its unique characteristics and relationship to God. These people are said to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2), gifted by God the Spirit (1 Cor 12), worked in by God the Father (1 Cor 1, 12), propelled forward by the example of Christ (Phil 2), enjoined in the sufferings of Christ (Dan 12, Col 1), led by the Spirit of God (Gal 5), and finally joined together with Him as holy and unblemished bride (Eph 5). They don’t adhere to the First Commandment because it says so; they adhere to it because God has placed them far above any commands.

And they are definitely a lawful people—the Apostles would say they are under the Law of Christ (1 Cor 9), the Law of Liberty (James 1, 2; Romans 14), and  the Law of Love (Rom 13). They are not free to do whatever they want so that God’s grace is proved; rather they go above and beyond any requirement of the Law because they exist in a realm that is altogether apart from the Law and grounded in the incarnation, work, existence and presence of God in their Temple (1 Cor 3, 1 Cor 6).

A Christian doesn’t change the Sabbath to Sunday; the Christian is in another realm that consists of one Sabbath where every day belongs to the Lord (Heb 4). The Christian doesn’t need to be told “worship no other God” because they are incorporated into God’s family (John 20) where worship is trinitarian; the Christian doesn’t honor his parents because he’s been told but because to do anything less would be to act worse than unbelievers (1 Tim 5:8); the Christian doesn’t kill because Christ died and we follow His lead, being killed “all the day long” as we offer our members up as “living sacrifices” (Rom 8, Rom 12)—this new creature underneath this New Adam (Rom 5) is to live in such a way that the Law is fulfilled in the creature without reference to the Law as a guardrail. Paul says:

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom 6:15-16 // NASB95)

Now yes, I know: those previous things have been recorded for our learning (Rom 15:4). I know that the old hasn’t been abolished but fulfilled (in Christ) just as much as I know that Paul argues in Romans 2 that people who don’t have the Law can fulfill the requirements of the Law—but I don’t think they’re doing this by operating or even following Law. And even though I know that good reformed folk love using the ethics of the Law to support why some things are wrong and others are right; and I know that Lutherans don’t go as far as Reformed folk in this area but like to say that there is a Third Use of the Law; what I’m saying here is a truth that is both freeing as to the Law’s stipulations and incredibly restricting in what we can and cannot do. Paul’s interlocutor jumped to the wrong conclusion: so, you can then sin so that God’s grace abounds? Of course not, rather the believer carries out in his activity the fulfilling of the Law (Rom 6) .

So no, the first commandment doesn’t technically apply—but it doesn’t mean that we have another God beside God (since it is God’s very Spirit that is dwelling in us). And the fourth commandment doesn’t apply—but it doesn’t mean that we rob God’s mandate of the Sabbath by creating an alternate Sabbath; rather we enter into the Sabbath rest of Christ.

And the second commandment doesn’t technically apply—but it doesn’t mean that we’re to run off and create images of the things in heaven so as to worship God through them. It doesn’t apply but it hasn’t changed:

“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18)

My argument is not that the Law has changed and applies to us in this change, but that we have changed and the Law does not apply to us. We don’t teach do-what-you-want; we teach that the Law stands but we’re not standing under it. As our Lord continues to say:

Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19)

As Gentiles, the Law never technicallyapplied to us but even if we were Jews who were bound to the Law we know that the stipulations of the Law are binding as long as a person lives (Rom 7:1) and those bindings are such that our Lord says adhering to them is not what is important, it is the reaching beyond them:

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:20)

But we have been identified in the death of Christ (Rom 6), buried with him in baptism (Col 2), and raised to walk in newness of life in Christ (Eph 2, Col 3): we’ve been clothed in the righteousness of God. We’re dead men walking but we’re not zombies: we’re a new creation not under the Law.

Therefore we are not bound to the Law of Moses as mandates or a system (Rom 7); it doesn’t apply to us so there is no reason to change it to make our activity justifiable.

Has the Second Commandment Changed?
The argument above smacks too much of antinomianianism so most won’t like it; but there is another route I can go.

When God gave the law it was boiling down certain concepts that were universally important but not practiced. So although He condemns idolatry in the first commandment, he also condemns idolatry (and lying and murder) in general (Gal 5:19-21) and has plainly incorporated such a system into the hearts and minds of people (Rom 1, 2) so that they know what it is to do right.

So when the Law of Moses entered in it is partially for covenantal reasons with Israel but it is mostly because unrighteousness has reached a level that certain activity had to be summarized as wrong. So Paul says he was alive before the Law because there was no commandment that said “Covet and Die.” But that doesn’t mean that there was no such thing as coveting; it doesn’t even really mean that he didn’t know it was wrong but once the commandment entered in, coveting (which he still did) became all the worse so that he died (Romans 7).

