No Images

Series: God Reigns

Sermon by David Strain on Jan 17, 2016

Exodus 20:1-17

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If you have a copy of God’s Word to hand, turn with me in the Scriptures to the book of Exodus, chapter 20. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, you’ll find that on page 61. We have been working our way through the Ten Commandments; we’re really only beginning. Last time we looked at the preface to the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20 verses 1 and 2 and then the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” in Exodus 20 verse 3. The first commandment that we saw, tells us that we must worship the true God. Today we’re thinking about the second commandment which tells us we must worship the true God, truly. Before we consider the message of God’s Word and we hear it read and preached, let’s bow our heads as we pray. Let us pray.

Our Father, please would You pour out the Holy Spirit upon the assembly of Your people, that as we read Your Word we may also receive illumination to understand and believe the Word and rest on Christ as He speaks to us and comes to us in the Word. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.

Exodus chapter 20 at verse 1. This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:

“And God spoke all these words, saying,


‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.


You shall have no other gods before me.


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 or 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 the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.


You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.


Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.


Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.


You shall not murder.


You shall not commit adultery.


You shall not steal.


You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.


You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.’”

Amen, and we bless the Lord that He has spoken in His holy and sufficient Word.

Mark Dever recalls a moment during a Doctoral seminar in which he was talking about the doctrine of God, when one of the students named, Bill, responded politely but firmly that he liked to think of God rather differently. “For several minutes,” says Dever, “Bill painted a picture for us of a friendly deity. He liked to think of God as being wise, but not meddling, compassionate, but never overpowering, ever so resourceful but never interrupting. ‘This,’ said Bill in conclusion, ‘is how I like to think of God.’ To which Dever replied, perhaps a little acerbically, ‘Thank you, Bill, for telling us so much about yourself, but we are concerned to know what God is really like, not simply about our own desires.’” Poor Bill’s mistake is sadly not all that uncommon. We all face the temptation, don’t we, to adjust our thinking about God to accommodate our preferences, our predilections. How easy it is to remake God in our own image; how easy to walk by sight rather than by faith, to make the visual rather than the verbal our priority.

You remember what happened to Eve in the Garden of Eden when our first parents fell into sin, and with them the whole human race fell also. You remember what happened. Eve, the woman, saw that the tree was good for food, that it was “a delight to the eyes and to be desired for making one wise, and so she took of the fruit of the tree and she ate, “Genesis chapter 3 at verse 6. You see what she did? She gave priority to the visual over the verbal. She ceased to listen to the Word of God and filled her eyes with images instead. Our problem with images, of course, is that the images we choose can never really match the reality, can they? That snap you took of the dazzling sunset may recall the memory for you, but it has none of the grandeur and the splendor of the real thing. The widow’s photograph of her long dead husband may be immensely precious to her, but it is a poor substitute for the man himself. When people make images of the world, however beautiful or realistic, they always fall short of the reality. And that’s the problem with homespun images and ideas about God. Of necessity, since they are the products and inventions of our finite imaginations, of necessity they fall short of the real thing. They distort the truth about God every time.

One Sunday morning after the service, months and months ago, a visitor thanked me really quite warmly for the message. And once I was feeling comforted, reassured, perhaps a little flattered, they immediately turned on me with some sharp, pointed, demanding questions about why we don’t have crucifixes in our sanctuary. And I was so flustered I don’t recall what I said; it wasn’t anything particularly helpful I’m sure. Had I been more on my toes, however, I would have responded in the words of my old theology professor and what he used to say about reformed worship. “Reformed churches like ours,” he said, “have a liturgy of listening.” A liturgy of listening. It’s not a liturgy of seeing or doing or even of speaking; it is a liturgy of listening. That is to say, Biblical worship and Biblical devotion to God is focused on God’s Word to us. We have no images, no icons, no statues, no crucifixes because they serve no place and fulfill no function in a Biblically ordered Christian piety. God has ordained that. The Bible draws us to Himself. God communicates Himself to us by means of His Word and so ours is a liturgy of listening. He speaks; we hear Him. “He speaks and listening to His voice, new life the dead receive. The mournful, broken hearts rejoice; the humble poor believe.” That’s the Scriptural position.

  1. The Nature of God.

And that is very much the message of the second commandment now before us in Exodus 20 verses 4 through 6. Would you look at it with me please? Verses 4 to 6. There are four parts to our passage. The first of them, in verse 4, teaches us actually about the nature of God, the nature of God. Look at the text. Verse 4. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in the heavens above or the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.” That’s a string of phrases designed to be comprehensive, to exclude nothing in the created order. There’s nothing in creation by which we may describe God, to which God corresponds. We may use nothing in creation to make an image of Him, to turn into an icon or an aid for devotion. God may not be represented by creaturely form nor by the inventions of a creaturely imagination.

God is Spirit.

Why not? Well Jesus explains in John 4:24, a text to which we will return in a few moments, John 4:24 speaking to the Samaritan woman, he said, “God is spirit.” God is spirit. And our confession of faith expands on that and explains what Jesus means. The Westminster Confession puts it this way, “God is a most pure spirit, invisible without body parts or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible.” Or The Children’s Catechism puts it more simply, “God is a spirit and doesn’t have a body like men.” The nature of God, you see, determines the shape of the commandment before us. We’re not to make images of God because all images, whether they’re drawn or sculpted or acted or imagined, inevitably fall short of the truth. All images of God made by human ingenuity ultimately lie to us. They blur the fundamental distinction that stands at the foundation of all sound doctrine and devotion. It’s the distinction between the Creator and the creature. Images of God reduce the Creator to the level of the creature and make the incomprehensible Lord appear as the product of our limited imaginations.

Humanity’s Predilection to Idolatry.

In Romans chapter 1 at verse 19 the Apostle Paul tells us that, “what can be known about God is plain to us because He has shown it to us for His invisible attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, having been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. And so we are without excuse,” he says. And then he adds this. This is important. He says, “Although we knew God, we did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but we became futile in our thinking and our foolish minds we darkened. Claiming to be wise, we became foolish and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images representing mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” To conceive of God by images of our own invention, Paul is saying, is the futile fruit of foolish minds, darkened by our own arrogance. We claim wisdom, Paul says. We think we know better than the Word of God. But there’s no room for novelty or creativity when it comes to the doctrine of God. We do not make God; He makes us! We do not invent Him; He reveals Himself to us! We do not imagine Him in whatever way best suits us; we bow in holy awe and we conform ourselves to His sovereign will.

In 2007, William Paul Young published the bestselling novel, The Shack, where tragedy confronts eternity. In the story, the main character, a man called Mac, is searching for answers after the murder of his daughter. And as the story unfolds, he has a series of encounters with God, actually a radically re-imagined Trinity. Young, the author, pictures God the Father as a middle-aged African American woman named Papa, the Holy Spirit as an Asian lady named Sarayu, and God the Son as a rather conventional Hebrew male about thirty-three years old, the Lord Jesus Christ. Judged - let’s leave aside the criterion of literary skill and judge it merely by the standards of Biblical fidelity - judged by those standards, The Shack is a terrible book! To be fair to Young, he’s really trying to help us. It’s his best stab, I suppose, at an answer to the problem of evil and suffering. But here’s what I want you to grasp. Because his idea of God is completely severed from the Biblical teaching, his answers to everything else fall dangerously wide of the mark as well. Because his doctrine of God is severed from the Biblical teaching, his answers about everything else fall wide of the mark as well.

I heard a story recently of a businessman who discovered alarming cracks on the wall on the forty-third floor of his office building. He called in a structural engineer who came and looked at the cracks on the forty-third floor and then immediately went to the elevator and hit the “Down” button. And I suppose the businessman maybe was getting a little worried at that point and said, “The problem is on the forty-third floor. Why are you hitting the ‘Down’ button?” to which the engineer said, “You don’t have a forty-third floor problem. You have a basement problem.” And sure enough, down in the basement it was discovered that there was a janitor who wanted to build a new garage and so every week, once a week, for months and months and months he had been taking a brick from the wall of the basement of the building. And so, sure enough, the basement problem became a forty-third floor problem. Here’s the point. When you remove fundamental building blocks from the foundation, the whole super structure begins to crumble. The whole edifice is in danger. Get the doctrine of God wrong, invent Him in such a way as He suits your tastes and preferences, and you will find that the entire edifice of your Christian life, the whole structure of Biblical truth, will begin to show cracks. It will distort and warp your Christian life in dangerous ways.