If we go back to the Law, we see a command like “You shall not commit murder.” But that doesn’t mean that murder was ever okay—it is actually part of the reason why God condemned the world in Genesis 6 and why God equipped men with the right to judge murder in Genesis 9; but it is also why Cain went free and cursed in Genesis 4. Murder was always wrong (Abel’s blood cried out to him after all) but when codified, it became all the more wrong. An abject revolt with specific violations against God.

That being the case, it could be just as possible that the second commandment directly correlates to man’s representation of things he doesn’t know. So when someone takes a lump of wood and says “This represents the God who made wood” it is evil on account of it misrepresenting the true God who made that wood. As such not only does it misrepresent God, it elevates other things to God’s level by not keeping him thrice holy as He is. It violates a universal that has been codified, yes, but universal nevertheless.

The fact is that God has revealed himself as a man during an age where there is no proper recording of how he was really physically like. Even if the people in Jesus’ age could see this image (who is Christ) they saw him only as God made Him (not as men made Him) and He died, rose again and left before anyone could sit him down for a proper Renaissance painting much less a photorealistic three dimensional scan to visualize him by.

Worst, God has indeed returned to the invisible realm so much so that the expectation to see God is at the glorious appearing; not in the everyday repealing, changing and implementation of the second commandment. We look forward, not backward or through anything to see the Real Christ and honor him. There is no way possible (I’m overstating this knowing that there is at least one possible way if it is proved, without a doubt, as legitimate) for any person to come up with an accurate representation of Christ because he has made it impossible.

So even as a universal principle, in which the Law merely codifies these universal, the second commandment would still stand unchanged: making images of God to worship may violate a universal wrong and the one image of Himself was taken away by Himself so we worship Him as revealed in History, as expected in the Glorious Appearing, but without creating our own mini symbols.

Icons and Their Appropriate Usage
Now, I know I haven’t dealt with every possible issue of Exodus 20, the Law, the arguments that come up for the use of Icons, the totality of the Christological argument in every form: I don’t intend to. This is one of those topics that I think won’t be healed on this side of the Eschaton and I think I’ve offered several strong reasons why the practice should be avoided. I won’t convince anyone, much less folk who actively participate in the thing. But in my closing thoughts, I think I can include ways that icons, indeed any paintings, should be used in our Christian experience.

Above, I listed the idea that we’re not under Law at all but I also listed a principle about worship in the present in light of the glorious appearing; but I didn’t list much about the pictures in Scripture for our learning: a point that Paul makes clear. And the fact is that although we don’t have a representation of the physical image of Christ, we do get pictures and vignettes from Scripture. This shouldn’t surprise us; God did the same thing when He spoke to the Israelites calling the nation his Son, or his bride, or Himself being like a mother eagle.

We get pictures and they’re given for our learning and as examples. I don’t think we should shy away from images and think it is a shame that so many previous works were destroyed in the fires of the convinced. I wish that some of those pieces of artwork could have been moved to a vault, hidden away, until a day (maybe today) when they could be put on display.

And that’s the problem.

For even when the images were given (like all those images of worship in Leviticus; or the Ark of the Covenant; or the Bronze Serpent) people did wrong with them and God had to get rid of them. I would like it if icons were used as lessons for the family, for depicting Christian truths, for reminders of the past, for illustrating scenes that transpired, for decorating the Church, for provoking the thoughts of endearment for those who have gone on before us—but I know advertising and we will always focus on the wrong thing. That doesn’t negate the use of icons in their present form (my arguments throughout the series did that) but it does speak ill of any future hope of proper icon usage at this side of the Eschaton.

I do think that there will be a point that people will use the God mandated pictures in a proper way and it will be done with many tears in the realization of what they’re doing; until then we offer up the sacrifice of our lips and hearts. But for now, if there were a way to use icons without all of the negative connotations and relying on the aspect of ensamples and pictorial lessons, I’d say go for it: it’s great. We learn with our eyes. But sadly, more often than not, it becomes an issue about how we worship and another justification why evangelicals, like me, are in the minority with such practices. We look out at this world and think not only are we in the minority in the Church, we’re also a minority in this world of people who need to carve into the wood to worship any God much less the eternal, invisible, now seated, once visible, but soon reappearing Incarnate God.


Note: There is one argument that I avoided using because I would have to take great care not to make it a genetic fallacy charge, but it was the basis of the use of icons found primarily in neo-platonic thought. It would take longer to draw out all those unhelpful correlations of the philosophical system but I’ll save that for some distant day in the future, maybe even a philosophy Friday or something.

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