Images of Jesus Prohibited by the Second Commandment.

And let me say very quickly before we move on, that it has been the historic position of reformed churches like ours to include in the prohibition of the second commandment all images of the Lord Jesus Christ. The problem with images of Jesus is that unlike us, you see, Jesus has two natures. We only have one nature. We are human beings. Jesus is God and man, two natures in one person, which means that if we attempt to paint a merely human Jesus, we’re not representing the only Jesus who has ever existed - “God and man in two natures in one person forever.” There is no merely human Jesus! There never has been. A picture of the humanity of Jesus alone is not a picture of the Biblical Jesus. But if by some flight of creative imagination we attempt to graphically and visually portray deity united to humanity in the person of Christ, we directly transgress the second commandment which forbids all portrayals of the Godhead. It is both forbidden and frankly impossible to portray God. Depictions of Jesus, well meaning as they usually are, are nevertheless misguided and unhelpful. They express the constant tendency lurking in every human heart since Eve’s misstep in the Garden to prefer the visual over the verbal, to walk by sight rather than by faith. The Bible gives us, the Bible gives us the only access we have to Jesus Christ. We need no other! We need to learn to be content with the voice of God speaking in Holy Scripture. This is where you meet Jesus - in the Book, not in some flight of creative imagination, but in the Book.

Jesus is the Image of God.

And when you attend to the message of the Book, you find that the Bible consistently speaks of Jesus as the image of God, not the image made by human hands, but the image of God, given by God Himself to the world, that we may need no other but look to Him. 2 Corinthians 4:4, Colossians 1:5 - “He is the image of the invisible God.” John 1:18 - “No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God who is in the Father’s side, He has made Him known.” Hebrews 1:3 - “Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature.” You remember how in the Upper Room Philip said to Jesus on the night of His betrayal, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough. Just let us see God,” to which Jesus replies, “Have I been with you so long and you do not know Me, Philip? Whoever has seen Me, has seen the Father.” Jesus is enough. We need look nowhere else; nor is there satisfaction found anywhere else. But look to Him, the image of the invisible God, God’s self-disclosure, God’s revelation of Himself to you. You may see God in Him and you may meet Him in the Book, in the pages of Holy Scripture. So first we are being taught here about the nature of God. God is a spirit and no image can do Him justice.

  1. The Worship of God.

Then secondly, we’re being taught, notice, about the worship of God. Look at verse 5. “You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” Don’t make an image and do not bow down to them or serve them. The nature of God determines how we worship God. There’s a correspondence, a connection between who God and what God is and the way in which creatures may honor Him appropriately. That is the point that Jesus Himself would make with the Samaritan woman. Remember John 4:24 at the well, Jacob’s well? He told her, “God is spirit and those who worship must worship” - how? “In spirit and in truth.” There is a correspondence between the way we honor God and the nature and being of God - what God is like and how we serve Him. We must worship in spirit. That is, our worship is to be spiritual, internal, not external and visual. It is to be “in truth.” That is, it is to be regulated and described and defined and limited and directed by the commands of Holy Scripture, not by the inventions of our own minds, not by the dictates of our own preferences. And that may seem to us, at first, awfully restrictive; sort of narrow, a little harsh.

  1. The Jealousy of God.

And that would, perhaps, have some credibility until you see the third thing about this commandment. The nature of God, the worship of God, but then thirdly, the jealousy of God. Here’s one of the reasons God gives us to obey this commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me,” He says. “You shall not make any carved images, you shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” Now jealousy to us is a negative emotion, but God’s jealousy is different. Listen to the way one commentator explains it. “Divine jealousy,” he says, “is not the insecure, insane, and possessive human jealousy that we often interpret this word to mean. Rather, it is an intensely caring devotion to the objects of His love.” Isn’t that beautiful? That is how God relates to His people - an intensely caring devotion to the objects of His love. He goes on to say that it’s like a mother’s jealous protection of her children or a father’s jealous guarding of his home. An intensely caring devotion to the objects of His love. What a great exposition of God’s jealous.

In other words, the commandment here is expressing God’s zeal that your heart never settle for a counterfeit, but find ultimate rest and satisfaction in Him, in the real thing. He wants you to know Him because of the jealous ardor and fervent zeal of His love for you. He doesn’t want you to rest satisfied with a substitute. Accept no substitutes! That’s what the command is saying. “I’m jealous that you know the real thing, that you know Me.” And how can we measure just how fervent and zealous the jealousy of God really is? What is the measure of His ardor, His love for His people? “God has demonstrated His love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” The cross, the cross, where God’s image was emulated and torn, where God’s heart was most clearly seen, the cross tells you how zealous, how jealous God is to have your love, your trust, to have your gaze trained on Him, on the reality of who He is and not be distracted by some cheap counterfeit. And so when God restricts our devotion to the prescriptions of His Word, it is an expression of His fervent love for your heart that you may know Him as He really is and not be led astray by the wrongheaded inventions of our own minds. He wants us to delight in the real thing.

  1. The Promises of God.

And then finally, notice the promises with which the commandment climaxes. The nature of God, the worship of God, the jealousy of God, then finally the promises of God. Look at verses 5 and 6 again. “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” There’s a promise of both of judgment and of grace, of love. Those who hate God, the commandment says, plainly and clearly, face the judgment of God, and those who love and obey Him are made recipients of His love for them. We often struggle with this commandment, especially the promise of judgment, because it seems to us unfair. Four generations are visited with the iniquity of their fathers. And yet whatever we make of this commandment, we all, I’m sure, have to admit that we have seen its reality played out in our families and homes and in the families and homes of those around us, where patterns of rebellion seem to crop up, generation, after generation, after generation. We’re meant to tremble at the prospect that playing fast and loose with who God is, making adjustments to the Biblical presentation so as to accommodate Him to our lifestyle, that doing that is a dangerous, deadly thing not just for our own souls but for our household and for generations to come. We are in danger, do you see, this is what God is saying because He is jealous for you and He longs for you to know Him, He’s warning you and He is saying, “What inheritance will you leave to the generations to come? Will it be an inheritance in which your children and your children’s children follow in paths of rebellion just as you did, or will they see you broken, repenting, acknowledging your sin, clinging to Jesus Christ, honoring Him according to His Word, and learn to follow in your steps, loving the Lord as He has revealed Himself in His image in His Son and knowing the embrace of His love for them to thousands?” What will the inheritance be that you leave to your children?

God’s Word to Parents.

Notice particularly here the word to parents, the word to fathers especially - “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third or fourth generation of those who hate me and showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandment.” Here is a word of exhortation to the heads of households, especially to fathers. Dads, it is your task in particular to pursue the hearts of your children with Gospel love, with a fervency and a jealousy and a zeal that will be in the eyes of your children a mirror and an echo, a little example and glimpse of the fervency and jealousy of the heart of God. Will you teach them the truth and point them to Christ? Will you model before their eyes repentance and faith? Will you pray with and for them? Will you ensure that you are with them in the place where God has ordained we gather Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day to hear His Word proclaimed? This is your great calling, that as they look at you clinging to Christ and seeing you enfolded in the steadfast love of the Lord, they may learn to follow in your steps and know that same love for themselves. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and He wants everyone in this room to know it for themselves, not to be diverted or distracted with empty counterfeits, some false image, some wrong-headed idea of God according to your own agenda. That way lies a hollow, broken existence under the judgment of God as He visits iniquity upon you and upon your children and children’s children. Instead, won’t you come to bow before Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word, supremely in His Son, to see the ardor and jealousy and zeal of His love for you that He would give His Son to the cross to make you His? And as you bow before Him and begin to taste for yourself His steadfast love, won’t you be sure to leave a legacy, a heritage for the generations to come, pointing them in the same direction in which you have lived and looked, pointing them to Christ?

Would you pray with me?

Our Father, we praise You that You are a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in Your being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. And we are Your creatures and cannot comprehend the majesty and glory of Your infinite being. Save us from the foolishness of re-inventing You, re-imagining You in order to make You fit our tastes. Instead, teach us to bow in humble repentance and holy faith and trust before the Lord Jesus Christ in whom You have disclosed Yourself to us. He is Your image, the image of the invisible God, in whom You come to us, pursuing us in the fervency of Your jealous love. Make each of us Your own. Teach us to cling to You and to bring our devotion according to the terms of Your holy Word alone. For Jesus sake we pray, amen.

©2016 First Presbyterian Church.

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